Two Thoughts on President Eyring’s Talk at the Vatican Colloquium

Pope_Francis_President_Eyring_Vatican.JPG1You can read the transcript here; two quick thoughts:

1. Here’s a comment on his marriage: “Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct, and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage. I realize now that we grew together into one—slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts.”

This is a really intriguing direction for thinking about gender roles/characteristics in marriage. What I hear him saying is that men and women come to marriage with a different set of roles/characteristics, but one goal of marriage is for them to teach each other and to adopt each other’s roles. I sometimes hear in LDS venues a rather opposite idea–one I find theologically problematic inasmuch as it suggests that men and women should maintain separate characteristics, something I find incompatible with both the idea of the perfection of Christ and his ability to serve as an example for all both men and women, as well as the idea of men and women striving to themselves become perfected. His thinking here can be a great bridge from older teachings about gender difference to a newer vision where those differences can still be acknowledged but won’t be seen as limiting. I especially like his idea that, as he took on nurturing and his wife took on leading, it didn’t diminish either of them. (Contra language we sometimes hear bemoaning the loss of femininity and masculinity.) So, in short, yay!

2. Later on, his says this: “Today more than a million members of our Church in the United States gather their families every day for prayer. Forty-one thousand (41,000) individual families in Mexico read scriptures together one to three times a week. Seventy thousand (70,000) individual families in Brazil gather two or three times a month for an evening of prayer, worship, and scripture reading.” He uses these as examples of “small numbers” with the capacity to make a big difference.[1]

What I found interesting about this is that most of what I have heard regarding numbers since I joined the church in 1992 has been triumphalist rhetoric (“Now 12 [then 13, then 14, then 15] Million Strong and Growing Exponentially Until We Take Over the Earth!”). So this language from President Eyring, lauding the power of small numbers, is quite the departure. It might serve to build community and unity for the Saints in the face of slower growth rates, defections, and a general cynicism toward statistics in the face of high inactivity rates. I think we are better people when we see ourselves as a scrappy minority than as a swaggering growth machine, so I deem this rhetoric a good thing for our sense of self.

[1] Assuming that there are four people in each family (an assumption I totally, um, assumed without any evidence), this works out to 16% of the families of record in the US have family prayer every day, 12% of the families of record in Mexico are reading scripture together 1-3 times per week, and 22% of families of record in Brazil are having FHE 2-3 times per month. (Thanks, Ziff, for checking my math.)

16 comments for “Two Thoughts on President Eyring’s Talk at the Vatican Colloquium

  1. Old Man
    November 18, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    My wife just wishes I’d absorb her capacity to stop and ask for directions… ;).

    But seriously, I don’t think President Eyring’s talk diminishes gender roles as much as you’d like, to me it emphasized oneness achieved through strength through unity more than both becoming similar. I really like this quote: “differences become complementary and provide opportunities to help and build each other. Spouses and family members can lift each other and ascend together if they care more about the interests of the other than their own interests.”

    Also he cites the Proclamation on the Family, which strongly emphasizes gender roles, but in my opinion not to the extent that many social uber-conservatives read into it.

    Also, I don’t quite follow you on #2. He does cite small numbers, but his expectation is: “Those are small numbers when you think of the billions of parents and families that Heavenly Father watches down upon in this world. But if that family bonding passes through just a few generations, happiness and peace will grow exponentially among the worldwide family of God.” I may be reading into what he is saying, but given the setting, he implies that the Church is never going to back down on their teachings of marriage, even if they are very much the cultural minority, because he believes that even a minority can make a significant difference and grow over the long term.

  2. Fred
    November 18, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    Instead of trying to put men and women into separate boxes that don’t always represent their strengths as unique individuals, why don’t we encourage them to find out what they’re good at and contribute according to their strengths? Not every woman is a nurturer, and not every man is a leader.

  3. November 18, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Good idea.

    Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

  4. November 18, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    I sure agree with Fred on #2. One of my main concerns about Gender and LDS teachings is that too many high ranking LDS leaders have stereotyped abilities that only suggest a shallow understanding of people when they (the Leaders) want to be viewed as “inspired” — if we are consistent with other beliefs then surely men and women who were meant to be born in this time of the earth have different and special abilities–which might vary in Gender Roles from 2 or 3 generations ago. I think President Eyring might be suggesting that the ultimate “union” in the heavens might be a literal fusion of male and female spiritual traits, though the bodies remain distinctive.

  5. Kevin Barney
    November 18, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    I have never cared for our triumphalist trumpeting of growth statistics as some sort of badge of being the true church. First, the statistics include a LOT of fluff, such as people who don’t even self-identify as Mormon and an absolutely huge current address unknown file; second, even when the numbers were growing strongly, I wondered what happens when they go the other way? Does that then mean the church isn’t true anymore? Focusing on baptism numbers as the one true metric for measuring the health of the church is flawed in my view. When we baptize lots of people who promptly fall away and never come to church again, but swell our home and visiting teaching rolls and burden the faithful, we’re not strengthening the church in my view. I like the idea of a little more modesty vis-a-vis our numbers.

  6. rah
    November 18, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    I agree Kevin that the numbers game has rubbed me the wrong way when it is done with a triumphalist air and as a proof of our “one trueness”. I am also worried however about “he the small, scrappy band of persectuted true believers” narrative because if that is fully embraced it provides yet another disconnect in feedback from the environment to leadership. It can be used to decide that a shrinking church at ever increasing odds with “the world” is a sign of its “one trueness” then it becomes that much easier to simply diregard any signal from the environment you choose. Women leaving the church at higher rates? Just a sign of the wicked world and their inability to accept their “true roles”. Persecution for being mean to gays? SIgn of our righteousness.

    As someone who believes that on aggregate the world is in many ways getting better and that the arc of history bends toward justice, I worry immensely about moves that may disconnect us from that feedback mechanism. Where would be if our leadership decided they were not only willing to but embraced a shrinking membership? Practicing polygamist and holding out on the racial priesthood ban? Or at least having held out longer? Probably.

  7. DQ
    November 18, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.

    We believe we are part of the literal realization of King Nebuchadnezzar vision. That stone will not dwindle, but fill the whole earth. So no worries rah, about the people you apparently view as judgemental brothers and sisters relishing in the persecution as a result of their meanness to gays as a sign of their own righteousness.

    I think if your comment is true, you don’t need to worry immensely, but trust in God and his servants and get to work on what we’re all asked to do. Act in faith, and we won’t need to worry about our leadership.

  8. Naismith
    November 18, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks so much for this, I would have missed the talk otherwise. I heard him talking about two people in marriage, not so much gender roles per se. The ending took my breath away, for him to declare himself a witness of Christ at the Vatican….

  9. rah
    November 19, 2014 at 2:45 am


    I grew up with the rock hewn out of the mountain by the hand of God filling the whole rhetoric. I did a mission. I lived it for two years. Your restatement of it is pretty accurate in how I was taught it.

    Here’s the rub though. What if the rock is dwinding? What if the church by any objective measure is shrinking and not growing? How does that impact us in how we see ourselves as a people? There are few ways to go. One might be for us to look around and ask, “What Lord might we need to do? Is it I?” This could spur us as it has in the past to make ourselves more open and put ourselves out there, find new and more effective missionary techniques. It has also led to pressure in the past for us to re-examine some of our teachings and practices that marginalized us and became signficant road blocks to extending the gospel. It helped end the priesthood ban and polygamy. Personally, I would imagine that no one might feel the weight of that prophesy more acutely than the Brethren who are called to lead the growth through inspiration and revelation. They, of course, also have the most accurate and up to date information on how big the rock is and how fast it is moving and in what direction. If its shrinking or slowing they don’t need revelation to know. They can measure it every month (and I imagine they do).

    And what I was trying to say, is that most Mormon’s I know don’t relish persecution. We have worked hard, some may say too hard, to be accepted by the mainstream. It is why we have been so proud of telling people that we are among the “fastest growing” religions. We are proud that Mormons can run competitively for high office. We make movies like Meet the Mormons and run the I am Mormon campaign. I find both the movie and campaign wonderful in their aspiration. I hope we do resist the persecution complex narrative. However, we have plenty of historical and rhetorical support IF we want to take it up.

    As Armand Mauss has so eloquently written about (including here on this blog) we have always been navigating the tension between being unique and fitting in. We are a pragmatic people. The pragmatism of Mormonism is one of the things I love about it. It is for that reason I am worried about the reemergence of this persectution rhetoric. Because followed to its logical and ideological extreme there is no countervailing force for moderation and pragmatism. I don’t think you have to look very far to find the persecution rhetoric. Some people like it. Fortunately, its not that mainstream in the church..yet. However, the more and more at odds we are from the basic moral norms of society the stronger the pressure is for people to adopt it and for our community as a whole to adopt it. And lets be fair, many a liberal Mormon has adopted a persecution complex driven identity and it can definitely be seen as being reinforced within our community. I certainly am not immune. Thats the thing when you are under attack and osteracized, over time it is one of the clear ways to deal with that. You bind yourself in a community of the persecuted and identify that way. Some people have definitely described the bloggernacle as exactly that from both inside and outside.

    When you switch from using growth as a metric and instead use some measure of ideological purity, including the seperation of the “wheat from the chaffe” or standing on the Rameupmtom. Or casting out the impure from your congregations. Or telling people “if they don’t like it they should just leave”. That seems really problematic and sad. I am just saying I hope we don’t go down that road.

  10. Hedgehog
    November 19, 2014 at 4:16 am

    Pres Eyring’s remarks are for me are small step away from the broad-brush gender stereotyping he has previously used in conference talks, in specifying the qualities as possessed particularly by himself and his wife, and that is to the good.
    Pope Francis’ more expansive remarks in his opening address were rather clearer though:
    “When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma.”

  11. rah
    November 19, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Been loving Pope Francis! Maybe some of his ideas and ways of talking will impress Elder Eyring and others. It is wonderful to exchange ideas and learn from one another.

  12. Ivan W.
    November 19, 2014 at 9:39 am

    I don’t think Eyring’s stats necessarily reflect activity rates. When growing up, we read scriptures and prayed everyday; I somewhat assumed most other active latter day saints did the same. However, I have since learned that the percentage of active saints that pray and read scriptures regularly is fairly small. I mentioned this to my mother and she said that “yes – you had a rare, well structured LDS family. Most aren’t.”

    So, I don’t see Eyring’s stats as somehow backing off total numbers or reflecting activity data. Say 40% of the church are active, and then only 40% of the active actually pray and read scriptures regularly. That would get you around the 16% of families praying every day.

  13. Wilfried
    November 19, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks, Julie.

    It’s a little confusing what the membership figures represent which Pres. Eyring mentions.

    “Today more than a million members of our Church in the United States gather their families every day for prayer.” So, these members are fathers (or mothers) who gather the family. Average members in a US Mormon family? We may get close to the 6,398,889 US Mormons as reported by Newsroom’s “Facts and Statistics”. Meaning all members on the rolls are counted.

    “Forty-one thousand (41,000) individual families in Mexico read scriptures together one to three times a week.” Again, the figure refers to families. But according to the Newsroom, we have 1,344,239 members in Mexico. Did the church conduct some survey to to see how many families read scriptures one to three times a week? Percentage seems pretty low, far from including all members on the rolls.

    “Seventy thousand (70,000) individual families in Brazil gather two or three times a month for an evening of prayer, worship, and scripture reading.” Same remark. The Newsroom reports that Brazil has 1,250,073 members.

    Or did I miss anything?

  14. Julie M. Smith
    November 19, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    Wilfried, I agree that parsing these–especially the US number, where it isn’t clear if “members” means “families” or “each member in the family” or “head of household only”–is pretty confusing. I suspect that the numbers do reflect church surveys regarding the number of people who engage in religious behavior. It would be fun to have more data to work with.

  15. Geoff - A
    November 19, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Apart from the comments above, the thing that struck me were he number of “between a man and a woman” after marriage. I was pleased to see hardly any of this in the last conference in contrast to previous efforts. Why it is back in this contest, and whether, it will be recognised as anti gay marriage, for those who have not been exposed to the expression before?

    Every thing he said would be equally valid without “between a man and a woman”.

    Is a gay married couple better or worse than a heterosexual couple living together? As the definition of immorality, in the church, is having sex outside marriage. The unmarried couple?

  16. November 20, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    I agree with hedgehog, the thing that stuck out to me most was the Pope’s definition of what “complimentarity” really means: how two unique individuals with two sets of gifts come together in a partnership and become one.

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