“Give them space”

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_002 Sorrowing Old Man 'At Eternity's Gate'

“Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’),” Vincent van Gogh

I had an interesting  conversation yesterday with someone who, despite feeling deeply Mormon, has more recently felt disconnected from the Church. Without going into too much detail, my friend was on the verge of tears explaining how s/he had come to be seen as a danger by certain members of the ward due to political views perhaps-infelicitously shared on Facebook. This feeling led to deeper online engagement with people who have likewise felt they didn’t fit in at Church, whose activity had lapsed, and some of whom had turned bitter against a Church they feel had rejected them first. They looked to my friend for some measure of solace, she was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but in good Mormon fashion recognized the significant influence our communities of choice have on our emotional and spiritual lives. In such cases I typically refer people to Eugene England’s classic essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” while recognizing it’s not a silver bullet.

This morning on the train I came across a passage that reminded me of yesterday’s conversation. It’s from Invisible Cities, a novel by Italo Calvino, an Italian, a disillusioned communist, a writer and editor. Calvino himself was agnostic at best, impatient with religion in general. Like many good communists of his era he was bothered about the way that belief in heaven and hell seemed to distract people from thinking about day-to-day actualities in the present, where our feet touch the ground and our stomachs sometimes growl. Ironically, Calvino concludes the novel with a description of hell anyway, as though he believed in it after all.*

Calvino’s description seems to me like a sort of Mormon hell, the sort of place which looks a lot like the present, a place and time where we’re supposed to learn to endure together. In darker moments, our vision of eternal life sometimes appears before us like the inferno Calvino describes–a place where people–God included–still weep. Perhaps my friend can consider this selection alongside Doc. and Covenants 130:2, looking for space in the pew on Sunday:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

*The excerpt is from Martin McLaughlin, trans., Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), xiii.


  1. Nice, Blair. (And that Gene England essay is a favorite of mine also.)

  2. Another friend passed this post along, which also treats the theme of staying:


    *Update: A DesNews column hits the ball out of the park:


  3. Maybe I am completely missing the point, but in a time where our church leaders tell us that politically we should follow our own conscience, aren’t members who refuse to allow for a variety of thoughts and opinions, the ones who should be pricked to not “accept the inferno, until they can no longer see” those who interpret the gospel in a way different than their own? Unless the political post was something about favoring child molestation and rape laws being repealed, most current political issues have ground on both sides of the political debate for Mormon/Christ-centered teachings to apply. We don’t have great purges of members of political parties, or political ideologies here in the US. I’m not aware of that happening in other countries. (If there have been, I would be interested to know where I can find source material about it.)

    It seems that members are driven away from the church, far too often, because their mental health is under attack by other members. It is easy to say, “You can choose whether to be offended or not.” What isn’t so easy to admit is that people (adults and teenagers) are regularly bullied at church, to an extent that would never be acceptable if it were being done at a school or workplace. I am truly appalled by people who use Christ and His church, to bully those who come to Him in a way that is different than those of the bully(s) way. If someone feels “deeply Mormon” then I would hope we are a church that would make sure she was received with open arms. Period.

  4. I suspect that by encouraging more disclosure of personal views and opinions than we might do in person, Facebook helps expose the truth that we do not share nearly as much with our fellow Saints as we might assume or hope. While exposing something that has probably been true for decades, it is also *deeply* discouraging. In my case, social media has helped me feel quite isolated, as I realize just how few people share my collection of opinions. Besides engendering feelings of disconnect, I’ve also became extremely reluctant to share any opinions on things that I feel deeply about, since on any particular issue, I know ahead of time I’ll be offending either this half or that half of my friends for being too X or not enough Y, and I’m not interested in arguing. For those with introverted tendencies, the only solution is to withdraw.

  5. aren’t members who refuse to allow for a variety of thoughts and opinions, the ones who should be pricked to not “accept the inferno, until they can no longer see” those who interpret the gospel in a way different than their own?

    Maybe, but most of them don’t read BCC, so I can’t really reach them in this venue. Only people like my friend can do that in person.

  6. Ben: This is the interesting dilemma social media brings to our associations. They’ve made it possible to direct certain messages only to certain friends, but this isn’t fool-proof and it also encourages echo-chambering.

  7. God bless your friend. We seldom match what we wish we were, and there is no better manifestation of this than our willingness to let political and philosophical differences divide us.

    I agree completely that it is easy to focus so much on “gaining a future reward” that we forget to be and create the desired future award in the here and now.

    Also, in striving to build a kingdom of God on earth, I think we forget too often to establish Zion – or we conflate the two and forget the principles upon which Zion has to be established to be, truly, Zion. My oldest daughter made that observation after her first endowment session, and it has stuck with me ever since.

  8. Religion is the moralization of spirituality. At best it is an approximation, more accurately probably a metaphor. What sense is there in codifying a metaphor and then worshiping the code? How is that better than worshiping Aaron’s golden calf? Broaden the stakes of the tent and allow them in to interpret the shadows in their own way, clearly the literalists are wrong so who is to say who is right? The correlation department? Are they the Prophet? Not it’s those in touch with the divine. Shouldn’t we all be? Shouldn’t we all be our own prophets and leave the metaphor code behind? Diet Coke anyone?

  9. Captain Obvious says:

    “clearly the literalists are wrong” Yes. Clearly. All right-thinking people surely agree with you, Howard.

  10. Right-thinking Captain Obvious? that wasn’t one of my points.

  11. “Religion is the moralization of spirituality.”

    This is one among many possible definitions. I prefer to think of it, in this context, as a communal engagement with the intent of amplifying, and as the result of, spirituality. That is, there is something more than simply coming together, something brought in from “outside” or “above,” but which is made operative in companies (where two or three are gathered in my name, etc.)

    But you’re still on the theme of individuality in the midst of a collective, and so technically still on point.

  12. Interesting BHodges. So would it be fair to shorten it a club with the spirit? Isn’t that a church? Are you conflating church with religion?

  13. “So would it be fair to shorten it a club with the spirit?”

    No, it wouldn’t.

  14. Great observation, Ben. But I think it’s a good thing, in the end, to expose the fact that we do not have to share all the same political, theological, or aesthetic (or other) opinions in order to be fully faithful committed Latter-day Saints. I think this is an obvious point that really had been eclipsed in the closing decades of the twentieth century, only coming back into view with the advent of social media, beginning with blogs and extending now to the full range of social media outlets.

    Being forced to confront the fact that our fellow ward members have different opinions about things that are important to us, ranging from literalist religious interpretations to aesthetic preferences, can be a painful but ultimately essential reset button on how we project certain things onto all other members.

  15. Do you mind explaining the difference between this concept of religion and your concept of church because I’m not seeing much of a difference. I think of your concept as the practice of religion rather than religion itself.

  16. Howard, since there are countless definitions for “religion,” I’d prefer not to get into the intricacies here in the comments. Maybe some other time. For now, I’m comfortable with what I’ve already described here.

  17. Dale Whiting says:

    When my father was bishop of the Fort Worth Ward, I was shocked to learn how many converts viewed the Church positively because of it’s policy on Africans. Then when I attended high school in Brigham City I was similarly shocked to learn that although head of the school’s science department, as well as a former bishop and stake presidency counselor, my chemistry teacher could not get elected to the County Board of Supervisors. He was a Democrat, but also was the largest peach orchardist in Utah, employing more local residents than any other private businessman. While the Gospel is true, its adherents could use some help understanding it.

  18. observer fka eric s says:

    Like. Thank you.

  19. Is there a correlation between the intolerance often exhibited towards church members who espouse liberal (or even “quasi-liberal”) political and doctrinal views and the decline in the intellectual and philosophical diversity among church leaders where it is now quite difficult to find a registered Democrat or men willing to acknowledge, let alone discuss, theological uncertainties once explored by the likes of B. H. Roberts, John Widtsoe, Hugh B. Brown, and others? And to what extent does this trend mirror the polarization that has occurred over the past 40 years in American politics? These questions go to the larger question of whether the stakes in the church are lifting a large tent or a small one.

    In the final analysis, people will not stick with a church where they feel uncomfortable. Yes, we should all be slow to take offense, and we need to accept that different perspectives are both inevitable and desirable. But if differences are greeted with intolerance and dogmatic assertions, then the tent will shrink, not grow.

  20. “where it is now quite difficult to find a registered Democrat or men willing to acknowledge, let alone discuss, theological uncertainties once explored by the likes of B. H. Roberts, John Widtsoe, Hugh B. Brown, and others?”

    It’s not difficult at all, even in a group as small as the apostles – and are you aware of what a long time period you covered in listing those particular people?

    It’s nowhere near 50% now, but it’s not difficult to fund such people. If you believe it is, I’m not sure you’ve been listening closely to General Conference lately.

  21. Having said that, EFF, I agree with your concluding paragraph completely.

  22. marginalizedmormon says:

    This is good, BHODGES; thank you.


    Of course you are correct. The fact is that theory and reality don’t match–

    There is a lot of bullying; I’m glad you point it out. How do the big people (adults) who are bullied encourage the little people (children/dependents/minors) who are bullied? I don’t know; we haven’t successfully navigated that–

    We talk about it, try not to pity ourselves, but we don’t say, “there, there now; you are not really being bullied”–

    It has to be acknowledged, the evil–

    but not become what defines *us*.

    Thank you for bringing up the point.

    The disparity between the church’s official policies and what happens in wards and stakes is stark–

  23. …our church leaders tell us that politically we should follow our own conscience… Yes they do but offsetting this the fact that Monson, Eyring and 9 apostles, that is 11 of the 15 are registered Republicans and Utah is a GOP-dominated state. When the church does side politically, it is with conservatives. In 2012 only 22% of Mormons voted Democratic. So when conservative politics are spoken from the podium or by our leaders it finds broad audience acceptance while the opposite is almost unheard of.

  24. Bryan S. says:

    “When the church does side politically, it is with conservatives.”

    Except when they don’t (immigration).

  25. Sure Bryan you can make that case today but In 2006, Bush urged Congress to allow more than 12 million illegal immigrants to work in the United States with the creation of a “temporary guest-worker program”. Bush did not support amnesty for illegal immigrants, but argued that the lack of legal status denies the protections of U.S. laws to millions of people who face dangers of poverty and exploitation, and penalizes employers despite a demand for immigrant labor. The GOP abandoned this position I think largely in opposition to progressives.

  26. BHodges says:

    My one resistance to this post in general is that it reifies the us-versus-them mentality in suggesting that you have to find the not-inferno in the inferno. I suspect we could individualize the instruction (as per Howard?) and say that we can also work to find the not-inferno in everyone. Practically speaking, though, I suggest there are at least a few people in every ward who can help sustain those who don’t feel they fit in at certain times. And if you can;t find them, I hope you’ll seek to become them, because we need each other.

  27. …sustain those who don’t feel they fit ..because we need each other. Beautifully said!

  28. Yes, beautiful, indeed.

    Elder Wirthlin’s “Concern for the One” is an excellent way to start, as well as so many of Pres. Udhtdorf’s talks and Elder Holland’s latest talk on faith.

    I have a friend who says periodically that he wouldn’t struggle in church nearly as much as he does if the Mormon people simply would accept what their prophets and apostles currently are saying and quit hanging on to things that used to be said but aren’t said anymore – if they truly believed in on-going revelation that actually can change the way we see things and act.

  29. Dale Whiting says:

    What does it mean to be conservative? Does it mean to keep things as they are and avoid change, any and all sorts of change? Or does it mean to change slowly, but deliberately and with considerable caution? Change happens, and most all of the time it is beneficial. The forces that resist change trouble the Brethren. I view those forces resisting change as holding back the progression of the Kingdom. I’d name a few of the changes that have taken place in my lifetime. There are more changes coming down the pike. Those Texas converts I mentioned above, the ones that valued our rather poorly grounded doctrines concerning Priesthood, may have not welcomed that change. But didn’t most of us welcome it?

  30. it's a series of tubes says:

    The forces that resist change trouble the Brethren.

    We might be better served to let the “brethren” speak for themselves as to what troubles them.

  31. Dale Whiting says:

    it’s a series . . . ,

    This article is about accepting change and accepting the views of others whose positions may differ from our own. To illustrate the need for accepting of the views of others and of the necessity of change, I have addressed some prominent past changes. And knowing how difficult it must be for the Brethren to announce change and have us “would be” followers accept it, I shall now point out some specific changes. I would note that when major changes are announced, in addition to the announcement, we see an endorsement of both the change and those announcing the change from other of the Brethren. Why is this deemed necessary? Don’t the Brethren know we “would be” followers will follow? Just what are their concerns?

    Major changes in the Kingdom which have been announced since 1830 include Polygamy, Priesthood and respecting same-sex attracted members [perhaps the newest change].

    Society seems reluctant to accept change. I learned this from an instructor of sociology at BYU. I called him Brother, not Professor, because I was one of the very few in his class of some 150 who knew his background. Sure he was a member, hence “Brother” was appropriate. But we all addressed those Brothers who taught us as “Professor,” all but me. I called him Brother because for most of his adult life all who knew him had called him Brother. Before joining the Church, as a Benedictine Monk and Priest, he had taught sociology in a Catholic college near Pittsburgh. After joining the Church and marrying a member who was also a close friend of my mother’s, he was asked by Harold B. Lee to join the faculty at BYU where he taught me sociology. And his PhD dissertation had demonstrated that where society was reluctant to accept change, once the change came along and people got used to it, learned to appreciate the benefits of that change and learned to love those most affected by that change, it was accepted. His dissertation proved that where Brazil had ended slavery peacefully, the change needed to fully integrate Blacks into society was just as difficult there as it was here in the US. I have no doubt that the Brethren received from this good Brother peace of mind in announcing that 1978 change. Otherwise why did they ask him to join the faculty at BYU? Racial integration was this Good Brother’s forte. And teaching us to accept changes revealed to man from Heaven was his dream. He looked forward to the day when a society could be prepared to receive Christ coming down from the Heavens. Don’t we all? So why are we so reluctant to accept change? Should we not all be anxiously engaged in putting off the Natural Man? Change is vital to us and to God’s plan.

    One last note. One of my companions in the mission field had taught the discussions to this good Brother. When he told me he had done the teaching, I told him that this Brother already knew this lesson material and was just waiting for the opportunity to come to church to see whether we members were ready for him. Apparently we were! And it was my mother’s friend who invited him to church!

  32. it's a series of tubes says:

    knowing how difficult it must be for the Brethren to announce change

    I have no doubt that the Brethren received from this good Brother peace of mind in announcing that 1978 change.

    Dale, your response illustrates my point once again. Each of us can speak authoritatively regarding our own feelings, experiences, and opinions. None of us can speak authoritatively on these topics on behalf of another. In particular, you can’t be surprised when some of us roll our eyes as you opine on the private mental processes of “the Brethren”.

  33. Dale Whiting says:

    “it’s a series . . .,”

    On video tape then President of the Twelve Gordon B. Hinkley apologized to an assembled group of African American religious leaders for our taking so long. What kept the Brethren from 1964 to 1978 to make changes? Just where was the preexisting “revelation” baring conferring the Priesthood on Blacks? It was a social change, a perceived need to move the mass of the church away from pre-1963 thinking and exclusion towards post 1964 thinking on inclusion. There was little if any logic behind the assertion of “mark of Cain” and absolutely no confirming revelation. To his dying day, Joseph Smith endorsed giving the Priesthood to all worthy male, no exceptions.

  34. it's a series of tubes says:

    Dale, your responses aren’t directed to the point I am making. It appears we are talking past one another; I’m not going to further belabor the point.

  35. Dale Whiting says:

    ‘It’s a series . . .”

    BHODGES begins this piece by discussion those whose views, be they political or faith based, when expressed in the LDS population at large, feel cast out and trodden under foot. Then he cites Calvino for the proposition that, in effect, we either must choose between conforming, a sort of private Hell, or stand out but “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

    One of us, I forget who, discussed whether our characteristic conservatism and tendency to reject others who appear to differ from us is a part of the problem. I suggested that it is, but that my former high school chemistry teacher stood out as being one of those who successfully endured and was given space. I went on to hypothesize that change, the perceived opposite of conservatism, is at the heart of our single mindedness. I pointed out that where change has been necessary, getting us to change must certainly trouble the Brethren. I pointed out how difficult it must be to get us “would be” followers to follow, citing some of the most significant changes of our time. We must be tolerant of those who see things differently than do we. Many times it is us who must change, not them. You seem stuck on my use of an apparent difficulty on the part of the Brethren to get us to change, to cast out the Natural Man in us all, and change.

    What’s your problem?

  36. it's a series of tubes says:

    Dale, I’m responding here against my better judgement, because I thought I had been very clear and straightforward previously. Let me try to restate:

    None of my comments have been directed to the substance of any of your posts. Rather, my comments have been directed to the instances where you “speak on behalf of” someone else, specifically the leaders of the church, as in this example below.

    getting us to change must certainly trouble the Brethren

    If you had instead said “I THINK getting us to change must certainly trouble the Brethren” or “I BELIEVE getting us to change must certainly trouble the Brethren” or “IT’s MY OPINION that getting us to change must certainly trouble the Brethren”, etc etc, then I would have no quibble with what you posted.

    “The Brethren” are capable of speaking for themselves and don’t need you to do it for them, particularly when you do it in such a presumptive way.

  37. Dale Whiting says:

    If any of you including “its’ a series . . .” have not yet read the Eugene England piece, you are missing a truly excellent discussion of this topic. He discusses one heck of a lot of what he’s learned over the years, ending with a brief discussion of the problem gay and lesbian [i.e. same sex attracted] members face. I cannot think of a more potent example of those whom we would force to conform. And I predict that this matter will be the very next major change we will face. I’m ready to change. How about you?

  38. Dale Whiting says:

    It’s a series

    OK, Did you skip over the example I cite about the Brethren having to announce the change, then sustain both the change and those making the change? Why would that be necessary? What was the reason for all of this support? Who needed to see a demonstration of this support? We resist change. Read Eugene England.

  39. melodynew says:

    I’m not sure I can articulate this adequately, but, for the sake of giving my thoughts voice I’ll try. Before doing so, thank you for this post and for the inferno reference. How wonderful!

    I am rather liberal, both politically and otherwise in comparison to most of my neighbors in Utah County. There are a few women in my ward whom I see as exceptionally rigid and letter-of-the-law-ish. At times I have felt either judged or shunned by such people for my viewpoints or ideals. One such woman was assigned as my visiting teacher several years ago. Over a few months of spending time visiting with each other, I discovered that the things which separate us are numerous, yet, surprisingly meaningless when compared to the things which unite us, namely, devotion to Jesus Christ and to his doctrine. I was humbled and delighted by the process of discovering and strengthening (via basic courtesy and human kindness) the golden thread of mutual respect and faith in Christ that binds us to each other. We have very different points of reference from which we approach life and even the gospel. Yet, she is indeed my friend and very dear to me. I trust her with my heart. This experience has transformed my feelings toward several other such people.

    This feels like the place where we can live “in” the inferno and not be “of” inferno. I believe it is where Jesus dwells in each of us and we can love anyone, accept anyone, learn from anyone, if we meet each other there. It is a lovely place.

  40. The preceding exchange, in totality, is a great case study for the point of the post.

    Violating space and marginalizing those with whom we disagree can happen in many ways.

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