On a predominantly atheistic message board that is deeply hostile both to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to me — I don’t confuse the two, but the personal hostility to me is plainly related to that directed at the Church more generally — I’ve caught distressing glimpses of the online behavior of someone who was once, if not precisely a friend, at least friendly. I’ll call him Sam.
I used to run into Sam once a year, at the annual conferences of what is now called FairMormon. He was inclined to apologetics, at the time. Now, years later and putting it mildly, he isn’t.
It’s not the change in Sam’s worldview that most strikes me, though that is perhaps of some interest and (from my perspective) both sad and unfortunate. What most catches my attention is how he now affects to regard people with whom he was once friendly (and who, so far as I am aware, have done him no injury during the intervening time).
I could supply many examples of what Sam now writes, a large proportion (but not all) of them about me. However, I choose just two, as representative specimens.
In the first, Sam presumes to reveal the innermost motivations of those who seek to defend and support the claims of the Restoration, and particularly mine:
[E]gotistical celestial glory is vastly more important to them than church! . . . My hell they will be lauded by the angels on the millions of souls they convince to join the church through their own efforts without any help from the brethren or the Holy Ghost. I mean they are stellar and their logic just shines! They are the 1,000,000,000 candle power light for all to see what magnificence they have attained and continue to do so uninterrupted in many moons! I mean the track record! Good Lord they put Jesus to shame himself! Just think…… when Dan becomes a God, he too can send revelation down to his very own prophet and inspire him to emphasize, to pronounce correctly, and to very often speak about his own holy name of salvation and exaltation for all who obey him instead of do any actual good for his own children on their earth!
In fact, he even speaks in my name, as if voicing my own thoughts:
Behold, oh inhabitants of mine kingdom, I am Dan Peterson, even Dan C. Peterson himself, who has researched for you, who has typed hundreds of papers for your benefits, and who has spoken on radio more times in a running continuation of well over 23,456,578,786,567 millenia, a universal record which mine enemies has not matched, therefor showing the vast superiority of mine own achievements of godhood and consistency, yea even by mine own hand have I prevailed, amen! Therefor, it must needs be, for mine own enjoyment, and for thine own salvation that the inhabitants of the earth speak respectfully of mine holy name, yeah remember mine name daily in thy prayers, in thy schoolings, in thine very conversations. I would instruct thee all to always end every sentence thou speakest in mine holy and accomplished name, verily, verily, this is mine commandment, and thou shalt hold out not! Thou shalt open thine mouths, and I shall fill them . . . with mine own name for mine own glory, yeah in the name of the Dan, of the C. and of the Peterson, I speak these things.
In a subsequent post, still referring to me and even speaking as if in my voice, Sam continues in the same vein:
His celestial glory will be oh so much greater since he stood up to those nasty, mean evolutionists with aplomb. I mean, no personal reward? Fuhhhgiddd about it! I want something out of this! It is the deeply internal hope of apologists. I defended you and your church Lord, what are ya gonna give me for the work?
Even beyond its misrepresentation of my view regarding evolution and evolutionists, this comment — like those above it — is saddening and disappointing. I’m quite confident that Sam knows full well that what he’s saying about me isn’t true. After all, he was somewhat acquainted with me at one time. We were on friendly terms. And I’m reasonably sure that, when he knew me, Sam never actually saw any evidence that I was acting on mercenary and self-interested motives, dreaming greedily of being worshiped in the hereafter, and so forth. (I think that I can truthfully say that such a motivation has never occurred to me and doesn’t appeal to me.)
So how to explain Sam’s current behavior?
I suppose one possibility might be that he’s attributing to me the dishonorable motivations that he himself felt when he saw himself as a defender of the Restoration.
Honestly, though, I regard that as quite unlikely. I don’t believe that Sam was that kind of a person.
Instead, I find myself thinking of a brief but insightful little essay by C. S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring.” It was originally given as the Memorial Lecture at King’s College of the University of London in 1944. The text is available online at no charge, and I hope that you’ll sometime take the opportunity to read the whole thing:
In his essay, Lewis talks about the very human — the all too human — desire for status, for belonging, for being in the “in-crowd.” He sees that desire, as well as the existence of such “inner circles,” as both inevitable and potentially soul-destroying.
“I believe,” Lewis says, “that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” He notes, of such “inner rings,” “our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in.” Unless we are very careful not to succumb to the temptation, we will spend some part of our mortal lives, and perhaps even a substantial part, desperately seeking “the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.”
“Of all the passions,” he remarks, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” “[A] genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.”
And so the terrible urge to demean those outside whatever “Inner Ring” one has chosen. If one is to gain admittance, one must demonstrate that one belongs in it. And there is no better way to demonstrate that than by showing, unmistakably, that one is not among those who don’t belong. (“It isn’t enough for me to win,” Henry Kissinger is reputed to have quipped. “Someone else must lose.”) To be incontestably within the inner circle demands that one emphasize the boundary line that separates the lesser herd beyond that line from those within it.
To his young audience, Lewis said,
I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself, were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable. I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.
To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”
And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.