The Book of Mormon says that the prophet Nephi spoke with such great power that is was not possible for the people to disbelieve his words.[i] Somewhat irreverently, this reminds me of Robert Nozick’s quip that it would be great to come up with an argument so powerful that people would either have to accept it... or die![ii] Amusing as the comparison may be I don’t actually think that’s what was going on with Nephi. I think there was something much deeper in his preaching; he wasn’t arguing in the way we usually do. When we reason about things we move from premises to conclusions in steps that logically follow one another. If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man then it follows that Socrates is mortal. But this only works if you accept the premise that all men are mortal. For the big questions the difficult part is getting to premises that everyone agrees on. On the most important issues like morality and religion our premises are given by tradition. This seems like a problem because the most difficult disagreements are between people from different traditions, people who start from different sets of premises[iii]. Tradition seems to be a great gulf.
Although our different traditions separate us this doesn’t have to preclude productive communication on important issues. Natural barriers like gulfs and canyons are most treacherous when we don’t see them. But with some familiarity with the terrain gulfs and canyons can be crossed, though still with difficulty. This reminds me of a fictional correspondence written by the Jewish thinker Samson Raphel Hirsch. In Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a university student writes home to his rabbi with some challenging questions[iv]. The student challenges various tenets and rituals of Judaism and wonders how anyone educated in a modern, scientific society could continue to be Jewish. The rabbi responds that it is not possible to understand or appreciate Jewish rituals and tenets in isolation from each other; Judaism most be understood in its totality. The beliefs and practices are intelligible only in the context of the whole tradition. What Hirsch gave here was a method for understanding specific teachings, rituals, and norms of a tradition—you have to dive in deep and view these things from within the tradition, seeing how the parts fit into the whole. Crossing the divide between traditions is possible though not simple.
I think a better understanding of our traditions and the different premises that lead to different conclusions could help to avoid some of the misunderstanding and offense that sometimes results in our discussions. Speaking to each other from different traditions is a little like speaking in translation from different languages. If you consider all the things we do in English to make things sound more polite you can see how a person learning to speak English could inadvertently sound rude. When we make requests or express disagreement we have various ways to soften our language: “Would you mind…?”, “Do you think you could…?” But knowing how a language feels requires some extensive experience and immersion into it.
Traditions are a lot like languages. They have words, symbols, rituals, roles, stories, texts, and values. These things taken as a whole are what make the tradition intelligible. As a Mormon American the traditions I think about most, because I live in both, are Mormonism and what I’ll call American individualism. These two traditions overlap at points but there are important differences. The traditions share many of the same words but the words have different meanings. For example, “freedom” is an important word in Mormonism and in American individualism. But the word doesn’t have exactly the same meaning in each tradition. As an American individualist I understand freedom to be my right to do what I want to do and to be what I want to be. I am free do whatever I want as long as I am not hurting anyone else in the process. Whatever I achieve or become in life is up to me and I am not limited by anyone else. As a Mormon I understand freedom, or agency, as my power to act toward my divine purpose. My freedom expands as I act in accordance with divine principles but contracts as I deviate from them[v]. I also understand that my freedom includes accepting the results of my actions. These understandings of freedom are not diametrically opposed. They can be syncretized and often are. But they are different.
There are certain concepts in Mormonism that don’t translate easily into the tradition of American individualism and it is at these junctures where conflicts arise. Mormonism is a much more communal tradition. We think in terms of not only ourselves but also our families, ancestors, and descendants. Who we are and what we become is not solely up to us. We are all connected. In the parlance of scripture there must be a welding link of some kind between the fathers and the children, our ancestors cannot be made perfect without us and we cannot be made perfect without them.[vi] The signs and symbols of Mormonism, the ordinances, the temple rituals and liturgy, the stories and practices in which we take part immerse us in this understanding of our eternal relationships with each other and of our own identity. It is in this totality that family, marriage, husband, wife, sexuality, and love are to be understood.
The tradition of American individualism is not necessarily opposed to this dense field of relationships and symbols in Mormonism but it is different. For example, in Mormonism sex outside of a marriage is not only wrong; it doesn’t make any sense. The Mormon understanding of sexuality is made intelligible by the way it fits into the practice of eternal marriage and the understanding of our divine nature as paired beings in the image of God, our heavenly parents. But outside of this context, translated into the tradition of American individualism, this view of sexuality could be understood principally, or exclusively, as just a prohibition, even an arbitrary prohibition[vii]. And for something as important and personal as sexuality such a prohibition feels like quite an unwarranted intrusion. There is conceptual content lost in translation. The translated version of a concept may not mean the same thing as the concept in the context of its original tradition and this shift in meaning can lead to offense. This can happen with many issues.
What can I do as a Mormon to communicate more effectively with people outside my tradition? Part of the process is mapping out the terrain, understanding our own traditions thoroughly, and understanding enough about other traditions to see the differences. We are usually so embedded in our traditions that we don’t think about their foundations; we hold our premises unconsciously. This is usually fine. But to communicate effectively with people from other traditions we need to understand our own better.[viii] This is a process of reasoning and investigation. It’s a process of making connections between concepts, practices, and values and seeing how they come together as a whole. What is the connection between our physical bodies and the sacrament[ix]? How does marriage relate to the Atonement of Christ? How is our agency both individual and social? How does baptism bring us into the community of the church? How does the Spirit of Elijah[x] affect the way I understand my own identity? Some of my favorite conversations about Mormonism have been with people who weren’t Mormon. They have asked me things I never would have thought of asking. And I’ve learned a lot after thinking about their questions.
This process of reasoning and investigation is very rewarding for another reason: it empowers us to participate more effectively in the conversations within our own tradition. Traditions are not static, at least not if they are in good health. There are different ideas within traditions but unlike the differences between traditions the differences within traditions work with shared concepts, symbols, rituals, roles, stories, texts, and values. This means that as an American I work with the heritage of texts like The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As I Mormon I speak with the language of The Bible and The Book of Mormon. The relationships between all these texts, symbols, and values are complex. Some passages of scripture may not fit easily with other passages or with other aspects of the tradition. For example, Mormons have a conception of what kind of life is of greatest value: marriage between a man and women, raising children together in the ways of the Gospel of Christ. But this ideal is not available to everyone for various reasons. What are we to make of this? Fortunately, the scriptures have resources we can use. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we find the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the prodigal son, and the parable of the lost coin. These parables directly address the repentance of sinners but could also be interpreted more broadly to address other issues. This kind of language—the language of scripture, symbols, and the values of a tradition—is the kind of language that will be effective and intelligible within a tradition.
The process of reasoning within and between traditions makes rational progress possible. The conversations within our traditions can generate novel concepts and find solutions to problems using the concepts, symbols, and values we already have as building materials. We can also appropriate ideas from other traditions that, by our own standards, we find useful and expand our understanding. Finally our experiences in the world, whether from the natural sciences or the existential challenges of our lives, also affect and inform our traditions. For example, with our expanded understanding of astronomy it would not be possible for one to believe, as did the ancient Greeks, in a geocentric universe with the planets embedded in rotating crystal spheres. Closer to home, our ways of understanding the world and God change as we pass through life's challenges and tragedies. In these experiences some ways of understanding the world and the resources provided by our traditions will be more helpful or more plausible than others. Thus traditions are not impenetrable walls that trap us into rigid, inflexible ways of seeing the world. They can adapt, appropriate, and expand through the history of a community or the life of an individual.
Building relationships with people, within your own tradition or from another tradition is hard work. It requires patience and energy. But I think it can be very rewarding. Paul said that he became all things to all people. To the Jews he became a Jew. To those under the law he became as one under the law. To those outside the law he became as one outside the law. To the weak he became weak[xi]. In this I think he was imitating Christ. The Book of Mormon says that the Lord speaks to people according to their language and their understanding[xii]. There is a pattern in scripture of the Lord coming closer to us to enter into a more intimate relationship with us. He does this by speaking our language according to our understanding and he did this by becoming one of us as a mortal man. There is also a recurring call in scripture to imitate Christ, to die like Christ, and rise again like Christ in his life[xiii]. I wonder if we could imitate Christ in his efforts to speak to others according to their language and understanding, to imitate his incarnation by becoming what other people are to enter into a closer relationship with them.
[i] 3 Nephi 7:171-18
[ii] Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
[iii] My ideas on this subject are heavily influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre.
[iv] Sampson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel
[v] 2 Nephi 2:27
[vi] Doctrine and Covenants 128:15,18
[vii] This may be a case where the misunderstanding has worked its way back into the original tradition. Even within Mormonism we sometimes put undue emphasis on prohibition without adequate doctrinal context.
[viii] Doctrine and Covenants 11:21
[ix] The Mormon sacrament is similar to the Eucharist.
[x] The Spirit of Elijah is the inspiration we feel to seek after our ancestors.
[xi] 1 Corinthians 9:20-22
[xii] 2 Nephi 31:3
[xiii] Romans 6:3-8