“believing, modern and neighborly all at once”

I pulled a string and Lori Levinson, Dialogue’s excellent business manager, sent me her advance copy of the Winter 2007 issue. Yours and mine will be along soon. I haven’t made it past the poetry (I usually read the poetry first and this batch is hauntingly appropriate for winter), Neal Kramer’s review of Wayne Booth’s autobiography My Many Selves (which I loved so I had to read the review- good review) and Ethan Yorgason’s interview of John Durham Peters, professor of communications theory at the U. of Iowa and branch president. I’m now too busy googling Peters.

Peters’ issues are big and broad and timely, including ineffective communication despite a media saturated society, the dark side of free expression (is finding “a little poison gas in the air a good immunization against bigger woes”?, from Courting the Abyss, p. 14) and seeking and expressing truth. Yummy stuff. I’ll be buying his books.

The interview yields such intriguing statements to the Mormon community as:

Knowledge is a religious duty for us, and truth is knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come. Here you see that knowledge is of different orders…Even in the most rigorous science… there is a social or community dimension to truth. Our faith deserves a richer conception of truth than the either/or logic we sometimes hear…

I think the role for the intellectual in the Church would be to lead in terms of Christian service…I don’t like the model of the intellectual as beacon unto the world. I think we are, like most people, selfish and self-serving and defensive of our craft.

He suggests intellectuals should paint houses for the elderly and “clear away the traps that the inquiring young will fall into. A simple-minded conception of true and false, such as that retailed by the hard-boiled culture of modern science, is not religiously productive.”

He points to Paul as an example of one “believing, modern and neighborly all at once” and for the argument “that, if you have higher knowledge, you should prove it by your higher kindness, rather than by exposing or insulting or belittling people.”

I see the blogs as fertile ground for exploring a more nuanced conception of true and false and as a place to “clear away the traps” both young and old fall into. Like many of you, I try to treat both in church teaching but our time is short and audience diverse so church becomes the place for service and community. Following Peters’ arguments, the bloggers will only be able to further valuable knowledge, to persuade positively, to the extent we are able to understand and treat kindly those who disagree with us. The gospel helps. Remembering we are siblings and the golden rule are good starting points, but then the going gets tough. How do we come to understand each other, particularly on the blogs where our conversations are impersonal and truncated?

Meet a provocative thinker in our midst here. And please share the names of other Mormons whose interviews you would like to see in Dialogue by contacting us on our website.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Molly, that is indeed a challenging and engaging issue. Do we need, your opinion, to distinguish between participants in conversations and those who exist only to disrupt (trolls, etc.)? Policing is an important concept in internet discussions, and such work is rarely kind or polite.

    Peters’ quotes are certainly wonderful stuff, though. The phrase “I think the role for the intellectual in the Church would be to lead in terms of Christian service” is wonderful.

    It’s not easy to achieve personal interaction and meaningful discussion on the internet. We’re predisposed to welcome the thoughts of those we know in real life over the pseudonyms and avatars of the unknown. But every once in a while we break through to each other and see eye to eye. Maybe that’s the Spirit at work? I don’t know.

  2. Distinguiah we must. I am most grateful for the work you and your colleagues at BCC do to minimize the irresponsible. I’m anxious to read more Peters on free expression; how much, if any, poison must we breath to serve immunization and how much just harms us? Were the trolls set free, many would not participate (me among them) and valuable opportunities to learn would be lost.

    As for understanding, perhaps the Spirit is at work. But there has to be more. More in how we see certain syntax or vocabulary prejudicially, more in how we approach certain topics too confidently or too emotionally. Peters also comments in the interview that the best teachers are the most humble, the most eager to learn. Humility isn’t easily achieved; how can we do better? Many on BCC do an admirable job of engaging opponents with respect. What makes you different from those who throw flames?

  3. Steve Evans says:

    LOL, Molly — I’m as guilty as the next guy as throwing flames, I’m afraid. I do think though you’re on to something about our syntax. There’s a level of confidence and self-assuredness that Mormons can get in conversations about faith — I think we need to be very careful in our language to recognize what is fact and what is speculation.

  4. Amen, Molly and Steve. The Peters interview is fascinating.

    After my first fumbled attempts to communicate in this type of forum, I have tried to keep in mind always that “we see through a glass darkly” – even though I’m not always successful in that effort. I have tried to read each comment with the idea, “What can I learn from this?” first – and only react negatively if I read it more than once and just don’t see anything that I can learn. I also have tried to respond in those situations with either a request for clarification or for more detail. Sometimes, all I can do is throw my hands in the air and grimace, but I’m sure others have the same reaction to some things I say, so it’s generally all good in the end.

    It can be difficult to distinguish between situations where you truly respect or don’t respect others, respect their right to have unique opinions, respect or not respect particular opinions, allow or not allow expression of those opinions in differing situations – and where you respect others and their opinions to such a degree that you have no core beliefs of your own. I think this highlights the need to take each instance as a unique case, unless someone violates the communal standard (or your own personal standard for one-on-one conversation) so consistently that “banning the troll” simply is all that is left as a legitimate option.

  5. Great interview, outstanding man. After several readings, I am still trying to grasp JD Peters’ 1999 BYU Studies article, “Bowels of Mercy” (the last footnote in the Dialogue interview). Truly, his insights about the body and the bowels lead to a satisfying “back-door” (his words!) revelation on the atonement.

  6. Steve wrote: It’s not easy to achieve personal interaction and meaningful discussion on the internet.

    Well written words and interesting ideas without the baggage of ambiguous body language and preconceptions can allow discussion to be more meaningful. Written words can strip away misunderstanding and provide clarity of thought and intention. Only when we try to make our written conversations more “conversational” does the process break down.

    I fell in love with my husband before we ever met, because we connected in writing.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Right on, Ann. One of my favorite parts of the Book of Mormon is when they write their fear about how we’ll reject their words because the face-to-face communication is just so much more powerful.

  8. I reckon that what makes discussion on the internet difficult is not so much a conversational approach as an inability to grasp speaker meaning due at least in part to the limitation of the medium.

    While the written word lends itself to analyses such as those found in areas of study like morphology, syntax, lexis and semantics, I suspect that many users don’t stop there. Instead, there seems to be a strong desire to forge ahead, declaring: “I know what you really wanted to say and, frankly, I’m insulted!”

    By doing so, we enter the domain of pragmatics, the study of how more is communicated than actually said/the relationship between language and its users. Given the absence of face-to-face communication, dertermining that relationship is difficult at best.

    So while I agree with Ann about the value of well-written words and interesting ideas (though ambiguous, value-laden concepts in their own right), I point the finger at the tendency to go beyond the words on the page into an analysis of the intent of speakers we hardly know as a leading cause of intraweb unhappiness.

  9. Peter,
    In other words, your use of the word “lexis” must mean you’re an arrogant, pompous git, whose comments must simply be ignored.

    Other than that, by my count it’s about 210 days until Hochkonig, at which point I will study your syntax over a Radler NKJ.

    To your point: yes, I will admit that certain individuals arise on the webs whose statements I have pre-determined to judge negatively. I will name no names.

  10. What Peter said, only not in such a snooty tone. *grin*

  11. I really need to RT(?)A, because this idea hits home for me. I like the people in my ward well enough, but I feel like I connect with the internet folks.

    My connection with far away people via the internet is most likely inhibiting my ability to grow close to real live people who live nearby, because who can compare with Taryn Nelson-Seawright and John Dehlin? This constrains my growth as a Christian, because we serve those we love (and vice versa).

  12. Otoh, Ann, many people who initially struggle with some aspect of the Gospel and, therefore, struggle to connect and remain in fellowship with people at Church are able to make a close connection to people via someplace like this and then use that newly found peace with the Gospel to understand better those in their own wards and communities. I really think it can go either way (or both), depending on the individual person’s situation.

  13. One more thing to consider: I connect with people here in different ways than I connect with people at Church. I connect intellectually here more often than at Church, but I usually connect at a deeper emotional level more at Church than I do here. Here, when someone says something that I consider to be ridiculous, it is too easy to dismiss the person, while at Church I have a much easier time “suffering the fool(ish statement)” – since I generally have had other interactions of a positive nature with that person. Each connection is real, but the connections at Church probably are the ones that have the most chance of becoming broader and deeper connections on multiple levels, if for no reason other than there is little chance of me ever putting a face and voice and broad personality to most of you with whom I converse here.

    As to the other main point of the original post, I agree that there is a danger of divisiveness when dealing with those who are categorized as “intellectuals” – especially if they categorize themselves in that manner. The very term is laden with connotations of caste and condescension. If “intellectuals” are concerned primarily with convincing others of the error (i.e., stupidity, as translated by the hearer) of their beliefs, such division will never disappear. If, however, the focus of intellectualism is the use of acquired knowledge to improve lives, it can become a powerful unifying force. If it is focused first and primarily on understanding rather than being understood, it can be a wonderful thing.

  14. A study on internet interaction in patterns of communication would help enlighten us, especially showing where the differences are and why they exist. A culture leaning more towards text messaging than actual phone calls, internet message boards instead of study groups, deserves some treatment.

  15. By the way, that is a fascinating article. Thanks.

  16. Levi Peterson says:

    I’m coming in late to the discussion, which might mean that it is essentially over. But thanks to Molly for her insights and questions and to all the others who have added to them.

    I enjoyed the Yorgason/John Durham Peters interviewed while I edited it for publication. I confess I hadn’t known before that the dicsipline of communications could serve as the vehicle for ideas that touch so deeply on human nature. I think I had categorized communications among the technical discplines.

    It seems to me that Molly is asking how we keep the spirit of compassion in our Internet discourse. Steve admits that it is difficult, which is the way it strikes me. But Ann says she fell in love with her husband through Internet words. (Actually, come to think of it, I was at least highly attracted to my future wife, Althea, because my brother had left my missionary address in her Heritage Halls appartment with the suggestion that one of the six girls in the apartment write a letter to his lonesome missionary brother. But of course I had a letter in my hand rather than a message on an electronic screen.)

    As I have sat in on BCC blogs and the AML-List e-mail group, I have been impressed that a lot of the participants reveal a strong sense of community. Somehow they’ve bonded with one another. I likely have been too passive a participant to achieve that sense of bonding, and I remain pretty cautious in what little I do post on either site.

    It seems to me that the ones who show their strong sense of community are exercising that compassion that Molly thinks we ought to develop in electronic communication. Maybe if I would particiapte more, I could develop it too. At any rate, I certainly agree with Molly and others on this blog that the looming importance of Internet communication makes it imperative that we all do so.