Have you ever listened to something or someone you had concerns or suspicions about—and zeroed in on anything and everything said that confirmed your deepest and darkest suspicions?
Me too. What if in the year ahead, we noticed ourselves doing that and took Elder Dieter Uchtdorf’s advice from years back: just “stop it.” That’s something I’ve been reminded of by Patrick Mason recently. Instead, maybe we could all listen a little more to explore what we’re not yet understanding—and what we’re still confused about—from an assumption of good faith. What could that mean for some of our more difficult interactions with people around us in the new year?
From experience, I can tell you a few things it would likely mean: (1) We’d learn more from those interactions, (2) We’d have a whole lot more fun together, and (3) Coming out the other side, we’d all end up all feeling less scared (and angry).
Why can I say that with confidence? Because this keeps happening over and over, every time I’m lucky enough to have a chance to try this.
I first met Patrick Mason as fellow travelers in single wards when he and I still had bright graduate school dreams ahead of us. Years later, we reconnected after both relocating our families back to the same glorious Cache Valley in Northern Utah. He and I both have brain-injured daughters, and I’ve taken comfort from his words of encouragement and counsel about what he and Melissa have learned in navigating this as a family.
Although in similar geographical and family places, we quickly discovered that our thinking was not (at least not always). And like others who have read and listened to Patrick’s work over recent years, I had some questions—lots of them, actually. Over a number of lunches and two long car rides, I’ve pretty much exhausted my question bank. He’s been gracious to hear them all.
It’s honestly been a delight. Even if I didn’t always agree with where he had landed, I found the conversation satisfying and the chance to explore different ideas a benefit to my own thinking.
There are plenty of significant differences Patrick and I still have about some big questions. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe sincere believers can see important matters differently. The experience we’ve had together confirms again for me that a willingness to listen deeply, trust each other with honest questions and reaffirm respect and affection along the way, well … it changes a whole lot.
In what follows, we share some highlights from our extended back and forth. We do so in hopes of encouraging others to try something similar in your own network of relationships—yes, even with that person who tends to drive you a little nuts. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Jacob Hess: You told me once, Patrick, that conservatives are often just too plain fearful. And you’ve mentioned in recent presentations that line from Paul’s letter to Timothy that’s been on your mind a lot, “God has not given us the spirit of fear.” I find your “fear not” emphasis refreshing. And yet, I still wonder if there can sometimes be wisdom in fear. Do you believe any of the fears conservatives have with the way society is going are justified? And do you think sometimes progressives aren’t fearful enough about some things going on?
Patrick Mason: First, Jacob, thanks for this opportunity. I really treasure our friendship and those long conversations we’ve had. I’m proud to call you my friend and brother.
There’s plenty of fear to go around. No one group has a corner on that market. If you look at the rhetoric from the recent 2022 midterm elections in this country, it’s pretty obvious that fear-based politics dominates both sides of the political spectrum. I’m not a psychologist, but as a historian, it’s pretty easy to see that humans are often much more riled up by people who tell them what to be against rather than what to be for. Powerful and dangerous enemies, real or imagined, are effective mobilizers.
I’m deeply sympathetic with much of the conservative worldview, though my own voting record tends to be left-of-center in terms of American politics. I feel like the conservative diagnosis is often correct or at least insightful, but I tend to disagree with conservatives’ faith in individuals and especially markets to solve large-scale social problems and correct systemic injustices. In my view, American society and politics have worked as well as they have for so long because they have generally tended toward the center, or at least tacked between the center-left and center-right.
But you’re right that I’m fearful of the politics of fear. Perhaps it reveals my own biases in that I see more fear-mongering on the right at this moment, but I can’t get the images of January 6 out of my head. I have deep respect for the conservative intellectual tradition, but it has increasingly seemed to be taking a backseat to rank populism, tribalism, and nationalism. What I hear most from the loudest and most influential voices on the populist right is talk about how “they” are coming to get “us” and take away what is rightfully “ours.” That, I think, is dangerous talk in a pluralistic democracy. And I believe it’s fundamentally un-Christian because it is oriented toward self-preservation rather than other-love.
To your last question, I think both sides probably fear some things too much and other things too little. For instance, the progressive championing of diversity and inclusion is hugely important but can also be problematic when it functions only in a deconstructive or critical mode and offers little to nothing constructive by way of unifying ideas or identities. Bringing this to a church context, I think the emphasis on prophetic fallibility, which is generally more popular among people on the left (though it has seen an interesting surge on the right over the past 2-3 years), tends to neglect how corrosive it can be to only talk about times we think prophets are getting something wrong.
JH: You’ve written in the past some cautions about a “fortress” or “bunker-mentality” as people of faith. And you’ve continued to advocate for more fearless engagement in the world around us, recently speaking about how “The yeast does no good if it’s not kneaded into the dough.” You’ve also said, “we’ve got to be in the world and know what their concerns are,” and that, yes, we need to “love the world” as God does. Again, I appreciate the way you are pressing us here. I wonder in what ways we can engage more while guarding against the assimilation that has often taken place when more engagement with the broader culture takes place.
PM: Part of the beauty and wisdom of scripture is that it introduces tensions or paradoxes that it challenges us to sort through and live out. This starts at the very beginning: you’ll die if you eat the fruit, but doing so is the only way to truly live.
I see this tension in the teachings of Jesus. We are called to be leaven in the loaf, to transform it from within and help elevate all the other ingredients. We are called to be the salt of the world, to be savory in our interactions with others. But Jesus also warns us that if the salt loses its savor, it’s just a no-good mineral. So there has to be a balance.
Certainly, my recent writing and speaking have emphasized our calling as disciples of Jesus to be “in the world.” That comes out of my own sense that as a church culture, we have perhaps overemphasized the other part of the equation, to “be not of the world.” There are spiritual and existential dangers on both sides—complete isolationism on one end and full assimilation on the other. Jesus calls us to do the hard work of rejecting both extremes and living out our Christian witness somewhere in the middle.
JH: You were quoted in the final paragraph of a 2021 Washington Post Magazine profile, “The Rise of the Liberal Latter-day Saints,” in a way that left some people a little confused. In particular, I was among those who wondered about your comment that “People have already started to do the work to sketch out a theological rationale that would allow for the kind of revelation that allows for women’s ordination, for same-sex marriage, all kinds of things.” When I asked you about it, you mentioned you were being misinterpreted, in part, because the full meaning of your comments had been condensed by the journalist. Can you explain what was left out?
PM: Emily Kaplan is a terrific journalist, and I think it’s a really insightful piece. She didn’t misquote me. But the way she framed that last quote made it sound like I was speaking prescriptively—that I was advocating for theological work that would change the Church in these various ways—when in fact, I was speaking descriptively. Latter-day Saint feminist and queer theology are happening. You might not like it; you might disagree with their methods and conclusions. But it’s happening. Those theologians are exploring new ideas and laying the groundwork for potential future change. For institutional and cultural change to happen, the ideas first have to be present. But just because an idea is lying around doesn’t mean it will be picked up. “If you’re listening to sacrament meeting talks or General Conference talks waiting for someone to say something that you don’t like, you’ll hear it.”
“If you’re listening to sacrament meeting talks or General Conference talks waiting for someone to say something that you don’t like, you’ll hear it.”
I wonder if my quote also struck people as making the Church sound a little too much like a democracy—that it’s simply a contest of ideas and power, not divinely guided in any way. That, too, would be reading beyond what I meant. I do believe that humans shape religious ideas and religious institutions, including ours. I also happen to believe that the Holy Spirit is real, and does its work, often mysteriously and imperceptibly, among the family of God. So religion, to me, is always an act of co-creation between “anxiously engaged” humans and an anxiously concerned and loving God.
JH: You’ve spoken of some nervous anticipation beforehand about your conversation with John Dehlin, who is someone many of us see as an avowed enemy of the Church who has done profound damage to the faith of so many families. Is there anything you wish you had said—or not said—in that conversation? Something you’d like to add as you look back on it in retrospect?
PM: I wasn’t really nervous about how I would be treated by John and Margi. He promised to treat me with love and respect and absolutely lived up to his word.
What I was nervous about was that I would say something that I would later regret. I’m not always as cautious or judicious as I probably should be, especially when I’m speaking extemporaneously and getting on a roll. We all say things off the cuff that we later wish we could take back or revise. Perhaps most of all, I was nervous that people wouldn’t understand why I was doing the interview in the first place. I know what many faithful church members think of John, and figured that some would see my appearance on Mormon Stories as an endorsement of everything John has said and done over the years.
What gave me courage was that I felt genuinely inspired by the Holy Spirit to do that interview. I had been having some conversations with people that seeded the ground of possibility, but I don’t think I would have done it had the Spirit not pushed me to do so. The whole drive down from Logan to Salt Lake, I prayed over and over, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
I’ll be honest; I haven’t gone back and listened to the whole eight hours. Who has that kind of time? 🙂 We talked about a lot of difficult things, and I tried to be as candid as I could. There are probably some answers which, if I listened to them again, I would want to massage a bit. But nothing stands out in my memory as, “Wow, I think I said something that I definitely don’t believe.”
I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelmingly positive the feedback has been. I’m getting emails with subject lines like, “You saved my marriage.” But I’ll be honest—I also expected more pushback just because I gave some answers that I know aren’t exactly typical Sunday School fare. I expected some angry emails—“You’re an apostate!”—or at least some genuinely concerned ones—“Do you really believe what you said?” If people are troubled by some position I took in that interview, they haven’t reached out to tell me about it. Frankly, that disappoints me. If people are whispering behind my back and circulating excerpted quotes to prove that I’m “off the rails” without first approaching me for confirmation or clarification, I’d suggest they re-read Matthew 18:15. I’m easy to find online. And I think I’ve demonstrated over the years that I’m open to conversation and criticism.
JH: It’s true there were some concerned with a few comments you made in that interview—feeling like you may have conceded too many points. When I asked you about that, you spoke about our tendency to nitpick and not take more charitable responses—pointing out the many kinds of testimony and witness you had also shared during the same interview, but which did not receive the same amount of attention. I found that an important response for people to hear.
PM: Unfortunately, this type of selective listening is common; we all do it sometimes. So often we listen to others with a lack of charity and generosity, with the purpose of finding fault. What people think of me is immaterial—I’m just a guy who thinks some thoughts and occasionally talks or writes about them. I’m more concerned when church members listen in similar ways at church or at General Conference. Honestly, I think this is more of a problem on the liberal/progressive side, though there have been plenty of conservative critiques of President Nelson over vaccines and masks. If you’re listening to sacrament meeting talks or General Conference talks waiting for someone to say something that you don’t like, you’ll hear it. The problem is, you’ll miss the ten other things they said before or after that, which would make you a better Christian.
This isn’t to say that people don’t genuinely misspeak or say offensive things over the pulpit (or on a podcast). Nor is it to say that we should just let all that stuff pass. It’s important to speak up and speak out. But let’s give each other some grace and maybe focus more on the good things that people say rather than just waiting for them to slip up.
JH: You’ve become someone people in national media turn to as a kind of unofficial spokesperson for Latter-day Saint topics. How do you feel about that role?
PM: A little ambivalent, to be honest. Like, who am I? Yes, I have excellent training, and I’ve spent a lot of years studying and writing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know the history and think I’m a decent observer of the current culture. But there are any number of people who are just as well informed on a given topic who could do as good or an even better job than I do when speaking with the media.
Basically, it started in 2012 when Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee. The national and global media went into hyperdrive, and everyone wanted to know about Romney’s religion. I had just become the Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. I’m sure journalists, who were working on deadlines, just searched “Mormon professor” or something like that, and my name came up simply by virtue of my job title. The fact that I wasn’t and still am not employed by the Church is also useful for journalists—rightly or wrongly, they feel like they can’t or won’t get the straight story from someone who gets their paycheck from the institution. Also, I’ve learned that if a journalist found you helpful, they’ll call you back for their next story on the topic. And if you get quoted in a national outlet (like the Associated Press), then other outlets will follow suit because journalists on deadlines don’t always have the time to look for new sources.
I almost always say yes when journalists approach me for a comment. I do feel like it’s part of my job to translate my academic knowledge for broader audiences. I really respect the work that journalists do, and am happy to help in whatever way I can. I know that church members (and leaders) can sometimes feel uncomfortable with media coverage, but I’m personally grateful for the watchdog role that the media can play, including for the Church. I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant. That doesn’t mean that journalists always get it right. As media consumers, we can be critical of what we read, hear, or watch. But in general, I think that if we as church members are embarrassed about something that comes up in the media, that’s an indication that we need to look inward at whether something needs to change.
JH: As a public figure, you’ve had to be careful in what you say. And yet even then, you’ve recounted some of the critiques people have raised— “he doesn’t really believe in Church … a wolf in sheep’s clothing … Trojan horse. …”most dangerous member of the Church.” I know those kinds of things are painful to hear. How do you respond to those kinds of claims?
PM: Of course, it never feels good to be judged unfairly by people who don’t really know you—or who think they know everything they need to know about you after reading a tweet or listening to a podcast or two. The thing I take comfort in is that I don’t think anyone who has ever been in a ward with me has ever doubted my testimony or commitment. My fellow ward members hear me bear my testimony, sit in my lessons and hear me teach from the scriptures, and they see me actively serving in a variety of capacities. They know I’m a fellow (striving) Saint.
Most of all, I know my heart, and I know God knows my heart. It’s actually hard for me to imagine how I could be more convicted of and dedicated to my religion. That doesn’t mean I live or represent my religion perfectly. And I get frustrated sometimes. But I’m “all in.” Always have been and always will be. (Sorry folks, you’re not getting rid of me.) It’s precisely that deep conviction that gives me the freedom and confidence to make critiques where I think they’re necessary and appropriate. I believe the restored gospel is so true that its imperfect applications can endure critique.
JH: I’ve noticed you calling for more humility and gratitude in recent remarks and interviews. Although that probably escapes much attention from people, I wanted to highlight that because these things may not be “small”—instead representing the difference between questions-as-weapons and questions that can build us and help us grow.
PM: Thanks, Jacob. I’m grateful that you have noticed that. Certainly, I can and need to do better, but especially in recent years, I have been intentionally trying to model generosity, empathy, gratitude, and humility both in public and in private. In short, “I’m trying to be like Jesus,” as that wonderful Primary song says.
Increasingly, I’m convinced that how we talk with one another may be as or more important than what we end up saying. Content matters, to be sure. I love ideas. But I believe that people and relationships are more important than those ideas. Put another way, there are ideas or positions that are worth standing up for and fighting for. But I believe that we represent and defend those convictions best when we use the tools of persuasion, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, pure knowledge, and most of all, love unfeigned. Because I believe in a God who was crucified before He was resurrected, I don’t believe in fighting to win at all costs.
The scriptures (especially the Gospels) model all sorts of questions. Sincere questions, cynical questions, searching questions, questions that are really designed as snares. When I’m asking questions, I want to check my motivations: am I asking this question to make myself look superior and/or set someone else up to fail, or am I asking this question to genuinely learn and grow and come to a fuller appreciation of another person’s experience and point of view? In short, is love or enmity motivating this question?
JH: Our conversation about Taylor Petrey’s work was meaningful to me. I asked you about the perception some have had that you are openly endorsing some of his more challenging claims. You pushed back, arguing that there are different hats we wear, and that, as a scholar, you have to be “bi-culturally fluent.” And by wearing this scholarly hat, you’ve said you are “not there to adjudicate truth.” From that vantage point, you spoke of being willing to go with other people into arguments, even if they are not what the Church teaches and you don’t fully agree.
On one level, I do like this idea—especially in the sense of exhilaration that can come from trying out and “grokking” a new idea.
PM: That sounds dirty—like the kind of thing we would have been asked to stop doing as young men.
JH: Laughing out loud here. My friend Arthur often uses this great word “grok,” which means deeply getting another person’s view, even if you ultimately don’t share it yourself. It’s something I think we’ve tried to do in our conversations together as well. And it seems to me this is also what so many of us like about fantasy movies—being open to trying out brave new lands, even if they feel a bit wild and strange?
That’s different from embracing these exotic landscapes as the promised land, of course. And the part I’m still unsure about from your argument is the idea we can step apart to some degree from the question of truth as scholars. For instance, you referenced the value of being “procedurally secular and neutral,” which you noted has been at the “heart of a democratic culture” and part of “scientific advancement.” While it’s impossible to be neutral on one level—something Ed Gantt and Brent Slife have emphasized when it comes to therapists and scientists—I understand this as a part of you wanting to clear the field for “an openness to multiple truth claims and plurality of truth.”
So, at long last, here are my questions: Do you believe that putting on the “scholar hat” necessitates operating with a relativistic or agnostic approach to doctrine and sacred history? Would this apply in non-academic settings, like conversations with non-scholar Latter-day Saints who are frankly trying to understand what is true? And overall, would you say there is still also value in scholars taking a stance on what ultimate truth is?
PM: This is a big and important topic, and so this will be a long-ish answer that still leaves much to say.
First, on being “bicultural.” This is how I’ve come to think of my dual identities as a Latter-day Saint and as a scholar. Mormonism is my native culture, tongue, and worldview. But especially in the quarter century since I started graduate school, I have also learned another culture, tongue, and worldview—that of the secular academy. I have not only gained fluency in that academic culture but feel very much at home there. I feel like a native. So I can walk into a sacrament meeting or a graduate seminar and be totally at home in either place. The language I use and the shared assumptions of the group are quite different in those two places. It would be a cultural faux pas for me to try to speak academically at church or to speak Sunday School when I’m teaching my university classes. At this point, it’s automatic, natural, and effortless for me to inhabit either cultural space, and both cultures are fully integrated into who I am and how I see the world. But people who know me from only one context are confused when they see or hear me operating in the other.
(For people who want me to be more devotional when I’m talking with the media or teaching a class, I want to ask them, when was the last time you bore your testimony in the middle of closing a business deal, or whatever the equivalent from your chosen profession is.) “Because I believe in a God who was crucified before He was resurrected, I don’t believe in fighting to win at all costs.”
“Because I believe in a God who was crucified before He was resurrected, I don’t believe in fighting to win at all costs.”
Actually, it’s one of the things I like about the discipline of history. Traditionally, it has been quite conservative in this regard, meaning that we do our work and then let readers make their own moral judgments. That’s not to claim that historians are omniscient or objective—quite the opposite. It’s precisely because of the epistemic humility built into the discipline—the knowledge that even at our best, we are working with an incomplete and fractured understanding of our subject—that we are, generally speaking, comfortable only making interpretations, not final judgments. In this respect, historians are different from other scholars whose disciplines are more explicitly normative. But asking a historian to take a stance on what truth is, is asking the historian to no longer be a historian. It’s a little like asking a medical doctor to take a stance on whether every aspect of the Word of Wisdom is true. They will have personal opinions informed by their professional training, but that’s not really their job.
I should acknowledge that modern historians (in the West) do work within an epistemic domain of modern liberalism (in the 20th-century sense of the word). We simply assume that democracy is good, human rights are good, men and women are equal, slavery is bad, racism is bad, and Nazis are bad. Even so, some of the best history seeks to comprehend the worldviews of those people in the past who don’t hold these modern liberal ideas. It’s fair to ask whether this liberal consensus is being overtaken by a 21st-century progressive one, which accepts a new set of norms. We can certainly point to examples of that, some of which have generated headlines. But I can honestly say that the vast majority of historians I know still work in the discipline’s more conventional, even conservative, methodologies and governing norms.
Finally, I have no fear of ideas. I’m being bad at my job if I prejudge an idea before I hear the evidence and arguments in its favor. That’s true for my identity as a scholar, but it’s also true for my identity as a Saint. I’m inspired here by an obscure passage of Restoration scripture, Doctrine and Covenants 91. Joseph Smith was translating the Old Testament and came across the Apocrypha—a number of books included in Catholic and some Protestant Bibles but not in the King James version. He asked God whether it was okay to read these books. God’s answer is so refreshing: “There are many things contained therein that are true. … There are many things contained therein that are not true. … Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth. And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.”
In other words, God says yes, go ahead and read it. Don’t be afraid of unfamiliar ideas. Some of them will be true, others won’t be. How will you know? That’s what the Spirit is for. If you are enlightened and benefited from reading it, then you found truth. Read with discernment, but don’t be scared of encountering new ideas.
JH: Definitely a lot more to talk about there, but thanks for helping me understand a little more. You have shown particular interest and public support for voices like Taylor Petrey and Blaire Ostler. As a believer who is clearly unafraid of ideas, would you say you are equally open to engaging in conversations about sexuality and gender with other voices like Ty Mansfield and Jeff Bennion operating from a frame of orthodoxy and belief in the premises of church doctrine on sexuality? Said another way, would you be open to publicly exploring the best possible representations of the Church’s stances on gender and sexuality?
PM: Of course. I want to hear all the ideas. There’s absolutely no reason why Petrey’s or Ostler’s ideas are prima facie more interesting or worthy of consideration than any more conservative writer.
But I want to add something that may be a bit of a provocation and also may show some of my own bias. When it comes to gender, sexuality, and marriage, I think that over the past two decades, liberals and progressives have done a better job than conservatives of making persuasive arguments for their positions. I think conservatives have often been flat-footed and have resorted to defending their positions based purely on authority or tradition (both of which are central to the conservative worldview, of course). Frankly, liberals and progressives have, in recent decades, won the contest of ideas. That could change. And just because they’re winning doesn’t mean they’re right. But I would love to see conservatives be more persuasive and less doctrinaire. “God/the prophet says so” doesn’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t believe in God or prophets. There needs to be a kind of “second-order discourse” in which these values are translated into language and concepts that are universally available. Moving forward, if the Church wants to convince anyone—including its own (especially young) members—it needs to speak with the language of persuasion and reason as well as the language of authority. (This, by the way, is a plug for the importance of theology within the Church, not just doctrine.)
JH: If you were open to it, I’d like to ask outright—do you believe the Family Proclamation is a statement of core doctrine that we must honor, support, and defend … or do you believe it is a snapshot of General Authority opinion at one stage of our history that we should treat with respect for now while we’re hoping for and working towards a more liberal or progressive vision?
PM: The headline here is that if every family applied the principles taught in the Family Proclamation, it would radically transform the world and solve many, perhaps even most, social problems. Furthermore, if every person in the world really truly understood the doctrine at the heart of the Proclamation—that we are each literal daughters and sons of Heavenly Parents—that too would be a complete game-changer for the entire human family. These are doctrines we should rejoice in and shout from the rooftops. An apostolic proclamation is a good place to start.
I don’t share the concern that some express that the Family Proclamation was merely a document drafted to shore up the Church’s legal position in fights over the definition of marriage in Hawaii, California, and elsewhere. I think seeing the Proclamation as only that is overly cynical and reductive. That being said, I also have zero problems with any authoritative church teaching to some degree being a product of its time. Isn’t that the point of living prophets and apostles, after all—that through them, God can speak directly and specifically to our time? This is also part of the core meaning of the Incarnation—God doesn’t stand apart from history; He enters it.
But I’ll be honest, there are some things about the Proclamation—or more specifically, our people’s unique emphasis on it—that are curious to me. I’ve been troubled, for instance, by the way it has sometimes been weaponized—as if a perfect agreement with each and every clause in the Proclamation is the true litmus test of someone’s fidelity to the restored gospel. I’ve also wondered why this proclamation tends to get so much more attention than “The Living Christ,” which was issued more recently and has much more abundant scriptural roots.
What’s more, it’s a very short document. Brevity and concision are admirable qualities that I obviously do not possess. But I don’t think we should pretend that everything we can or must possibly know about sex, gender, marriage, and family is contained on one page that you can hang on your wall. In some regards, the Proclamation leaves me with more questions than answers. Take, for example, the oft-quoted “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Certainly, some kind of distinction between males and females is deeply significant, such that we can speak meaningfully of having both a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. But is the Proclamation referring here to biological sex or socially constructed gender? What “purpose” exactly did gender play in the premortal spirit world? And given that what we don’t know about the postmortal world far exceeds what we do know, what precisely does it mean to speak of the “gender” of resurrected bodies?
Furthermore, the Proclamation elevates one form of family—the nuclear family—over other forms that have historically been equally, if not more, successful in various cultures around the world. How should we think about the benefits and divine possibilities of multigenerational families and extended kinship networks?
Finally, Jesus said very little about families. It’s true that whenever He did speak of marriage, He spoke of a relationship between a man and a woman—in that way, being entirely consistent with the biblical tradition. But His teachings (as in, for instance, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”) troubled traditional family relationships as much as they reified them.
In short, I am deeply committed to families as one of the two primary schools for Christian discipleship (along with the geographically defined church congregation). I am grateful for apostolic teaching that encourages me to be a better husband and father. Stronger families lead to stronger individuals, stronger communities, and stronger nations. The modern disintegration of family life is a genuine calamity that deserves prophetic attention. But I worry about ways that we sometimes signal, perhaps inadvertently, that our commitment and energies are dedicated more to “The Family” than to “The Living Christ.” That includes the way we treat those with different ideas about families.
JH: You and I do have some significant disagreements about some of this. But thank you for taking that question, Patrick. Now, let’s move on to the hard stuff. 🙂 In any talk about “stages” in faith, there’s a risk of reinforcing a sense of superiority among some who see themselves as especially sophisticated and nuanced, especially in comparison to those whose faith and devotion are pure and simple. I’ve wondered over the years, hearing people talk about Fowler’s stages, whether an ironic reversal could be happening—wherein those with less humility and faith in relation to the core truths of Christ and the restored gospel get persuaded that they are at a higher stage in their faith. Rather than being encouraged to seek after a more redemptive faith, then, they end up feeling self-satisfied in seeing themselves occupying an elevated position, as in “because I really don’t know anything, I’m more advanced than those who claim to know something.”
I’d love to hear your response to that—and whether you see the potential danger (oh, there I go fearing something else!).
PM: I’m not a “stages of faith” guy. I’m aware of the various paradigms and understand their utility to a certain point. I can participate in conversations about the stages, as I recently did on a Faith Matters podcast. But in none of my writings will you see me fully endorse anyone’s stages or try to develop my own. Why not? Partly it’s because I’m a historian and am mildly allergic to the kinds of grand models and metatheories that social scientists love. I’m always more interested in the particular than the general (though, of course, we all have to generalize at times). More fundamentally, I’m concerned that inherent in any stages-of-faith model is the implicit suggestion that some stages are better than others—that there are “higher” and “lower” stages. That’s fine in an abstract way, but we’re not talking about abstractions—we’re talking about people. And I don’t believe St. Peter will ask at the pearly gates which stage of faith we’re at when we arrive.
I recall a conversation I had once with a woman in my ward in California. She was absolutely wonderful—a far better Saint than me, constantly serving others. I had recently given a fireside talk based on my book Planted, in which I talked in some detail about the contours of faith crisis and how to deal with difficult issues in church history. She said, in the kindest and most sincere way, “Thanks for sharing all of that. I know it’s really important to lots of people who have those kinds of questions. But I honestly don’t think about those things very much. I’m just focused on trying to follow the Savior.” She didn’t mean it in any kind of condescending way, as if people with doubts and questions need to shape up. But for her, the gospel was simple and consisted merely of trying to be like Jesus. That would put her in stage 1 or 2 of most stages of faith paradigms. But I guarantee that she is a better Christian than I am, in my “advanced” stage of complicating, nuancing, and intellectualizing everything. The Church and the world need a little bit of me but a lot more of her.
JH: I appreciate that, Patrick. We could all learn a lot from that sister. It reminds me that Jesus didn’t teach “except ye become nuanced and complex in your thinking, ye cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In a related direction, I was also touched by your remarks recently focusing on that text from Isaiah 61 that Jesus Himself prioritized, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”
You said, “Who among us is not bruised spiritually, physically, emotionally, from this world? If we call ourselves the followers of Jesus Christ, then Jesus’ mission becomes our mission. And we are called to the poor, to the brokenhearted, the captive, the blind, the bruised.” The work of seeking greater compassion is sometimes pigeon-holed as a “progressive” focus, but I’m wondering if this of which you speak could become the great common ground upon which progressive and liberal-leaning Christians could find each other again—as One Great family?
PM: If I despair about anything, it’s precisely this—when did caring for “the least of these” become a politicized thing? In terms of our relationships with others, there is nothing other than worship of the one true God that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus talked about and demonstrated more. There are lots of messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. That Jesus chose Isaiah 61—with its emphasis on the messianic mission to the poor, the captive, the brokenhearted, the disabled, and the bruised—as His “mission statement” when He stood in that synagogue in Nazareth is telling.
In recent years I have become close friends with Tom Griffith, a retired federal district court judge and a committed conservative. I marvel at the ways that Tom put caring for “the least of these” at the heart of his ministry as a BYU stake president several years ago. This is true not just for his spiritual commitments but his political ones as well. For every policy he supports, he is always mindful, first and foremost, about how it will help those at the bottom rungs of society. He and I will disagree about things like tax rates, the value of government social programs, and so forth—in other words, the procedural, pragmatic, and to some degree, philosophical details that have divided liberals and conservatives in this country for over a century. But Tom reminds me constantly that regardless of our personal politics, our core commitments as Christians should be clear.
JH: Clearly, there are many untapped frontiers in pacifist and peace-making work. What are the main limits of pacificism that you can see?
PM: I’ve come to eschew the use of the word “pacifist.” It has become too weighed down with baggage to the point that it’s not useful. One of the tragedies of the English language is that we don’t have a good word for the opposite of violence—“nonviolence” is the best we can do, but it’s negational rather than positive and constructive. So within the limits of the English language, I say that I am deeply committed to Christian nonviolence. My commitments come not because of any political ideology but because of my reading of and fidelity to the life, teachings, example, and atonement of Jesus Christ—the “Prince of Peace.” David Pulsipher and I tried to make the argument for nonviolence as the default position for Restoration Christians in our recent book Proclaim Peace.
Right now, I see a lot of energy for peacebuilding, especially among younger Latter-day Saints. Intercultural peacebuilding has become one of the most popular majors at BYU-Hawaii; every graduate from that program comes away with mediation skills that they can apply in a variety of family, community, nonprofit, and corporate settings. Courses about peacebuilding are becoming increasingly popular at BYU-Idaho. At Utah State University, which has a majority Latter-day Saint student population, we have multiple peacebuilding-related certificates that are housed within the new Heravi Peace Institute.
What I’m really excited about is all these young Latter-day Saints going out and using their peacebuilding skills to transform the world—not in spite of the fact that they are Latter-day Saint Christians, but precisely because of that identity.
And yet, as we also argue in the book, Restoration scripture does allow for limited and restrained violence in a very narrow set of cases. On very rare occasions, violence can be “justified,” though is never sanctified or sanctifying; there is no Restoration tradition of holy war. The Ukranians’ current war of self-defense against naked Russian aggression meets many of these criteria and comes as close to anything we’ve seen in recent decades to being “justified” by the standards revealed by the Lord in modern times. Overall, however, as followers of Christ, we may want to consider how many exceptions we carve out regarding the sixth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”), especially when we are so strict about observing the seventh (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”).
JH: Lastly, do you believe there is an urgency to gather Israel in the sense of bringing people into the covenant path? When bringing together emphases like “eternity is long” and validating people’s journey even if it takes them out of the Church, it can leave some of us wondering if this might potentially undercut the urgency and value of sharing the gospel.
PM: Like almost everything else we’ve discussed, our conversations are poorer when we get stuck in either-or thinking. We worship a both-and God. Jesus condemns adultery and refuses to stone the woman caught in adultery. Jesus sends his disciples to preach the gospel to all the world and performs miracles of healing that are not always contingent on whether a person fully accepts His divinity. The father blesses both the prodigal son and the ever-faithful one.
The Church of Jesus Christ must always be a missionary church. We can and will send missionaries to all the world proclaiming the good news of Jesus and inviting all to listen. But those who “come and see” are a small minority. Throughout our history, most people who have joined our church have been seekers—not those deeply committed to their own faith traditions. Furthermore, we know that the rate of births and conversions into the Church is not matching global population rates. So from a purely numerical standpoint, despite all our efforts, we are falling behind.
But are we so prideful as to think that the efficacy of God’s eternal plan depends on our proximate successes? God forbid. We worship a good, gracious, generous God whose plan isn’t limited by our feeble efforts—as parents, as missionaries, as ministering sisters and brothers, as youth leaders, and as Relief Society presidents and bishops.
I believe in Jesus’s “infinite and eternal atonement.” His redeeming, reconciling work goes far beyond the finite and temporal scope of your and my efforts.
So we do our best as parents, as church leaders, and as missionaries. And we place our hope in a good God whose work extends into the eternities. Jesus came into the world not to condemn it but to save it. I trust him.
JH: Thanks again for the time to talk, Patrick. I enjoyed it. Is there anything else you’d like to add or share?
PM: Nope. I think people have gotten more than enough of their dose of me for the day. Thanks for the opportunity, Jacob.