Those of you who have paid much attention to my sporadic blogging activity of late will find little surprise in my confession that I have not exactly been on the best of terms with either Blake Ostler or Ralph Hancock. In fact, assuming the bloggernacle is a serious enough space in which to even speak of enemies, I think it’s safe to say that I have, at times, treated both of these men as enemies.
Some of the acrimony has been rooted in philosophical or ideological disagreement—Blake and I have very different ideas about politics, and Ralph and I have very different ideas about, well, a lot. But that could be said of any number of people, including (and sometimes especially) of people I consider to be my friends. There’s easily as much distance politically between me and Rebecca or me and Rosalynde as there is between me and Blake, and yet I have nothing but respect and admiration for both of them (Scott B, on the other hand, is a monstrous scoundrel). The fact is that I am capable of respectful disagreement and genuine friendship and fellowship with people, quite in spite of ideological disagreement. But I have treated both Ralph and Blake with a combination of too-vicious substantive engagement, dismissively hostile non-engagement, and even open contempt. I have done so repeatedly and in a number of different venues. If these men have been my enemies, it is because I have insisted on treating them as such. Again and again.
This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the annual conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, at Utah State University. And as wonderful as it was to engage with the best of intellectual Mormonism, to see and be with old friends, and even to make new friends, what meant the most to me, in hindsight, was the chance to see and speak with my enemies.
Both Ralph and Blake went out of their way to very generously reach out to me this weekend. We spoke regretfully about our combative pasts, engaged each other substantively and spiritedly, and clasped hands as brothers and friends. Setting aside our differences and cultivating fellowship in such conciliatory circumstances honestly affected me in ways I hadn’t expected. Ralph approached me the moment he walked in and began to heal the breach. Blake spoke movingly about the love of God and its power to forge communion during his conference presentation (a response to a panel on one of his books), and immediately afterward I approached him. Before I had the chance to say anything he extended his hand, apologized for past wrongs, and asked sincerely if it would be possible for us to start again. I confess I found myself holding back tears as we spoke.
But this post is more than just a chance for me to publicly apologize for treating these men so poorly (though I am deeply sorry for it). After the weekend, I spoke with another close friend and bloggernacle regular about my experience. He confessed that he too did not have the best of relationships with Blake or Ralph, but that whatever interactions he had had with them were far less acrimonious, combative, and visibly spiteful than mine had been. Yet for this exact reason he said he envied me a bit. He wasn’t capable of having such a dramatic reconciliation precisely because he wasn’t so obviously estranged with them and, whatever their differences, didn’t consider them to be anything like enemies. Yet it seemed to me that the sheer magnitude of the former disaffection between us played an important role in why reconciliation with each of them had such a powerful effect on me.
It would be foolish to suggest that the following analogy be taken as entirely precise or apt. But as I though about this—about the range in the swing from the hostility and alienation to the sudden surprise of genuine fellowship and brotherly affection—I was reminded of dramatic scriptural stories of miraculous conversion, of people finding reconciliation with God after lifetimes of waywardness, of language that describes humanity in its fallen state as enemies to God. It is the depth of our estrangement that makes the promise and realization of reconciliation with God (and with one another) so potent.
So today, Yom Kippur, I celebrate the possibilities of healing and reconciliation that were powerfully hinted at to me this past weekend, a weekend that showed me not only some of the best of what Mormon intellectual life has to offer but, more personally, the best of what Mormonism, and religion generally, is capable of.