To Listeners of John Dehlin: A Christmas Peacemaking Letter

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last year, as some of you know, I released two short videos addressing the work of Dr. John Dehlin. I’ve written plenty of things that triggered frustration; never as much backlash as this one. There were nearly 800 commenters on his response expressing frustrations before I stopped counting. 

In this season more focused on “peace on earth, good will to men,” and with President Nelson’s nudge earlier this year to “end the conflicts that are raging” inside and around us, it felt like an especially good time to write this letter.

I won’t be responding here to John. He and I have had productive interactions in the past, and I’m open to that in the future. I’m willing to take up his questions in a serious conversation. But I’m writing today not to him, but to you, his listeners. 

I hope this note finds you with joy and peace in your life. My heart hurts to see estrangement and bitter feelings between so many current and former members. Does it have to be this way? I know many wonderful people doing good things in the world who don’t see the world like I do. In fact, some of my dearest friends are Marxist, atheist, and uber-progressive—each of whom thinks some of my core convictions are flat-out wrong (and vice-versa). But despite even vociferous disagreements, we really do love each other, enjoy each other, respect each other. I’ve wondered a lot this last year why that sort of relationship seems so much harder to cultivate between those with different conclusions about faith?  

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Outrage Masquerading as Virtue

(Originally published on Public Square Magazine).

Let’s not dance around this. Something creepy and dangerous is happening on our college campuses—and which has now been effectively exported to workplaces and social media everywhere. 

New York University professor Jonathan Haidt often speaks of 2014 as a turning point where he saw students move from protest and frustration about unpopular views (which had been normative and common) to beginning to claim that being exposed to these views was “psychologically damaging”—and that such speech ought to be equated with “violence.”  

That prompted Jon to join Greg Lukianoff in writing “The Coddling of the American Mind,” and to start Heterodox Academy, which has gathered thousands of professors, administrators, and students grappling with the increasingly illiberal atmosphere on campus.

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Stories We Tell about Side-Effects

I started my career paying attention as a researcher to medical side-effects – but in a different way than you might usually think. Most researchers try to count any of a range of effects associated with a particular treatment. My own approach was trying to understand different ways the same antidepressant side-effects were interpreted or “narrated” differently.     

One story from my interviewing study epitomizes why this became so personally interesting to me. After a woman experienced a panic attack for the first time after starting Zoloft, she recounted telling her friend Emily that this medication is “making me have panic attacks!” However, her friend responded, “It’s not the medication, it’s your anxiety that you want this to work so bad.”  Only partially satisfied by this answer, the woman continued to ask her friend, “are you sure? Are you sure, Emily!?”  After checking with her doctor later, this woman was likewise told that her underlying anxiety, not the drug, was the problem. Instead of tapering her off the first drug, then, she was prescribed a second drug to address this “newly uncovered problem” of anxiety.       

A strong, unquestioned bias. Why did this doctor focus on her underlying condition as the most likely condition for her panic attacks – rather than the antidepressant itself? It’s certainly not because the evidence compelled such an interpretation. It’s well known among physicians that medical treatments can induce a wide range of surprising effects. And, in this case, a 2014 study confirmed that after taking antidepressants for a short time, approximately 7% of participants developed antidepressant-induced jitteriness/anxiety syndrome (up to and including panic attacks).

Despite that kind of evidence, a clear bias exists in official pronouncements and medical interpretations about unpleasant effects following treatment. Dr. Peter Breggin, a well-known psychiatrist I interviewed several years ago, was one of the first to point out that when a treatment has positive effects, it gets the credit. But when any untoward effects arise, the strong bias is to attribute them to the underlying condition. 

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‘Tis the Season to Spread Enmity?

Some responses to Jeff T. Green and his thoughtfully timed Christmas gift to the world. Along with ‘Tis the Season to Spread Enmity? and ‘Tis the Season: Good Will to Men published in Public Square this week, I can’t resist holding up this thoughtful response from Brother Michael Peterson posted in the Salt Lake Tribune public comments to the article in question. Despite all this accusation and acrimony, I say with Ebebezer Scrooge’s nephew Fred, ” have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle…I say, God bless it!”

Not only is this Tribune article highly biased and one-sided—a disappointment—it lacks breadth and depth. It fails to tell the full story, but it does manage in its effect to denigrate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its leaders. 

What you [at the Tribune] have merely done is give a loud audience to a group who wish to speak out against the Church—with no fair response or full context whatsoever.

1. The mere fact that someone wealthy and “successful” by societal standards leaves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is meaningless—carries zero weight. If it did, then we could and would immediately point to the opposite—reports like one I read recently about ten of the most wealthy Latter-day Saints in business, all of whom are faithful, with strong testimonies, and have not left the faith. (J. Willard Marriott, Jr., David Neeleman, the late Jon Huntsman, Joel Peterson, Mitt Romney, Alan Ashton, Nolan D. Archibald, the late Larry H. Miller, and the list goes on and on. …)

2. Mr. Green clearly set this up to be a “splash” intended to bash and denigrate the Church and its leaders— coordinating with family members for a single announcement, along with interviews with the Tribune designed for effect—leading to subsequent immediate disbursement to the wire services and presumptuously writing to President Nelson and then releasing the language, etc. When in reality, by his own admission, Mr. Green himself has for all intents and purposes been out of and divorced from the faith for a decade. So other than his obvious ax to grind, what does he really have to say at this point? Not much…

3. Mr. Green criticizes The Church of Jesus Christ in familiar ways— “bearing down against the Church” (Alma 1:3) —apparently objecting to the degree to which it is self-reliant and independent, walking its own talk. I for one am profoundly grateful that our church has significant reserve funds to maintain its independence now and in the future, enabling it to provide for the maintenance and support of a growing global faith and its mission. And considering future uncertainties—witness COVID and its variants and other global financial insecurities staring us in the face—the wisdom of the Lord in inspiring our leaders to prepare for future difficulties is more evident than ever. It’s encouraging. And if the Church simply let all reserve funds sit and did not invest them, that would be irresponsible money stewardship by any professional standard—can this be denied? Witness the wise management of resources of the best of many other large organizations. And the Church’s prudent use of its resources to help the needy are legendary—except among critics in our midst who have a demonstrable angst against the Church to begin with and seem to be on the lookout for things to criticize.

4. One underlying theme among some cited in this article is that they began “scrutinizing” Church history and subsequently fell into doubts. This belies the ultimate true reality for most active members of this Church. I for one, among many, have not only “scrutinized” this history, but I’ve also been studying Church history for thirty years and my faith and testimony have only increased. I love it. Historian Richard Bushman said that the closer you are to the original documents and first-hand sources, the greater the Prophet Joseph appears. How true. Issues of the First Vision, Plural Marriage, etc. are not only explainable in common sense terms (to those willing to listen), but the doctrines surrounding such issues hold up under scrutiny and need not damage the faith of anyone. There is nothing in real, genuine Church history that would compel or necessitate a person in good conscience to leave the faith.

(And if that last statement impels a critic to throw out a “Gish gallop” (a long list of Church history items designed to deceive and distort and denigrate) every item can be easily knocked down, so don’t bother. I have found, after much interaction, that the critics lack logic, reason, facts, science, and true history in their attempts to persuade against the faith. Their claims against the Church and its leaders don’t hold water, don’t add up, and fall apart under fair examination, every time.)

5. The Church’s wise and caring approach, outreach, teachings, and love toward the LGBT+ issues and community is not explainable in a soundbite—yet biting soundbite criticism is the norm for those who attack the faith on these issues. It’s not fair or right. Our Church believes in the eternal family and laws of virtue and chastity—sexual purity before marriage and fidelity afterward. That came from God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, not in response to a social or cultural situation. And we believe in loving all of God’s children—including those in the LGBT+ community. Those who claim that the Church—or BYU for that matter—has marginalized them or demonstrated a lack of charity, we would ask to re-evaluate—as many are either mistaken, misled, or are placing their own bias and interpretation upon the Church’s doctrines and practices and interactions with those with same-gender attraction. If some have been offended, the offense has not been intended. Instead, love and peace—along with faithfulness to God’s loving commandments—are the desired guiding principles.

6. By the admission of more than one person in the article about Mr. Green, they left the faith after drifting away. That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to drift. Our hearts go out to them. Many have come back and continue to do so—because the gospel of Christ and the Church are in fact true, the true Church of Jesus Christ. All are invited and welcome to return who have stepped away.

So you can do better than the latest “announcement” du jour critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You would think the Salt Lake Tribune would take a more balanced approach rather than allow itself to become a house-organ-for-a-day to those who wish to attack our faith. 

Why Scholarly Consensus is Not Enough

We’ve often been reminded that the medical, research and scholarly community are more or less agreed on the rightfulness and truthfulness of a certain course of action. Most recently in the pandemic, that’s been underscored and highlighted repeatedly in mass media outlets.

Should not this kind of scholarly consensus be enough to embrace something we are hearing as trustworthy and obviously “valid”?

That’s certainly what we keep being told. But consider, for a moment, the list of consensus conclusions popular among academics and scholars right now:

1.      The world was created by a singularly potent “bang.”

2.      Human beings were created by gradual, iterative, interspecies evolution – with the story of Adam and Eve revered by believers for ages being entirely metaphoric and fictional. 

3.      Noah and the world-wide flood is metaphoric – and didn’t actually happen.

4.      The celebrated prophet Daniel in the Bible isn’t “actually a historical figure” – and more of a “cryptic allusion” to another ancient king.

5.      Jesus Christ, if he lived, was certainly not divine – and did not rise from the dead. 

6.      Biological transition for transgender-identifying adults and youth is the most ethical and healthiest course of action to recommend.   

7.      At the same time, any kind of therapeutic encouragement to explore an expansion, adjustment or evolution in how people relate to sexual orientation is not only not healthy, but ought to be illegal and criminal. 

8.      The vast majority of scholars agree that it should be legal for a mother to abort any fetus growing inside her – at any stage of development.    

9.      They also largely agree there is nothing special about the union of man and woman – with any committed union between two human beings who love each other rightly considered equally valuable.    

10.   The proper response to mental illness is to medically manage it – including for children. Thus, anyone facing symptoms of serious depression ought to be encouraged to consider antidepressant medication as a first line treatment. 

11.   It is taken for granted among modern scholars that children with difficulty paying attention ought to be diagnosed and prescribed stimulant medication to ensure their mind is not moving too fast and that their academic future is not compromised. 

12.   And [up to five years ago], the scholarly community was in agreement that pain is another vital sign – and ought to be medically managed proactively with opioids and other kinds of medical management.

We could go on. But you get the point. Especially if you’re a Christian or believer in the Judeo-Christian tradition broadly, this list ought to give you pause. Clearly, the domains of knowledge represented above – ranging from biblical scholarship to sexuality to medical research – are not the same, with limitations inherent in the comparison. Whatever the differences, however, there is one obvious commonality across all these consensus conclusions: they represent the dominant agreements of many Smart People in the world around us – or what scriptures call the “wisdom of the world.”

None of this, of course, is to suggest scholars and scientists are always wrong. Clearly, there is so much light and knowledge that has emerged from good scholarship – and sometimes the “wisdom of the world” does line up with the wisdom of God (and the prophets of God).

But for me, this list poses at least the following questions:  How are we to discern between scholarly consensus that lines up with absolute truth, versus scholarly consensus that reflects the mere popular bias of academics today? How is it that majorities of scholars are – and continue to be – so wrong about so many things? If they are wrong about all of this, why would we trust them to be right about so many other things that matters​, yes, including with the pandemic? At the very least, shouldn’t we be thinking more critically about what “all the experts” say to be the case (about anything)?

Take all of this as honest questions. I’d love to hear what others think?

At the very least, it seems fair to say there are some systemic biases in how scholarship is oriented, designed and set up – biases that don’t always lead towards the full truth, and which receive little to no critical attention in our public discourse today. As a result, these scholarly conclusions (across domains) get presented as “reality” and “obvious truth” – in a way that shapes lives, impacts faith, and determined life and death decisions for all of us.

That’s a problem. And it might be among the biggest problems we’re facing right now. Because a public that takes all this for granted – thinking nothing more than “well, this is what the Biblical/psychological/medical experts say” is flying blind – and, at the risk of mixing too many metaphors, being led in so many cases “like a lamb to the slaughter.” ​

After the prophetic verse we love to talk about from Isaiah (“I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder”), Latter-day Saints would do well to remember in our arrogant world today the verse that immediately follows: “For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.”

What does that mean for all the Wise Men Pronouncements of our day? Sooner or later, I have a feeling we’re all going to find out.