“Can I Mourn with Those that Mourn Even If They Are for Gay Marriage?”

We are delighted to have this guest post from Michael Austin, Dialogue Board member, friend of BCC, and Provost of Newman University in Wichita, KS.

A Review of Common Ground/Different Opinions: Latter-day Saints and
Contemporary Issue
s
, eds. Justin F. White and James E. Faulconer

As citizens, we must argue with each other about important things. Participating in an inherently adversarial political system means proposing arguments and defending positions. Both our nation and the Constitution that governs it are built on a process designed to turn vigorous discussion and debate into manageable lumps of compromise that permit us to move ahead.

As Latter-day Saints, however, we must be of one heart and one mind. Becoming a Zion people means that we covenant to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God in all times and in all things (Mosiah 18:8-9).

These are not mutually exclusive responsibilities, of course, but they can be difficult to reconcile in the real world. To be good citizens and good saints, we must either learn how to agree with each other about everything, which is impossible, or we must find ways to disagree as loving brothers and sisters, which is really hard.

It is really hard because human beings are not good at disagreeing while remaining friends. Our evolutionary programming works against us. For one thing, our religious and our political beliefs come from the same cognitive places. They feel the same to us emotionally, so we have a hard time accepting that one group of beliefs can be morally essential ways that others are not. Furthermore, when somebody disagrees with us, we feel personally attacked and our fight-or-flight reflex kicks in. We immediately label the offending individual as other—crazy, stupid, evil, and “them.” Definitely not “us.” People are tribal that way.

“The natural man” then, is an enemy, not just to God, but to anybody who sees things differently. People used to kill each other over major differences of opinion; now we just unfriend them on Facebook—a step forward, to be sure, but still far short of mourning with them and bearing their burdens. And this is precisely the problem that Justin F. White and James E. Faulconer set out to address in their new and excellent collection of essays, Common Ground/Different Opinions.

“Our disagreements over questions for which there is no revealed answer must not create a break between us,” writes Faulconer in the introduction. “Loving brothers and sisters can disagree, even on important matters and continue to love, respect, support, and comfort one another. They can disagree about many things yet stand together as witnesses of God” (x). From this starting point, White and Faulconer have produced a lively collection of essays from a politically diverse group of contributors—all of whom are active, professing Latter-day Saints.

The main purpose of the collection, Faulconer tells us, is to model ways of discussing controversial issues within a loving and supporting ecclesiastical community. Here the volume succeeds splendidly. Everybody comes in with their shields down and their phasers on stun. Most of the participants argue their case vigorously, while, at the same time, acknowledging that reasonable, faithful people might disagree. And a few of them even admit the possibility that they might be wrong. The discussions are respectful without being subdued. This matters.

And the essays themselves matter too. After three solid essays laying out different ways of thinking about “Church doctrine,” the volume’s contributors engage with some of the most controversial issues of American politics today:  feminism, same-sex attraction, race relations, environmentalism, stem-cell research, etc. Occasionally, the essays are presented in a fairly straightforward “pro-and-con” pairing—such as David A. Jenson’s “An Argument against Embryonic Stem Cell Research” and Sariah Cottrell and Steven Peck’s “Becoming a Person: Stem Cells and LDS Teachings.” More often, though, the essays talk around each other. They do not engage each other directly but present sustained meditations on a controversial topic from several distinct points of view.

Both are useful approaches, though the pro-con essays add a nice dramatic flair to the colelction that I would like to have seen more of. One might wish, for example, that former US Senator Bob Bennett’s excellent “Why I Am a Republican” could have been paired with an essay by current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called “Why I Am a Democrat.” But editors can only work with what they’ve got, and Richard Davis’s “Partisanship and the Gospel of Jesus Christ”—while not quite a rebuttal to Bennett—is an important and well-crafted alternative perspective that anybody who reads Bennett’s essay should consider.

A few of the essays transcend the deliberately contrarian nature of the volume and model more of a reflective process than a rhetorical one. Here I would include three essays in particular: Kristine Haglund’s “For Louisa,” Bruce Young’s “Following Christ in Times of War,” and George Handley’s “Heaven and Earth: Thinking through Environmentalism.” These were my favorite contributions in the volume because they demonstrate what can happen when a powerful intellect combines with a profound faith to think about hard things. I might never be able to duplicate such efforts, but I can, and do, appreciate them deeply.

Of course, one can always find plenty of fault with an edited collection by simply painting it with the inherent limitations of the genre. The quality of the writing in such volumes is always uneven, and their coverage of the declared topic is always inconsistent. Unless the essays come from a prior symposium, they rarely engage each other directly. There is usually some level of awkward duplication among the contributors, and there are always important areas of inquiry that should be covered but aren’t. All of these criticisms apply to Common Ground/Different Opinions as they do to every other edited collection in the history of books. Some of them, I suspect, apply even more.

But I could not admire the intent of the volume more than I do, nor could I agree more strongly with its overall argument. The Church needs books like this. And the members of the Church need to understand that political disagreements do not nullify our baptismal covenants. Half of the contributors to the volume took significant personal and professional risks by appearing in print with the other half, and as long as the world doesn’t blow up as a result of this book, we can hope that more people from more perspectives will take such risks more often.

So, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin’s wise words on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, I will conclude simply by saying that this is a good book. A very good book. And I am willing to sacrifice my opinions of its weaknesses to secure the public good—and because I am not sure that, in the present rhetorical environment, it is not the best that we can get.

Comments

  1. Oh, yeah?!! Says who? (great review BTW)

  2. One of the best measures of our Christian discipleship is mourning with those who mourn whose views are radically different than ours.

    “The Command to Mourn with and Comfort Others Has No Disclaimers or Limitations”

    http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-command-to-mourn-with-and-comfort.html

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I found that the process of law school transformed my ability to talk about things without persuasively, even while continuing to listen respectfully to an adversary. I learned that my investment in an argument was to construct the best case I could, but NOT to think that I was being judged by my ability to persuade my adversary to change his or her mind.

    In general, most people go into an argument thinking that, if they just explain their own perceptions clearly and logically, any good, rational person will agree with them. When their opposite number in an argument does NOT agree (as is most often the case), they jump to the conclusion that either (a) the other person is stupid, (b) the other person is evil, or (c) the other person actually DOES agree, but is too dishonest to admit it. Just observe an argument and note how each party not only thinks he or she is right, but that the other party has a DUTY to agree with them, and when they decline to agree, they are culpable, and need to be punished to straighten them out.

    But in law school, we were trained to see the legitimate arguments on all sides of a dispute, and even be prepared to switch roles as advocates of another side of the dispute. The other side disagrees with us because the other viewpoint deserves an advocate in court.

    Stephen Covey has embodied this viewpoint in his aphorism. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. We achieve agreement, to the extent possible, by comprehending why the other guy thinks like he does, and only then is it worth trying to persuade the other guy to agree with us. In the course of actually listening, we are likely to find that there are many things we actually agree about, and in the arena where we still disagree, we may find things that the other side values that we can offer in exchange for their agreement with us.

    One of the interesting things that happened as I learned to do this is that my conscious emotions became decoupled from my reasoning and speaking abilities. I was able to participate in a strong disagreement without my emotions taking over my perceptions and my ability to think and express myself.

    My own assessment is that the people who are at the forefront of Mormon apologetics, such as Daniel Peterson, tend to display that kind of rationality, while many of the critics of the LDS Church are still emotionally invested in insisting that anyone who disagrees with them must be stupid or immoral or lying.

  4. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    I’m glad that this volume is appealing as Christian disciple literature. I am glad that there is lot of emphasis on love, but I worry that some of us are creating our own bubble that eventually becomes just as cumbersome to our eternal progression as what we have now in many places. I constantly hear–from our side–that god is love, that he loves all no matter their flaws or sins. All is fine and well, I believe most of that. What I don’t accept is this notion that there is no sin, that we don’t have to do anything other than exist in order to find eternal life. I’ve heard someone in this volume that I admire very much talk about a god that never asks for anything that will discomfort us, except maybe to be more loving. He doesn’t believe that god punishes–which basically he does by setting up commandments that bring consequences when not obeyed–or that he actually has a place for those who willfully disobey and even become detrimental to his work to save mankind. There is no outerdarkness..I could go on and on. To believe this is to deny the scriptures. I think we can be progressive in our religion, that we can be against war, against bigotry, against economic exploitation, for a clean environment, that we can love our gay brothers and sisters, but we must do all of this within the context of a battle that began in heaven and contiues to this day. We can also believe in god’s love even as we believe that our brother Lucifer is intent on destroying all that the Father has created.And we should remember that he does it when he gets us to believe that there is no sin. We need, as Joseph taught, a religion that demands–yes, demands–much sacrifice even from the poor and the afflicted. Because you are on the outside looking in does not mean that you don’t have the same obligation to live a righteous life than the one on the inside. The fact that you are discriminated against does not mean that you can ignore priesthood leaders because you don’t like what they say about your people. Many of us people of color have had to live the gospel despite the things said about us even by prophets. To really get to a “liberating theology” we must accept that love can sometimes be a hard love for those who sin, who don’t do what they should or who choose to be different just because it suits their personal philosophy. I hate that all the good that we preach on our side is often undermined by our unwillingess to accept a multi-dimensional god that both loves us and creates the circumstances for punishment to exist. We can’t ignore the scriptures to promote just a god of love in the same way that those who promote the law without mercy ignore them for their own purposes.

  5. European Saint says:

    I agree with Ignacio. Charity is essential; loving others who do not agree with us is essential; but so is recognizing that not all decisions are as equal in nature as choosing pistachio (yum!) rather than strawberry ice cream. If the commandments do not push us to humble ourselves and to to (at least occasionally) reconsider our worldview, than our worldview is our god and we have reduced religion to personal preference. “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” –Joseph Smith

  6. Steve Evans says:

    RTS: “One of the interesting things that happened as I learned to do this is that my conscious emotions became decoupled from my reasoning and speaking abilities. I was able to participate in a strong disagreement without my emotions taking over my perceptions and my ability to think and express myself.”

    Let’s not be naive. As much as we’d like to pretend that we can wall ourselves off from our emotions that just isn’t the case. Even the best apologists with the most analytical minds find themselves obsessing over petty topics or seeking lame forms of social vengeance (just like the rest of us mortals).

  7. RTS: “My own assessment is that the people who are at the forefront of Mormon apologetics, such as Daniel Peterson, tend to display that kind of rationality …”
    Wow, I sure don’t see Peterson that way! Sometimes he’s one of the worst for getting caught up in his negative emotions about others.

  8. Ignacio and European Saint, I agree that sometimes – often, in fact – the Gospel calls upon us to sacrifice ideologies and viewpoints which are not in harmony with its teachings. This is clearly true. However, it must also be recognised that there is no clear list of which ideologies and viewpoints they are, so as a result, individuals will vary in their political beliefs despite all being faithful, sincere Latter-day Saints. This does not mean that they are worshipping their political views rather than the teachings of Christ. Often, in fact, their political views are, in their minds, directly inspired by the teachings of Christ. Our faith in the Gospel should be the driving factor in determining our opinion on all significant political issues, but different people will feel their faith prompting them towards different positions on these issues. This doesn’t mean they have disregarded the Gospel, it just means that their understanding of the Gospel has led them to different conclusions. When we disagree on these issues, we should discuss them with each other, reasoning from the scriptures, that we may “observe to do according to all that is written therein,” (Joshua 1:8) in the hopes that such discussion will enlighten our understanding regarding the political viewpoints we should embrace and promote as Latter-day Saints. However, we also need to approach these discussions with humility, recognising that we could be wrong or mistaken in our understanding, and acknowledge that other people may have different viewpoints to us despite being just as faithful and reasonable as we are. And nothing – nothing – should ever prevent us from being anything other than loving, respectful and kind in the way we treat each other.

  9. Ignacio, you wrote that: “I’ve heard someone in this volume that I admire very much talk about a god that never asks for anything that will discomfort us.” Essentially, this is true. What God asks of us is not designed to discomfort us, in the long run. The scriptures teach us that every commandment which God gives us is primarily motivated to lead us to perfect happiness, peace and joy. In actual fact, *not* doing what God asks of us is what is guaranteed to discomfort us in the long term. He explains, in Doctrine and Covenants 61:13 “And now, behold, for your good I gave unto you a commandment concerning these things.” He is motivated purely by love and concern for our welfare. These things may appear uncomfortable to us, because we do not understand the benefit of them, but like the people of King Benjamin, we too can have a mighty change wrought “in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This mighty change may not be instantaneous, but as the “Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent” gradually changes our hearts, the things which once might have appeared daunting or burdensome no longer appear so. So in actual fact, the Lord does not ask for anything that will discomfort us in the long term, and He is capable of changing our hearts so that the things He asks us do not have to cause us discomfort in the short term either, though until that change is completed (which in practice is not going to be in this lifetime), the commandments of God – including the commandment to love those with whom we disagree – may indeed appear burdensome and difficult.

  10. True. Zion is also the Pure in Heart. Let’s not forget that little detail. To become a Zion people we will need to shed the spiritual and intellectual trinkets of Babylon that divert our worship away from the true and living God. There are too many priorities that are still taking precedence over the first and the greatest commandment, priorities such as “Cultural and family traditions, Political correctness, Career aspirations, Material possessions, Recreational pursuits, Power, prominence, and prestige.” (See Elder Oaks, “No Other Gods”) Heavenly Father is truly a merciful God. He is also a just God. He is a jealous God who will not be mocked.

  11. Steve, RTS rightly acknowledges the art of reasoning and debate that has been taught and practiced in speech clubs and courtrooms. The overarching idea is support your point. Calling someone’s thought naive is a poor way to open a discussion. One can master the art with practice and a good helping of goodwill.

  12. Susiebjoe says:

    I will mourn with those that mourn.,,

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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