I was delighted by Robert Long’s recent post about John Dehlin, but his conclusion surprised me:
This strange admixture of beliefs—a disavowal of the orthodox teachings of his church paired with fierce loyalty to the institution; a desire to help doubters stay in the church as liberals paired with hope that plenty of orthodox remain left over—is baffling, perhaps incomprehensible for outsiders to Mormonism.
Baffling? Incomprehensible? Hardly. That describes the predominant perspective of Conservative Jews of my acquaintance. It’s a perspective I recognize from some cradle Catholics as well. I’ve ever heard it from less-observant Muslims. I wonder whether it isn’t the most natural attitude of someone trying to live in modernity and maintain ties to a religious tradition. To me, it’s more surprising to hear about it cropping up in a church as young – and as formally capable of radical doctrinal changes – as the LDS Church.
In my experience, only a very small minority of people in any religious tradition truly affirm that religion’s teachings intellectually, and most of the world’s religions aren’t organized around creedal affirmation anyhow. For the overwhelmingly majority of people, they want to be able to live with their church – to experience life cradled within its arms – not to think with it.
The trouble for the minority who actually care about thinking is that they may also care about that experience of living within a religious tradition and community. Then they have a choice: of learning to “think with” that tradition, and turn the mind away from doubt (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for the health of one’s mind); or of becoming the kind of theological liberal who isn’t terribly committed to a particular truth (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for one’s ability to truly feel religious experience); or of becoming a secret dissenter (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for one’s relationships with one’s fellow communicants); or of becoming a public dissenter (which makes one a trouble-maker with all kinds of deleterious consequences).
Dehlin appears to be trying to walk a fine line here, by being a liberal while cherishing the virtues of those who aren’t, refusing to surrender but also refusing to triumph. That’s precisely what I think our hegemonically liberal political system ought to do with respect to religious bodies that abide within it – and it isn’t an easy line to tread. Far from being baffled by Dehlin’s ambitions to do the same within his church, I applaud him for trying.