Zelophehad’s Daughters

Is There a Way to Find Common Ground?

Posted by Mike C

Last year I was on a long car ride with my parents, who were visiting from out of state. My mom and I ended up having a discussion about gay marriage, and it was then that I started thinking about this problem of finding common ground–that is, the problem of Mormons like me and Mormons like my mom being able to rejoice and be edified together as we discuss difficult gospel topics–rather than starting a cage match that ends in tears (probably mine, since my mom is a tough cookie), recrimination, the silent treatment, and (God forbid!) unfriending on Facebook. (I’m happy to say that so far none of these things have happened, at least as far as I know.)

I realize that saying that my mom and I represent two types of Mormons is a vast oversimplification, one that does not fully capture our similarities, and one that does not fully acknowledge that there are lots of types of Mormons–probably as many types as there are Mormons. Even so, I think it is useful to place us in two broad categories that are familiar to Mormons who frequent the Bloggernacle.

First, let me explain a bit about my mom. I would say that she could be categorized as a True Believing or True Blue Mormon (TBM), but a pretty liberal one at that. Although she tends to be a literal and scrupulous believer of current Church teachings, she is also open to new and different perspectives. She is a Christian in the best sense of the word, the life of Jesus informing and inspiring her actions. She picks up the housebound elderly sister and brings her over every Thanksgiving and Christmas and times in-between, she drives the intellectually impaired and socially awkward forty-something neighbor to his job and to the store, she tries to get everyone–even the reluctant bishop and his counselors–to fall in love with singing the hymns of the church.

In contrast to my mom, I am more of an uncorrelated Mormon, as you are no doubt aware if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts. I believe in most of the big stuff, at least in my own way. I believe in Heavenly Parents, I believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, I believe that the Book of Mormon is an inspired book, even if I am not particularly concerned about its historicity. I feel confident that one can be a committed Mormon without having to believe in the literalness of the scriptures or the creation story, without having to believe that Satan is a real person or that the events portrayed in the temple movie actually happened, rather than being metaphors from a powerful and transcendent cosmic myth (with an unhealthy dose of sexism mixed in). I understand and accept that my approach is unconventional among church-attending Mormons, but I strongly feel that it is a valid approach to Mormonism and I resist allowing myself or others to confer second-class status upon it.

So although Mom and I are different in many ways, we have much in common. We are on the same team, even if our playing styles are different and even if the coaches seem more comfortable with the way she plays.

And yet, to continue the sports metaphor, when she and I are in the huddle trying to come up with a winning strategy, we don’t even seem to be working from the same playbook–we argue, it seems, from opposing assumptions.

Her assumption is that because the gospel has been such a blessing in her life and following the prophet has brought her peace and joy, then the Church must be the way it is right now for a reason. God must have a plan for his kingdom on earth, and if she doesn’t understand parts of that plan, or if some of it troubles her, she looks for understanding as to why it might be the way that it is, rather than assume it is flawed. In short, she has good reasons to trust God’s Church and its leaders, and she will strive to give them the benefit of the doubt while she tries to support and find goodness in their current course.

I believe that this assumption brings important benefits–it leads to hope, confidence, and a strong sense of purpose and order. It is comforting. I believe it makes her a better person. On the other hand, this assumption creates certain risks–it can lead to lack of trust in oneself and one’s judgment. It can also lead to lack of personal responsibility, placing accountability on the leaders rather than oneself, which can also lead to harm when leaders make mistakes.

In contrast, my assumption is that if a policy or doctrine doesn’t feel right to me–if its fruits appear harmful–then I trust in that feeling. I do not privilege the inspiration of the Church or its leaders over my own inspiration. I am my own authority. This assumption brings me important benefits–it has been a source of peace, self-confidence, and calm in the face of challenges. It also carries risks. In trusting my own authority first, I may be more susceptible to self-serving biases and I may be limited by my own wisdom if I am unable or unwilling to take in the wisdom of others.

So how do my mom and I talk about an issue like gay marriage when we start from such different assumptions? Hers, that the apostles have a good reason for opposing gay marriage that maybe we don’t understand, and mine, that too many people are hurt by their opposition that I don’t believe the policy comes from God. I can’t appeal to her by saying that this just feels wrong, because she is trusting in her leaders. She can’t appeal to me by saying that I should simply trust in the leaders, because that ship has sailed for me. So what do we do? Do we simply agree to disagree? Is there a way to find common ground?

Well, I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth a try. Working to understand each other, even if we never come to common ground, is an essential way to demonstrate our humanity. Like the Nephites, we need to learn to have our hearts knit together in unity and love. We don’t need to agree with one another, but we do need to learn empathy for one another.

For my part, I need to be aware that my beliefs may be scary to my mom, or at least worrisome or disconcerting. Am I going to leave the Church? Will we lose the sociality we currently share based on the common connection of the gospel? Or even worse from her perspective, do my heterodox beliefs put my salvation at risk, are they the gateway to the slippery slope of apostasy?

I also need to remember what it is like to be my mom. Just because I once was a TBM doesn’t mean I still understand that perspective. Because I’ve passed through so much during my faith transition, I have a hard time remembering the person I used to be. So even though Mormons like me have been there, done that, we can still struggle with empathy. We may discount the TBM perspective because we have shared it in the past but have chosen to reject it, or at least part of it.

For my mom’s part, she needs to be aware that since my faith transition I’ve had trouble getting worked up about issues of salvation. I’ve become more of a universalist, believing that God’s plan is about transformation of the soul, and that while temple covenants can be helpful in that regard, I can’t imagine God keeping us out of heaven because we haven’t said the magic words or performed the right ordinances, signs, or tokens. They are metaphors to me–potentially powerful, but still metaphors.

What else can we do? I would say, let’s continue to hear one another’s stories. Let’s learn about one another’s lived experience. If we cannot connect through argument and logic, rationale and reason, let’s try something else. In the words of historian John Boswell:

A life can be an argument; being can be a reason. An idea can be embodied in a person, and in human form it may break down barriers and soften hardness of heart that words could not.

Our lives and our life stories may be able to break down barriers and find common ground. So often on the Bloggernacle, and in life in general, we fall in love with our rightness, we’re reluctant to take in other views (look at the comments sections of a lot of blogs!), we’re unwilling to look within and see that we may be wrong in some ways and that our world view needs revision and our souls need repentance. We can learn from one another, even if we don’t agree with one another.

To help with this approach, my brother and I have started a blog called Out of the Best Blogs, that showcases from a wide spectrum of viewpoints what we consider the best ideas on the Bloggernacle and beyond.

Our overriding sensibility is elegantly described by writer Alan Jacobs:

“If you seek out what’s strange to you in its better expressions, several things will happen. First of all, you’ll court being changed by the encounter, having your views altered, perhaps in significant ways. You’ll learn that people who disagree with you are almost certainly, taken as a whole, morally and intellectually the equal of the people you agree with…You’ll probably come to realize that any question that is fiercely debated is fiercely debated because there aren’t simple and obvious answers to it…[and] you’ll find out whether your own tradition is all that you thought it was, and maybe you’ll learn that it had even greater resources than you had expected.”

We hope you’ll come visit us, and that you’ll consider some of the viewpoints that differ from your own, and be changed for the better by them. Maybe this is one way to help us all find some common ground.

23 Responses to “Is There a Way to Find Common Ground?”

  1. 1.

    I’m really happy about Out of the Best Blogs, Mike! I think it’s such an excellent idea.

    Also, I really like your thoughts on finding common ground. I wonder if the discussion you have of acknowledging different assumptions might not be a big step in itself. Once that’s acknowledged, then it’s clear that nobody’s going to convince anyone else by arguing from their different assumptions. It might even be helpful to say something like, “I know you don’t share my assumption about X, but if you did, can you see yourself also reaching the conclusion I have?”

    Of course, argumentative pain that I can be, I’m certainly not a model of this type of civilized discussion. :)

  2. 2.

    Cool idea! Adding it to my feed reader now.

  3. 3.

    Interesting discussion. Thanks. I take comfort in knowing that our church is not the church only where you might find yourself sitting in the pew next to someone with starkly different beliefs.

    I like the idea of a “best of” list. How will your blog differ in function than an aggregator such as ldsblogs.org?

  4. 4.

    I would suggest that even if you and your mom (as I understand her) are on the same team in some sense, you two aren’t even playing the same game since the games you are each playing have such different rules. For example:

    “we argue, it seems, from opposing assumptions”

    This gives it all away, since argumentation complete with premises, conclusions, entailments and assumptions simply aren’t part of the game she is playing. She isn’t too concerned about figuring things out or understanding God’s plan so much as simply playing her part within that plan. Understanding is simply not a prerequisite.

    Her faith and actions aren’t based in any kind of unspoken, yet logically required assumption which she is, in some sense, committed to defending. Even if you fully refuted the assumptions which you think she is committed to, she would likely still keep on believing and behaving how she now does, since such a refutation would make no difference in the game she is playing.

    It is true that these “assumptions” which you attribute to her do make sense of her actions, and if you asked her if she believed something along the lines of those assumptions she would probably agree with them. But this in no way entails that her faith and actions are in any sense based on these assumptions. If anything, the assumptions which you are attributing to her are based on her actions rather than the other way around.

    This is the entire basis for the never-ending debate surrounding the (in)fallibility of leaders (an issue which is obviously at the center of this debate). The scriptures, and members such are your mother never bring up the issue of prophetic (in)fallibility since it is entirely beside the point. We are not told to follow our leaders because they are infallible nor are we told to follow them inasmuch as they are infallible. We are told to follow our leader simply because they are our leaders; the word “infallible” (or any other related term) simply never comes up.

    On your side on the debate, however, members such as yourself (with good reason) see the dangers that can stem from such obedience and thus proceed to build “assumptions” into the argument which they can then unpack, rehash, debate, draw distinctions within, or some other euphemism for qualifying your obedience to the prophets according to rules and principles which do not originate in the scriptures. This, then, is the point at which the issue of (in)fallibliity comes in and seems to require our attention.

    Notice that by teasing out your mother’s assumptions, you stepped out of, indeed left the game that your mother was playing in order to better understand it (a different game entirely). It was you and not your mother who departed from the game you were both playing. This, then, is the origin of disagreement between you and your mom – the point at which you started playing by different rules. It thus seems rather peculiar that you would try to evaluate your mom according to the rules which you (not her) chose to play by in your assigning various assumptions to her. As long as you do this, however, you and your mom will never find common ground. Neither she nor the scriptures will ever show too much interest in playing the game that you are trying to force upon them.

  5. 5.

    So pleased. I’ve been visiting Out of the Best Blogs for a few weeks- I knew there was a reason I liked it!

  6. 6.

    Not to divert too much from the topic of the post, but the temple drama isn’t *supposed* to depict historical events. Not unless you think every single one of Adam and Eve’s posterity (including you and me) was literally and historically present with them in the Garden, fell and was cast out with them into the lone and dreary world, and has then been historically redeemed and brought into the presence of the Father.

    Nor is it to me really a metaphor, though there are elements of that. It’s a ritual drama in which we enact our own fall and redemption parallel to that of Adam and Eve. The tokens to me are symbolic of sacred knowledge, and the covenants symbolic of our own change of heart needed to bring us us back as prodigals to the presence of the Father.

    Likewise, the sliced sandwich bread, metal trays, plastic cups, water, neckties, deacons, white tablecloths, sacrament hymn, congregation, nor even the modern sacrament prayers are intended to historically depict what actually happened at the last supper. We are ritually enacting a meal parallel to that shared by Christ and his apostles. The sacrament and temple rituals both have meaning for our own lives, and are not simply depictions of historical events.

  7. 7.

    Nice, Left Field.

  8. 8.

    Ziff, I think you’re right. Simply acknowledging our assumptions may be the most important thing of all.

    Hunter, Out of the Best Blogs is more like Andrew Sullivan’s the Dish than like the Huffington Post. So, ldsblogs.org aggregates lots of stuff but simply displays it. We do find it very useful for helping us find material, but it makes no attempt to point readers to the best stuff. That’s what we’re trying to do, in a scattershot way (we are not systematic about our review of the Bloggernacle!) We pick stuff we like, pull out our favorite excerpts, include our favorite comments, and then add witty and compelling commentary (OK, reasonable people might disagree with me on this last claim). We want to make it more of an editorial page for the Bloggernacle. Still figuring things out, but it’s been a lot of fun. We do try to take care to present a wide range of ideas, although we’re definitely biased towards a more progressive view of Mormonism.

    Jeff G, thanks for stopping by. In some ways this is the same issue we discussed a while back, regarding different frameworks for morality. I think you may be right that I attempt to understand her assumptions based on her actions rather than the other way around. I’m not sure she would have consciously articulated her assumptions in that way before we had this discussion.

    But subsequently and happily we have addressed this issue of differing assumptions and I think it has helped us come together, or at least be more patient with each other.

    However, I’ll admit that I’m not sure I can wrap my head around your idea that I have some baseline assumptions but she doesn’t. My life experience is such that I believe everyone has assumptions but they may not be aware of them. Identifying our underlying and sometimes subconscious assumptions often seems like the first step to understanding whether what we are doing is morally right. Anyway, thanks for your insights.

    Left Field, I agree with you and think you probably articulated this better than I did in my post. I do think, however, that the temple drama, especially the movies, leads many members to interpret the creation and fall and God and Satan much more literally than I would, even if, when pressed, they would admit that it is not precisely historical. Art does influence how we imagine history.

  9. 9.

    Mike,

    You’re right in that mine was largely a rehash of the exchange we had before. At the risk of beating a horse which you would just assume let die….

    You seem committed to the idea that assumptions are things that just exist in the world whether anybody has is aware of them or not. To be sure, we often times speak of assumptions in just this way. I would suggest, however, that this is wrong. Assumptions are not things which people carry around in their heads, just waiting to be discovered. Rather, they are propositions which we attribute to others. They are not mental objects which we may or may not find in ourselves or others, but are instead ways in which we actively choose to construe ourselves and others.

    In the game that you are playing, the choice which we make in construing people in terms of some set of assumptions is non-negotiable and for that reason so difficult to take a critical distance toward. I seriously doubt that your mom would have ever come do you with a particular set of assumptions that she thought might underlie your views on the gospel. That’s just not the game she plays.

    Thus, when you say you are trying to find common ground, and then try to find a set of shared assumptions from which you and your mom can proceed, what you are really doing to trying to find someway to get your mom to play the same game you are playing.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t some largely neutral way of approaching the games that you are respectively playing. I am, however, saying that trying to see the Hebrew tradition (your mom’s game) through Greek lenses (your game) is hardly a neutral way which I would ever call “common ground”.

  10. 10.

    Basically, I’m suggesting the parsing out beliefs in terms of assumptions, logical consistency, etc. is the barrier rather than the bridge between you and your mom.

  11. 11.

    “Am I going to leave the Church?” Sounds like you already have, at least with respect to the fundamentals. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but the common ground between you and your mother is probably more related to your family ties than it is to the church.

  12. 12.

    I would be interested in knowing, Like your mother, what you consider the fundamentals to be. What is the core of Mormonism as you see it?

    I do mean this sincerely, and not just to pick a fight. I’m trying to understand my own relationship to the LDS Church and faith, and so defining those fundamentals is important to me.

  13. 13.

    Yes, one of the problems with the filmed version of the endowment is that it splits the drama between the filmed characters on the screen and the live characters in the endowment room. In some cases, a character will even flip from the screen into the person of a live temple officiator, and then back to the screen. Several times.

    In the original live endowment as still performed in Salt Lake and Manti, all the characters including the posterity of Adam and Eve (played by us) are acting together on the same stage. The filmed version unfortunately fosters the idea that I’ve heard expressed, that we are “watching a movie” about the creation and fall. But we’re not watching a movie, we’re *in* the movie. We’re essential characters in the drama. If we view the film as something we “watch” rather than something we participate in, it may be more likely that we’ll see it as simply a documentary.

    I’m quite sure that 19th Century saints would have intuitively understood the ritual nature of the ceremony, and never would have imagined that Protestant ministers and First Century apostles and 19th Century Mormons were historically present together in the Garden of Eden.

    Also, the fact that the script has changed substantially multiple times over the years, makes it problematic to see the play as a direct depiction of literal history. Which version of the script is the one that represents historical reality?

  14. 14.

    Dear Like,

    I too am interested in what you mean. Just so you are aware, I am deeply committed to the Church, I have a temple recommend, pay fast offerings, do my hometeaching, bear my testimony in fast and testimony meeting, clean the church, and do my best to help my seminary kids fall in love with the gospel.

    I’m not trying to impress you–I do all those things imperfectly. But I take my religion seriously, so I am curious as to why you would conclude that I’ve already left. I began my faith transition in earnest over two years ago and I’m still hanging around and am still in love with Mormonism, despite its flaws.

    If you feel that the fundamentals mean never disagreeing with what the general authorities say, then you’re right, I’ve left the fundamentals behind. But in that regard, so have most Mormons, including the general authorities themselves. If the fundamentals mean ignoring my conscience on those occasions when I cannot square it with the teachings of some leaders, then yes, I’ve left the fundamentals behind.

    But if those are the fundamentals, then I think they are worth leaving behind. This is my church too and I want it to be better than it is, and I strongly believe that listening to my conscience and then speaking up about it is an essential part of my job as a member of the Church, it’s what God expects of me.

    I have found it gratifying that in some ways I’ve really grown closer to my mother as I’ve spoken up about these issues and had some tough conversations with her. She has been gracious and open, and I’m impressed, since I would have thought she’d be more fearful. I know I would have been if our situations were reversed. Turns out that the common ground between us is greater than I would have supposed.

  15. 15.

    Oh, Jeff G, meant to say that I’m not ignoring your response. But it is late and I’m tired from attending the horse’s funeral (may he rest in peace) and will try to respond another time.

  16. 16.

    No worries, Mike. Always a pleasure. :)

  17. 17.

    I keep thinking that assumptions are like air. Not thinking about air doesn’t get rid of it. Not recognizing the role air plays doesn’t result in suffocation. It’s still there. We still breathe it.

    Similarly, the unanalyzed assumption doesn’t evaporate. Saying that assumptions aren’t the point doesn’t eliminate assumptions, it just adds one more.

    Maybe, Jeff G, we could talk about cherished beliefs and you’d feel more comfortable with that. A Hebrew perspective has certain cherished beliefs, as does a Grecian perspective. You might say that say that the cherished belief in one perspective is submission and service, while the other is understanding and service, but both can have that cherished belief that service—creation of a better,more beautiful world—is of the highest importance.

    Finding where our cherished beliefs match up seems like a powerful tool to create that world.

  18. 18.

    Actually, that’s exactly the difference between assumptions and air: air really, truly and physically exists no matter what or if we think. Assumptions do not.

  19. 19.

    I see your cherished belief, Jeff G, and raise you one assumption.

  20. 20.

    Mike C – I mis-spoke, and I’ll probably make more of a mess of things if I try to articulate what’s on my mind, but here goes. When we’re asked to pray and receive a personal witness of doctrine or principle, do you think that request is along the lines of “And if you receive a response that (insert controversial topic) isn’t true or valid, then your personal revelation must be correct, should be trusted, and that should be the doctrine of the church?” I don’t think so. I don’t think 15 prophets, seers and revelators are infallible. But if you have studied some doctrine or principle out in your mind, prayed about it, and come to a different place than those 15 united brothers, there’s a problem. You really can’t reconcile the dispute. Either they are in error (possible) or you are in error. And if you consistently find yourself at odds with those 15 brothers, then you really have a problem. I think the admonition to pray to receive a confirmation presupposes that you’ll eventually get the same answer and understand (insert difficult topic) as those 15 brothers. You might not at first, it might take your whole life, and it might only be personal revelation that those 15 brothers might be wrong in the long term but right in the short term. You might come to grips with (insert difficult topic) in any number of ways. But, if you believe the president of the church holds and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys, then I would be extremely careful in trusting my own inspiration that touches on a church doctrine. Personal revelation on what you should do in and with your own life? Great. Personal revelation in which you find the 15 brothers in error? Puts you on shaky ground. To me, that is the fundamental part of the our doctrine I mentioned. Fallibility is a hindsight is 20/20 concept. We tend to look back at things (most often of which weren’t even doctrine but were opinions expressed) and find them to be in error. But, if you can’t accept the revelation received by 15 prophets, seers and revelators for our time and for our circumstances, it is a rejection of the “rock” – continuing revelation, that the church is built upon. Anyway, this stuff is conversational, not meant as attack or to question your commit to the gospel I’m probably reading much more into your post than I should. Good luck with mother – and other TBM’s like me and her.

  21. 21.

    Like,

    Thanks for your reply. I see what you’re saying and you make a good point. What does it mean if I am willing to disagree with the 15 on a significant point of doctrine? First of all, how could I possibly be right, and second of all, can I really be completely in the Church if I am willing to do so?

    This is a hard question that I’ve agonized over for the past couple of years, especially near the beginning of my faith transition. It gives me no pleasure to disagree with the 15 on anything, and for most things I do agree with them. For me, though, it came down to not being able to imagine a god or a heaven that would exclude or demean women and homosexuals, however benevolently, in some of the ways that I see happening in the current Church.

    In the end, I decided either that the 15 are wrong on these teachings, or else they are right and the god who instituted the teachings is not one I’m willing to worship. Because my personal interactions with God cause me to disbelieve the latter, I am stuck with the former.

    So is it possible for the 15 to be wrong on something substantive like the roles of women or gays in the Church? I don’t know, but I hope so. I think they can be wrong in the same way I’ve been wrong in how I sometimes treat my wife. Over our seven years of marriage I slowly came to realize that in some situations I related to her in a “one-up” type of position, a superior position that I was not aware of and did not intend. I came by it honestly, with the church’s gender roles teachings (e.g., women should hearken, POTF) contributing to the problem, but myself being primarily responsible. It took several years of therapy and lots of honesty from my wife for me to discover my biases–how I was typically so confident in my rightness, and that I truly did not understand what it is like to be a woman, etc.

    In short, my biases were insidious, they were subtle, they were shared by many in my community, and so I had great difficulty seeing them, let alone asking God to help me find a better way. I’m still asking, but the whole process has made me realize how easy it is to get things wrong even when we are truly seeking to get things right.

    And that is how I think it is possible for the 15 to get some things wrong. I think this happened with the exclusion of blacks from the temple and black men from the priesthood, and I think it conceivable that the same could be happening with the exclusion of women and gays from full participation in the blessings and responsibilities of the gospel and priesthood.

  22. 22.

    Thanks for this post, I’m at a loss for how to navigate the ground with my family following my last few years of faith transition.

    Should I be grateful that now my mother is condescendingly pitying me and grateful I haven’t left the church yet instead of the previous treatment I received of being a hostile apostate?

    ?

  23. 23.

    Wow! A mom who has substantive discussions with her adult children on topics they disagree about? What a lucky son you are!

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