We Should REALLY Argue More at Church

Image resultI hope I will be forgiven for co-opting Sam Brunson’s excellent post and title (found here), but I wanted to investigate the WHY a little bit more. Ardis points out that debate used to be a staple at church (at least for the men of the YMMIA) during the early part of the 20th century. We also know that in the earliest days of the church, the School of the Prophets was known for hearty discussion and debate (as well as tobacco spitting and smoking). Based on my own memories, growing up in the church in the 70s and 80s, church classes used to involve more debate than they have in my advancing years. That could be the nature of the ward I grew up in, but I suspect that it’s a byproduct of the calcification of correlation that has continued since its introduction. The church–like every organization–becomes more bureaucratic with growth, not less. I’ll explain what I mean.

I’ve been reading Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s about the problems with systems that appear to be peaceful or stable.  Fragile systems appear placid, but when an unforeseen event happens, it can be catastrophic, whereas robust systems appear more stressful and unstable but are actually more resilient when something unpredictable happens. Since we can’t predict things that are unpredictable, such as the impact the internet on how we gather information, we should instead stay attuned to evidence that the system is fragile or essentially too quiet. The comparison is made between two siblings: one in a seemingly stable corporate job, the other a taxi driver. The sibling in the corporate job seems to have a low-risk existence, steady income, and predictable paychecks. The sibling who drives a taxi seems to be always dealing with unpredictable problems: lower or higher fares, risks of dealing with the public, seasonal ups and downs, car maintenance, traffic. And yet the taxi driver also has the ability to adjust in real time to market factors due to more direct engagement with her customers. If she’s not getting fares at the airport, she can try the port. The sister working in a corporate job, by contrast, is insulated from these market fluctuations behind her desk and steady paycheck. If the market goes up or down, her paycheck stays the same. And while it would seem that she has more security, what she also has is vulnerability to a catastrophic event such as a layoff.

Image result for catastrophic eventsWhat does this have to do with disagreements at church? A lot. We can’t avoid catastrophic events. We can only increase our ability to weather them by reducing their impacts should they happen. And the starting point is determining that a system or organization is fragile. Peaceful systems that appear to be free of conflict are the most fragile there are. Human beings should have conflicting viewpoints; ideological clashes are normal. Lack of disagreement is most often a sign of repression or disengagement. The most tightly controlled, predictable environments are the most fragile. And I don’t know about you, but the Gospel Doctrine classes I’ve been attending are pretty doggone predictable, and thanks to correlation–very controlled. Since the inception of the bloggernacle I’ve heard (and experienced firsthand) that teachers who use non-correlated materials or ask too many off-script questions are often removed from teaching assignments. We prefer to ask the same questions and get the same answers, over and over, every 4 years, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s not always like that; some wards are better than others at bringing questions to the surface, but the correlated curriculum is particularly designed to ask the questions it wants answered, not the questions people might ask in a more direct engagement with the text. And when we suppress that engagement, we are creating fragility.

What makes the species prosper isn’t peace, but freedom.

Without that freedom to think and discuss, people disengage and don’t build the skills necessary to handle challenges in the future. In his essay, Sam explained:

Assertion is easy, and allows us to be lazy in constructing our beliefs. When we have to defend our assertions, we see the weaknesses, the places we need to study more, the places we need to look for further revelation.

Testimonies aren’t built on assertions, but on subjective experiences with which we struggle to derive meaning. As Steven Peck put it in his book Science the Key to Theology:

Anyone who knows me knows I change my mind almost constantly, and by the time this book comes out I will have a new set of questions that I am exploring and playing with. This is not to say I have no core of beliefs. I do, but I must admit that they are not rationally derived. They come from experiences that have come to me subjectively placed in my heart, and it is these that I hold onto dearly.

Now that’s an antifragile testimony! He continues:

Failure often offers the most insightful commentary about the system because it exposes the misunderstandings and mistakes in our theories.

In a system such as church classes in which the questions and answers are pre-scripted by correlation, those misunderstandings and mistakes–those system failures–are hidden under a veneer of peacefulness and passive engagement. Like a Gregorian chant, the questions are put forth, and the predictable answers are chanted back.

When a system is too peaceful, small problems accumulate and are more catastrophic than they might be if they were openly discussed when they are small. The system would then self-correct and deal with that new information. For example, much has been made of the church’s need to address gaps in members’ knowledge of history due to simplified narratives in the curriculum that are inaccurate. If we were having more free-form discussions in our classes, individuals would be better equipped to handle new information because they would be used to challenging ideas and concepts. In the bloggernacle, this is often referred to as inoculation. One dictum could be “lack of inoculation leads to disaffection.”

Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have time to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place “to be safe” makes the big one much worse. For similar reasons, stability is not good for the economy: firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface–so delaying crises is not a good idea.

Image result for pride cycleOne thing that has always bothered me about the CES Letter that has made the rounds (aside from its resemblance to a faithful dog that leaves hideous carnage on your doorstep and expects to be recognized as a “good hunter”) is that it simply lists a litany of flaws with various church teachings, but it is addressed to a CES Director as if it is up to the Church Education System to answer these questions. That’s a byproduct of a fragile system, one that appears to be peaceful only because everyone goes quietly along, keeping things “safe,” while not having the smaller discussions as we go. People at the bottom expecting top down answers are evidence of a fragile system, one in which little is expected of them, and disagreement is not open or welcome. Instead of small forest fires, the CES letter represents an accumulation of flammable material, one that has consumed many trees (both literally and figuratively). A system that is too peaceful with too little disagreement breeds literalism and lack of thinking skills; we assert (which is easy) rather than grapple with (which is challenging) our faith. We go along thinking all is well in Zion, pacified by the stability.

Perhaps the pride cycle described in the Book of Mormon works like the forest analogy. Often, we interpret it as a cautionary tale about the downfall that comes when a society achieves wealth. In light of antifragility, the pride cycle describes what happens to a system that appears too peaceful. Eventually, an unforeseen event causes it to crash. Rather than blaming the catastrophic event or the “pride” of wealth, antifragility would teach us to be wary of too much peace, too little disagreement, too much correlation, and not enough small disputes.

When you avoid the little skirmishes and congratulate yourself on the lack of conflict, the eventual war can be devastating.



  1. Love the post.
    I was teaching Elders Quorum a few months back, a lesson from a General Conference talk. The talked listed some sins, and mentioned laziness. So I talked about how the gospel doesn’t want us to burn out, legit rest is important; but there is a line between recharging and laziness. Are we building up our household or letting things stagnate.
    I had one member declare that he loves his laziness too much. And two said that they loved playing video games too much, so the speaker was probably referring to spiritual laziness. I was really taken aback, and didn’t know how to go forward. I reread the statement, they brushed it off as not applying to them, and I moved on.
    I was unequipped with how to deal with the little rebellion in the Quorum. I certainly didn’t feel that a more assertive approach was going to do any good.

  2. Such a great piece. It seems that (at least in the internet) we mistake argument as you talk about it here, for simply calling people out for being unfaithful when their views are different. I love that what you speak of here does not stem from fear at all, whereas, the calling out of others seems to only come from fear.

  3. A BYU professor friend who teaches Sunday School gained a “follower” who made lists of her “divergent” teachings in an attempt to have her job terminated. We need more public disagreement indeed. Well said, hawk.

  4. Absolutely true. In addition to (what should be) the obvious truth that our grasp of the truth, and our testimonies, are strengthened by challenges, there’s also the inoculation effect. I’ve probably said this before, but all of the objections, issues, problems, and questions about Church history that are “new discoveries” among correlated youth now using Google were things that I read and considered while I was investigating in 1985. None of them are actually new, and most of them had been adequately dealt with prior to 1900.

    Since my academic background is in history, I never expected my prophets to be anything but human, never expected them not to say stupid things occasionally, and never expected that the stupid things they said discounted everything else they said. As the Church over my active lifetime has moved more in the direction of “every pearl that drips from the Prophet’s lips is wisdom from God,” a patently ridiculous notion, I’ve caused more than my fair share of controversy by standing up for common sense (saying, among other things, that the Handbook is not “inspired counsel” or “gospel truth,” etc.). Eventually, the pendulum will swing back, I think, but we’ll lose a lot of youth. They know something’s screwy but they don’t know what, and so many of them are unable to formulate coherent, rational thought, that coming to grips with the issues will be difficult – especially with parents who continue to blindly obey.

    (Parenthetically, the current fad wherein people under thirty begin declarative statements with “I feel like . . .” is symptomatic. Who gives a rat’s butt what you feel? Do you have any actual evidence?)

    The thing that bothered me most about the so-called CES letter, in addition to the helplessness of the author (as Hawk points out in the OP – “Answer this for me, for I know not how to think and decide for myself!”) and his childish arrogance (“I went looking and I found all of these secrets!”) was the fact that there was not one new issue in his letter. Not one thing he was all het up about that hadn’t been mentioned and dealt with dozens or hundreds of times since Hurlbut or Simonds Ryder or Stenhouse or Godbe or whoever first dredged it up when Grover Cleveland was President. Frankly, it’s tiring; but in one sense he’s right – we do a terrible job of talking about these things and too good a job of stifling them and pretending that they don’t exist. Then when our children are blindsided by them, we wonder what happened – and many parents in their 30s have no idea what the issues are, either.

  5. Jason K. says:

    So very well said, Angela. “Antifragile” seems a very useful concept.

  6. chompers says:

    I think arguing in church is more about being willing to accept other’s viewpoints (and thus growing closer as a community of unique, individual saints) than it is about challenging each other. Many, many church members are unable to accept new ideas or interpretations. I’m not sure if it’s out of fear or just an inability to think.

    As wonderful as it is to have prophets and GAs, I think we’ve outsourced our thinking. Sunday School is a constant dispair as we just gloss over the text. Every lesson is the same, regardless of the assigned readings (which no one actually reads).

  7. jstricklan says:

    Thanks, Angela, for a great addition to Sam’s original thought. I love your careful development of the point that space for discussion indicates strength and confidence, not weakness. And as to strait-jacket conformity, given my background in Russian culture, I always think about how fragile the Tsarist and then Soviet systems were, and how they needed to force more compliance precisely when they were about ready to collapse.

    But that leads me to the question, people and holy siblings, what is to be done? If you’re in a ward that doesn’t have a culture of open discussion, what can you do? And what would a new curriculum look like? I would love to have that kind of discussion…

  8. If BCC really wants more debate it should have permabloggers whose views are contrary to the current set and offer them equal time. In high school and college debate, each side does get an equal number of minutes.

  9. @jstricklan

    I find comparing the Church to the Tsars and the Soviets to be more than a bit over the top. If I come across as critical of BCC, comments like this may be why.

    As for church collapse, see http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-collapse-of-the-liberal-church/article4443228/ and http://www.christianpost.com/news/a-mainline-collapse-the-twilight-of-liberal-christianity-78685/

  10. I really like this framing, Angela. I was just reading Lynnette’s post on the temple over at ZD, and, it occurs to me that it’s a whole different animal (no discussion at all), but that the fragile vs. antifragile framework could be applied to it just as well. The temple is completely placid and cut off from the rest of the world, but this means that it has pretty much zero opportunity to make small shifts that you describe as being necessary to avoid catastrophic problems later. I’m not sure what those catastrophic problems might be when it comes to the temple, but it does seem like its open sexism, for example, is getting out of line with the more cloaked sexism that’s more common in the Church today.

  11. Angela C says:

    jstricklan: Actually, being in a ward that doesn’t foster open discussion, so long as it fosters ANY discussion, is not a bad place to introduce ideas. You’re not the teacher, so you’re not required to stick to the manual. They can correlate the lessons, but not the students (although wards have a way of doing this themselves at times).

  12. What a wonderful post. I’m downloading the audiobook as I write.

    I was released from a teaching calling last fall for straying too far from the curriculum. I got a little too honest about a polygamist from history. I was told ‘people just don’t want to hear that stuff.’ The funny thing is that other then the one or two people I apparently offended (who preferred to complain anonymously), I got a huge amount of support from fellow ward members. There is a hunger and thirst for learning in our church that curriculum does not feed.

    At the same time as a non-teacher, I don’t find my comments in class engender conversation. My comments tend to throw the teachers. They don’t know what to do with me so rather than begin a conversation, usually I get a nod of the head in acknowledgement and then a quick return to the manual.

    What ends up happening is I take whatever thought I would have liked to have shared and use it as a jumping off spot to create my own lesson in my own head. Which is fun and usually way more interesting than the class lesson (although it does feel somewhat rude to the teacher). Thank goodness the church building has wifi.

  13. Becca vU says:

    This poem, attributed to Sir Francis Drake, comes to mind:

    Disturb us, Lord, when
    We are too well pleased with ourselves,
    When our dreams have come true
    Because we have dreamed too little,
    When we arrived safely
    Because we sailed too close to the shore.

    Disturb us, Lord, when
    With the abundance of things we possess
    We have lost our thirst
    For the waters of life;
    Having fallen in love with life,
    We have ceased to dream of eternity
    And in our efforts to build a new earth,
    We have allowed our vision
    Of the new Heaven to dim.

    Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
    To venture on wider seas
    Where storms will show your mastery;
    Where losing sight of land,
    We shall find the stars.

  14. I’ve found that if people are trying to brush off a teaching calling yourself to repentance and being forthright about how you’ve failed at something helps.

    To Sunday School, if the lessons are superficial or uninteresting that’s really not the lesson manual’s fault. Sorry, it just isn’t. The manual basically is some pretty broad guidelines and then the scriptures. Good teachers can do wonders with those. Although I’m with you that few members have done the reading and not wanting to be challenged is pretty common too. But if you just teach expecting they’ve done the reading people tend to realize they have to do the reading if they want to keep up. Just start assuming a higher level of knowledge of the class rather than assuming they are all ignorance even if that’s often true.

%d bloggers like this: