“The Sacrament of Doubt” is a newly-published collection of speeches (plus one web post and one open letter) by Mormon thinker, theologian, dissident, humorist, and member of the September Six, Paul Toscano. John Crawford and I will review the book in the form of a conversation.
JNS: To things start off, John, what did you think of the format of the book? These speeches seem to have been reprinted with minimal editing or alteration, to the point that a couple actually say that more could be said if not for time constraints. Does that seem odd to you, as it does to me?
JDC: Not particularly. My impression of the book is that it is meant to trace a journey of sorts in Bro. Toscano’s faith. As such, we have a group of vignettes, usually (but not always) in chronological order. These are little scenes in a play. They have no dialogue, but we are given the setting of each piece and it is hard not to read them as a group of monologues. That said, the book overall could have greatly benefitted, I think, from a stricter editor. There does not seem to be a strong central theme that binds the essays together, aside from the fact that Bro. Toscano wrote them all.More than a play, it reads like a series of blog posts. It has the same combination of diary and rhetorical essay and it has the same feeling of being whatever the author happened to be thinking about at the time. What struck you about the organization of the book, J.?
JNS: I like your idea of the book as a journey in a life. Yet, as a chronicle of the religious life of Paul Toscano, I think the book isn’t terribly successful. The texts are sometimes quite emotional, but they’re rarely intimate. They are generally public speech; they are performances made for a community, not disclosures of the more intimate tone that memoirs try to adopt. Furthermore, some pieces in the book are just more intellectual than they are personal or even spiritual. Consider, for example, the chapter against secular education, “A Plea for Pluralism.” What does that accomplish in terms of charting a faith journey?
While I think the book isn’t altogether successful as a travelogue to a faith journey, I do think there are some pieces here that are valuable as Mormon religious thought. But I wish they had been developed, expanded, and revised from the speech versions. Why must the original version of Toscano’s discussion of Boyd K. Packer stand sacrosanct? I simply don’t understand.
JDC: “A Plea for Pluralism” also struck me as out of place. I decided that he felt it necessary to insert it to a) demonstrate that he was not opposed to religion as a general rule; b) provide the paper that he frequently references in the next section, “Accommodation and the Clash of the Red and Blue;” c) have an article demonstrating his day job (another bloggernacle parallel :) ). I agree that it doesn’t do much to address his faith journey (unless it is meant to express an earlier naivety). On the opposite end of the spectrum, the most intimate piece in the work is “On the Bones of Daniel Rector.” It is a deeply moving rumination on his own emotions in contemplating the death of a dear friend. It is also, to my mind, spectacularly inappropriate to have read to the grieving family in a graveside service.
This gets to the heart of what is wrong with the book (or what is right with it, depending on your outlook). I think that the reason his critiques of Elder Packer and the other apostles were not extended between their presentation and this book is because those works are not actually about the Brethren or his stake president or Daniel Rector. It is all about him and his journey. To some degree, I think the most telling comment he makes is in his self-interview, 10 years after the September 6 incident, in which he admits that “I am seriously peeved that September 1993 and its aftermath have made so little difference.” I read this book as Bro. Toscano shouting “I am still here!” to a church that has mostly moved on.
JNS: I agree that the presentation of the book does revolve around Paul Toscano as a person. That actually doesn’t bother me; Toscano strikes me as an interesting man. He’s written a lot of things that have been engaging or usefully provocative for me, and some things that have been spiritually meaningful. Furthermore, in our handful of online interactions, Toscano has struck me as a charming and charismatic man. So I can see why a certain group of people might care about simply collecting his speeches. At the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity, because there is material here that could speak to a broader audience with a somewhat different presentation. I think the preface and the short final chapter have something real and valuable to say about the experience of doubt and its relation to the life of faith. And the two chapters in which Toscano responds directly to Boyd K. Packer and to Russell M. Nelson do intelligently engage central theological themes in Mormonism. That and the cultural shock value of seeing someone directly critique our leaders’ thought — something far more rare than some would have us think — could probably create a much broader audience for these pieces, if they had been expanded and revised and if they had been published in a context that was less wildly diverse.
Turning a bit more to specific texts in the book, about the “A Plea for Pluralism” and “Accommodation and the Clash of Red and Blue” chapters, the basic thesis here that secularism is not a neutral position but rather a power play against faith is one that echoes Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Both Toscano and Hauerwas are, it seems to me, right in pointing out that there is no such thing as a neutral or non-ideological ideology. Secularism can certainly be an enemy to faith. But it has another role that I felt Toscano and Hauerwas underestimate: the role of creating institutions that people of very different faith commitments can all live with. Sure, it would be great if God were allowed in the public schools. But what if the public schools taught an evangelical Christian take on the temple endowment? What if prayers at graduation ceremonies asked that God would protect us against Muslims, Mormons, and other non-Christians? Keeping God out of the public arena also keeps our differences of opinion about God out of the public arena. Something Mitt Romney, for example, is learning to appreciate…
JDC: True. While I appreciated Bro. Toscano’s plea for better integration of religion in public life, it is a flawed idea as there are no good standards for the admittance of some religions into the public eye and the dismissal of others. If we teach the history of Christianity from a believing viewpoint, then we are equally expected to teach the history of Islam, Judaism, Hindu belief, Buddhism, Jainism, Scientology, and further on down the rabbit hole. What struck me most about those chapters though was Bro. Toscano’s depiction of the Blue and the Red (meaning Republicans and Democrats) was the gross generalizations on which he built his dichotomy and the fact that each side would see themselves in his complements and their opponents in his criticisms.
He says, “I have reached the tentative conclusion that what divides red and blue is how one views human nature – whether it is inherently good or bad. A person inclined to view humans as untrustworthy or prone to mischief will favor restricting individual liberty and maximizing institutional power to keep human nature in check in order to promote security, prosperity, tranquility, and traditional values. A person who views humans as good or trustworthy will be inclined to restrict institutional power to maximize individual choice in order to prevent the corruption of human nature and the destruction of the environment.” Thus, we see that Republicans are big government and Democrats are uninterested in using the government to push their agenda? These reads as much like blindered political hackery as anything written by, say, Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore. How does noting that good people agree with me and bad people agree with you result in accommodation or furthering a dialogue?
JNS, you’ve referenced Bro. Toscano’s critique of Elders Packer and Nelson (and, more obliquely, Elder Oaks and President Hinckley) a few times. What did you find in those pieces that was interesting to you?
JNS: On the Democrat/Republican characterizations, I agree that simple stereotypes are unhelpful. Do Democrats or Republicans see human nature as inherently good? I don’t know. A lot of Democrats seem to feel that the war on drugs, for example, is hopeless because people will always find a way to get drugs regardless. Note how this position fractures the simple schema; a person views humans as hopelessly prone to the mischief of drugs, and therefore opposes expansions of institutional power. On the other hand, I doubt that we can reasonably blame Toscano too much for these characterizations. Even respected college American Government textbooks sometimes engage in similar stereotyping.
As per your comment, I’ll say a bit about the two chapters that I think will probably generate the most attention, “Boyd K. Packer — Modern Prophet in a Post-Modern World” and “For the Love of God.” Let’s start with the second. In this open letter, Toscano responds to Russell M. Nelson’s well-publicized opinion that God’s love should never be characterized as unconditional. Nelson, as Toscano helpfully points out, identifies a concept of universal divine love as equivalent to the idea of universal salvation or freedom from the consequences of sin. Toscano offers the helpful clarification that we ought to distinguish between God’s affection and God’s approval. The scriptures do suggest that God’s affection is universal, while God’s approval is clearly conditional on what we do. This response, which addresses the debate by disaggregating the concept of love, seems to me to be a powerful and successful rebuttal of Nelson’s proposal that God’s love is always conditional.
What were your thoughts on that chapter?
JDC: I agree that Bro. Toscano’s criticisms are apt. I have made a similar argument in my own explanation/explication of Elder Nelson’s controversial talk. What strikes me as interesting in the piece is that, I believe, that the church as a whole has come around to Bro. Toscano’s view, due to the abiding influence of: a) President Benson’s decision to re-emphasize the Book of Mormon; and b) Robert Millet’s, Stephen Robinson’s, and Bruce Hafen’s ongoing discussion regarding what the Book of Mormon has to say about Christ. When I listen to the talks of, say, Elder Holland or Elder Eyring, I clearly hear the shift in how we talk about Jesus and in how we talk about Christ’s love and grace. While I think that Bro. Toscano’s dismissal of the influence of the Father is premature in our doctrine and salvation is premature, I think that his approach to interpreting Elder Nelson’s talk explains how best to understand it doctrinally, if not organizationally.
That said, I don’t like the presentation of his thought. I probably never will. It comes back to my objections regarding the book. Bro. Toscano extends to himself the benefit of the doubt frequently, but his adversaries are never given it. And most of the pieces in this book are attempts by Bro. Toscano to define himself in contra-distinction to whatever his adversaries are. While President Packer is frightened by the prospect of Intellectuals, Feminists, and Homosexuals eroding his means of control (as Bro. Toscano depicts him), Bro. Toscano gleefully embraces these trends and discusses his solidarity with them. His chapter on “Intellectuals, Feminists, and Homosexuals” is, I think, the best critique of the church in the book. But it relies on turning President Packer into a bogeyman. From the get go, there is no assumption that President Packer is seeking anyone’s will but his own.
His brief biography of President Packer also suffers from this. It would seem that President Packer is in the position he is in because he kissed more butt and made fewer waves than other potential Apostles/General Authorities. His depiction of President Packer reminded me of the general played by Paul Winfield in Mars Attacks, who whispers into a telephone after getting an important assignment “Hello? This is General Casey. I get to meet the Martian Ambassador! Ain’t that great? Oh, it’s a hell of an honor. But didn’t I always tell you honey, if I just stayed in place and never spoke up, good things are bound to happen. Yeah… OK.” A discussion of President Packer as sycophant-in-chief strikes me as enormously unfair. It is hard to not take note that Bro. Toscano sees President Packer as personally responsible for his excommunication when one reads these chapters and to, therefore, take his interpretation of President Packer with a large grain of salt.
What struck you about these sections, JNS?
JNS: I think the chapter about Packer does certainly have personal animus involved in it. It’s a matter of public record at this point that Packer was in fact involved in at least some of the September Six excommunications, so I’m willing to accept Toscano’s perspective on that front as reasonable. And it’s worth remembering that there’s been something of a campaign of mutual failure to extend the benefit of the doubt between our church leaders and Paul Toscano. A good example on that front is the incident that Toscano refers to in his “Intellectuals, Feminists, etc.” in which Dallin Oaks publicly stated that he was sure Paul Toscano would sue the church. Rampant suspicion is a problem that’s arisen on both sides in this story, I guess.
It seems to me that Toscano does offer an argument, though, in his chapter directly about Packer, for why he sees Packer as representing his own views and beliefs. Specifically, the reason is that Packer has never made it clear when he is speaking for himself and when he is speaking for the Lord. Toscano quotes a story of Packer’s in which Packer was on a boat that needed a lighthouse turned on to find its way to shore, but the person responsible for the lighthouse had fallen asleep. Toscano claims that Packer’s unwillingness to explain when his statements are based on revelation, when on inspiration, and when on personal wisdom is analogous to failing to turn on the lighthouse. I think that’s an apt analogy. When the difference between personal wisdom and divine imperative is obscured, we lose the divine light that might otherwise be granted. Lighthouses are for when we can’t see by ourselves. If we had spiritual power enough to see the difference between rock and ocean on our own, we wouldn’t need them. But we don’t always, and so we do need our teachers to be clear about what they’re saying and where it comes from. Packer has never done that. Although the same could be said of most modern church leaders, so singling out Packer seems a bit, well, personal.
JNS: My biggest frustration with the Packer chapter is that Toscano offers about half of a cogent response to Packer’s religious worldview, but seems to stop short of fully rebutting the position. Instead, the argument seems to be swept away on a tide of anger and personal frustration. This is disappointing because Packer’s perspective in which salvation is to be earned by pure human exertion is one that deserves serious scrutiny.
JDC: That’s the thing. I am not certain that that describes President Packer’s perspective anymore, just as I don’t know that the “Conditional Love” talk continues to describe Elder Nelson’s approach to God. After all, Elder Nelson did recently comment that “A repentant soul is a converted soul, and a converted soul is a repentant soul,” which seems much closer to a grace viewpoint than not. To some degree, in all of this, I have a feeling that Bro. Toscano is engaged in a debate with a church that existed maybe ten years ago, but doesn’t seem to exist now.
JNS: That’s possible, although as always it’s hard to tell, since our church rarely explains or explicitly announces changes in theological position or emphasis. However, the phrase “unconditional love” still doesn’t show up in correlated texts.
JDC: um, “unconditional love” pulls up 113 hits at lds.org.
JNS: Good point. My comment was based on the prophet manuals, in which “unconditional love” and “free agency” in the actual text are discussed as “love” and “moral agency” in the headings and the discussion questions.
I just looked through the “unconditional love” entries on lds.org. Nearly all of them predate Elder Nelson’s talk on the subject. The handful since fall into two categories: instructions to mortal parents, who are evidently supposed to extend to their children the unconditional love that God doesn’t extend to us; and one or two talks repeating Nelson’s objections to the phrase.
JDC: Hee. I noticed that, but I think that Elder Faust’s choice to use the phrase to describe his mother is the most effective rebuke to over stringency in applying Elder Nelson’s terminological point possible. Especially since the brethren will never publicly rebuke each other.
I suppose, as a critique, that is Bro. Toscano’s greatest point. The Brethren are men and, as such, they can make mistakes. If we refuse as congregants to acknowledge that, then some horrible things/beliefs could possibly creep into the church. At the same time, if we actually believe that they speak for God in church government, then we need to acknowledge that we should give more heed to their opinions than we would the average person we don’t really know.
JNS: Well, now we’re treading in deeper and murkier water. I acknowledge our leaders as called of God to run the church. And I certainly do hearken to them in the sense of listen very seriously to what they have to say. Yet it doesn’t logically follow that they should be presumed to speak with God’s voice on all issues; nor is it immediately clear what the boundaries of their callings are. These are issues on which a variety of faithful positions are possible, I think.
JDC: Which is the other point I think that Bro. Toscano was trying to make in the pieces on President Packer. If Elder Oaks (or someone else) had been more vocal in his opposition to President Packer’s position of the September 6, we would have at least know that the Brethren were divided on the topic. That would, I think, be useful.
That said, I also find it unlikely. The Brethren are not likely to air their differences publicly. The question we should ask ourselves, I think, is whether this is because, as Bro. Toscano assumes, they are brokering power amongst themselves or is it because they are truly seeking unity in doing the Lord’s will? (Perhaps those are not mutually exclusive). In any case, where you come down on that question will, I think, ultimately determine your reaction to this book.
Getting back to the quote before about the September 6 not having any effect, I think that is manifestly untrue. The church’s response to Grant Palmer demonstrates this, I think. There is a different intellectual atmosphere in the church today. I don’t know that this is a permanent change, but it is a change. This is not to say that I agree or disagree with the actions taken against the September 6, but rather to say that I think those actions may have been different today.
JNS: That’s entirely possible. I don’t know. People have thought so before. The excommunication of Fawn Brodie was, for Mormon thinkers of that time, a parallel to the events surrounding the September Six. But when Juanita Brooks and Sterling McMurrin weren’t excommunicated, some unorthodox, or liberal, or dissenting, or whatever thinkers thought things had changed. But the 1980s and 1990s suggested otherwise. But I do think that the September Six have been more influential than they probably would have been had they not been excommunciated.
JDC: Sure. I tend to believe that these things come in waves. At the moment, I think that the presence of Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, and the fact that they appear to be among our most eloquent spokesmen for Mormonism, appears to help the lds intellectual cause. I think that the correlation movement fostered a desire to create an orthodoxy of belief that had not previously been present and arguably never really existed and the intellectuals in the church endured the backlash (to say nothing of the feminists and homosexuals). At present, I think that we are moving toward a more tolerant approach toward more heterodox ideas, but I fully expect the pendulum to swing back in my lifetime.
JNS: So let me offer my summary thoughts on the book. For friends of Paul Toscano, or for people already interested in his thought, this book will be a good purchase. For others, I have to characterize the book more subtly. I don’t think this book will do any damage to anyone’s faith. I don’t think it is intended to do so, and I don’t think it really could. Some essays are inevitably less interesting than others. But five parts of the book are probably worth taking a look at: the brief introduction and conclusion, and the three chapters on “Intellectuals, etc.,” on Elder Packer, and on unconditional love. While I think these latter three chapters could have been more than what they are, they are nonetheless thought-provoking and do in fact contain useful ideas.
JDC: Yeah, we haven’t done that opening and closing the credit it is due. They, along with the section on Daniel Rector’s death, are the closest that we get to seeing where Bro. Toscano is spiritually. It is a dark place, as he admits. It will be tempting for those so inclined to see in Bro. Toscano’s musings in these sections a soul given over to the buffetings of Satan. Such a reading would be, I think, a mistake. Bro. Toscano is in place of doubt and faith that is paradoxical and rich. While I don’t share all his doubts, I can see his realm of belief from my own. To dismiss his role and his voice, angry, embittered, and doubting as it is, would be a mistake. That said, I am troubled by his preface and close for the same reasons I am moved by them. Bro. Toscano, in looking for a model of faith, faithfulness, and decency, does what so many of us seem to do: he looks in a mirror. In decrying it in others, he fails to acknowledge it in himself. Then again, we all look in a glass darkly.
JNS: I agree that there’s a kind of projection of Toscano’s own experience of faith and doubt as a model for others. That said, I think everybody always does some of that. People who have few or no questions or doubts, for example, routinely offer their faith experience as a model for the rest of us. What I think is truly powerful in Toscano’s model of faith and doubt in the opening and close of this book is its affirmation of the spiritual life and hope available for people with serious doubt. God’s kingdom does have a place for faithful doubters, and a statement of hope in that proposition by a doubter may be credible to other doubters in ways that an affirmation from a less marginalized source may not. I found the first and last sections of this book both moving and spiritually powerful.
JDC: As did I, I just have a crappy manner of explaining myself.
JNS: Not at all — I thought I was agreeing with you!
JDC: As a final thought, I think that we don’t give the book its due if we fail to mention the money quote from the back cover, which I will now transcribe:
Perhaps faith is to give God the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps doubt is to restrain the narcissism of certainty. For me, the bread of doubt is as sacred as the water of faith. Together they form a Eucharist of hope, a wellspring of charity – a love that is neither partial or sentimental, but simply the heart’s desire that God’s love fall like rain in equal measure upon the just and the unjust, that no one claim a blessing that one would withhold from another or impose a burden one would not bear oneself.
From a fellow traveler, Bro. Toscano, thank you for that. It is a powerful, moving sentiment that we all may hopefully one day live up to.