The Challenge of Honesty

By: Mormon Heretic
August 19, 2013

ChallengeOfHonestyThis will be the first of a series of posts on The Challenge of Honesty due to be released Sept 1.  Signature Books and Frances Lee Menlove (edited by Dan Wotherspoon) have put out this wonderful book, I really enjoyed reading it.  The book is a series of essays given by Frances over the past (almost) forty years.   Her first essay has the same title as the book, and was written in the inaugural issue of  Dialogue:  A Journal of Mormon Thought.  (Menlove is one of the founding members of Dialogue, and a frequent contributor to Sunstone.)  She is a psychologist and chaplain from Oregon.  In her first essay, she talks about self deception.  From page 6,

One of the factors that sometimes impedes private honesty is “the myth of the unruffled Mormon.”  This myth is simply the commonly held picture of Mormons as complete, integrated personalities, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague Protestants and oblivious to the painful searching and probings of non-believers.  Mormons are taught from Primary on up that they, unlike their non-Mormon friends, know with absolute certainty the answers to the knottiest problems of existence, that in fact their search has come to an end and that their main task in life it to present these truths to others to that they too may end their quests.

In reality, Mormons are also subject to uncertainties and doubts….Those who blot out internal awareness in order to maintain to themselves and to others the appearance of absolute certainty, who refuse to examine their inner lives, may all too often settle for the appearance of a Christian believer rather than for its actuality….

Another more tangible and insidious obstacle may also impede the quest for inner honesty….When living the gospel becomes synonymous with social progress or mental health, when the amassing of wealth or power becomes an acceptable goal, when the Church as a group becomes irrelevant as a force for peace and human brotherhood, then our need to examine our own commitments to God and the Church loses much of its urgency….  We would do well to listen to Dan Wakefield’s comment about Protestant Christianity:  “[Religious Leaders] have dressed Jesus Christ in a grey flannel suit and smothered his spirit in the folds of conformity.  The new slick-paper Christianity cheerily rises in the midst of a world seeking answers to survival, and offers and all-Methodist football team.”

As a huge sports fan, this last comment made me realize I probably spend too much time worrying about BYU (and Utah’s) football teams.  She continues by taking to task both liberal and conservative theologians.

Religious liberals are generally thought to be those who examine their religious lives and their church frankly and openly, recognize the weaknesses and incongruities where they exist, and comment freely on their observations.  They are often able to be candid in their criticisms and zeal for change, while at the same time remaining active in Church organizations and maintaining a respected place in the Mormon community.  Their potential for inner deception here lies in the possibility that they will use their candidness, their frank and often entirely justified criticisms and demands for change, as a smoke screen for their more basic religious problems.  They may be using their dissatisfaction with particular organizational procedures, or manifestations of authority or theological interpretations, as scapegoats to help them avoid facing the issues that are of real concern to them–perhaps about the very nature of the Church organization or the legitimacy of any expression of authority or the validity of the basic theology.  In this way, they are relieved from coming to terms with themselves.

Similarly, religious conservatives have their particular pitfalls.  In their desire to preserve and protect, they may become indiscriminate and fail to make important distinctions between historical accidents and timeless truths.  They may defend with equal vigor anything that is blessed with age, effectively freezing the form in which the gospel may be expressed.  The particular type of personal dishonesty that is possible here is that conservatives may be acting not in faith and love but from a basic lack of interest.  They may simply not want to go to the trouble of questioning and sorting.  Behind the mask of fanatical preservation may be the real fear that the truth of the Church is too fragile to tamper with, that an honest and open examination may destroy their faith or way of life.  Thus, religious conservatives may also be hiding from themselves a basic lack of faith.

Is anyone spared from inner deception?

 

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24 Responses to The Challenge of Honesty

  1. Hedgehog on August 19, 2013 at 1:16 AM

    “Is anyone spared from inner deception?”
    Perhaps not.
    For myself I find the description she gives here to be attractive in any religious community:
    “Religious liberals are generally thought to be those who examine their religious lives and their church frankly and openly, recognize the weaknesses and incongruities where they exist, and comment freely on their observations.”
    I’m not sure I recognise the second part of that comment however:
    “They may be using their dissatisfaction with particular organizational procedures, or manifestations of authority or theological interpretations, as scapegoats to help them avoid facing the issues that are of real concern to them–perhaps about the very nature of the Church organization or the legitimacy of any expression of authority or the validity of the basic theology.”
    From my point of view, these things seem to get a good going over as well, though I may be missing something. Perhaps it is this bit that makes the difference:
    “They are often able to be candid in their criticisms and zeal for change, while at the same time remaining active in Church organizations and maintaining a respected place in the Mormon community.”
    Maybe there’s a need to be prepared to risk ones ‘respected place’ in the community?

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  2. Justin on August 19, 2013 at 9:54 AM

    In reality, Mormons are also subject to uncertainties and doubts….Those who blot out internal awareness in order to maintain to themselves and to others the appearance of absolute certainty, who refuse to examine their inner lives, may all too often settle for the appearance of a Christian believer rather than for its actuality….

    You know — it’s one of the things I think is valuable about Mormonism for me. When I attended the non-denominational churches as a high-schooler, the common refrain was, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d go?” The emphasis was placed on proclaiming that you could know that you’d go to heaven as soon as you died.

    Whereas, in Mormonism, we place the emphasis only on knowing that “the church” is “true” [we can debate whatever the heck that means] — but, in any event, the point is that LDS are never “saved” [meaning we never have a moment where we "arrive"]. We spend most of your time worrying about whether we’re doing “all we can”; if we’re being kind, staying worthy, if we’re measuring up, etc.

    And I think that kind of self-reflection can be healthy. It’s a unique form of uncertainty and internal awareness that I’ve only encountered as a Mormon. It’s a unique kind of “worry” that we have that other Christian faiths do not.

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  3. Andrew S on August 19, 2013 at 11:50 AM

    First thing I want to say: this seems really interesting! Thanks for finding and providing the snippets!

    Moving more substantively…

    Maybe as a disaffected person, I am too uncreative to think of any other alternatives (and I’m WELL AWARE that disaffected folks might be inauthentic or “deceived” in their/our approach… Especially those who think they are spared…)… But when I read these snippets, it seems that the “answer” for conservatives “to come to terms with themselves” is to liberalize, and the answer for liberals is to disaffect.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on August 19, 2013 at 12:20 PM

    Like Andrew S I wondered where it was all headed. Both snippets sound to me like they end in atheism or agnosticism – at least in determining that organized religion isn’t foundationally good. Maybe I’m wrong about the author’s intent, but this is what I thought it sounded like.

    I think the problem with liberals is that liberals focus so much on change that they may not be self-reflective enough about the costs of change or the changes themselves. Conservatives likewise are so focused on form and existing structures that they may miss the mistakes or perpetuate error. I suppose in both cases, it’s a failure to discern divine will (or to acknowledge that human will is the catalyst in both those cases).

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  5. Howard on August 19, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    Self deception is a very interesting topic. No, no one is spared but since denial won’t correct itself, examination is required to do so and the since conservative psychology generally discourages examination of both the system (it’s just the way God want’s it) and the individual (trust us, you can’t be led astray) instead fearing social entropy and finding security in clubs of like minded members, the openness of liberal psychology is healthier *with regard to denial* because there is less of it and more openness to discussing it.

    But this doesn’t mean liberals see themselves or their position clearly and it doesn’t mean liberals are right and conservatives are wrong. Look at the result of liberalism, can anyone deny that social entropy is a part of it? And organizing liberals is like herding cats, how many liberal Fortune 500 CEOs are there? Not many, instead you will find them doing start-ups. The point is we need the liberal openness to change to offset the conservative tendency to freeze the action and we need the conservative social entropy caution or the liberals with make quite a mess of things.

    With regard to the church it has simply become *too* conservative, too exclusive and this can easily be seen by the political party of choices of the the brethren and the partisan conservative vote coming from Utah and other LDS communities. Can anyone seriously argue Jesus Christ was a conservative?

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  6. Heber13 on August 19, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    I may sound colonial in thought, but to me it seems to be best to have both conservatives and liberals to balance each other. Both have a strength and weakness to them. However, it seems correlation has tried to make all saints unified in thought, when it should have focused on unifying policy and leave the thoughts open to be healthily debated.

    But I think anyone (liberal or conservative) that claims they “know”, I think that reveals self-deception. Faith can be more powerful than certainty.

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  7. Burgendy on August 19, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    Howard: I like the last sentence of your comment. If I were to take a guess as to Jesus Political stance it would be Liberal and that is because of his forgiving nature

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  8. Howard on August 19, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    I went on a hike this morning in a rural area of SoCal and I came upon a “Braille Trail”. It was a wooden fence you could walk close to with a “blind guide cable” (iron rod) that a blind person could touch for comfort and guidance as they slowly walked along. Occasionally there were braille plaques (scriptures? words of prophets?) that described what could easily be seen by those with sight. It was a very tangible reminder to me of Lehi’s vision. Is that really where we want to be? Clinging to the iron rod because we cannot see?

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  9. Jeff Spector on August 19, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    I’m sure I am quite Neanderthal about all this because I try not to psychoanalyze and generalize. I don’t see the relevance to any of this.

    No one is purely one way or another in their thinking but a mix of liberal and conservative ideas. Plus people’s public persona and private persona can be 180 degrees apart. Someone may get up in testimony meeting and proclaim they know this or know that, but in fact, are consumed with doubt. OTHO, the most liberal member, seeking significant change in the organization may “know” the truth without doubt because of their own spiritual experiences.

    So, I’m certainly not sure what the point actually is.

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  10. hawkgrrrl on August 19, 2013 at 5:41 PM

    I think Jeff has a good point. This is fairly reductionist thinking in addition to being Ameri-centric. I do think the polarized political parties are somewhat relevant to behaviors I see at church (progressive types vs. traditionalists). Maybe that language could have been more precise and less political.

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  11. Howard on August 19, 2013 at 8:24 PM

    If the goal of the article was to explain the differences between religious liberals and religious conservatives I would strongly agree that it is reductionist but the stated topic is self deception so I’m not sure how/why you find it reductionist thinking.

    To Jeff’s points sure we’re all a mix but if you require the elimination of generalities the resulting discussion carries such a high overhead no one will be willing to have it. And the author is a psychologist and she is presenting a psychological topic.

    The unexamined life is not worth living. Why would Socrates say this?

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  12. MH on August 19, 2013 at 10:24 PM

    Andrew and Hawk,

    Regarding Menlove’s conclusion to talking about personal honesty, she quotes Pope Benedict (though she refers to him as Josef Ratzinger), saying that religious conservatives and liberals

    must take into consideration the brother weak in the faith, the unbelieving world around us, and too, the infirmity of our own faith, so capable of withering once we retreat behind the barrier of criticism and deterioration into the self-pitying rancor of one misunderstood.

    On the other hand, however, there exists, in contrast to discretion, another factor which must be taken into consideration. Truth, as well as love, possess a right of its own and over sheer utility takes precedence–truth from and which can demand of one the duty of bearing public witness. For were it necessary to wait for the day when the truth would no longer be misinterpreted and taken advantage of, we might fight that it had lost all effect.

    What I get out of the essay is that liberals may distrust authority too much, and may criticize the external authority at the expense of examining their own problems, or fully evaluating the effects of change on those weak in the faith. I don’t see her as telling people to become agnostic or atheist.

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  13. Hedgehog on August 20, 2013 at 1:41 AM

    (I wrote this better the first time around but then accidentally closed the window before posting…)

    MH “What I get out of the essay is that liberals may distrust authority too much, and may criticize the external authority at the expense of examining their own problems”

    That’s not what I got out of the sections included in the OP. So am I getting this bit back to front?
    “…avoid facing the issues that are of real concern to them–perhaps about the very nature of the Church organization or the legitimacy of any expression of authority or the validity of the basic theology.”
    You seem to be suggesting that the religious liberals are failing to recognise that some authority may be legitimate? Whereas I read it that the religious liberals were nevertheless bowing to authority in spite of what they might say, in order to maintain their ‘respected place’ in the community.

    So digging out the essay from the Dialogue issue you mentioned (https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/issues/V01N01.pdf) the author wrote: “There seems to be a commonly held conviction that there are only two alternatives, to conform silently or to leave the church.” Well the liberals don’t seem to be conforming silently, though are apparently conforming enough. And I don’t think that she is advocating the leaving.

    Following the quotes you included she discusses at length the ways in which the church, those in authority (right down to primary teachers and parents) fail in enabling honesty in the members. The following is the only part I can find to back your interpretation: “It is just as dishonest to suppress or play down the positive, the hopeful, the real achievements of the self and the Church as it is to speak only of these.” Possibly the liberals are missing some of the positives do you think?

    But she also writes: “When doubts and problems are seen as evidence of sin, of defects of character then it becomes dangerous for the individual to confront himself honestly”, she doesn’t specify liberal or conservative, and then goes on to quote: “To lean upon the authority of the Church, by way of defaulting out own responsibility to think and choose, is to run from our human dignity. To let others, whatever their stature or office, form our inner life is to abdicate human freedom.”
    She comes across as being a liberal, for sure. However, I don’t think it is completely clear whether she thinks liberals are not going far enough or are failing to recognise the good (though I still lean towards the former, I can see how you might read it otherwise), since the body of the essay seems to be about the importance of honesty institutionally, and the way that enables honesty in the members.

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  14. Howard on August 20, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    If you reduce what the OP portion of the article says (convolutedly) about liberals you get: Liberals …inner deception…lies in the possibility that they will use their candidness…their dissatisfaction…as scapegoats to help them avoid facing the issues that are of real concern to them…about the very nature of the Church organization or the legitimacy of…authority or the validity of the basic theology. In this way, they are relieved from coming to terms with themselves.

    In other words liberals avoid introspection by diversion while conservatives busy themselves preserving and protecting the status quo and thereby avoid not only introspection but also open critical analysis of the status quo.

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  15. Jeff Spector on August 20, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    Howard #14, interesting analysis. My take is there are people in the Church and in many organizations that just believe, just accept and are just as happy with that. And on the extreme, there are those who are not happy, don’t like certain things, never see the positive side, always want everyone and everything else to change to accommodate them, etc.

    It is neither liberal or conservative not does it have anything to do with honesty.

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  16. Howard on August 20, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    Jeff,
    I do think it is possible to just believe and be happy with that. In addition I believe it’s possible to have a spiritual witness that contradicts mortal logic putting some at peace with issues that others are not. But I wouldn’t go as far as you appear to in creating just two simple camps; the happy believers and the unhappy complainers. True there are people who’s general life default is unhappy complaining but there are also many, many stories of once “happy” TBMs who began to question and came to feel betrayed. They are often dismissed by implying that their lack of happiness comes from no longer living the gospel but there is much more to it than that simple discount, they are growing. So I think it’s important to recognize that for some people ignorance and/or Pollyanna denial is bliss! And this is one of the reasons that an unexamined life is not worth living. Is it because just believing and being happy is wrong? No, simply believing and being happy is wonderful but there is much, much more to learn from the parable of the gospel than just believing and being happy and peeling the layers off the gospel onion by moving from milk to meat requires personal growth and personal growth is defiantly not simple bliss.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on August 20, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    I suppose it’s another one of these damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios. If you desire change, you are cautioned that you may be destructive. If you desire for things to stay the same, you are cautioned that you may preserve what is stagnant and dead. Likewise, on my selfish altruism post this week, if you are anti-social, everyone agrees that’s you being selfish because your desires run counter to the group’s. But if you are pro-social, you are also pursuing self-interest because of the benefits to the group of which you are a part. We are always selfish.

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  18. Jeff Spector on August 20, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Howard,

    I agree that it is not black and white, one way of another. but I do wonder how many of these once-happy TBMS there really are when compared to the whole. I know we are exposed to a lot of them and the reasons are quite varied. the more likely scenario you would find in the Church of people leaving is just plain old losing interest. And again, that can derive from a variety of reasons, but they just aren’t interested anymore. And they are primarily silent about it until one of use comes knocking on their door.

    OTOH, these unconverted TBMs we know about are quite vocal. but I’d say it is small minority of the whole who leave.

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  19. Jeff Spector on August 20, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    Howard,

    “No, simply believing and being happy is wonderful but there is much, much more to learn from the parable of the gospel than just believing and being happy and peeling the layers off the gospel onion by moving from milk to meat requires personal growth and personal growth is defiantly not simple bliss.”

    Certainly this is true for me. But I am by nature an inquisitive person.

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  20. Jeff Spector on August 20, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    Hawk,

    “I suppose it’s another one of these damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios.”

    Ok, agreed you can’t win…. Now what? :)

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  21. hawkgrrrl on August 20, 2013 at 11:59 AM

    Jeff, I’m just going to steer into the skid.

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  22. Howard on August 20, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    Jeff wrote; I do wonder how many of these once-happy TBMS there really are when compared to the whole. Certainly not a large % but it appears to be a growing number and that means for every one that leaves the church there are multiple still in the pews who are questioning.

    …the more likely scenario you would find in the Church of people leaving is just plain old losing interest. Humm, I wounder how many of them would be losing interest if Jesus gave the GC talks.

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  23. Thomas Parkin on August 20, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    “Is anyone spared from inner deception?”

    Absolutely not.

    But I think it is important to see everything in terms of degrees. I am not dishonest or honest. I am, in general as well as at each particular point, honest and dishonest. The desire to see things as they really are has to be cultivated against both collective desires that things be this or that way and the individual need to maintain an identity (and hence give life meaning). I think it is absolutely essential that we realize that reality transcends perspective radically, and absolutely, and to place ourselves on the side of raw reality as against all the many many strategies that hedge against it. I think the ability to receive revelation is inextricable from placing oneself on the side of reality. To the degree that we are not on the side of raw reality – and none of us are fully on that side – the flow of spiritual information will always be to that degree thwarted. We will get a part, if anything at all. The process of coming to Christ is virtually identical with the process of overcoming inner deception.

    I think it also important to remember that our deceptions lie in our own personal darkness. We are, most of the time, simply unaware of them. So that they aren’t purged by an acknowledgement of our tendency to deceive ourselves, but have to be confronted successively as we gain experience and are constantly (hopefully) exposed to new information.

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  24. Howard on August 20, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    Excellent #23 comment Thomas Parkin, The process of coming to Christ is virtually identical with the process of overcoming inner deception. True and very well said!

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