In a recent post at Millennial Star, Geoff B argued that liberals greatly exaggerate claims of conservative intolerance at church. After the recent First Presidency proclamation was read in his ward, Geoff related the following:
There was not a single comment — not one, bloggernaclites! — criticising gay people in any way. There were no comments saying this was a sign of the end of the world. There were no comments even criticising the Supreme Court…Our bishop made a comment that kind of summed up the event. He told of one relative who had a son who decided to get married to another man. The bishop praised the man’s mother for continuing to love her son. With tears in his eyes, he said the mother realised the son was a “lost sheep” who needed special love and affection.
It’s true that liberals are an overly sensitive bunch. Conservatives in the church are much more tolerant and loving that we give them credit for. So why the frequent accusations of intolerance? I believe it boils down to two basic kinds of love we see in church. The first is a love for the prodigal. Our heart goes out to lost, suffering souls, and we desire to help them. This is the kind of love which Geoff’s bishop expressed. With tears in his eyes, he saw this gay man as a lost sheep in need of redemption. Liberals despise this kind of love and see it as condescending and insulting. A gay person doesn’t want to be a “lost sheep.” He wants to be seen and respected for who he is. Liberals prefer a kind of love which celebrates a person for who they are. Conservatives are more like missionaries who seek to correct what they see are the destructive ideas of others, while liberals are more like anthropologists who seek to protect and validate differences of opinion and belief. (Not to be confused with “progressives” who more like conservatives than true liberals, continually proselytising their beliefs and attacking those of others.)
Love for the Prodigal: Pros and Cons
Love for the prodigal has transformed the world. Missionaries, motivated by their prodigal love have brought Christian values and Western culture to people across the world, transforming it into a place with less violence and greater prosperity. In church, love for the prodigal helps give others a vision for self-improvement. By standing firm and owning our superior understandings we empower others to reach towards us with faith.
Yet love for the prodigal has its pitfalls. It can be blind and judgemental. For example, we might assume homosexuals are unhappy because “wickedness never was happiness” and the church claims homosexuality is wrong. If gays claim to be happy, they must deceiving themselves, or mistaking carnal pleasure for true happiness. But what if a gay person IS genuinely happy? Then those feeling prodigal love might be blind to it, unable to connect and understand him as he is. Even if one’s intention is to lift someone from a lower state to a higher, the inability to connect will hamper any progress that could be made. A good missionary first learns to appreciate an investigators perspective before offering a new path.
The Book of Mormon says some interesting things about love for the prodigal that should give us pause. The Sons of Mosiah went to preach the gospel to the Lamanites saying: we “could not bear the thought that any soul should endure endless torment.” But later, Alma repudiates this kind of love, crying: “Oh that I were an angel and could declare the gospel with the sound of a trump…but I do sin in my wish.” Why is it a sin? Because “a just God…allotteth unto men…according to their wills.” In other words, there is no need for Alma to preach the gospel in every ear, because God has already worked out a perfect plan of redemption for everyone in advance. Our anxiety for the prodigal can do nothing to change God’s plan for that prodigal. We can search for lost sheep, but ultimately none are lost. They are all safe in God’s hands and He will give everyone a fair shot.
In this sense, our tears and pity are a waste. Of course we should participate with God in His plan for helping others, but we should not assume, like the Sons of Mosiah did, that without our help, someone might be subject to “endless torment.” The Sons of Mosiah could do nothing in and of themselves for the salvation of the Lamanites. They were merely participating in something that was already preordained, and that would eventually happen with or without them. This understanding can help us graduate from love for the prodigal, to love for the individual. Once we know that everyone is on an inexorable path towards an inexorable destination, we need not be sorrowful about their welfare. Instead, we can show interest and pleasure in their present state, helping out where we can, but without judgement or anxiety.
Love for the Individual as They Are: Pros and Cons
Love for the individual is the kind of love Christ expressed on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus understood that those who killed Him did nothing wrong from their perspective. Jesus earlier told his disciples, “those who kill you will think they are doing God a service.” These murderers thought they were doing the right thing, and thus they were innocent in Jesus’ eyes. Paul, who was once a Christian-killer himself said, “Before the law I was alive: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.”
Even though we feel sympathy, we need not abandon our morals. Murder is still wrong. But the murderer might be innocent of that wrong. You may believe that homosexuality is wrong. But the homosexual might still be innocent of that wrong. Even practicing homosexuals within the church might be innocent. The path of the homosexual in the church so difficult, so fraught, and so paradoxical, how can we (for whom the church fits like a hand-in-glove) possibly judge a homosexual for leaving the church? How can we say it might not be God’s will? Empathy is the key: the ability to see and appreciate the paradoxes and challenges people face from their own perspective. Brigham Young said: “Understand men and women as they are, not as you are.”
Yet, this kind of love risks undermining the potential of those we love. We might not take a strong stand against behaviour we know to be wrong if we refuse to judge others. We might end up loving the sinner AND the sin. Victor Frankl said something along these lines in an inspiring seminar he gave to college students in Switzerland:
If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way — because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.
Love for Imperfection
I’d like to add a third kind of love inspired by this quote from Joseph Campbell, who spoke of love in marriage:
Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love – and I mean love, not lust – is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person, compared to (my imagined ideal spouse) peeks through, this is a challenge to my compassion.
Soon after marriage, we realise our spouses are not nearly as perfect as we thought they were before we got married. Formerly, we loved all the perfect things about them: their talents, their beauty, their kindness, etc. It is easy to love perfection. But the truest kind of love is the love of imperfection. To love imperfection is not to pity another’s weakness and help them overcome it. To love the imperfections of one’s spouse is to love her WITHOUT the expectation of overcoming the imperfection. You can see this in the love that elderly couples have for each other, a love that smiles and delights in the eccentricities and faults of the other, having long since abandoned futile attempts to change each other.
Perhaps this kind of love could be adopted in church too. Fellowship with the saints, like a marriage, should not be just about badgering people to change, but about loving people unconditionally. The unfortunate and abused scripture “be ye therefore perfect” should more accurately be translated as “be ye therefore whole (through Christ).” Christ is our perfection, not our future selves. Whether we love someone as a prodigal, or as an individual, the way forward is Christ, whose infinite perfection transcends all our faults, small or great. We will get much farther when we stop focusing on changing behaviour and start focusing on bringing people to Christ, and letting Him influence behaviour, if He feels so inclined.
- Do you agree that there are pros and cons to both prodigal love and love for the individual?
- When a family or ward member goes astray, how do you love them, as a prodigal, or as an individual?
- Do you agree with Joseph Campbell that the highest form of human love is the love of imperfection?