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.