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.