Guest Post by David Clark
For a long time now I have been trying to think of what would have to happen for the LDS church to reform and be more honest. Not what a certain person has to do, or what movements could cause change. While change, if it comes, will likely come from a person or persons, the question is what are they going to change.
The answer to that question, unfortunately in my opinion, usually comes down to a specific issue or set of issues. Answers vary, but usually conveniently fit in line with the social or political preferences of the person pushing a particular set of suggestions. For some, equality of the sexes is the key. For others, it’s better treatment of gays. For others, financial transparency or more open scholarship is the preferred solution. I myself have probably pushed one or more of those from time to time.
And while those all are good goals for the LDS church, I think the lesson of the mainline protestants needs to be learned. In those denominations, the above changes, or similar ones, have been pushed from time to time with disastrous results. Let me be clear, I don’t think disastrous results come from equality of the sexes or whatever other agenda has been pushed. I think it has come from the pushing the agenda above all else. In many of the mainline denominations, the agenda has come to be more important than the gospel. So when pushing the agenda, sacrificing the gospel for the agenda has been an acceptable loss for many people. The results are as sad as they are predictable: empty pews and shrinking church rolls.
The question for Christians is: How do you change without sacrificing the gospel? For the LDS the question is: How do you resurrect the latent gospel in early Mormonism, while sheddding the baggage of later Mormonism?
I think a big clue comes from one of my favorite bloggers, John Hobbins. From his latest article entitled “Why Kindness is Dangerous” he quotes Virgina Postrel:
Kindness seeks, above all, to avoid hurt. Criticism — even objective, impersonal, well-intended, constructive criticism — isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating kindness as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it.
One can see how this has played out in mainline churches. Change there hasn’t really come from critique, but rather from a sort of uber-kindness. Nobody can be made to feel bad, no one needs to feel any guilt. In pursuit of this goal, the whole idea that there is any bad news for humanity has been dropped, after all that would make people feel bad. And because there’s no bad news, there’s no need for a gospel. The result is schism along social and policy preferences, accompanied with declining numbers.
In LDS culture, this plays out differently. There the absolute enshrinement of kindness and conflict avoidance as paramount leads to inability to reform LDS thought or culture. Discussion of difficult topics isn’t even allowed lest it be perceived as argumentative, unkind to church leaders, or insensitive to the weaker saints. One often hears that church should be a place for lifting up spirits, not for analysis and criticism. But the result of this is that, in Hobbins’ words:
It seems to that we are killing people with kindness falsely so-called. We have become relentlessly affirming of anything and everyone, except those who do not share our commitment to relentless affirmation.
This is a particularly apt description of a Mormon Sunday School class. No one can be wrong, there are no right answers, everyone tip toes so as to avoid offending anyone, and no one particularly cares about what the scriptures actually say. It’s relentless affirmation of Mormon identity and the LDS church. This extends to all levels of Mormon social life, and I think it’s killing the LDS church. When I say no one can be wrong, I refer to Mormons, no Mormon can be wrong in a Sunday School. I acknowledge that critique of other belief systems is fair game in Sunday School and elsewhere in LDS discourse, but this is usually just a negative way of affirming Mormon beliefs.
(An aside: Not all critique is absent in LDS discourse. Acceptance in LDS culture is always acceptance of the Mormon identity and the LDS church corporate, certain types of individual critique are allowed. Critique from the church leaders towards the rank and file is alive and well. And, the average LDS member has an immense ability to absorb and internalize guilt so that church leaders do not have to. Programs and policies that should be seen as uninsipired and impossible, because they fail, are instead internalized by saints as self failure. This is why I see this type of kindness as killing individual saints, which in the long run will weaken the church corporate.)
I think Hobbins is correct in his cure as well:
it has to be possible to pull down, not only build up; to destroy and not just heal (so also Jer 1:10). It’s the feedback loop between the two poles that matters; if there is none, change for the better is impossible.
Kindness has to be seen as something other than being nice. Both destruction and healing can be kind, and both have to be seen as kind when done appropriately. Thus critique and correction can both be admitted to Mormon social life under the rubric of kindness. Until that happens, I think one of two things will happen in the LDS church. One is that the church continues as it always has and both church members and the church corporate continued to be killed in the name of kindness. Or, reform does happen but ends up doing as much or more destruction than providing helpful change. My guess is that it will be similar to the destruction which has happened in mainline Protestantism.
Where do American Evangelicals fit into this? They occupy a middle ground between mainline Protestants and the LDS church. Because of this I think they are the laboratory for change happening now. Will they throw away essentials in the name of kindness? Will they ignore needed change because they confuse essentials with peripherals? I really don’t know, probably a mixed bag among various groups and movements. American Evangelicals can draw on experiences of mainline Protestants, mostly for examples of how not to change (again I’m not speaking about particular policies, but about why and how those policies are implemented). Perhaps American Evangelicals will provide some positive examples for LDS. In any case, I think kindness needs to be properly understood, and critique and destruction have to have a place in religious communities, without being written off as by definition unkind or contentious. If naive “I have to feel good for it to be kindness” prevails, change will be either destructive or non-existent.
Of course Jesus provides the way here. He pulled down and built up, he destroyed and he healed, but he was always kind.