Languages of Faith

One of my more memorable sacrament meeting talk experiences involved a talk for which I was assigned a somewhat theological topic. I confess that I couldn’t resist bringing in observations from some of my academic work. I did, however, make an effort to make sure it was a church talk, rather than an academic presentation. I don’t know if I completely succeeded, but I had fun thinking about the subject, and I felt more or less okay about how it ended up.

After the meeting, a woman came up to me and said something along the lines of how she thought the words were beautiful, but she could tell that I didn’t actually mean them, that she’d been listening and thinking to herself, “she doesn’t really feel what she’s saying.” I was somewhat taken aback, as this (at least in my experience) violates a Mormon cultural norm, in which you say nice things to people about their talks, or you say nothing at all. I’ve heard plenty of talks that I found somewhat boring or even loopy, but I’ve never felt the need to share that sentiment with the speaker–and I figured that those who found my talk boring or loopy had only lost ten minutes of their lives and could go unharmed on their way. Not to mention that I wasn’t saying particularly controversial things (I don’t think!) So this was a bit out of the blue.

I didn’t say anything back–I’m not good at formulating responses on the spot; instead I think I just stared at her blankly. But I have to admit that I was upset, and I doubtless spent too much time over-thinking a few chance remarks from one random person. The comment hit a nerve for me; the recurrent fear that the way I come across in church is alienating, that I’m pretentious; in short, that I’m of the annoying variety of intellectual.

But when I calmed down, something occurred to me. Her basic complaint seemed to be that what I said sounded inauthentic. But if I had given a more traditional talk, or perhaps shared some sentimental stories, that would have been inauthentic. Those who know me would probably have not been able to listen with a straight face. Because that’s not actually how I articulate my faith. Whether or not this talk was any good, it wasn’t insincere. For me, it was actually pretty personal.

One of the somewhat trendy ideas that I’ve heard about from a number of people is the notion of the languages of love. I have to admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about the way it’s usually described–it seems unlikely to me that the complexities of human communication can be boiled down to five neat categories in which people can be slotted–but I do appreciate the basic insight that people don’t communicate or hear different kinds of expressions of love in the same way, and it’s important to be aware of that in negotiating relationships.

Something similar, I suspect, is true of faith. It’s all too easy to dismiss expressions of faith that aren’t in the mode that sounds most natural to you–whether assuming people who talk in more traditional Mormon ways are simply brainwashed automatons, or critiquing people for being too intellectual, or insufficiently faith-promoting, in the way they talk about their beliefs. I do think it takes faith to be willing to set aside personal preferences or concerns and focus on following the prophet. But it can also take some serious faith to hold on to some level of belief, or even just hope, and continue to be involved in a religious tradition when there are aspects of it which you find deeply difficult.

Rather than whipping out a litmus test of “faithfulness,” then, I think it can be worth stopping for at least a minute to listen for the kind of faith that might be underlying people’s comments, even ones expressed in a language that sounds foreign. Because when we say that God communicates to everyone in her own tongue, I doubt that refers only to the fact that he speaks both English and Spanish.


  1. Ooo, I love applying the idea of the Love Languages to different ways of experiencing/expressing faith. I propose two possible languages: loyalty (my husband values the institution, is punctilious about attendance.) meditative (its all about the prayer life for me.)

    I’m not sure what faith language compels one to post-game analyze someone’s talk like that woman did though!

  2. I think linguists would say you left your audience with the impression that you had flouted the maxim of quality in the cooperative principle. Basically this principle means communication is a like a social contract. We are socialized into expecting that speakers will use language in way that gives only as much information as is necessary, that maintains its relevance to the subject at hand, that is orderly and clear, and that is truthful and provides evidence for assertions. We also have a set of expectations for when a speaker violates one of these maxims. Sometimes speakers say things that can’t literally be true, as is the case with exaggeration and irony, but listeners make use of the cooperative principle and real-world knowledge to identify the intended meaning of the speaker’s utterance.

    The accusation of insincerity you received from a listener can also be analyzed in terms of politeness theory. Linguists would say this woman violated your positive face, which is the desire of speakers to feel liked, admired, and validated. At the same time, though, it sounds like she used certain strategies to minimize the threat to your positive face. She prefaced her sincerity assessment with a compliment. She probably hedged and softened her critique by using the past continuous tense. She may have tried to signal her solidarity with you as a Mormon woman through the use of identity markers.

    I would suggest that the language and culture of Mormons can be profitably analyzed with the theories cited above. But just because the cooperative principle is considered a universal among languages, that does not mean that Mormon speech is indistinguishable from American speech. If pragmatics is the study of how language is used and how context contributes to meaning, then I would say we are potentially a peculiar people. The ways in which language is used in our Sunday meetings, for instance, would make for a fascinating study in pragmatics. Is humor, for instance, the only form of indirect speech acts allowed in sacrament meeting talks and testimonies?

    Semantics offers an additional way to read your experience with the woman. Mormons tend to perpetuate the premodern idea that our thoughts originate in our hearts. This metaphor of the heart can be found throughout the Bible and Book of Mormon. This metaphor carries with it the assumption that our words are suspect if they are not tied to our feelings. Nephi says our speech becomes mighty when the Spirit carries it to the hearts of our listeners. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that the Spirit dwells in our hearts. And in popular usage, Americans define phrases such as “speaking from the heart” and “heart-to-heart” as communicating genuine emotion. So to the extent that Mormons buy into the perception that academics arise from the mind and not the heart, then it makes sense that the woman imagined you were being logical and rational, but not using feeling, in what you were saying.

    Lakoff argues that metaphors are central to how we think and speak, because they construct the world we live in and structure how it is given meaning. I believe his argument has a lot of merit, but I think his later work in political metaphors complicates some of his earlier claims about the relative permanency of metaphors. In short, just as conservatives carried out the Republican Revolution of the mid-1990s by effectively framing the issues of their day, progressives can win back voters as they figure out how to give new life to old metaphors. These lessons persuade me that Mormons could make a more concerted effort to mine the metaphors of their speech and scriptures. Figuring out our metaphors of belief, faith, hope, and love could be just the beginning. Academic Mormons might find that metaphors provide powerful tools for communicating their message in a way that resonates with their brothers and sisters in the gospel. And in the process we just might find that metaphor is one of the mental and emotional glues facilitated by the Spirit during the kinds of conversations described in D&C 50:17-22.

  3. I think this is a great insight, Lynnette.

    It seems likely to me that a lot of what turns some people off when they first encounter the Bloggernacle isn’t just that it’s non-devotional discussion of religious topics, it’s that even when there are discussions of faith, they sound different than they usually do in church.

    You also remind me of a comment Derek made at FMH a while back about bearing testimony:

    I think many Mormons have far too formal a connotation when they think of the word “testimony.” It isn’t just something that begins with “I’d like to bear…” And ends with “in the name…” Every time I discuss my feelings about the Gospel, aren’t I bearing (or baring, depending on whether you think we are “carrying/transporting” our testimony, or that we are “exposing” it) my testimony? Haven’t we read testimonies borne dozens upon dozens of times here on this blog, even if they are much more informal than those given at the pulpit? Yet there have been times I’ve been gently remonstrated after my GD lessons for not sharing my testimony. I may not have used the words “testimony” or “testify” in the lesson, but I’ve absolutely shared my beliefs and faith. Are we giving our children an incomplete understanding of testimony if the come to see testimony only as the ritualized versions we hear once a month?

    I think his being chastised for not bearing testimony “correctly” when teaching Gospel Doctrine is similar to the woman who said she knew you didn’t mean it when you gave your talk. The hearers just weren’t understanding your faith languages.

  4. Instead of comparing faith language to love language, I compare it to skin tone. But I can never remember whether I’m a Spring or a Summer.

    (Just kidding; I enjoyed the post very much.)

  5. Holy Crap! Someone really said that to you? That is insane! I think I would have gone all Rahm Emmanuel if someone said that to me.

  6. This sounds exactly right. We frame things certain ways. There is a Mormon language, with words like testimony and standards and cultural norms embedded in that language. And like Eskimos and 37 words for snow (though I think that’s an urban legend), there is content coded into the language we use.

    Also, I think you’re talk sounds great, as described. 🙂

    And on a side note, you’re definitely one of the least annoying and least pretentious people I’ve met. That probably means that you have nothing to worry about in the pretentiousness department. However, it may mean that we’re both insufferable and I’m just glad to meet a kindred spirit. 😛

  7. That was very interesting. I am surprised someone would say that to you. How does she know if you mean the words or not?

    Did you cry? In Mormon culture you have to shed tears to validate testimony or sincerity. 🙂

  8. .

    In teaching Abraham and Isaac in Sunday School yesterday I went a bit further afield than I am normally wont to do. I have also in a fairly recent sacrament meeting called atheism my base level. In F&T meeting yesterday, one gentleman said he didn’t have what-you-call-a-testimony but this was as good as it gets. (He started attending church just recently after decades away.)

    I think if his brand of testimony were more broadly acceptable (speaking here not of my [our] ward, but wards generally) then more people would realize that the breadth of Mormon experience doesdoesdoes include them as well.

    It’s a big tent and her borders must be enlarged (

  9. What a great concept. There is a certain fellow I know that always gets the most amazing gushing compliments after he speaks or teaches, and yet I always find myself sitting there wondering why I can’t feel anything he’s saying at all. We obviously don’t speak the same faith language 🙂 It has always really bothered me, but I think you’ve given me permission not to worry about it!

    (And I agree Lynnette, I like the principle of the Love Languages book, but think it’s far too simplistic to account for individual complexity!)

    cyclingred brought up a question I’ve often wondered about in mormon culture. Why on earth do we equate crying with the feeling the spirit? This is particularly troublesome for me because I am a crier (at the pulpit, in the movie theater, listening to the radio, when I’m stressed, when I’m happy, when I’m angry, etc.) and often find myself crying when I give talks. But a lot of the time I think it is primarily because I’m sharing something personal about myself (my testimony, my experience) and that makes me nervous and overwhelmed. I cry (or want to cry) any time I feel like I’m exposing myself, regardless if the topic is of a spiritual nature or not.

    Drives me crazy when people equate my constant state of tears with feeling the spirit…

  10. It sounds of if the sister who made the comment to you was a born and bred mormon. I often find people who have been raised in the church and who have ancestors who go back generations have a difficult time relating to people who come from a different background or educational level or for that matter education outside of the norm BYU.
    I’ve given talks which included a brief description of my being raised in foster care and my bout of depression which I mentioned only with respect to provide knowledge of social service agencies to help fellow members who I knew in the ward were dealing with the same issues. I had a woman tell me I was full of the devil. I was then called to be this sister’s VT which was difficult to say the least.

  11. What are the 5 types??? Where can I take the quiz? 😀

    Seriously though, learning to think about this idea of different languages of faith has been tremendously helpful in terms of my own spiritual development. I am not defective (or not more so than any other human being), I just think and speak and live in a different language. Realizing this gave me the opportunity to really grow in ways that I couldn’t when I thought of myself as defective.

  12. Probably I should have said “realizing and learning to embrace this gave me the opportunity to really grow…”

    Also, remarkably it has helped me to embrace other people more too.

  13. There absolutely is a Mormon vernacular (especially as regards geographical areas. We speak differently in Belgium or England than we do in the US, even though there are marked similarities) and if you aren’t fluent you could get lost really quickly.

    One of my good friends who went to BYU with me and who wasn’t LDS told me a joke that his Air Force officer shared with their ROTC group. A psychologist (not LDS) moved to Utah to set up a practice. His first client was a woman who took her place on the couch and started out with, “I’m having such a hard week, Doctor, the sunbeams just wouldn’t shut up.”

    My friend waited for the punchline while all his LDS wo-workers roared with laughter around him. The joke was completely lost on him. I’m not sure some members realize how inclusive/exclusive our language makes us to non-members.

    My parents are converts and are still learning the lingo, and even though my siblings and I have grown up in the Church, we definitely don’t speak Mormon fluently.

  14. I really liked your talk, which I found highly thought provoking, and I want to reassure you that (to me at least) you are definitely not alienating, pretentious or of the annoying variety of intellectual.

    In general, I tend to respond to these types of criticism by writing them off as unwitting expressions of inferiority by the person making the criticism. On my mission, one of my companions was very fond of saying that I might be the smartest person in the mission, but I sure lacked “common sense”. I was never sure exactly what he meant by “common sense”, but I came to understand that for him, these declarations were a defensive mechanism – my intellectual bent put him on the defensive, and so he had to come up with some reason why all my brains were actually not that important or useful, because they prevented me from living the good life him and all his friends who happily find themselves possessed with an abundance of common sense.

    I think this episode falls in the same category – the commenter, perhaps subconsciously, felt threatened by your insights, and so she responded by deciding that what you were saying wasn’t actually that important or useful, because you didn’t really “feel” it. I would just translate her comments into a statement: my testimony is genuine, I feel the truth of everything I say, and that more than makes up for my lack of intellectual insights into the gospel.

    Perhaps the ease with which I brush off criticism reveals my pride and other character flaws, but at least I find it comforting.

  15. Perhaps it’s just that people think those who are smarter than they are just don’t have feelings.

    I have a friend who was told by a woman in her ward, “i can’t be your friend, I just feel too guilty and inadequate around you.” It was a really hurtful for my friend to hear, because she needed this woman as a friend and didn’t think that she should be pushed away because she’s good at things (smart, ambitious, organized, athletic, etc)

    I’ve discovered in myself (since I was a child) a tendency to rate people as better than me (or not). It’s something I’ve always struggled to overcome. I suppose everyone does it to some extent or we wouldn’t be starstruck in the face of celebrities. But, my guess is that when we see someone who is clearly amazing that we assume that nothing we can say will detract from what must be a well-deserved high self-esteem. Thus, this woman didn’t’ think she could hurt your feelings because you’re so damn smart.

    But, back to your original subject, I think languages of faith makes sense. I don’t think we value authenticity in our church nearly as much as we value obedience and continuity. So, I don’t know that the woman really thought you were being inauthentic to you, but she didn’t think you were reflecting HER version of spirituality.

    And truth be told, I do want to hear people who think like me speak in church. Is there something wrong with that?

  16. So I should add another fun tidbit about this story–after sharing her critique, this woman asked for a copy of the talk. Absolutely classic.

    Kaimi and RecessionCone, I appreciate the reassurance that I don’t come across as pretentious. (One of my few goals at church is to not be the person in SS who raises their hand and says in their best GA voice, “in the original Greek . . .” Unlikely in my case, since I don’t read Greek. But anyway.) RC, lol, I was carefully not including details about where this happened because of the number of people in the ward that read ZD; I was imagining someone coming by to comment and agree with this person. (Which is totally narcissistic because really how many people remember talks after a year, or even a month, or even an afternoon?) But anyway, thanks–I’m glad you liked the talk!

  17. (waving from the ward)

    Lynette, I completely don’t remember the talk. Either you’re so completely unpretentious, or I just wasn’t there. both are highly likely.

    RC, I buy into your theory. Well put.

  18. Johnna, I really like your ideas–meditative and loyalty are both good ones. Like you, I’m definitely drawn to the former. But I really like the idea of loyalty too, because that’s a useful (and positive!) way of thinking about those whose approach to the church I sometimes struggle to understand.

    newt, we should totally write a quiz. One of those internet things which on the basis of a few questions deduces your entire personality. I’ll put it on Facebook. 😉 Really, that’s such a good point about how this helps you be more compassionate and understanding both with yourself and others.

    cyclingred and Enna, ahh yes, the crying factor. Like Enna, I am such a crier. I cry all the time and at all kinds of thing. It can actually be frustrating in some situations. But oddly enough, I rarely if ever cry in church. I’m not really sure what’s up with that. When we were teens, several of the ZDs had a reputation for being the stoic family that didn’t cry at girls’ camp. Empirical evidence of our lack of spirituality. (I know you’re thinking to yourself, ha, I knew those ZDs were heathens!)

  19. Hi cchrissy! Thanks for chiming in. You know I’m thinking in our ward, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that you simply couldn’t hear the talk. 😉

  20. Kevin, I’m an Autumn, which means in the context of Mormonism, I’m a believer in the fall. 😛

    (Actually I have no idea what I am skin tone wise, but I do like Autumn! The word and the season. So clearly that’s the label I should use for my language of faith.)

    Diane, wow, that’s a crazy story, especially the part about visiting teaching the woman who thought you were full of the devil. That could be some lively visiting teaching! I should confess, though, that I am in fact a born and bred Mormon, pioneer ancestors, BYU education–the works. Are you saying that I’m doomed to be clueless at church?

  21. I really appreciated this post, Lynnette. May I add that rather than whip out a litmus test of “intelligence,” we leave space for different ways of thinking about things relative to faith?

    I give anyone permission to remind me of this post if I ever jump too quickly into a conversation without respecting different languages of faith.

    Thanks mucho again for the post. Really spoke my language. 😉


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