One of the things that has stood out to me in wading through the comments on The Great Pants Uproar (not a great use of one’s time, I must say, though that didn’t stop me) is the number of people who have expressed the sentiment, “if you don’t like the church, you should leave.” I want to think about this idea from a theological angle, specifically what it means in the context of religious pluralism.
The issue of religious pluralism—in other words, what it means theologically that there are so many religions—is a knotty question for those who come from churches with strong claims that they are the only ones who have the complete truth, and/or who offer the way to salvation. One set of categorizations that was prominent in Christian theology for a while was that of exclusivism (my church is the only true one, and the only way to God); inclusivism (my church is the standard of truth, but other religions still have good elements); and pluralism (there are multiple legitimate paths to God).
These categorizations have been critiqued for being oversimplistic—I think Mormonism is a good example of a faith that doesn’t neatly fit into just one of them. Another possible way to think about this might be as a spectrum, from the hardcore, “my way is the only true way and every other faith tradition is false” on the one end, to the radically relativist “all roads lead to God” on the other. This is doubtless still oversimplistic, but I think it might be helpful in considering the variety of views within the LDS church: some people are closer to the exclusivist end, and some (probably fewer) to the pluralist. Since there are both exclusivist and pluralist elements to be found in the tradition, I think it’s possible to make a fairly strong case for either one (or even both).
Going back to the idea that if you aren’t happy with the church, you should just leave, I propose that this makes the most sense coming from a more pluralist perspective. In this paradigm, if you are unhappy with one faith tradition, you should seek for another that resonates more strongly with you. After all, there is truth to be found in a variety of places, and there is no one way that’s right for everyone. I have encountered plenty of pluralists (mostly outside the church) who are baffled as to why a person would stay in a tradition which she found oppressive or deeply flawed, when there are so many other options.
However, when I hear this sentiment from my fellow Latter-day Saints, my observation is that it usually comes from those who also hold strongly exclusivist views. And I find this combination much more troubling. The pluralists might be obnoxiously condescending. But the exclusivists, the ones who believe that the LDS church has the only way back to God, are basically telling people that they are not welcome in the kingdom of God, that they should turn away from the ultimate source of truth. As my sister Eve said to me when we first started commenting in the bloggernacle, and she was almost immediately accosted by someone who told her that because of her feminist views she should just leave, “If it’s God’s one true church, why would you ever tell anyone to leave?” I have to say that I find the proposal that you seek out another faith tradition (or even start your own) to be much more palatable when it comes from those with pluralist sentiments, who think you might do better on another path, than from those who believe there is only one true path, and are doing their best to use the Iron Rod to knock you off of it.
I see both pluralist and exclusivist elements in the LDS church. But regardless, the suggestion that someone should just leave strikes me as deeply un-Mormon. It might be challenging, sometimes incredibly challenging, to attempt to get along with our sisters and brothers who see things in radically different ways than we do. But surely we can better than telling people to just go away.