The brass serpent; or, towards an end of conservative and liberal Mormons

When last we left our hero, meaning ourselves, he was standing in the middle of a field, sun shining overhead, holding his box of crayons. I like to call this field the field of tensions. As we look up and around we are captured in various kinds of tensions by the things that we see. We see other people holding and working with their various boxes of crayons, and groups of people, and ideas, and things. The strength of these tensions is partly determined by our proximity to what we are observing, and partly determined by our individual sensibilities. For purpose of fleshing out this metaphor to its breaking point, I want to identify three kinds of tensions. I understand that these don’t speak to all the ways life goes. For instance, I’m leaving out the part biological necessity plays in the creation of these tensions. I’m also drawing in broad strokes where, in reality, these images would blend and be more difficult to sort though. I mean to draw a picture on which we can picture and assess ourselves.

The first kind of tension is the kind I began to draw in my last post. This tension becomes a force as we make from those things we see an image that we find desirable. It is generally a collage of items we have found personally attractive. You would say this image is the image of our goals, if you’re one kind of person, of our dreams, if you’re another. It is also our treasure, and a way in which we measure, and sometimes hide from ourselves, our lack. This tension acts like a rubber band, pulling us inevitably towards our object as long as we succeed in keeping it in mind. Because this tension puts us and keeps us in motion, it is qualitatively different than the next two, which keep us fixed, or in unhelpful orbits. I’ll come back to it.

The second kind of tension is created when like sees like. In terms of the metaphor, it is seeing those who color with the same crayons that we color with. This is the world of easy friendships, associations with people who, containing the same kinds of light, see as we see. This tension can be responsible for much of life’s sweetness, because there are few things so pleasing as hearing echoes of yourself in a friend. Although this tension may not feel like a tension, it is indeed, containing a powerful force that can hold us in place.

The third kind of tension is created when unlike sees unlike. This also pulls us, but the configuration of the tension means that we are repelled as well as pulled, so that we remain in stasis, to the degree we continue looking. In this tension, light does not answer to light, or dark to dark, but light attempts to shine on darkness in the other. The tension derives much of its force, then, from our own personal project of keeping our darkness out of play. The tension experienced between conservative and liberal sensibilities is one of this kind. For whatever reason, these sensibilities have a strong tendency to constellate, crystallize and harden around certain configurations of virtues. The conservative sensibility is most likely to accept virtues that lie in proximity to preservation and justice. The liberal sensibility will accept virtues that lie in proximity to tolerance and mercy. Although naturally there are people who are not easily categorized, it is astonishing the degree to which folks line up on one side of the other. We see it not only in the charged atmosphere of the present, but throughout the history of politics and religion.

Because each side holds light where the other contains darkness, their critiques of one another are often more enlightening than listening to them talk about themselves. It seems they should be capable of learning from one another. But it takes an almost superhuman moral effort to sustain a gaze into our own darkness, let alone allowing someone else shine a light on us. It is possible with an exceptional utilization of the enabling virtue of humility, but such remains the exception. And even there, there is a danger – that this tension becomes a moving tension of the first kind. This leads to the strange instances of ‘conversion’; where one throws up the virtues of one’s own side to accept the virtues of the other. This conversation leads to confessional books written about how I was once a conservative but saw the light of day and now am a liberal, and vis-a-versa. The other, with his own mostly empty box of crayons, can never serve adequately as the image of our goals.

In episode one, I referred to Section 93, where we are pointed to Christ, Himself an augmenting being, as the type of both what we are meant to worship and how we are meant to worship. Near the end of that riff, we read that there are two things that cause us to lose ‘light and truth’: “disobedience” and ‘the traditions of our fathers.’ These might be thought of as the liberal and conservative ways of screwing up. I do not mean that these mistakes define the liberal and the conservative. (Let me say that again, I do not mean that these mistakes define the liberal and conservative. I think they are defined best by their virtues.) Rather, when we screw up, we tend to do it along these lines. The liberal, amidst the powerful flux of the field of tensions, will tend to privilege personal paths other than the one that leads directly from where he stands on the field to where Jesus’ stands. That is to say, they will minimize the importance of keeping covenants. The conservative will respond to the tensions of life like the man with one talent, fixated and fearful of preservation of his virtues, at all costs. Both sides following their virtues, the one helter-skelter, the other doing his best to remain immovable and calling it righteousness. Each vigorously scribbling with their crayons, which are goodness and light.

As Moses considered his bitten people, the Lord commanded him to “make a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole.” Moses then made a “serpent of brass”, and raised it up, and when any man “beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

One more episode forthcoming.

Thanks for listening.


  1. It is strange how people tend to divvy themselves up into classifications of liberal and conservative, isn’t it? I’ve found myself on both sides of that coin at different times in my life. You could say I experienced a kind of conversion from one side to the other when it became apparent to me that there were significant holes in my world view due that could be filled by switching sides, so to speak. But I was always able to appreciate the strengths of my first world view, even if I had grown much more impatient with and intolerant of its weaknesses.

    I’m not sure how you’re going to manage to achieve your title of the “end of conservative and liberal Mormons,” but it would sure be nice if there was such a thing as an end to it. Perhaps the first step is in acknowledging that there are in fact both kinds of Mormons, and that both are legitimate, which you appear to be doing with your post. This doesn’t actually achieve an end to it, though, so much as it legitimizes the existence of both, and allows for their coexistence.

  2. no, there is no end to liberal and conservative Mormons.

  3. Paul,

    I do hope, in a way, to legitimize, in the eyes of the other, the reality of conservatives and liberals. I think coexistence can be maintained by tolerance and humble _seeing_, but I don’t see the state of mutual acceptance and tolerance as … good enough, at least for us as individuals. It won’t be a bad starting place. For the most part, I want get some few of us to move beyond it entirely. Of course, the sensibilities around which the types grow can run very very deep, and they aren’t going to go away today or tomorrow.

    I myself am clearly a liberal Mormon – but I think that it is ultimately harmful for myself to fix myself in those terms. One fatal way to bring an halt to one’s development spiritually is to tie one’s ego to one’s ideas – the sign of which is accepting an identity.

  4. @1 – but maybe the move shouldn’t be to legitimize both as much as to delegitimize both and force a conversion to a new perspective.

  5. God’s categories are good or evil not liberal or conservative.

  6. I love these posts, Thomas. I especially like the image of all of scribbling away with our own crayons, so often obliviously to the collective beauty of what we and others are drawing as a whole.

    In so many things, I see the pure brilliance of the statement: “There must needs be opposition in all things.” I think we tend to devalue that principle far too much, not understanding how much we NEED those who see and color differently than we do – and not understanding the true nature of Zion.

    I think one of the most masterful talks given in General Conference in my lifetime was Elder Wirthlin’s “Concern for the One” – and I long so badly for the fulfillment of his orchestra analogy within our community.

  7. @4 Maybe. That would be nice, in some ways. In a lot of ways, actually. And, in fact, I’d prefer that outcome. I just don’t know if I believe I will ever see it. Oh me of little faith. As a species, we’re quite fond of competition, opposition in all things, yin and yang, and defining our identity not only by what we are but what we are not. Some people subscribe to the idea that “they who are not with us are against us.” Others subscribe to the idea that “they who are not against us are with us.” Two very different approaches, to be sure, but they still create an us/them dichotomy.

    The American political party system feeds on this implicit acceptance of the doctrine of opposites and opposition. I believe this doctrine is rooted in real innate impulses. I also believe those impulses can be trained and re-programmed to think differently. I just don’t think most people want to re-program those impulses. They like them.

    If there’s an all-loving God, there must be an all-hating Satan, right? Or so the logic goes. Nothing can exist, apparently, without its polar opposite. It’s natural, they say. And so we buy into the idea that we must always be fighting against someone else’s ideology; someone who is not like us, and who does not want us to succeed. We must be constantly vigilant. Don’t let the wolf into the flock of sheep, and so on and so forth.

    So… if it’s not apparent by what I’ve said so far, I’m not a fan of dualistic thinking, or oppositional thinking, or whatever you want to call it: the belief in inherent and natural opposites and the supposedly necessary tension between them. I don’t think life has to be a continual “strife of words and a contest about opinions,” to quote a famous Mormon. I don’t think we need to define ourselves by competition and game theory.

    I just don’t see that it will ever change. It would require a complete revolution of thought unlike any that any civilization has ever experienced before. It might kind of look like Zion, actually. And wouldn’t that be nice.

  8. wandering,

    I think that’s a good perspective. When I first started thinking in these ways, my conclusion was that I wanted to be both a liberal and a conservative. Later, I thought that this was hardly sufficient, and that instead I wanted to be neither. I’ll get to that … I’m actually caught up on studying for the first time this quarter, and so might be able to finish this thing over the weekend.


    I agree. I also think that the question “is it good?” (and not, “do I love?”), is the ultimate question, the question that can never ultimately be avoided.

    On the opposition in all things. I think the scripture is making a statement about the nature of reality, certainly not saying that opposites are created so that we have something to press against. It simply means that as one proposes the existence of light, one simultaneously proposes the existence of darkness. It says that if this were not so ‘all things would need be compounded in one’ and that ‘there would be no existence.’

  9. Exactly, Thomas. I only will add one thing:

    We see so many things on a goodness/badness scale (and there are many things that fit this model just fine) that we end up categorizing as good or bad many things that simply “are” – and we make that determination too often based solely on how familiar / similar / natural they are to us. That tendency to classify anything that is different, odd, unique, ambiguous, difficult, strange, peculiar, etc. as “bad” or “incorrect” or “apostate” or “dangerous” runs deep – and I believe it lies at the heart of so many conflicts that wouldn’t need to be conflicts if we didn’t rely so much on our instincts and were willing to play with all the colors in the eternal crayon box, if you will.

    At the ultimate ideal, if we do that, we are neither conservative nor liberal; we are both and neither; we are whole. complete, fully developed; we are perfect.

    I’m not sure if that is relevant at all to where you are going, but it’s where my thoughts lead me when I read your posts.

  10. Aye, Ray. :)

  11. I’m not sure that there needs to be an end to the liberal and conservative as the acceptance, as you and others have said, that there is some of both in all of us. If our world and community are made of different colors and we are all coloring with our own crayons, I would add that I, as an individual, am also made of all different colors. When someone criticizes the “liberalness” color in me and defines all of me as a “bad” person because of that color, they miss all the other colors/characteristics in me, including that which defines me most accurately — divine child of God.

  12. Oh, great! Now I’m not coloring with a full pack! lol

    But seriously, I like your analogy though the read,… is complicated much as the human factor really is. Makes me think of the gospel qualities like “charity” that teaches to accept each other as we are (coexhist) rather than focus on the likenesses/differences of others which polorize. Looking forward to the rest of it.

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