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?
These clearly are sensitive and deeply personal questions. We all know that. And the larger truth about these big questions is something you and I may not ever agree upon. I’m not writing today to try and resolve that. It’s true I’ve written a lot in the past about why I earnestly hope anyone who has chosen to distance themselves from the Church will come back one day. I’ve always felt heartbroken to see anyone stepping away from our family of faith, and will always be among those who dearly “want you back.” But I’m recognizing more these days one way my efforts have been incomplete.
I recently became friends with a returned missionary named Christian who has an incredible heart and lots of honest questions about his faith. He’s reminded me that without deeper emotional work focused on attachment and relationship, it can feel almost impossible to even broach, let alone navigate well, the many heady “conceptual” disagreements.
That really hit me. I think he’s right. It’s kind of like getting in a debate with a spouse or friend about some larger idea, while forgetting to take care of his or her heart. Don’t we all know how that feels?
I’ve fallen into that sometimes with my writing and public work—being so focused on ideas, that I forget to pay equal attention to the relationships involved. An extended conversation with Patrick Mason has reminded me of much the same, prompting a recent joint article exploring the trauma response between current and former members. What could it mean if we were able to really hear each other’s pain—even if we didn’t ever agree on the broader picture?
My experience tells me there is more that might be possible. For instance, I have a friend Joan who is deeply worried the world is burning up—believing sincerely that climate change is an existential threat to all of our survival in the years ahead. She doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t have much assurance that Someone is watching over this all. While I don’t see eye to eye on everything she believes, I love her dearly. So, her fear has to be important to me—even if my “end times” story differs from her own.
It’s that kind of thing that I’ve been wondering about…could we do more of that in the space between us too?
And if we did, are there things we could see, learn and experience that we are blind to right now? In fairness, it’s understandable why we—John, myself and many others—put so much focus on conceptual differences. Logic. Reason. Ideas. Thought. We think, “That’s how we’ll solve this!”
Why have we ever thought that would be enough? As Thomas McConkie once told me, “You can’t think your way out of a think-hole.”
Of all the gaping ‘think holes’ the human family is facing, these disagreements on questions of faith may be among the most severe—and with some of the most poignant consequences for relationships here and now. For instance, how is it that people who used to regard each other affectionately as sisters and brothers can be shorn apart in heart and mind to the point they have little to no desire to even interact?
In the vacuum, we end up assuming the worst and darkest things. I mean, be honest – what do you think someone like me feels about or assumes about you? Do you really think I don’t care a great deal about the pain you’ve faced in all you’ve been navigating since stepping away from the Church? I likewise sometimes take for granted that you all think the same as some of the cruel and mean-spirited notes I sometimes get.
The central question becomes this: Why would any two people like us ever care to interact anymore? Are there any good reasons to do so? I think so—but I respect that others are reaching different conclusions. It’s worth thinking about.
There are other related questions I wish we could explore more as well, especially: Is it possible for people like us to still find genuine affection and legitimate respect again?
Wouldn’t it be cool if we could honestly share together how we’re doing and really feeling? I’d genuinely like to know how you are doing—and feel open to whatever answers you give. And I’d welcome the chance to be able to respond to sincere concerns as well—some of which I read in the comments. That kind of an exchange (and not just between me and you) ultimately depends on some kind of connection renewed in the space between people who feel differently about Latter-day Saint faith.
I recognize a simple note like this won’t span the seeming chasm between us…appreciating that many of you may have no interest in further interaction with someone like me. If that’s how you feel, I have to respect that. But I also keep coming across a few who are interested in something more than this Latter-day Saint cold war.
A few of us are considering starting an ongoing face-to-face dialogue effort that brings together people spanning the spectrum of belief. Anyone can show up with their current beliefs and engage in good-faith discussions. Heaven knows there are plenty of really important things to discuss—including frustrations and sorrows about anything, including my own public work (which have to be welcome in healthy dialogue). Among other things, we’re hoping to share what we learn in this experiment at Public Square Magazine in the years ahead. If you’d be interested in being a part of something like that, let me know either in the comments below, or by emailing me here at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond to any good faith note.
So that I’m not misunderstood, I stand behind the main message of my videos and related writing. I’ll always be among those who dearly “want you back” and feel sad about your distance from us. And I stand by the Prophet Joseph and his character, and believe he saw who he said he saw. And I trust the wisdom and goodness of prophet leaders today, who I believe represent someone far greater than themselves. But that’s kind of my point here—could we still love and respect each other if we disagree even about important things like that?
There’s plenty I have to improve on and grow in. For example, I regret using one especially provocative label for John in one video—which does not promote ongoing dialogue. I also wish I had ended my second video more simply, with an invitation to just “come back” and “come home.”
For me, that’s still where the deepest and sweetest peace is to be found. If you’re as tired as I am with all the anger, anxiety and mounting angst around us in America these days, I hope you’ll remember what you used to experience with your ole’ family of faith. However much we may have driven you nuts sometimes (like all families?), I hope there are a few happy memories still in there.
And even if not, we still share many other common bonds. I can’t help but think of Lincoln’s declaration at his first Inaugural address in 1861. In the middle of a splintering nation, he said, “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
I look forward to hearing from some of you. And from my heart, I sincerely hope you’ll have a sweet and Merry Christmas—with dreams coming true for you and yours in the new year ahead.
Your brother still,
p.s. Whatever else we may agree on, thankfully there are still some basic universals all sentient beings can and should acknowledge. For instance, this from a Washington Post humor columnist this week:
“What’s the worst Christmas song? Alexandra Petri answered your questions.” Washington Post, December 13, 2022
Maybe laughter is another way we can soften some of these divides. I’ll leave you with two of my own holiday favorites we recently featured at Public Square Magazine:
Amen, Jacob. It has been on my mind, as well, how crucial it is to promote good-faith dialogue and to rein in our passions in order to foster healthy relationships among opposing views. However, I still believe there is a time and a place for rebuking those who attack what is right and true. The challenge in that, though, is to do so in a manner that our love for them can still be felt. As far as that second video, at least, I think you nailed it, brother.
You said “We think, “That’s how we’ll solve this!”” We think that if we can just explain our position more clearly, more creatively, or more persuasively then we will solve the problem. But maybe the solution is to listen to each other more closely. I don’t mean that we need to watch all of Mormon Stories videos in order to listen to the other side (I actually think that’s a bad idea). I mean that when we interact with our brother in law, sibling, or neighbor who has left the church or is questioning, that we really listen to them with love. We hold on to the truth we have and lovingly listen to our friends.
I appreciate the sentiment. I’m sure you and I couldn’t be more different in our political and religious views but I think either way striving for greater understanding is worth a shot. My beliefs have changed a lot over the years but realizing where I used to be and how much it meant to me helps me remember that there’s valuable common ground that can be found between people of good will.
Dehlin is similar to Thomas Stuart Ferguson. Both kept looking in the wrong locations.
Thanks for this post. I’d like to revert back to the first of your two earlier videos since I did not know about them before, specifically the one about Church History and “calling grandpa a liar”.
While in college a few decades ago, I took a French History class that relied on the textbook “La France et Civilisation” by Jacques Hardre’, published in 1969. In reading the textbook, I was struck by Hardre’s overly positive and glowing descriptions of the major players in the history of France. They were all so wonderful – hardly a rascal among them! And yet, the textbook was highly respected.
I then thought back on my own primary and middle school courses in American History (early-to-mid 1970s) and recalled how women were barely mentioned and very few Black American or other ethnic minority innovators were included. Even when studying the colonial period, barely a mention was made of Washington and Jefferson as significant slaveholders, or of the plight of slaves in general. The textbooks seemed determined to paint the founders and early American leaders as great heroes without flaw.
I then became aware of the recurring “textbook wars” being fought in various US states over the contents of history books used in classrooms. These wars continue to this day, and very visibly so (CRT, for example).
I came to the conclusion that the Church’s positive version of its history was not a unique idea, but merely followed the accepted practice of its time. In this case, can we really blame the Church for following current best practices in history publication?
I believe it is disingenuous to disregard the full context of the periods when the histories were published, and yet many critics today rely upon public nescience on this subject to deceive their audiences.
I know this might be against the grain of what you are trying to achieve with this most recent essay, but since I am late to the party, I felt I should comment.