49: A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: What’s Real, Deconstructing John Dehlin, and My Thoughts on Religion, Part II

stainedglass450When I started A Mormon in the Cheap Seats, I decided I’d write fifty posts.  Here are my last three posts—48, 49 and 50.  Here’ a link to Part I: What’s Real.

Part II: Deconstructing John Dehlin

A few years ago, John Dehlin started the Mormon Stories podcast (http://mormonstories.org/).  A couple months ago, he posted a lengthy podcast in which he discussed his struggles over the years with the church and explained his recent return to activity.

I’ve posted transcribed excerpts here.  The podcast is more than three hours long.  Full Disclosure: Although I consider John a friend, I haven’t talked to him about this interview, or about his return to activity.  My comments below rely exclusively on a relatively small excerpt from this podcast—an excerpt that I take at face value for present purposes.

Let’s go back to the two guys at the ballpark.  The first guy is enjoying a hot dog.  The second guy wants to make sure the first guys is aware of a number of different issues related to it’s production.

To oversimplify, as John tells it, he spent a number of years preoccupied with how hot dogs are made.  This focus left him spiritually bereft.  Then he began meeting on a weekly basic with his stake president.  He describes the start of these meetings as follows . [this discussion starts in Part 2 of 3, about 50 minutes in]:

[The stake president] said, “what books do you want me to read, what websites do you want me to go to, tell me all your issues, and let’s talk about them.”  So that’s what it was for months and months and months.  It was just “I want to learn everything that I can learn, and I want to understand as much as you want to tell me, this is your time, and you know. . . .”  Early on, I just said, “You guys talk about leaving the 99 to go after the 1, the lost sheep, but you don’t live it.”  I basically said to him, “you’ve had these concerns for a while, you’ve never called me in here, you’ve never tried to understand where I come from, I represent a lot of people that are in pain, you haven’t done any work to try. . . my bishop even less.”  I’d gotten a new bishop, and he was kind of the same way, he was like “I don’t want to talk about it.”  And so, I’m like, you guys are hypocrites, and he took it to heart, and he’s like,” okay, I’ll meet with you every week, I’ll meet with you as much as you want, you tell me.”  And so that’s what we started doing.

Sticking with the ballpark analogy, the stake president starts out by agreeing to listen to a lengthy discourse from John on the history of hot dog production.  The stake president is attentive.  He listens, he asks questions.  After several months, in John’s words:

What happened was a little bit surprising.  I lost interest in raising problems with him. . . So I would come to the meeting and I would say “let’s talk about this or that problem.”  And then most of the time, he would try and give explanations, and never were the explanations intellectually satisfactory to me. . . . I started losing interest in having intellectual discussions, because he wasn’t moving me intellectually, but he was moving me spiritually, and he was moving me emotionally, and he was displaying a level of love that I hadn’t been expressing for years.  He had been transformed by his understanding of the gospel, and it was apparent.  I felt the spirit.  I felt his love, his patience, and commitment.  He showed me that he was a man of character, and integrity, and commitment, and compassion.  The conversations changed, where he would want to teach me, but even the doctrine that he taught me wasn’t super interesting to me, but I just kept feeling like I’d made a friend.

Note that John’s return to activity—largely due to these ongoing conversations with his stake president—wasn’t because his concerns were resolved.  Also note that the stake president, although courteous and respectful, was similarly unmoved by the information that John introduced into their dialogue.

In this context, John was asking “truth” questions, while the stake president was focusing on what was “real.”

Let me illustrate this in the form of two challenges.

If you are a sincere believer, find a sincere believer of another faith.  Sit down across the table from them and ask them about their spiritual experiences.  Listen—really listen—to what they have to say.  Work through differences in terminology and focus on their experiences.  Look for similarities between their experiences and yours.  Then force yourself to consider the possibility that if this were a poker game, you both might be holding the same cards.  Then acknowledge that unlike a poker game, there isn’t any way for you compare your hands, and that arguing about whose spiritual experiences are more valid or legitimate is an exercise in futility.  If you find yourself resorting to the “shards” theory of the truth (i.e. you have the entire stained glass window, everyone else is left with “shards”), remind yourself that comparison of spiritual experiences is impossible, and that even if this “theory” could be applied, there would be no way to establish that you aren’t one holding the shards (and not the other way around).  If you find yourself saying to yourself “but God wouldn’t tell people different things,” recognize that there isn’t any basis for that assertion.  Even if you choose to view spiritual experiences as divine communication (and that, in itself, is an act of faith), even a superficial awareness of the diversity of religious belief suggests exactly the opposite.  Take a few moments and do your best to see that you are at an impasse, and that to continue to assert that your religious convictions are superior, or more truthful, or more legitimate, in an epistemological sense, is unjustifiable arrogance.

On the other hand, if you aren’t a believer, attend church services for a few weeks where there is a sense of community and fellowship.  Find a place where you’re comfortable and where you can develop honest friendships with other congregants.  Set aside any objections you may have to claims of religious truth and do your best to participate in religious activities.  If you find yourself thinking in terms of what is “logical” or “verifiable,” remind yourself that epistemological arguments lead nowhere, and focus on the experience itself.  Concentrate on the familiarity, shared sense of purpose, mutual support, and spiritual communion that is supported and sustained by the group’s shared beliefs.  Recognize that these experiences, regardless of how they are generated or sustained, are real, and for many of those that claim religious affiliation, they are the most valuable benefits of religious affiliation.

The first challenge is an exercise in epistemology; The second is an exercise in phenomenology.  The first asks what is “true,” while the second focuses on what is “real.”

Although these two approaches are trains that run on different tracks, considering them together raises some interesting philosophical questions.  Can group fellowship and communion be built on shared, but erroneous, individual beliefs?  Can spiritual experiences be based on misrepresentations, half-truths, or fictional elements?  For example, if listeners “felt the spirit” when Paul H. Dunn shared embellished or fabricated stories [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_H._Dunn], then does it matter if these stories were literally “true”?  If primary children “feel the spirit” while examining a picture of Joseph Smith sitting at a desk “translating” the Book of Mormon, does it matter if the picture is a misrepresentation of the process? In another context, if a placebo cures a patient, is the placebo “true”?  Is it real?

Over time, as John met with his stake president, John discovered that what mattered to him was the connection he felt.  He discovered that he missed the sense of spiritual communion, love, and friendship that comes from religious fellowship.

In other words, John got tired of talking about the details of how hot dogs are made.  Instead, he decided to join the stake president and have one himself.

Here’s Part III: My Thoughts on Religion.

Here’s Part I: What’s Real

[A Mormon in the Cheap Seats Archive]