That is, what if they really are perniciously ignorant or uneducated or immature or tenuous neophytes or fragile (speaking of both intellect and testimony)? What if they’re as hopeless as some in and out of the Church so often say and treat them as being?
Let me be clear, I’m thoroughly convinced that they are none of these things. From my experience, the rank & file – that is, your average, everyday churchgoer – tend to be fairly high caliber, decently educated people, wonderfully susceptible to practical and intellectual improvement. Our prophets and our history back me up on this. Nevertheless, I’m shocked at the steady barrage of accusations (in words and deeds) regarding the strength of Mormons’ intellect and testimony. And I find it rather unsettling that these accusations seem to come most often from fellow Mormons. It seems we sometimes have a very low opinion of ourselves.
Say, however, I accepted the unsubstantiated accusations of stupidity (fragility, etc., again, launched in word and deed). What ought we to do? (My explicit assumption is that those who find the rank & file stupid ought to be working to improve the situation; I find anything less to be morally repugnant). Here are some approaches that I think absolutely do NOT work. Yet Mormons and non-Mormons who are critical of the rank & file frequently embrace many of them. Specifically, who is the target here? Who is it I’m claiming adopt these unhelpful approaches? Primarily us individuals. You. Me (I’ve certainly been guilty at times, despite my rejecting the premise – I think we all need to be vigilant). I’ve written them in a sufficiently abstract manner so as to cast a wide net; several examples ought to come to mind with each approach. But if you can’t see yourself in some of them, then either you’re delusional or a much more exotic creature than I am.
- Treat them stupid: Pretend that the rank & file are incapable of sustaining an in-depth study or discussion on any subject, let alone theology. Pretend either that there is nothing beyond the basics, or that anything beyond the basics is inherently suspect. Interpret “milk before meat” as a positive and proper pedagogical approach, rather than in the pejorative sense that Paul meant it (usually our current pronouncements declaring the need for “milk before meat” are really strategic, attempting to cover up the fact that there is no meat or that meat is bad). Perhaps the most straightforward way to do these things is to never deviate from simplistic “basics” in your study, teaching or participation with the rank & file year after year. “Wrest” the scriptures by refusing to see (or teach) more than the basics in them or concluding what they say before you read (or teach). Support a collectively uniform approach to educational norms and only mildly tolerate private intellectual pursuit (e.g., tolerate it until someone attempts to share a privately obtained, unfamiliar point in your Sunday School class).
- Check out or abandon the field: Separate yourself from them. Refuse to soil yourself by either thinking of yourself as one of or associating more than necessary with the rank & file. An effective way of doing this, while creating a robust barrier between you and them, is to belittle them behind their backs. Again in order to avoid any sort of association or accountability for the rank & file’s condition, try to find spheres of discourse that allow you to ridicule them anonymously.
- Mercilessly attack them: This is sometimes related to #2. It entails doing what Joseph Smith claims the learned, worthy priests of his day did to him as soon as they heard of his vision. No spineless attempts to reform the hopeless rank & file. Eschew solidarity and steel yourself against any feelings of a genuine obligation to assist them. Instead, stick it to them whenever and wherever you can.
- Pretend like it’s just fine to be stupid: Preach the good word that the rank & file are good enough, they’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, you like them just they way they are. All is well in Zion, yeah, despite any potential ignorance or immaturity, Zion prospereth. Endorse the status quo in word and deed. Ignore the scriptural and prophetic statements that emphasize the need for continual education and improvement. After all, we’ll all get a celestial body and brain along with a Urim & Thummim in the next life anyway, so why burden one another with an ethic of progression and intellectual accountability now?
- Exploit their stupidity (i.e., priestcraft in all its varieties): This approach is often used in conjunction with #4. It can also be a cynical approach related to #2. Take advantage of their (perhaps justifiable) ignorance and/or naïveté through extremist demagoguery, attempting to convince them that they are really the righteous elite, just the way they are, and will remain such if they continue to listen to/support/financially contribute to you or your organizations, publications, etc. In general, use flattery to set yourself up as a light to guide them. This approach is made even more effective if you paint for them the seductive picture that not only are they the righteous elite, but that they are also the sole bulwark standing against the masses of polluted Babylon who have launched a full-frontal assault against all goodness. Keep them ignorant through fear, convincing them any attempt to traffic with Babylon will inevitably result in their corruption (reminiscent of Mosiah 9:1-2). In its incarnation in conjunction with #2 (cynically exploiting those you consider beneath you), rather than a bulwark of righteousness, the seductive picture is a bulwark of various other things: being “in the know,” culturally sophisticated, genuinely honest, etc. who stand against the unwashed masses of . . . [insert unsavory description].
Of course no one thinks these approaches are helpful. Why, then, are these approaches so prevalent? Am I wrong in thinking that we ought to be striving to improve the situation? These are good questions for non-Mormons engaging in any kind of dialogue with us. But they are particularly pressing questions for anyone who has covenanted to build Zion.
Of course, what I’m actually advocating is that we reject these approaches altogether, along with the suppositions that goes along with them (specifically, that there is a “rank & file” that is separate from “me/us” and that “they” are stupid, fragile, etc.). I think there are much healthier ways of reacting, ways that really will improve the situation.
Having confessed my scandalized skepticism on our stupidity and fragility, and condemned what I see as pervasive and utterly unhelpful approaches, it’s now left for me to discuss, concretely, the approaches that I think would be helpful.
First, there’s a grand difference that I want to point out between the negative approaches discussed above and the positive approaches I list below. The negative approaches only make sense against the background assumption that the rank & file really are weak, fragile, stupid (etc.). The positive approaches listed below seem equally appropriate and efficacious, whatever their (that is, OUR) intellectual and spiritual caliber.
- Love your neighbor. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all the heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt 22:37-39) Conspicuously lacking in each of the negative approaches above is love. Love, like faith, is far more than a psychological state. It’s a whole-bodied way of being and acting in the world. And it transforms people, draws you to them, just as Christ has drawn us to him through love. Love is the only way to reveal to someone their ignorance in a way that inspires them to overcome that ignorance as opposed to defend it or reject your call to change. Love as a response to stupidity is a bit vague and fluffy, but I’m also convinced it’s right and primary.
- Reject the division. Along with assuming the stupidity of the rank & file, each of the negative approaches assumes an unhealthy, condescending division between rank & file and [fill-in-the-blank]. I’m utterly unimpressed with the simplistic categorizations, delineations, segregations, and other methods of imposed alienation at play in the very term “rank & file” when used in this manner. This is in part because such divisions lack of a defendable criterion for making the distinctions or sustaining the categories, together with my skepticism that we’ll ever have the epistemological acumen needed to do so. But more than this, I’m convinced of the practical damage that these kinds of hierarchical divisions do to the integrity of our Mormon community. They undermine unity (i.e., solidarity) by their very nature. I don’t mean to suggest that we close our eyes to difference. After all, I’m describing my own weak sort of division here (those who take unhealthy & negative approaches toward the rank & file and those who don’t). Rather, I want to suggest that we recognize that regardless of difference, we’re all on the good ship Zion together. Particularly when it comes to an issue like stupidity and fragility, there just doesn’t seem to be a sizable enough distinction to pretend we’re on a pedestal. Comparing any of us to God (our goal), we’re all stupid and weak. Attempting to promote alienation as opposed to solidarity – wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of belief and education – is merely fouling one’s own nest (to put it euphemistically).
- Create a culture that values education. Luckily, we Mormons already have the doctrine and history to support such a culture, and in many areas of the church it’s presently on display. Again, each of the negative approaches is undermined in a culture that instantiates education and intellectual development as a universal goal. In such a culture there would be no room to rest on one’s laurels, neglecting one’s own development or the necessity of positively contributing to others. “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32) It’s time we start reading Paul the way he spoke, and recognize that the need for milk before meat is a disparaging condemnation, not the pedagogical golden rule it’s so often taken as.
- Create a culture that values constructive criticism. Just as valuable (and sometimes more valuable) as seeing the mistakes of (say) ancient Israel and hearing Moses’ criticism of their actions, is to hear Moses’ diachronic criticism of us. A self-reflective and self-critical culture is by its very nature a robust one, primed for improvement. One way that our weaknesses become our strengths is by developing a stomach for and constructive response to criticism. Being able to honestly reflect on and accept just criticism of ourselves is one way of both building friendships and thriving in the midst of those who hold an ill will towards us. We’re all aware of the dangers of cynical, unbalanced, unconstructive criticism. But there is certainly as great a danger in developing immunity to criticism.
- Teach one level higher than you judge your class to be at. This is a lesson I’ve picked up teaching over the last few years and I’m certainly a convert. My linguist wife tells me that this is a common way of teaching a foreign language – instructors speak to their students one level higher than what the students can produce (it’s called i+1). Of course review is necessary, but ought not be the focus. Of course you need to teach to your weakest students, but you’ve got to teach to your strongest ones as well. Christ’s parables are the perfect example of how we don’t need to sacrifice the one to the other. A good lesson, like a good parable or aphorism, like our endowment ceremony, will be accessible and delectable to students at all levels. Without challenging and extending students’ reach they become bored, disengaged, stagnant – they cease to learn. This same point goes for our own approach to studying the gospel.
- Be passionate. I don’t mean gimmicks. It’s not about entertaining or seducing or being melodramatic. But passion is inspiring and contagious, especially when it’s genuine. Teach with passion. Study with passion. Be absolutely, publicly committed to improvement. The gospel is the most inspiring, moving, existentially exigent, and deeply rich subject that there is. “How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of [God].” (Jacob 4:8) Given this fact, we’ve got more than enough to rivet our souls and increase our passion. Too often we allow norms of reservation and caution and self-consciousness to squander our passion.
- Do your research and point others to good resources. There is an infinite pile of good resources to delve into out there – many of them outside our own faith tradition. And people love getting recommendations. As life goes, we often don’t follow up on the recommendations given to us. But we really do read the stuff we’re handed. Among the greatest experiences of my intellectual life was working with a slew of retired Senior Foreign Service Officers. These former ambassadors, deputy-chiefs of mission, inspector generals and others sustained an incredible culture of learning and improvement by sharing. Our lunch table was an inter-library loan center and compilation of current political analysis articles and essays from a broad spectrum of sources. I learned far more about foreign policy and international affairs by consuming the sources they thrust under my nose and participating in the spectacular debates that were a regular part of our work atmosphere than I did in my International Relations graduate program. Our ward and quorum/axilliary classrooms should have similar “tables” for sharing the best books and ideas from all fields of learning with one another.
- Be anxiously engaged. (With the emphasis to be on engaged not anxious J) I think that as Mormons we generally succeed at not being Sunday members only. We live our religion in large part because our religion is a way of life. But too often we’re only Sunday students, and tragically, sometimes nothing more than Sunday School students. If you perceive this as a problem or challenge for yourself or amongst those around you, be anxiously engaged. One of the greatest gospel and educational experiences I’ve ever had came from a Mormon book club started by members of my Elders Quorum. My current ward has the closest thing to Zion that I’ve ever experienced in their monthly temple nights, which always include dinner and a late night of terrific conversation. I’ve been privileged to observe and even participate in genuine home teaching experiences, where the home teachers were anxiously engaged, not merely fulfilling a monthly duty. These always involved intimate and tailored teaching. I weekly see members of my ward who have read and obviously thought deeply about the week’s lesson prior to Church. Often times they mention poignant conversations they’ve had that week with spouse or friends. These participants are unquestionably a rising tide that lifts all members in class. Gather. Share. Explore. There are a plethora of such opportunities available to all of us to be anxiously engaged in improving our Mormon community.
- And finally, what almost goes without saying: Blog at Times & Seasons!
I’m convinced that these approaches are the right solution, no matter what the answer turns out to be to the question of how converted, how intellectual, how mature our members are.
These positive approaches cover a broad range – from culture to pedagogy. I’ve tried to avoid getting too specific on things like improving Sunday School teaching (there are other T&S posts for that, like this one). What unifies these approaches is a commitment to solidarity and improving our lot. One thing I hope you take away from this is the fact that how we learn and teach is a direct reflection of how we relate to one another and how seriously we take our religion.
I’ve no doubt you’ve got other good ideas and suggestions. I hope you’ll take the time to share your thoughts and other approaches that you’re familiar with – ones that fail and ones that succeed.