Dealing with Difference: A Taxonomy

How do we as Latter-day Saints reconcile differences? At this point I would like to keep the definition of “differences” purposefully broad. It could refer to opposing opinions of faithful members within the church, historical and scriptural discrepancies, inter-faith relations (hostile or non-hostile), or a host of other scenarios where we are faced with the challenge of dealing intellectually, socially, or culturally with something that stretches our current system of beliefs. In short this is a post about confronting the “other”.

I would like to put forth a few possibilities, and then to discuss the possibility of more possibilities; but more importantly, I would like to hear your thoughts on the ramifications of each option:

Eclecticism: The selective adoption or rejection of specific concepts to the de-emphasis and overemphasis of others. E.g., We have become the “Book of Mormon generation” where the BoM is employed much more frequently than the Bible. In the Bible we emphasis certain portions and downplay others. The Gospels compared with the epistles, for instance.

Ecumenicism: An exercise of faith where God’s omniscience is trusted to somehow tie the differences together into “one great whole”. E.g., Different Mormons can have differing opinions as to God’s relationship with the world he has created. How much does he intervene? How do we explain evil? The scripture mastery verse in Isaiah is usually implied with Ecumenicism: “His ways are greater than our ways.” (pardon my paraphrasing)

Compartmentalism: Different circumstances call for different responses. E.g., In Polynesia, many males wear the traditional lavalava to church rather than slacks. Comparmentalism is also used to explain how early members of the church (or even individuals in the scriptures) did things differently because they were of a different time (drinking of wine for instance). We often employ Compartmentalism with the phrase, “It’s the Spirit that matters.”

Inclusivism: The reworking of the concepts of the “other” in a shared terminology (or often purely in our own terminology). E.g., Most people believe in a supreme being, but we call him by different names.

This list of course may not be comprehensive. It is also somewhat oversimplified, because in reality many of these theories overlap, and may even be used by the same person for the same explanation. Allowing for this leeway, here are some questions on my mind:

What are the inherent strengths and weakness of each approach? For instance, the ecumenical approach opens our religion to all individuals—you do not need any philosophical/theological training to be a Mormon. A garbage man could be a bishop. On the other hand does this lead us to be too dismissive of intellectual endeavors? Does this contribute to the anti-intellectual undercurrent some people feel?

Are there other approaches you can think of? Or some that should be eliminated?

Is the attempt to create a taxonomy built on a false assumption of “systemization” which is antithetical to Mormonism from the get go? In other words is our religion not susceptible to these types of attempts to systematize? Am I missing something by trying this?

  • TrailerTrash

    I think that a taxonomy like this is very useful for thinking about strategies for dealing with difference. But this taxonomy is more than just a description, you are also asking us to make judgments on these strategies. As you suggest, we adopt all of these strategies to some degree in the church. I wonder whether we can have a sort of “compartmentalism” towards these strategies, seeing them as all functioning at different times and places for different purposes. Are you suggesting that we should only adopt one strategy for the sake of consistency? If we do choose to allow all of these to continue to operate simultaneously in the church, is there some disadvantage that you see in doing so?

  • Mark Butler

    I believe that the Lord is more than tolerant of just about any belief that approximates greater and more fundamental principles. It seems relatively difficult to go wrong if beliefs and practice are based on the scriptures, as long as one does not interpret them in a naively absolutist or hyper-literalist fashion.I was reading the following the other day:“Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.” (D&C 10:67-89)That means that any good person anywhere who repents and comes unto the Lord is an unconfirmed member of the Church. Clearly many of them do not believe exactly the way we do. But if they believe in Christ and sincerely seek to obey his gospel as they understand it, they are of his Church. We might expand this principle to many non-Christians as well, to the degree their beliefs and actions are compatible with the gospel of Christ.

  • diahman

    Are you suggesting that we should only adopt one strategy for the sake of consistency? Not necessarily so. At this point I’m interested in the descriptive side of the issue—what styles of reconciliation do we use (or have we used in the past) to make sense of difference? I would agree that in the larger picture we (i.e., most members of the church) use a type of “compartmentalization” of theories—ecumenicism in dealing with complex philosophical issues, inclusivism in dealing with other religions, etc. It would be interesting however to tease this out to see how we compartmentalize. In other words, are there clear areas in which we are prone to use certain theories, as I’ve hinted at above. If we do choose to allow all of these to continue to operate simultaneously in the church, is there some disadvantage that you see in doing so? Personally, I’ve never heard any one theory that would adequately resolve the complexities of life. There’s always some exception, some blind spot. One way to address this issue is to say, rather than asking about which to keep and which to eliminate, we should instead continue to use them all, yet be clearly aware of the draw backs of each theory. Perhaps this would be some type of grand compartmentalism as you mention above. Of course as we talk about these things and become more sensitive to the way we employ them we may find ourselves using some more than others, while others are more prone employ the theories we do not. I believe that an increased sensitivity to the ramifications of each theory will lead to a natural refinement in dealing with difference.

  • diahman

    That means that any good person anywhere who repents and comes unto the Lord is an unconfirmed member of the Church. Clearly many of them do not believe exactly the way we do. But if they believe in Christ and sincerely seek to obey his gospel as they understand it, they are of his Church. We might expand this principle to many non-Christians as well, to the degree their beliefs and actions are compatible with the gospel of Christ. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I too am interested in making sense of the religions of the world, but at this juncture I’m more interested in the “meta-discourse” rather than the discourse it self. In other words, rather than discussing the issue in particular, I’m looking to analyze the method you use to discuss the issue. Some questions I would have for you are, What style of reconciliation are you applying here? Does it fit into one of the four I’ve mentioned above? Or perhaps a blending of some of them? Or perhaps a new category altogether? To me this seems like a type of inclusivism—there are people out there doing good, who fit under our umbrella of faith, often unconsciously employing gospel principles and receiving the blessings for it. This indeed is a powerful way of dealing with the “other”. Do you, however, see any draw back to this theory? In other words, is anything lost by reducing other religions to our categories?

  • Doc

    Diahman, I think inclusivism is really the only way to “deal” with the other. It was Joseph Smith that invited others to bring what was good and worthy with them, only to have it added too. I think the obvious strength of this approach is that we remain all the Children of God. It answers the question of why so much of the world has never had any real exposure to Christ, let alone the Church. I think it is an ability to think in this manner, influenced no doubt by some of the universalist side of his family, that was one of the startling breakthroughs in Joseph Smith’s theology. With the idea of redemption of the dead, we realize that God can have truth without leaving so much of the world in the lurch. This seems to me the only rational way to look at God, knowing he is no respecter of persons.I suppose a theoretical weakness to this approach is that it discards what is different without any thought as to its relative strengths and weaknesses. A thoughtful inclusion approach means carefully reviewing the ideas of others in relation to our own. Often cultural traditions in the Church are taken as doctrine. A check of some sort is needed for this. The trick is finding the balance in this approach while not incorporating false ideas into our framework. For so long, our conception of the apostasy has lead to the idea that there is real danger in accepting the traditions of others. The truth is that just as much danger for us to become too provincial and closed off to true ideas in a reactionary manner. As Mormons, I think we have the framework to handle both, but then maybe I’m an idealist.

  • diahman

    I suppose a theoretical weakness to this approach is that it discards what is different without any thought as to its relative strengths and weaknesses. A thoughtful inclusion approach means carefully reviewing the ideas of others in relation to our own. I’m wondering if we can’t talk about different styles of inclusivism. One type of inclusivism (perhaps we can call it a ‘reductive inclusivism’) seeks to incorporate the other strictly by our own categories. In this thinking they are “unconfirmed members”, to use the term Mark suggests above, or “unconscious Christians”. While other types of inclusivism also utilize these terms, a reductive inclusivist means essentially that what these other religions have done is to catch a glimpse of the truth that we possess; and in the end what they are seeking to do is to reaffirm what we (as Mormons) already believe. Following this further, what other religions have done is to see the truth which we already have from a different perspective. The most they can provide is a new hermenutic to interpret an old truth. They provide nothing ontologically new.Another kind of inclusivism, is a pluralistic inclusivism. In this view we are to some degree “unconscious Buddhists” as much as they are “unconscious Christians”. There is a mutuality involved here that claims that the “other” has something new to contribute; not simply a new perspective, mind you, but ontologically new. In other words, they contribute something that we do not presently have. I believe the latter. I also believe that Mormonism currently allows for both interpretations. Practically, there are only a handful of “core” beliefs necessary for being an orthodox Mormon (if we use the temple recommend interview as the standard). Theologically, I think the pluralistic claims can be supported by unpacking what, as you mention, Joseph Smith is trying to do in breaking down the old dichotomies of Heaven/Hell (making Heaven, a multi-leveled kingdom), and working out redemption for the dead.

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