Why This is So Hard, and Still Worth Doing

Why This is So Hard, and Still Worth Doing October 13, 2016

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PATRICK Q. MASON, Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University: John, this week I thought we might take a step back from the specifics of Mormonism as we’ve been discussing, and talk a little bit about what it is we’re actually doing here (or at least trying to). In a society where we’ve grown accustomed to competing monologues, the art of dialogue has become somewhat out of fashion, and may even be held in suspicion in some corners.  How does that sound?

JOHN DEHLIN, psychologist, post-Mormon, founder of Mormon Stories Podcast: That sounds perfect, Patrick.  Maybe I’ll begin by asking you…what in the fetch are you doing dialoguing with the likes of an “apostate” like me?!

Patrick: Ha!  Well, that’s the million-dollar question.  And how in the world are you talking to an apologist?  What the heck are we doing here?

John: Not apologist, Patrick.  NEO-apologist.  :- )  But wait…that’s a discussion for another day. Seriously though, why the dialogue, Patrick?  What are you hoping to accomplish with this whole endeavor?  What motivates you?

Patrick: As a guy who isn’t even on Facebook, I’m not sure I’m a NEO-anything…  :- )

As you know, John, it was our editor here at Patheos who approached us about this project.  (Shout out to Dale, who has been amazing!)  I’m not sure it would have occurred to either of us without that prompting — certainly not to me. But when the request came, a few things ran through my head.  Three in particular, which I’ll lay out, and then you can share your thoughts.

First, I saw this as an opportunity to actually live out the principles that I laid out in my book Planted.  I really believe that the Christian virtues of charity, humility, empathy, and even forgiveness lead us to seek out relationships with people whom we might not normally associate with, even (especially?) people who fall outside our in-group, whether by choice or circumstance.  I think Mormons are pretty comfortable with this notion when it comes to missionary or “reactivation” work, but neither of those is really predicated on listening, understanding, and empathy.  Sometimes it’s just as important to listen and understand where people are at — especially in our current context where people are hurting (as we’ve discussed the past two weeks).  That’s what I think Mosiah 18 calls baptized members to do.

Second, I think World War I was on my mind after reading Ken Follett’s historical novel.  I’m pretty sick of the trench warfare that we see in conversations about faith and doubt in Mormonism.  The trenches exist in our marriages, our families, our wards, our communities, and definitely online.  It’s so dismaying to see people dig in and just lob artillery shells at one another.  So I was wondering if we could use this space as something of a “Christmas Day Truce,” where we come out of our respective trenches and engage with one another as human beings, even if only momentarily.

Third, I come at this from my perspective on international relations.  I firmly believe that when there are “bad actors” on the international stage, the community of nations can do various things to sanction or shame those bad actors.  But I believe that pursuing a policy of isolation toward those actors doesn’t actually improve anything, as it feeds narratives of grievance and victimhood.  In this case, both sides — the “apostates” as you so lovingly described yourself :- ) and the “orthodox” or “mainstream” Mormons (or the institutional church) on the other — consider the other side to be a “bad actor.”  But I believe the best way to keep open the possibility of change is to engage the other side.  This doesn’t mean compromising principles.  It begins with trying to understand what their concerns are, trying to see through their eyes, and then going from there.  It’s idealist in a way, but also realist in the sense that the other side isn’t just going to disappear.

John: Beautifully said, Patrick, as always.  I also value the virtues you enumerate, such as charity, humility, and empathy, and treasure this project as an opportunity to practice these traits.  I also share your concern about the all-too-often polarizing and unproductive discourse within both orthodox and disaffected Mormon circles.

In addition, as someone who speaks with and coaches doubting and disaffected Mormons and couples on a regular basis, I am so incredibly tired of seeing marriages, families, friendships, and communities torn asunder due to religious differences.  In so many of these cases I witness good, smart, honest, and kind people on both sides of the faith equation who are unable to have these difficult conversations in constructive ways.  

And let’s be honest — these are very difficult conversations to have, and in many instances we are simply ill-equipped from a psychological, emotional, or communications skillset perspective to have them.  So for me, my hope is that by modeling constructive dialogue in the open, we can help others do the same in their lives, with the ultimate goal of bringing families and friends back together.  I was inspired by the following email I received a few weeks ago:

John – My mother and I have been able to read your/Patrick’s posts on our own, then on Sunday nights sit together and share our thoughts. It has helped heal wounds and open dialogue. We agree that love is our baseline, and everything grows from that. She is starting to understand my anger, which is very hard for TBMs (true believing Mormons).  So thanks again.  Please keep doing this. Your work with this and Mormon Stories has been a godsend for me.

I will add that many post-Mormons feel frustrated with and exhausted by the stereotypes that are all-too-often directed at us: that our disaffection is due to laziness, apathy, a desire to sin (e.g. alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, adultery), a lack of commitment to the church, getting offended, etc.  As Elder Marlin Jensen once suggested, many of the LDS Church members currently leaving the church are among the LDS Church’s “best and brightest,”  and if anything, they struggle(d) with the church not because they care(d) too little, but because they care(d) too much.  I am hopeful that our dialogue can help to counter these untrue and counterproductive stereotypes.

Patrick: I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me with similar appreciation for what we’re trying to accomplish here.  Just this past weekend I had many people approach me at the Dialogue 50th anniversary conference in Utah, some with tears in their eyes, saying that they are working so hard to stay in the church, or to relate to a believing/disbelieving spouse or a child who has left the church.  People feel like they don’t even know how to talk with one another, or live in a community that feels hard for them sometimes.  So I feel really gratified that our exchanges seem to have given at least a few people the tools — or maybe just the courage — to have the conversations they need to have, and to do so in a spirit of love and understanding, all without sacrificing the things that they hold most dear.

I really like that notion of this being an issue for those who care a lot.  (We should acknowledge that there are many people who leave the LDS Church, and other churches, because they don’t care very much, or because they do prefer to go boating on Sunday or drink beer and have sex with whomever they want.  I’m also concerned about those who leave the church and then abandon its basic moral standards.  But in general, that’s not the audience we’re talking about here.)  As we’ve discussed, it’s precisely because people care so much that these dialogues are sometimes so hard to have. People argue about sports, but families and friendships can break up over religion.

One of the things that makes dialogue hard is that it forces you to be vulnerable.  There’s always a sense that when you show empathy and understanding for the other side, you’re compromising your own principles, or giving license to false positions, or not standing up for yourself.  Because of your professional training and the work you do, you’ve spent a lot of time doing marriage counseling.  How do you help people listen to one another and communicate empathetically without getting steamrolled themselves?

John: That’s a great question, Patrick.  In my view, vulnerability is the key to authentic, intimate, and meaningful relationships (see this Ted Talk by Brene Brown). But vulnerability in this context is difficult for a number of reasons.  Perhaps most importantly, vulnerability is risky.  In short, when you hold your heart in your hand in front of someone else, it is much easier for them to grab it and stomp on it.  Consequently, vulnerability can only thrive in an environment of trust and safety.  

Vulnerability and safety becomes even more complicated when matters of faith and doubt are discussed, because a doubter simply expressing their sincere doubts, concerns, or outright disbelief can often be experienced by a believer as fundamentally threatening and unsafe, even if the doubter is perfectly kind, diplomatic, and charitable in their tone and word choice.  

Thoughts that can run through the believer’s head include:

“Hey!  You broke the contract!”

“If the church isn’t true, what happens when we die?”

“What about our eternal marriage and family?”

“What about the children? How will we raise them?”

“How dare you talk about my leaders, and the church I love that way!  What about my sacred beliefs and experiences?”

The list of potential concerns and threats are endless from a believer’s perspective, before a word is even uttered by the non-believer.

And since a believer’s entire worldview is often built upon their religious beliefs, how can a discussion about doubt or disbelief EVER feel safe to a believer, especially when the doubter is a previously-trusted friend or family member?  That makes it even scarier!

Patrick: It helps a lot to think about this in terms of intimacy, vulnerability, and trust.  Of course, in many cases that’s literally true, because we’re talking about marriages and families.  But I think it applies more broadly in these types of conversation, which is why the emotions are so raw and the stakes so high.

The strong sense of association with a community or a tradition is what makes dialogue a risky, even dangerous, proposition.  It can feel like — and look like — treason.  There’s always the suspicion that associating with the other side will somehow pollute or taint you.  

I guess I just reject that kind of logic, even if I understand it on a certain level.  I don’t think other people are contagions.  Their ideas may be dangerous (even “apostate”) in some respects, and they may have said or done harmful things — things which have genuinely hurt me or the community that I am a part of.  But I tend to think that if I’m secure enough in my sense of self, and in my convictions, then I can approach “the other” with confidence and charity rather than defensiveness and fear.

John: I agree, Patrick.  I think that believers becoming more self-confident is part of the answer, along non-believers being more careful, kind, and compassionate — and with all of us maintaining a firm commitment to the virtues you mentioned at the outset of this post.  I would add that in our work running workshops and retreats for transitioning Mormons, we’ve found several techniques to be helpful in this regard, including:

  • Question-asking — “Can you please share with me what your faith transition has been like for you?  I really want to know!”  
  • Empathetic listening — “I’m so sorry that you feel that way!  That must feel awful!”

    (So many disaffected Mormons just want a chance to tell their stories, and to be listened to by the people they love/respect the most.  If believers were to simply sit down with their non-believing family and friends and allow them to explain their stories, I believe that 50% of relational discord around these matters would end.  I really believe that empathetic listening is that powerful.)
  • Use I-messages like “I no longer believe as I once did.” vs. you-messages like “You belong to a bad church!”
  • Use reflective listening — “So what I hear you saying is ________ … Did I get that right?”
  • On the non-believing side, avoid charged language like “cult,” “pedophile,” or “fraud.”  You may have completely legitimate reasons for considering such words, but they are usually not helpful in the heat of a conversation with a believer.  Also, I always advise transitioning Mormons to make extra efforts to reassure believers that they have zero interest in “converting” them to their own disbelief.  Another way I like to say this is, “Model the respect that you seek.”  If you don’t like people to try to convert you, don’t try to de-convert others. It’s that simple.
  • On the believing side, avoid hurtful assumptions and stereotypes (e.g. disaffected person wanted to sin, or was lazy, or offended).  Same goes on the disbelieving side: avoid offensive words or assumptions, such as referring to believers as “dupes,” “blind,” or “ignorant.”
  • Perhaps most importantly, learn to focus on common values vs. on differences.  I’ve often found that believers and non-believers still share so much in common — including love for family and friendships, basic moral values, service opportunities, community, hobbies, interests, etc. — if they would just seek to develop conversational opportunities around commonalities instead of differences.

We can discuss these approaches more in-depth in future posts, but these are a few of the tools I/we encourage when we work with mixed-faith couples and transitioning Mormons (Mormon Transitions Podcast and our MT Retreats/Workshops attempt to cover these techniques in much greater depth).

Patrick: Those are all really helpful tools.  I admit, they’re not the tools I use in my graduate seminars!  But my kids are learning some of those techniques in their elementary school, which goes to show that maybe we forget some of our most important lessons as we become adults, and as we dig our respective trenches.

Quick question, then we’ll wrap up.  When someone uses those tools — “Can you tell me more?” and “I’m so sorry that you feel that way” and “So what I hear you saying…” — how can they validate the person without necessarily validating what they feel are false beliefs?  And how and when do they get to express what they feel?  I think this is where the rubber hits the road.  I believe that parents really want to continue loving their disbelieving children, but they don’t want to countenance the fact that they have left the church, and perhaps have changed their lifestyle.  The believer doesn’t want to feel like it’s only the doubter whose feelings matter, and that they simply have to swallow their hurt, their pain, and their testimony.

John: I think the answer to that question is somewhat simple (though easier said than done).  Ideally, the believer can work to truly listen to and empathize with the non-believer, such that they can say to the non-believer (with sincerity) something like the following: “I can see things from your perspective. That must have been an incredibly difficult experience for you.  That must have felt/feel awful!  Now…I will admit that I do not see things in the same way that you do, but I can see how problematic or awful things might seem from your perspective.”  

As I mentioned above, I believe that at least 50% of believer/non-believer conflict vanishes when the non-believer feels genuinely listened to and empathized with.  And NONE of this has to involve the believer agreeing with the non-believing point of view.  All it entails is good, empathetic, reflective listening and perspective taking.

Patrick: And I assume the non-believer has to turn around and give the believer space to express themselves, and not just storm out of the room saying “Later, losers!”

John: ABSOLUTELY!  Once the non-believer has had a chance to share their story and feelings, it is ESSENTIAL that the non-believer provide a safe space for the believer to express how sad and difficult this situation might be for them.  It must go both ways.  And while the believer is sharing their thoughts/feelings, the non-believer MUST bite their tongue and avoid any attempt to persuade or denigrate their believing counterpart.

The beauty is – it is in these moments of mutual vulnerability when relationships can actually be enhanced through deeper understanding…..but only if there is an environment of trust/safety, and only if both parties are willing to listen to, and empathize with the other.

Patrick: Thanks.  That’s really valuable advice that I think can benefit a lot of people who are struggling to have better dialogues with the people they love.

I want to close with saying what motivates me theologically — even while recognizing that some readers won’t share my theology. In recent months I’ve been deeply moved by this passage from Ephesians 2, in which Paul speaks of Christ’s reconciling work:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. . . . So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

I love the image of Christ proclaiming peace both to those who are “near” and those who are “far off.”  And that with and through him — and the principles and characteristics he perfectly embodied — we too can participate in breaking down the dividing walls that create hostility between us.  

I’m not a very good Christian most of the time, but I’d like to be one.  And for me, our dialogue is one small way in which I hope I can respond to Christ’s proclamation of peace and participate in his work of reconciliation.

John: Me too, Patrick!  Thanks for choosing today’s topic. I think that we have laid out important groundwork for many future discussions!  I hope that this will be useful to our listeners.  I think it will be.

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