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Maintaining positive relationships through…being mistaken

January 27, 2012

This post is the fourth in my series on my adventures with the Mormon Stories conference in Houston this year. See the introductory post here, the first Maintaining Positive Relationships post here and the second Maintaining Positive Relationships post here.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I went to the Mormon Stories Conference in Houston, I had a vague sentiment that most, if not all people there, would be those who had disaffected from the church. I was disabused of this notion when Lee Prince went up to speak and introduced by saying that he was a TBM, as it were. Nevertheless, he also disclaimed that his talk, named after the Oliver Cromwell quote: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken,” would be applicable for Mormons regardless of where they were on the belief spectrum.

Other than the basically self-evident title of the talk, Prince described that his talk was about discussing a Mormon way of discussing issues of faith crises. It focused on three inequalities that Prince hoped we would adopt in our discussions and dialogues.

People > Truth.

The first inequality that Prince posited we should have is that we should consider people more important than the truth. He linked this concept back to Mormonism by appealing to a horizontal atonement…rather than the vertical atonement that links earthly beings to heavenly ones, the horizontal atonement is how all of us on the ground level become at one with each other. Mormonism specifically employs sealing to this effect, but more generally, the Joseph Smith quote that friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism also gets at this idea.

More broadly in the Christian tradition, this is what the parable of sheep and goats is about. Continually, the New Testament talks about the importance of how you treat people. The sheep are separated from the goats not by believing certain things, but by helping the least of people.

The thing is that this inequality, like all of them, applies to both sides of the fence. One thing that happens for both TBMs and disaffected Mormons and everyone in between is that one’s belief in the truth of one’s convictions entices one to burn bridges with relationship to those bridges.

…I understand Prince’s point here, but I wonder if everyone would agree that people are more important than the truth. Obviously not, since we have great fallout over differing beliefs…but is it ideal that we de-emphasize truth just to maintain relationships? I haven’t thought it completely through.

Questions > Answers.

The second inequality that Prince offered was that questions are more important than answers.

I find this an interesting inequality. Obviously, people who experience negative reactions from others when they are going through doubt themselves know from person experience that some people don’t react well to questions. But another idea is that I think many people conceptualize of religion as a place for answers. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that if religion can’t or doesn’t provide answers, then I’m not really sure what the point is. (Or, if it has answers, but no valid authority to defend and justify those answers, then I also don’t really see the point.)

So, hearing the idea that religion is more about getting one to consider certain questions (and question the answers one had settled in naturally) is intriguing to me. I do think there is a lot of growth that comes from critiquing our own assumptions and working through our biases, but it seems to me that not only does religion not have a lock on encouraging questioning, but sometimes, it can be the source of stagnation with which to begin. I feel far more often that being a minority in many aspects is what has made more thoughtful about criticizing my or others’ privileges.

(P.S., I think this dynamic between questioning and accepting answers relates well with Jeff’s recent post at Wheat & Tares about agency and many people’s willingness to abdicate it. In fact, that leads to the final section of Prince’s talk…)

Agency > Outcomes.

Jeff has addressed the agency question in a slightly more limited scope (I don’t think he’s seriously considering the possibility that people should use their agency to leave the church, but instead just to renegotiate what they will or will not do within the church), but Prince took this concept to its more extreme ends. Quite simply, to have productive discussions about crises of faith in Mormonism, then we need to be comfortable with the idea that everyone doesn’t have to stay and everyone doesn’t have to leave.

Once again, this applies to both sides. It’s too tempting to say, “If (the other side) only know x, then they would leave,” or “If (the other side) only knew y, then they would convert.” But different people simply have different experiences that make different options more or less viable for them.

…Prince approached this last part in a way I thought was interesting, but narrow. He said,

“In the face of equal evidence either way, our “heart” is truly free to choose.”

This phrase sounds nice at first, but it has several assumptions that can be analyzed. Firstly, it presumes that there is equal evidence either way. I think that it is an interesting apologetic development to claim that there is “equal evidence” either way, but I think many people don’t feel that way. Many people feel that evidence is overwhelmingly to one side or another.

It doesn’t have to be the case that evidence is mostly one way or another, but the thing is…most people believe strongly in what they believe in. To get to this point, they’ve processed whatever data they’ve come across and come to the conclusion that one side is more compelling than another. These people’s “hearts” aren’t going to be truly “free to choose” — one side will always seem more compelling or supported than the other, regardless of which side actually may be true or right.

Prince made an analogy whose exact content I don’t recall, but it was something about an animal who had a choice between two equally appetizing meals. In its indecision, it starved. Prince’s point was that humans, with the gift of agency, are (uniquely?) situated to come to face with an impasse, and freely take a leap one way or another. As a result, not only should we take a leap, but we are remiss if we do not!

This entire reasoning seemed to be a criticism of agnostics (at least, those agnostics who say that they “don’t believe either way” because either both sides are unsupported or because there is equal evidence for both sides.) It seems to be trying to get “fence sitters” off the fence.

The pressing question…

Ultimately, Prince’s talk, while sounding good in theory (and in certain limited cases where someone is absolutely agnostic to both sides and feels they can’t make a choice), hits a big roadblock. The question it raises quickly is: given that most people believe in what they do strongly, then how can we encourage people to consider their belief’s fallibility? Does such consideration cheapen their belief?

Here’s the deal: if I believe in something, then I probably believe that something is probable. I believe in something not because I’ve made an arbitrary leap at a precipice of equiprobability, but rather because I’ve perceived the evidence to be more in favor of one position than the other.

So if I’m not at a precipice of uncertainty, then how do I get to the point (or how does any person) where I can look at my strong beliefs and make sure those aren’t beliefs strongly (and rigidly) held?

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