A few weeks ago I judged several rounds of a debating tournament held at the local high school. Teams from all over the state participated. Imagine walking by a high school cafeteria and seeing a couple of hundred students dressed in suits and skirts, chattering like all kids do but also pouring over notes and outlines for the upcoming matches. It was an impressive sight.
An interesting feature of debate events is that teams argue opposite sides of the assigned policy question or proposal in different rounds. A speaker might, in one round, argue that juveniles who commit serious felonies should be tried and sentenced as adults; then, in the next session, argue persuasively that it is better for society if such minors are tried in juvenile courts that employ somewhat different procedures and that have as their primary goal rehabilitation rather than punishment. Sometimes participants don’t know which side they are going to argue until a coin is flipped just before the beginning of the session.
This scenario — that the same person can willingly and convincingly argue both sides of a serious question — bothers some people. There is a famous story about the Greek philosopher Carneades (a skeptic from Plato’s Academy) who came to Rome as an Athenian ambassador. One day he delivered convincing arguments to a listening crowd supporting the Roman idea of justice. Then, the next day, he gave sound refutations of all the arguments he delivered the previous day. Scandalized, the Romans quickly sent Carneades back to Athens.
So is there a role for this sort of free-wheeling debate in Mormonism? I certainly don’t think Sunday School class is the right place for this sort of thing — people come to church to be instructed and uplifted, not to have their religious beliefs cross-examined, even as part of a “both sides of the question” exercise. On occasion I see a teacher propose a faulty view or belief and then challenge class members to correct or refute that view. I don’t like that approach either.
On the other hand, class discussion needs to be more than just going through a script that elicits standard answers to standard questions. Meaningful class discussion has to be some sort of discussion, which means an exchange of various views and observations and which sometimes leads to an exchange of opposing views and observations. When I teach, I generally try to steer discussion toward applications of scriptural precepts or examples, with some discussion directed to clarifying difficult or troubling passages. I think most would agree that blogs and other forums are better suited for serious debates about LDS scripture, doctrine, and history.
But there is at least one good argument to be made for having the occasional clear disagreement in classes or meetings: to disabuse members of the Church of the notion that there is a clearcut answer to every question about Mormon doctrine. LDS curriculum manuals sometimes give this impression — you won’t find many open questions or open issues suggested for class discussion. The alphabetical entry format of the classic text Mormon Doctrine also gives the impression that all you need is a good index to get not an answer but the answer to a doctrinal question. In the 19th century, LDS General Authorities would publicly disagree about doctrine and politics; in the 21st century, they don’t disagree about anything. Again, this can give the impression that there is nothing for Mormons to disagree about. Some members take this idea and run with it, concluding that anyone who disagrees with their own view or beliefs is either innocently wrong or else influenced by evil forces.
So how do we teach and practice the concept that there are many issues in LDS doctrine and history that reasonable persons, members of the Church in good standing, can disagree about?