I’m an admirer of John Dehlin. My brother is also a big fan and he recently left the church along with his wife. My faithful parents are nervous about me, wondering if I too am going to become another “Dehlinite apostate.” I’ve tried to assure them that this won’t happen. But they still ask: “How can you say that? You are surrounded by apostate, faithless talk.” I don’t blame John Dehlin for the apostasy of his followers. I believe he was doing what he felt honestly called to do. But I do think that Dehlin’s path has been fraught with perils, perils which he himself admitted in an interview with Sarah Collett, transcribed in part by Andrew S. here. Why hasn’t apostasy tempted me, when it has snagged my brother and so many other “Dehlinites?” One reason is that there is an important difference between John Dehlin and myself: Dehlin is a progressive. I am a liberal. Right now, it is my liberalism which keeps me in the church, as well as my anti-progressive stance.
Progressives Are Missionaries
Progressives want the church and society to change, to become more tolerant towards homosexuals, to ordain women, to engage in more humanitarian work, to be more honest and forthright about their history, etc. They see the church as being run by good men who nevertheless have some outdated views, who also need to soften their hearts and embrace truths they believe are clear to them. Progressives transform the world and I have great respect for them. It would be wrong for an anthropologist to try to protect an African tribe’s “sacred” ritual of female genital mutilation. It would be better for a progressive missionary to try to get the tribe to embrace the “Western” idea that sexual pleasure for females is not evil. Progressives are guided by idealism and strong moral conviction. I feel great love in Dehlin’s challenge to the church to embrace same-sex marriage, even though I disagree with him. From his earliest years, Dehlin was concerned about influencing church heirarchy for good, as his story about his conversation with Elder Oaks suggests on his premier podcast. But this progressive approach ultimately had serious unintended consequences, as the interview with Sarah Collett suggests.
Liberals are Conservationists
Liberalism is very different than progressivism, although the two are frequently conflated. Indeed, liberalism is the opposite of progressivism, in that it values pluralism and diversity above all. Progressives seek conformity to a universal moral ideal, and the eradication of what they believe to be backward or immoral beliefs. But liberals respect the identity and culture of diverse groups, regardless of whether those groups have conservative, “unenlightened” beliefs. Progressives are missionary oriented. Liberals are conservationists. Liberals might hope people change, but they don’t believe in trying to press or influence change. Above all, they strive to be completely non-judgmental, tolerant and empathetic, to always put themselves in another’s shoes. The great test of a true liberal is this: are you tolerant of intolerance? Liberals champion the right of churches like ours to be as conservative as they want to be, as long as all groups are given equal protection and respect.
As a liberal, I abhor the idea that the Colorado baker might be forced to abandon his prejudiced religious beliefs to conform to current society’s beliefs about gay marriage. I am dismayed by France’s enactment of the headscarf ban. I fear that progressives might one day encroach upon the rights of our church to deny marriage to gays in our temples. That’s not because I wouldn’t mind gay marriage in the temple, or Muslims abandoning headscarves. I would love the church to ordain women. I would love for them to abandon their correlated orthodoxy. But I would hate to be seen as pressuring those things, to be seen as “steadying the ark.” “Stop steadying the ark” is more than just a catch phrase used by the orthodox to put progressives in their place. “Stop steadying the ark” is a fundamental liberal principle.
God designed the church to work in a very specific way: “I will call the weak things of the world, the unlearned and despised.” He calls these imperfect rulers and tells them to “study things out in their mind,” and make their own decisions. He tells them He will not “command them in all things.” Then ironically He also adopts their imperfect decisions by saying “whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants it is the same.” He gives a very specific order to priesthood authority, which resides not in the virtue of the priesthood holder, but only by virtue of the call itself. Doing this, God knows His priesthood will stumble in its imperfection. “My spirit will not always strive with man.” But that was His design all along. He is a “stumbling block, a rock of offense.” He makes the church hard to believe in. He is “an hard man.” He “stops their ears and shuts their eyes that they see not, hear not, and be not converted.” God designs His church, not only as a helpmeet to his saints, but also as a trial to test them. The church engages in many fruitless quests: Zion’s camp, the Kirtland Safety Society, gold digging in Salem, destruction in Missouri, decades of polygamy and discrimination against blacks, backward attitudes towards gays. But those who choose to stick with the church through the trial come out with stronger testimonies and faith. The stone which the builders reject becomes the cornerstone. The church continues to grow and advance, and it is marvelous to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. But the journey is longer than anyone thought. It requires more patience than anyone thought. The ark of the covenant must fall, and the Levites must stand by and watch it fall, and watch it be redeemed of the Lord. A chick must break through the shell of his own egg or he will die.
Virtues and Drawbacks of Progressivism in the Church
As a tolerant and open-minded liberal, I am obliged to recognize and champion the value of both progressivism and conservativism as part of a diverse society. Progressives have an important place. But it is a perilous place. One risks putting one’s own wisdom above that of God, to “trust the wisdom of man and reject the foolishness of God.” I think that progressives sometimes miss an important aspect of what religion means: submission to an imperfect authority which stands in for God in the world. True humility is not possible without submission. I won’t rehash my arguments, but I blogged about the essential virtue of submission here.
So I don’t see myself leaving the church, even though I personally hold radically different views to your average orthodox Mormon. If I learned Joseph Smith worshiped a white salamander, or Brigham Young ordered the MMM, I still wouldn’t leave. If they found the bones of Jesus Christ I wouldn’t leave. I’m here for one reason, and one reason only: God asked me to stay in and submit to a church which holds some different views to my own. But it is good to be in a place like that, for it is a place of faith and submission.
- What are the virtues of progressivism in the church?
- What are the perils?
- Is embracing liberalism a tenable worldview within a conservative church?
- Is there a way to embrace the tolerant and non-judgemental attitude of the liberal, while also retaining the idealism of the progressive?