Criticism and Belief

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.

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26 thoughts on “Criticism and Belief

  1. Speaking as a mainline protestant and as one who has gone on missionary TO the Mormons when I was at an Evangelical College, I feel that the any change in Mormonism happens from the top down. There doesn’t seem like there is to much room to express discontent in LDS world, yet local leadership is paradoxically low-church and egalitarian.

    Still though, many LDS students I knew read more doctrinal evangelical or otherwise protestant literature and slowly change. So I guess individual LDS people can shift a little bit, whether or not the LDS church as a whole changes with them is something that remains to be seen.

  2. This is another one of those attempts to advance a specific agenda under the guise of “wanting to have a discussion” and/or simply assuming as correct that which is, at best, hotly contested, so that the opponents are presumed at the outset to be wrong.

    Those in favor of the status quo have nothing to gain by discussion. At best, nothing changes, so they have wasted their time. At worst, things change against their will, so they have been defeated, and subjected to that which they dislike.

    Appeals for “discussion” are invariably attempts at change. Those asking for a “discussion” are never themselves open-minded, much less undecided, and have a preplanned arguments designed to advance certain points. Those seeking a discussion NEVER themselves wind up adopting the positions of others. After all, if they did not think that they knew better, then they would not be asking for a discussion.

    Critics are invariably oblivious to the possibility that, after careful, reasoned consideration, by others acting in the utmost good faith, their criticism will be rejected. Critics always see two sides to every question – their own side and the stupid or evil side.

    David Clark asks “what would have to happen for the [Church] to reform and be more honest.” Maybe nothing. Maybe the Church is not in need of reform and is honest. Maybe David Clark’s “reform” is actually corruption and his “honesty” is actually lies.

    David Clark list four issues which are not merely illustrative or hypothetical, but his own agenda.

    1. “Equality [whatever that means] of the sexes.”

    2. “Better treatment [whatever that means] of gays.”

    3. “Financial transparency.” [Apparently just goes without saying.]

    4. “More open [whatever that means] scholarship.”

    Indeed, David Clark forthrightly announces his prejudices: “[T]hose are all good goals for the [Church].”

    David Clark then equates adoption of his four-point agenda to “resurrect[ing] the latent gospel in early Mormonism, while shedding the baggage of later Mormonism.”

    I guess David Clark’s four-point agenda is the “latent gospel” and he thinks that, because it is latent, it takes him to show it to the rest of us.

    David Clark, have you lost your mind or are you just woefully ignorant of the history of the early Church? Joseph Smith had a temper and I dare say that, if you had proposed your four points to him, he might very well have physically assaulted you before he excommunicated you. Surely, Brigham Young would have had you horse-whipped and ridden out of Utah on a rail. It’s a good thing that you believe: “Kindness has to be seen as something other than being nice.”

    You complain that “[n]o one can be wrong, there are no right answers , [and] everyone tiptoes so as to avoid offending anyone.” I am not worried about offending you. Also, you not only can be wrong, you are wrong.

    You complain “there are no right answers.” You want some right answers? For starters, I will give you four right answers.

    1. Women and men are not identical. Treating people who are not identical as if they were identical does not work and, in any case, is not “equality.” Women do not have to imitate men to be respected and, in fact, it leads to the unhappiness and dysfunction of both women and men. “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” Note the phrase “[b]y divine design.” So, if you want to voice criticism, you need to direct it directly to God.

    2. If people have sex other than with their spouse, it is a sin. People of the same gender cannot marry. Therefore, if people of the same gender have sex, it is a sin. In fact, sexual sins rank only after the unpardonable sin and murder in severity. Therefore, those who persist in such sin are liable to be excommunicated. Then, of course, they can do whatever they want. No one is forced to marry and to have heterosexual sex. If someone is gay but does not have sex, then the official position of the Church, as set out in the Church’s handbook (you can probably find it on Wikileaks), is that they should be treated just like anyone else and given special help when they need it just as others are given special help when they need it. You can’t get any better than that and still be Mormon.

    3. The Committee on the Disposition of the Tithes has sole control over the Church’s use and expenditures of money. The Committee’s decisions do not need the approval of the members of the Church. Therefore, “financial transparency” has no purpose. I suspect that your desire for financial transparency is so that you can criticize the Church for not spending money on purposes you favor (maybe free HIV clinics) and criticize the Church for spending money on purposes of which you disapprove (likely Proposition 8). Since I do not want to hear your complaining, I am glad that there is not financial transparency. Lastly, Blake Ostler, the co-author of Mormon America, remarked in the PBS series “the Mormons” that the Church has never had a significant financial scandal, which gives the members great confidence in the Church’s financial stewardship.

    4. You don’t have to be a postmodernist to realize that most scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, especially history, is conducted to advance a particular political agenda. As liberals are obsessed with imposing their own opinions on others, they are naturally attracted to scholarship. There is no “open” scholarship in the Ivy League and other elite universities — deviation from far-left ideology will result in non-publication in academic presses and denial of tenure. Go clean up the left-wing intellectual tyranny of higher education before you start whining about “open” Mormon scholarship. Finally, feel free to publish whatever scholarly criticism of the Church you choose, and I shall feel free to despise you for it, and the Church should feel free to excommunicate you for it. After all, “critique and destruction have to have a place in religious communities,” and you are an excellent candidate for criticism and destruction.

    Remember if “there’s no bad news, there’s no need for a gospel.”

  3. Hi David!

    I’ll disagree with John Hobbins saying, “Kindness seeks, above all, to avoid hurt. Criticism — even objective, impersonal, well-intended, constructive criticism — isn’t kind.”

    I believe you can, and should, correct people with kindness. I’ve heard God criticize me—or more appropriately, inform me of a serious fault— with kindness. I didn’t feel put-down at all. I sensed in his voice nothing but a desire to lift me up.

    However, I agree with you that correction doesn’t have to feel good. Paul the Apostle spoke of a godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

    ——–
    Amen to Murdock’s comment that if “there’s no bad news, there’s no need for a gospel.”

  4. I think you highlight an important problem in any sort of church reform. The tendency is to make the reform the new gospel. My wife just met someone who said she was attending a church that was becoming “the gay church”. The implication being that they went from “open and affirming” all the way over to “all we talk about is how beautiful homosexuality is.” I see the same sort of dynamic in churches that have adopted black liberation theology. The focus has switched from Jesus to the oppression of blacks.

    There is a lot of online chatter about reforming the LDS church. Whether the LDS church needs any sort of reform is certainly a point of controversy. I take David’s post to be directed at Mormons who seek reform. If a reform isn’t solidly based in the Cross and the Resurrection, it’s no longer reform, it’s replacement. “Kindness” and “Christ-consciousness” as nice as they are, are not the Gospel. So those wishing to capitalize on the LDS cultural disposition toward kindness are ultimately prioritizing it over the core of the church’s message.

  5. My wife just met someone who said she was attending a church that was becoming “the gay church”. The implication being that they went from “open and affirming” all the way over to “all we talk about is how beautiful homosexuality is.”

    This has been an issue for us in trying to find a church where we feel comfortable here in Chicago. When we went to Cedar Ridge in Maryland, it was crystal clear that gays were accepted, loved, welcomed, and not in any way condemned, but that was not itself the focus of the Church’s mission, and it was rarely if ever mentioned from the pulpit.

    In contrast, a lot of the promising-looking mainline protestant churches here in Chicago that are gay friendly are gay friendly to the exclusion of everything else: rainbow flags everywhere, constant talking about gay issues from the pulpit, etc. On the one hand, the reality is that we live in Chicago’s main gay neighborhood. On the other hand I feel like it shouldn;t be that hard to find an “open and affirming” Christian church that’s not The Gay Reformed Gay Church of Gay Jesus with Extra Rainbows and a Special Drag Show Every Wednesday.

  6. Jin,

    I agree that change is likely to come from the top down in the LDS church. My critique still applies since I think there is a general attitude that critique when directed at church leaders is by definition wrong. I think kindness which includes ability to critique would go a long way towards changing that attitude.

    Murdoch,

    Charlie Sheen called, he wants his crazy back.

    Cal,

    You missed one of the main points of the post, that critique and kindness are not mutually exclusive.

  7. Eric,

    The stuff I said about the LDS church is pretty much the bread and butter complaints of the bloggernacle, I’m not saying anything original. Your reply seems to be that your experience in the LDS church is different, therefore you don’t need to take what I am saying seriously.

    That’s fine, just realize it’s the equivalent of living inside the US Embassy in Addis Ababa and getting mad at people whining about lack of food in Ethiopia. After all, that’s not the Ethiopia you recognize.

  8. Tim,

    Yes, it is directed at people who want reform in the LDS church. There are two parts to the critique. One is that the reform must be based on real reform, not just pushing one’s policy preferences, which unfortunately is mostly what I see in the bloggernacle. The second is that I think this is one of the main reasons that reform simply hasn’t happened much. Critique is seen as by definition unkind and unfaithful. Unless that goes away, I don’t have much hope for any reform, except for the natural slouching in the general direction of the greater culture, which every church does, usually unwittingly.

    Kullervo,

    That’s a good example of where reform becomes a substitute for the gospel. Unfortunately, Jesus all too often becomes a blank canvas upon which we paint whatever we want to see.

  9. What is “real reform” and how is that different from just another policy preference?

    Fair enough. The only thing I have in mind is placing a policy preference above the gospel. I can’t say I have a well-defined way of differentiating the two, nor that making the separation is easy. I can only say that in many cases it seems obvious to me that what has happened has not been reform, but a policy preference has been pushed.

  10. “That’s fine, just realize it’s the equivalent of living inside the US Embassy in Addis Ababa and getting mad at people whining about lack of food in Ethiopia. After all, that’s not the Ethiopia you recognize.”

    And that’s the equivalent of giving Eric’s personal experience the weight of only one person’s observation but your own personal experience the weight of thousands.

  11. Murdock ~ I’m sorry, I can’t resist.

    Women and men are not identical.

    I agree. But what’s your point? What is it about the differences between men and women that renders women unsuitable for, say, walking a tray of bread or water down a row of pews?

    It makes sense to mandate different rules for the sexes when the rules being mandated have something to do with the differences in question. For example, it makes sense to pass laws forcing employers to give pregnant women 6-8 weeks of maternity leave when they have their babies because their bodies need time to recover from the trauma of childbirth, which only the female physiology experiences. It does not make sense to give men whose wives have children or women who adopt 6-8 weeks of maternity leave because their bodies have not undergone childbirth.

    It’s not enough to merely point out that men and women are different and then act like you can treat women however you like because of that. You have to show how those differences support the different treatment you’re advocating for. In the case of how the LDS church treats women, I suspect you’re not going to be able to do that.

    Women do not have to imitate men to be respected and, in fact, it leads to the unhappiness and dysfunction of both women and men.

    I disagree. In fact, it’s patriarchal norms that often lead to unhappiness and dysfunction for both women and men. Egalitarianism has been shown to have immensely positive effects, especially on the psyche of women. (Will cite research on this if requested.)

    God didn’t write “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Fifteen elderly white men who were born between 1906 and 1940 wrote it, and while you may believe that they put the will of God to pen, Protestants like myself and David Clark do not believe that.

    If people have sex other than with their spouse, it is a sin. People of the same gender cannot marry. Therefore, if people of the same gender have sex, it is a sin.

    So are you saying that gay couples who have gotten married in Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, or Connecticut are not living in sin? If that’s the case, Mormons ought to be for gay marriage in other states, not against it. The more gay couples can be legally married, the less they’ll be living in sin!

    And what if two people of the same gender live together, hold hands, kiss, hug, cuddle, and do not engage in sex, but otherwise have a (non-sexual) physical relationship with one another? Is that not a sin?

  12. And that’s the equivalent of giving Eric’s personal experience the weight of only one person’s observation but your own personal experience the weight of thousands.

    BJ,

    Are the complaints I made common or uncommon in the bloggernacle?

  13. Nice post David. I waited over two decades for my former church to commence reform after I was saved and realized the false teachings and traditions. Things are slightly better in the LDS church than they were when I started this journey, but this year I gave up and stopped attending. Sadly, LDS reform won’t happen in my lifetime, and I don’t have time to waste on it. Guess I need to change my handle.

  14. “Are the complaints I made common or uncommon in the bloggernacle?”

    That’s beside the point. Eric’s complaint was not about the bloggernacle, it was about the church. Summoning more anecdotal voices doesn’t give any more weight to your experience that would demand Eric’s consideration. If he were on the fence…sure maybe, but he saw your description as a “caricature”; his experience is not “different,” as you say, it is vastly different. Thus, if you want him to take you seriously you should present your topic in a way he can relate to. I doubt, however, that your goal was to sway Eric into taking you seriously; rather, it was to mock him.

    (Incidentally, in my experience, some of the complaints you made are more-or-less common in the bloggernacle, but seldom to the same degree. (Though the word “common” is flimsy enough to cover a diversity of meanings.) Thus, I think Eric’s use of the word “caricature”—as opposed to, say, “dead wrong” or “outright lie”—was appropriate.)

  15. You caught me, David. I admit I didn’t read most of the article! Guess I can’t get away with that.

    Eric said, “The caricature of the church in the original post hardly sounds like the church I belong to.”

    Typical, isn’t it?

  16. Ms. Jack said:

    Murdock ~ I’m sorry, I can’t resist.

    I knew you couldn’t.

    Kullervo asked:

    What is “real reform” and how is that different from just another policy preference? I’m not being snarky.

    I’m not being snarky either when I say that I suspect it means something like “becoming more like Protestantism.”

    BrianJ said:

    I think Eric’s use of the word “caricature”—as opposed to, say, “dead wrong” or “outright lie”—was appropriate.

    Thanks. Obviously, I agree, and the point about caricatures is that there’s some truth in them, or they wouldn’t be recognizable. I don’t care to dwell on the caricature aspects of the post (as doing so would be a distraction from what DC was trying to say), although I will say that I objected most strongly to the descriptions of an LDS Sunday school class, which I found so far off the mark from my experience as to be laughable. It’s kind of like saying that mainline Protestants spend all their time in Sunday school (if they even have a Sunday school) talking about peace and equality.

    That said, I agree that there’s a strong cultural (and even theological) disinclination to criticism directed above. How much that has to do with the dynamics of “reform” or even change in the Church, I’m not sure.

  17. although I will say that I objected most strongly to the descriptions of an LDS Sunday school class, which I found so far off the mark from my experience as to be laughable.

    Again, you go back to asserting that your singular experience somehow contradicts or nullifies widely reported phenomena. As just one example, here’s Philip L. Barlow describing his experiences with LDS Sunday School (emphasis mine):

    I try to remember with as generous a spirit as I can muster that for most people the implied purpose of (for instance) our Sunday Schools is a reaffirmation of faith and bonding in Zion—a workshop for love, which is crucial. This need not be, but these days generally is, construed in our classes as a series of semi-rhetorical or fill-in-the-blank questions yielding a kind of scripted discussion calculated to reaffirm testimony and what we think we already know. When more authentic questions are posed, they often come from places of misplaced zeal and ill-informed esoterica that lead into bizarre, so-called “mysteries.” I suppose that the need to combat this is one reason we have over-reacted with such tepid, correlated fare in our manuals and habits of discourse.

    It is this kind of sentiment that I was trying to get across in my description. But again that it is boring is actually secondary, my concern is: Why is it boring? Again, I think Barlow nails it. The point of Sunday School is not knowledge but a “workshop for love.” In my words that is putting kindness first, and excluding critique from lessons because that wouldn’t be kind. By making it a “workshop for love” you take away the ability to learn and grow through critique and being wrong. A side effect of this is boring lessons, but again that they are boring is the effect, it’s the cause I am interested in.

    It’s kind of like saying that mainline Protestants spend all their time in Sunday school (if they even have a Sunday school) talking about peace and equality.

    Umm, I spent quite a bit of time attacking mainline Protestants. And, if they are only ever talking about peace and equality, then I would critique that. Although peace and equality are important, they don’t exhaust what the gospel means.

  18. I’m not being snarky either when I say that I suspect it means something like “becoming more like Protestantism.”

    No, I think the best shot at reform in the Mormon church is to recover the Mormonism of the New York and early Kirtland periods. That’s why I asked the question in the original post, “How do you resurrect the latent gospel in early Mormonism, while sheddding the baggage of later Mormonism?”

  19. David — Either you’re missing my points or I’m not stating them very well. I suspect the former, but I could be wrong.

  20. “No, I think the best shot at reform in the Mormon church is to recover the Mormonism of the New York and early Kirtland periods.”

    How does that period of Mormonism square with your complaint that the Church does not tolerate criticism?

  21. Just out of curiosity, has anyone ever tried to make a rough count of how many active members of the LDS church participate in the Bloggernacle? LDS church membership is somewhere in the 13 million range. Even if the activity rate were 10%, that would give us a 1.3 million, right? I have a hard time believing there are 1.3 million active Latter-day Saints who post and/or comment on the various LDS blogs. This is probably the single biggest reason why I have no problem asserting that the caricatures of LDS services are not, and never have been, representative of the church I have attended for the 28+ years of my life. When considering that I have attended church in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Utah, California, and Australia, I find it surprising that apparently I have managed to dodge the bullet every single time.

    Do I think there is some truth the claims that LDS services, especially Sunday School classes, are as DC described? Sure. In fact, I seem to recall a talk in General Conference about this once (sorry, I don’t remember when, but I remember the story of a SS teacher reading a manual and then later actually presenting engaging lessons). That isn’t to say that I don’t think there is room for improvement in our church education. As a professional educator, I can think of plenty of ways we can improve.

    More to the point of the OP (if I understood it correctly)… DC, what exactly do you see as so much better about the New York and Ohio periods of the early LDS church than the Nauvoo-and-onward periods? You advocate for a reform that returns to those periods, but then you leave it at that. I am interested to know what exactly you mean.

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