Truth Claims, Pluralism, and People of Concern

A while ago I had a conversation with an utterly sincere and extremely orthodox Mormon–one who’s devoted his life to CES, one who believes that evolution is evil and Rough Stone Rolling a vicious slander on Joseph Smith’s good name, to name just a couple of his views –I revealed some of my own unorthodoxies. It’s been years since I’ve revealed such views to someone I knew would disagree with me, and although I’ve sometimes been frustrated by my own silences, the conversational fallout recalled me to my reasons for those silences.  This good, kind man called me a few days after our conversation in a fairly transparent attempt to resolve my concerns, and it was evident he’d been thinking about them ever since we’d talked and was struggling to produce answers for me. He proposed a few justifications for practices I disagree with, people I should talk to to help me “work things out,” various actions I should take to increase my spirituality. I ended up feeling poised between gratitude at his sincerity and kindness and exasperation at the very premises of the conversation–I’m wrong, and I just don’t understand; he’s right, and he does. Suddenly I’ve become dubious, spiritually suspect. I need fixing. I’m a person of concern.

I talked about the conversation with my secular humanist husband, and I told him I had a new understanding of his frustrations with the way members of the church sometimes treat him. It’s so exasperating to find myself (yet again) on the wrong side of the conversational axioms. Since my interlocutor is a temple worker, I strongly suspect that he placed my name on the prayer roll, and for the first time I really get my husband’s distaste at that idea.

I dislike sloppy pluralism as much as the next woman, but such encounters remind me–painfully–of why a certain minimal pluralism is necessary to communal life. It’s so much easier to interact with people who aren’t utterly convinced they’re right on every point, people willing to entertain another point of view, willing to imaginatively inhabit it, even if–especially if–they will never agree with it. Strangely, I often find it easier to confront obvious arrogance and dogmatism than the sometimes suffocating, condescending kindness with which some Mormons regard me as a lost sheep.

Like all of us, I have come to my opinions for many reasons, some rational, some experiential, some temperamental. My opinions have changed drastically over the course of my life, and I hope they’ll continue to evolve until the day I die. And the older I get, the more complexity and outright contradiction I see, the less sure I am of most things. But my views are neither sin nor deformity nor disease. They are not my cross to bear. They simply are what they are. I undoubtedly need convincing to see things differently, more comprehensively, more truly, and I count on others to enlarge me, to present me with reasons, evidence, experiences to broaden my world. I need persuading. But I most emphatically do not need fixing.

I long for a day when I can break bread with my ideological enemies, when we can sit at the same table and make a wholehearted, good-faith effort to understand one another, to begin our conversations from the premise that each of us has good reasons for thinking as she does, refusing to reduce each other to our pathologies or to construe each other’s alleged pathologies as the basis of her convictions.

But is it even possible for a church to make the piercing, unequivocal truth claims it does, the very truth claims for which I love it and which alone have power to command my loyalty, and host such a conversation, such a communion?

21 thoughts on “Truth Claims, Pluralism, and People of Concern

  1. 1

    Eve’s comments in her last two paragraphs resonated with me. As a single professional woman living in Utah Valley, I do not even need to open my mouth to be treated as suspect, dangerous, and even toxic. I think that the overwhelming desire for homogeneity in lifestyle and beliefs among Mormons is a huge barrier that we need to overcome to develop true communities of Zion inhabited by individuals who practice charity. Of course a community needs to share a set of core values and narratives to be cohesive and sustainable, but it also needs to recognize that differences among members contribute vitality and depth of perspective. We forget too often that it was Lucifer who proposed a plan that would have stripped us of our individuality by limiting or even erasing our agency to make choices. It was Christ who advocated for us to make our own choices, a gift that grants us the possibility of developing our own unique identities as persons. God has given us guidelines to direct our development towards him, but these guidelines are by no means a straitjacket, one size fits all. Yet we label people as unrighteous or rebellious or worldly who are not married by a certain age, who do not have child by a certain anniversary, who articulate views that seem intellectual, feminist, or pluralist, and the list goes on and on. Is God ashamed, angry, or displeased with such people? I doubt it; I hope that his love appreciates and even applauds our individual struggles to realize our individual potentials regardless of whether we follow the social norms.

    I just finished the first chapter in a book the Lynette recommended called The Call To Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships by Alistair McFadyen. I was moved by his interpretation of the creation of Adam and Eve in the image of God. He begins with the assumption that “humanity is fully in the image of God only where it is a lived dialogical encounter” (32). And then explains that a dialogical relationship is based on reciprocal mutuality between two partners who are each independent, free, and unique. It is the very difference between the two partners that drives their orientation toward one another. Resolving the tension of this difference is a temptation; McFadyen continues, “they [the partners] cannot therefore achieve a real mutuality of understanding or be properly oriented on one another if one is always only making direct response to the other and is therefore only ever a Thou and never an I for and before the other. Such a relationship would be monological because the one is determined by the other and has no independent existence apart from the other. The communication is effectively one-way because the otherness and difference of one has been silenced and does not appear in communication” (33). In contrast, a true “relation is a continuing communication process in which their identities are formed together as distinct though related. . . . It is dialectical because their orientation on one another makes a difference to and changes the partners as they move towards an increased mutuality of understanding, but this does not overcome their difference, so further dialogue and change are always necessary because the creative ‘tension’ between the partners is never abolished” (33). He concludes that it is not human to be an individual alone or an individual who engages in relationships that are self-idolatrous in that they only affirm the self: “the natural state of a human being, then, is to be in need of community with another. The individual is created in need, incomplete in him or herself” (33). Thus, participating as partners in dialogue with our family, our friends, co-workers, ward members, and, foremost, with God is the only way to truly become human in the image of God.

    I need to finish reading the book before I make firm conclusions, but what I have read so far feels authentic with respect to my experiences, and I might venture to guess with Eve’s. It makes me sad that Mormon social conventions distort many of my current relationships and severely limit my opportunities to participate in relationships that would help me develop as a person and become human.

  2. 2

    I have tired of seeking understanding with my ideological enemies. I have also tired of trying to crush them. Instead, I mock them. Until I can complete escape them, this will have to do.

  3. 3

    Since my interlocutor is a temple worker, I strongly suspect that he placed my name on the prayer roll, and for the first time I really get my husband’s distaste at that idea.

    I’ve always felt kindly when people did things like that. When they light candles, or a mass is said for me, or a group got together to pray for my damned soul, there was still kindness and concern.

    Chris, I used to be extremely good at mocking. Once took a Sergent Major apart in front of an audience while still in High School when he started it (my mother intervened when she realized I was not satisfied with just embarrassing him and was trying to provoke him into swinging on me). That made me think, and I’ve been trying to change ever since.

    This resonates with me since someone brought up pre-adamic evolutionary man Sunday in our HP group. I ended up discussing the possibility that we are children of Adam, just as we are children of Abraham, the Pearl of Great Price language about “many worlds” and “each land was an earth” but the story of this earth only do I give you which could well mean that the narrative is only of the people in that valley, and Brigham Young’s discussions about how it was possible that the fall occurred near Kolob and then Adam and Eve came to earth.

    Set against “humans” as they show up in the record (35,000 years to improve flint knapping, the “battle axe” people who basically used rocks held in hands, etc.).

    We had a lot to talk about, and I admitted that I did not know the answers, though the Talmadge tour (where the Church financed him to talk in favor of evolution to make it clear that there was not an official policy) made for a good discussion.

    Anyway, I think it is a matter of the maturity of the people you deal with.

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    I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of thinking a bit myself. I think it comes from the Mormon idea of personal revelation combined with the cultural expectation of conformity.

    What I mean is, I think Moroni 10:4 (“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. “) is wonderful because of the power it places in the individual to know things for herself. But it’s also a potential tool for judgment, because if someone doesn’t come to the conclusion that certain things are true, then the sincere, orthodox believer may come to the conclusion that the seeker wasn’t sincere, had flimsy intent, and isn’t trying to have faith. The possibility that the sincere seeker asked and reached a different conclusion isn’t allowed.

    Can we have meaningful conversation between the unorthodox and the highly orthodox? I hope so, but I haven’t experienced it yet. For the people that have treated me like a case that needs fixing, I never bring up my real thoughts on things again with them. It means there’s a certain shallowness to those relationships, which is sad.

  6. 6

    I have been on both sides of this conversation to an extent. I understand wanting to convert someone to my beliefs and also understand resisting someone else’s attempts to convert me to theirs. I am convinced that God lets contradictory yet simultaneously true worldviews coexist for the sake of developing charity. But judgment on either side can only be hurtful, and discussion should be the goal. Even today I felt the deep hurt of what I felt to be false judgment, and I am struggling to suspend my judgment of that person and feel love for them. No doubt a life-long challenge.

  7. 7

    I’m sure these tensions have always existed–the Moroni 10:4 problem is not new. But I wonder if our general antipathy toward intellectual examination of the gospel has made it worse. It used to be, for instance, that the missionary discussions were essentially an argument. _A Marvelous Work and a Wonder_ was meant to give people the tools for intellectual conversion, Nibley’s _Approach to the Book of Mormon_ was a priesthood manual, etc. Now the missionary lessons concentrate on getting investigators to feel something, and Sunday School is supposed to focus on “personal applications” (which, let’s face it, all too often amounts to group therapy loosely based on a few scriptural phrases). With thoughts thus relegated to secondary status, it seems weirdly logical that folks should worry about your feelings, your devotional habits, when they think there is something wrong with your thoughts. We have flipped the notion that right thinking produces right action on its ear, and the cultural presumption is now that right thinking will inevitably follow from right feeling and right action–there’s no longer any such thing as an argument about a gospel principle. Nobody would ever let the missionaries “Bible bash” the way that MW&W does or give a Sunday School lesson that tries to actually study scriptures. That being the case, there’s no real possibility for dialogic relationships, at least not at the level of the intellect. (And I might, if I were not sleepy and brain-fried, argue that such relationships _must_ exist at the level of intellect if they are to exist at all. Since I’m too tired to make the argument, I hope you’ll all just pray to feel warm inside when you read my words 😉 )

  8. 8

    “I long for a day when I can break bread with my ideological enemies, when we can sit at the same table and make a wholehearted, good-faith effort to understand one another, to begin our conversations from the premise that each of us has good reasons for thinking as she does, refusing to reduce each other to our pathologies or to construe each other’s alleged pathologies as the basis of her convictions.”

    A good goal. As an individual I can only control my half of that equation. That is why I school myself to do that. I have found that there is great power and peace in living and conversing with that premise front and center in my heart and mind, whether or not the person with whom I am talking does the same for me.

  9. 9

    I have a testimony that what kristine said is true. I also have a testimony that black truffle cheese is what you eat in the CK and mild cheddar is a tool that the adversary uses to beguile people away from the one true cheddar, so i’m kinda batting a thousand.

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    First, I am shocked that you had a conversation with a man at church period. Men in my ward don’t say more than “Hello, how are you?” to a woman that is not their wife (no, they don’t wait for the answer before walk by).

    So, I am kinda surprised that you shared your unorthodox beliefs with the Super-Mormon-Seminary-Temple guy. What prompted that? Were you just trying to see if he was more thoughtful and open-minded than you imagined?

    Kristine and Crazywomancreek, I love your testimonies. They made me laugh.

  12. 12

    Awesome, Eve. 🙂

    And I’ll add my own witness (hah!) that any post endorsed by at least 2 ZDs or honorary ZDs (such as Kristine, CWC, or Jessawhy) is a true and feminist teaching. 🙂

  13. 13

    “. . .the sometimes suffocating, condescending kindness with which some Mormons regard me as a lost sheep.”

    They always call me a wolf in sheep’s clothing, being a lost sheep sounds like it might be nice.

  14. 14

    Interesting. I’ve been fortunate, I guess, to encounter very few CES people who actually meet the stereotype as fully as your interlocutor. That said, I’ve also rarely had any express their opinions on some of these things, so perhaps they were more stereotypical than I knew. I myself have always been given surprisingly great leeway, both in teaching Institute and at BYU.

    “I’m wrong, and I just don’t understand; he’s right, and he does.”

    Isn’t this always the way it is though? I’m right, and they just don’t understand?

  15. 15

    Amen to the entire post. I want our church to be open to believers and seekers in different walks of life. I want more heterodoxy. That’s part of the reason I continue to go.

  16. 16

    Another great post from ZD. It makes me so tired sometimes to feel like I always have to hide my (probably inconsequential, when all is said and done) heterodoxies for the sake of playing well with others at church.

    The “wolf in sheep’s clothing” always reminds me of an anecdote that a (feminist) BYU professor once told me. She was in some faculty meeting with Merrill J. Bateman and he made some disparaging remarks about many of the faculty (in the abstract), calling them “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” concluding that he / BYU had a duty to shield the student body from these people for the sake of the prayers of the students’ mothers.

    She gave an impassioned rebuttal about the maligned professors also having mothers who prayed for them, etc… and now it occurs to me that I don’t remember how this ended, only that her response was fantastic. Oh well… sorry for the useless tangent.

  17. 17

    Oh, darn! Now I really want to know the ending. President Bateman fired her on the spot? He enlisted her as a kind of double agent, threatening her job if she didn’t help sniff out other wolves in sheep’s clothing? He backed off and apologized for being so nasty?

  18. 18

    I just had an experience that reminded me of this post. I was on a plane flying from SLC to Denver and the guy that sat next to me asked where I was from (Texas). He went on an impassioned monologue about how the “good conservative values” typified by “Southern Christians” would save our country. I believe my response was something like, “yes, there are indeed a lot of conservative Christians in Texas.” Trying to agree with something he said, at least.

    Anyway, I think he assumed I was also a conservative Southern Christian and when he realized he had made a mistake, we actually had a wonderful conversation about politics, the church, individual responsibility, etc. He came across so strong in the beginning that I had snap-judged him as well, and was so happy to be completely wrong by the end of the flight.

    All that to say, I do think it’s possible. Rare, but possible.

    There were a couple of interesting anecdotes. He didn’t realize I was LDS (and I, much to my pleasure and my shame, did not correct him, enjoying a good missionary moment) and he proceeded to tell me about how he had spent quite a bit of time studying ancient Christianity and had had the opportunity to read quite a few ancient writings. It took me half way through the flight to realize he was talking about the Pearl of Great Price. I nearly spit out my Dr. Pepper when I finally caught on! Poor fellow couldn’t even muster up the apocrypha at least 🙂

  19. 19

    That’s an awesome story. I always treasure my quiet time on a flight, but maybe I should start talking to my neighbors, especially when flying from or to SLC.
    Which reminds me that on a similar flight I actually tried to convert a conservative LDS woman to Mormon feminism. I still remember the look on her face when I told her that I was a member a group of women who were honestly facing challenges associated with Mormonism (or something like that). She looked at me and said, “Isn’t that what Relief Society is for?”

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  21. 21

    so I’m late to the game here but I just wanted to thank both Eve for the wonderful original post and Fideline for a really provocative and thoughtful first comment.

    I once wrote a paper about the dialogic nature of God the Father in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I am convinced that the model of relationship between divinity and humankind is not at all a monologic one but very much a dialogic one. Something I also think is illustrated by George Herbert’s poem “The Windows” (which I blogged about at fMh once). I love Herbert’s image of human as window in God’s temple–stained glass that is brought alive by God’s words. And I love as much the idea that the color of the window in turn renders God’s gospel (the sunlight) more vivid and alive than it is on its own.

    I once asked a boyfriend what he thought about the afterlife. I had to push him before he would answer. He explained. And I thought about it for a few moments. And then I told him I liked his idea of the afterlife (which was very not Mormon [as was he]). He was surprised. He told me he thought I would pounce and tell him all the reasons he was wrong. But I didn’t want to tell him why he was wrong. I wanted to know him. To understand how he thought and his way of seeing life and the world. And after all, is that not what God does? Does he not know us intimately and understand us? And is that knowing not what it means to love? It seems to me that we not only do not but cannot love another if we cannot be bothered to take the time to “imaginatively inhabit” their perspective.

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