Of all the diverse responses to Elder Jeffrey Holland’s speech in BYU’s August 23th opening conference main event, none is more illuminating than the recent Faith Matters interview with Patrick Mason and Tom Christofferson, entitled “Elusive Unity at BYU.” The Faith Matters response to Elder Holland merits special attention, owing not only to the quality of its content, but because Faith Matters is a prominent organization that has earned wide respect and support among thoughtful and faithful Latter-day Saints. From my personal experience at BYU, I would venture that a significant percentage of the BYU faculty whom Elder Holland was especially addressing is at least broadly sympathetic with the viewpoint espoused or accepted by all interlocutors in this Faith Matters podcast. All this is just to suggest that the question how Faith Matters views the world, in this podcast and more generally, is a question very relevant to discerning the direction of BYU and thus of what is considered the most careful and rigorous thinking among Latter-day Saints generally.
In what follows I will not always attribute points to individuals among the four participants, two interviewers, and two guests. The interviewers deserve credit for raising some good questions, and at least one fundamental question, as discussed below. But they were more than happy to accept their guests’ answers without much follow-up and with no apparent residual difference of viewpoint. Indeed, there were no serious disagreements expressed among the four—all clearly felt themselves to be on the same “side” of the main question at hand. In the end, the podcast conveyed a sense of satisfaction shared by all thoughtful Latter-day Saints that Christofferson and Mason had shown a way forward, a way around the troubling implications of Elder Holland’s speech.
Elder Holland’s speech, in which the apostle reminds BYU faculty and administrators of their duties as Latter-day Saints mentoring Latter-day Saints and more generally representing the Church and its doctrines, has become a very prominent flashpoint of controversy, a controversy focused mostly on Elder Holland’s comments concerning that status of homosexuality in Church doctrine and on the BYU campus. All parties to the Faith Matters discussion sought to hear Elder Holland’s remarks charitably, recognizing the difficulty and complexity of the situation he was addressing. The interviewers Aubrey and Tim Chaves approached the topic, which, as they avow, feels “particularly polarizing and raw,” with some trepidation, begging their audience’s “grace … as we navigate this tricky territory.” They do not fail to challenge their guests with serious questions, and the guests respond in mild and measured tones with genuine efforts to address them. Thus, this interview provides an excellent case study of intellectual challenges— and challenges to intellectuals—that arise from the growing tension between Church teachings, especially as concern sexuality and the family, and certain notions and sensibilities that hold sway among so many of those who wish to be thoughtful as well as faithful. The producers of the Faith Matters podcast have provided an essential service to those of us striving to understand this tension; they have opened a window onto the minds and souls of faithful Latter-day Saint intellectuals and their followers who are struggling to reconcile their faith with their best understanding of the nature of our modern society and of its ethical demands. For these brothers and sisters at Faith Matters, we should be open to “healthy disagreement” regarding Church doctrine, but it seems as if “real experiences” are beyond questioning and exempt from interpretation.
Just what did Elder Holland say to the BYU community gathered in the Marriott Center last month? Addressing a concern that “some faculty are not supportive of the Church’s doctrines and policies and choose to criticize them publicly,” Holland reminds the BYU community of the university’s distinctive mission. He cites a letter from a parent expressing concern about BYU professors who are helping students bridge between faith and intellect. While welcoming “healthy debate,” he makes it clear that it is imperative to “stay in harmony with the Lord’s anointed, those whom he has designated to declare Church doctrine and to guide Brigham Young University as its trustees.” Citing Elder Oaks citing Elder Maxwell, he asks BYU scholars to “handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets,” that is, to assume responsibility both for building the temple of learning and for defending the kingdom. And he singles out as a special concern the university’s duty to defend “the doctrine of the family … and … marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” particularly with respect to “the whole same-sex topic on campus.” He strongly counsels “love and empathy” for those who experience “this same-sex challenge,” but insists that “we have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy, or that orthodoxy and loyalty to principle not be interpreted as unkindness or disloyalty to people.” To maintain this distinction between love and advocacy, he counsels, will require that BYU more fully embrace its “unique” mission as so memorably expressed by President Kimball in his Second Century Address of 1975 to the BYU community.
Faith Matters takes it as a given that Elder Holland’s speech was “troubling” to many, including, it is implied, to most of its audience. It is the turmoil occasioned by the speech that Faith Matters hopes to calm by sharing the perspective of Brothers Patrick Mason and Tom Christopherson. These invited guests and pillars of the Faith Matters project began by expressing love and respect for Elder Holland and appreciation for the loving service he has provided, including individual attention to Latter-day Saints experiencing same-sex attraction. That is a far cry from the many hostile treatments of Elder Holland’s commentary online in recent weeks that malign his character and attack him personally – and merits appreciation. I also have no doubt about the sincerity of the participants’ efforts throughout the podcast to encourage people to look to Christ for answers. Here, for example, is Tom Christofferson’s heartfelt expression:
Through a lot of tears and prayers, I can come back to what Patrick began with, which is that our hope is in Christ. That as I can orient my focus on Him, then things I can’t resolve, I can at least live with as I try to move forward and draw closer to Him … “If we are trying to follow Christ, if we’re doing the very best we can to follow the spirit each day and to turn to Him for healing to each day strive a little harder to follow Him more diligently, perhaps we are holy men and women that others know not of.” Maybe that’s not a consolation, but just like our faith is in Christ, I think our consolation is in Christ. If we are doing the very best we can and being willing to interrogate our souls as honestly as we can about our motivations.
We should also note Patrick Mason’s very kind words for BYU, for his personal experience there, for the university’s distinctive mission, and for its important role in higher education in the United States.
After having accorded much credit to Elder Holland for his goodwill and diligent service, Faith Matters turned to the main business of the day: the challenge of processing “troubling” features of the apostle’s speech.
All four interlocutors agree that there was something harmful, even abusive in Elder Holland’s remarks, despite the acknowledged admixture of love and the unquestioned good intentions. In a word, he tried to help but he hurt.
Tom Christofferson interjects what many have felt was an important misunderstanding into the conversation just as he introduces his criticism of Holland’s speech. He alleges that such letters from parents suggest “that they no longer want to send their children or their dollars to BYU, presumably, if it is a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, staff and faculty.” But this is simply not the concern Elder Holland cited. Here are the apostle’s actual words:
“You should know,” the writer said, “that some people in the extended community are feeling abandoned and betrayed by BYU. It seems that some professors (at least the vocal ones in the media) are supporting ideas that many of us feel are contradictory to gospel principles, making it appear to be about like any other university our sons and daughters could have attended. Several parents have said they no longer want to send their children here or donate to the school. Please don’t think I’m opposed to people thinking differently about policies and ideas,” the writer continued. “I’m not. But I would hope that BYU professors would be bridging those gaps between faith and intellect and would be sending out students who are ready to do the same in loving, intelligent, and articulate ways. Yet I fear that some faculty are not supportive of the Church’s doctrines and policies and choose to criticize them publicly. There are consequences to this. After having served a full-time mission and marrying her husband in the temple, a friend of mine recently left the Church. In her graduation statement on a social media post, she credited [such and such a BYU program and its faculty] with the radicalizing of her attitudes and the destruction of her faith.”
Brother Christofferson makes what appears to be for him an effortless, perhaps even unconscious leap from the question of whether Church teachings are being supported at BYU to the implication that an interest in upholding prophetic teaching implies an unwelcome posture towards non-heterosexual students. Already, then, we see clearly the premise (which will not be contradicted by anyone at Faith Matters) that the only way to welcome such students is for BYU to teach what they want to hear, that is, to bend doctrine so that it does not contradict their inclinations or preferred way of seeing their own identity.
From this vantage, Elder Holland clearly hurt people because, by giving some satisfaction to parents of BYU students concerned about heterodoxy on campus, he raised the specter of an atmosphere at BYU hostile to those who identify as part of “the LGBTQ community,” to “the reality of their lives.” Elder Holland hurt people because, by criticizing a student’s coming-out in a graduation ceremony, he discriminated against the minority and in favor of the majority who are free to celebrate their traditional marriages and families. And he hurt people because he spoke of same-sex attraction as a “challenge,” in some way an obstacle to be overcome in our pursuit of our ultimate good.
To be fair, Elder Holland’s standpoint does not at all involve a denial of the fact that sexual orientations can become deeply interwoven with a person’s sense of self, or that the deeply personal, emotional and spiritual grapplings of those experiencing homosexuality, whatever their causes or origins, should be seen as authentic and worthy episodes in a individual’s eternal journey. But such a sympathetic understanding of the homosexual experience is something quite different from the view advanced in this Faith Matters interview, namely, that such sexual attraction lies forever at the heart one’s essential – apparently, eternal – identity, and should be seen not as an obstacle, but as a source of pride.
As Patrick Mason averred, in the most bracing and lucid moment of the interview, there is now a “real, serious, unsustainable” conflict in the Church between the doctrine of the Church and the “real experiences” of LGBT+ members. (My emphasis.) This view of the status of homosexual orientation as a fundamental, essential experience that must not be questioned as a basic premise of life’s ultimate meaning and of moral reasoning and spiritual concern, goes to the heart of the difference between Elder Holland’s counsel and the hurt experienced by those represented at Faith Matters. Elder Holland, on the other hand, sees same-sex attraction as a “challenge,” an orientation experienced by a person, no doubt very often at a very deep level, for reasons we cannot explain, but one that necessarily presents an obstacle to a Latter-day Saint’s efforts to participate in the plan of salvation as it has been revealed. This plan as understood in Church doctrine is as “heteronormative” as a plan can be, grounded in a belief in heavenly parents, male and female, and an eternal destiny to be like them.
The Faith Matters stance towards this plan appears to be, shall we say, complicated. Tom Christofferson, for example, expresses support for obeying rules of chastity (there is “no exception from commandments”), but he resists any logic that would tie these rules to a male/female understanding of the purpose of life. The commandment prohibiting sex outside a heterosexual marriage must be accepted, but apparently only as a kind of unintelligible brute fact, detached from any shared and enduring vision of meaning and purpose. The regulation of conduct, while accepted, for now, must not be understood in a way that accords any cosmic privilege to heterosexuality over homosexuality. For Christofferson and his interlocutors, it is best to limit the gospel to “following Christ,” and to let go of any notions tying present, traditional ideas of the family to some eternal design. When Aubrey Chaves ventures to point to the elephant in the room, noting that there is more doctrine in the Church—including a certain teaching distilled in the Family Proclamation—than the idea of following Christ as Christofferson understands it, the consensus that emerged was very clear that the Proclamation was, to say the least, dispensable. “We are the Church of Jesus Christ, not the church of the Family,” Tom remarks. And Patrick adds, “You don’t need a Ph.D. in history to note that the Church’s teaching on the family has changed since the 19th century.” (Much laughter here.)
From this perspective, the only family that really matters eternally is the whole human family, the “body of Christ,” which includes appreciation for the diversity of all its members. Love (unqualified acceptance) for the universe of humanity—with each individual defining their own identity—is the pure essence of the gospel, the truth that remains once traditional prejudices in favor of a certain family structure are eliminated.
Aubrey Chaves expressed a concern that Elder Holland’s speech felt like a warning to stop open discussion in the name of unity. She speaks on behalf of a member who wants to be unified with the prophet, but also wants to leave room for “healthy disagreement.” This is where Patrick Mason notes that the conflict in the Church at present is real, serious, and “unsustainable” – arguably because the apostolic teaching on sexuality is at odds with the “real experiences” of “LGBTQ” members. Clearly, for these brothers and sisters at Faith Matters, we should be open to “healthy disagreement” regarding Church doctrine, but it seems as if “real experiences” are beyond questioning and exempt from interpretation.
How should fellow Latter-day Saints regard these positions raised on this Faith Matters podcast? Faith Matters does well to counsel love and patience in the midst of uncertainty and disagreement. But it is clear that with this love and patience comes a definite perspective on this disagreement and how it must eventually be resolved. These podcast participants seem to have unquestioned faith in certain ideas or principles, and this faith shapes its response to Elder Holland’s unintentionally offensive or “abusive” speech. We have already noted the bedrock of this faith: the idea of the absolute authority of the self as it experiences and understands itself. There is no appeal beyond the self; there is nothing higher than the identity experienced or asserted by the individual—what is held up as the “real experience” of members who experience sexual inclinations or orientations not in line with the man/woman idea of marriage—and which must not be questioned in any way.
In the Faith Matters interview, a number of other arguments are cited in support of the authority of the self’s identity and experience. One is the argument that the inclusiveness of the gospel requires that doctrinal boundaries be widened so as to appeal to the maximum number of people. The body of Christ must include a boundless “diversity of members” unlimited by any doctrine except that of “love” understood as “compassion.” We are really trying to “broaden the circles” of our culture and community, the argument goes, in order to help them become as expansive and inclusive as they can be—both for those who already feel “super comfortable” at church and for those who are “trying to find a place to fit in.” The circle must be broadened, and teachings redefined, so that all may feel “super comfortable.”
On this view, we have no competence to judge between wheat and tares; all judgment as to moral compatibility with Church unity must be left to Christ at the end of times. It is wrong, therefore, for members to express confidence in moral distinctions supported by revelation. In response to Elder Holland’s acknowledgment that BYU’s upholding of the Church’s moral teaching might prove costly in terms of certain “professional certifications,” podcast participants insinuate that BYU must not sacrifice its prospects for a broader reach into the academic mainstream by clinging to narrower Church teachings concerning marriage and sexuality.
In support of this position grounded in the real experience of the self and in inclusiveness unlimited by doctrine, Patrick Mason in the Faith Matters interview also puts a great emphasis on the authority of “science.” Mason’s long digression on the marvels of the scientific method as the tried and true way to Truth is remarkable in its simplicity and conviction. What is not clear is just how the basic moral premise defended in the podcast, the sanctity of the self and the “experience” it claims, is supposed to be supported by “science.” Modern science, after all, is supposed to be based on a clear dichotomy between “facts” (the domain of science), and “values,” which are left with no rational status. Does Mason believe that “science” can by itself provide an adequate answer to the question of the ultimate purpose of life, and thus of the place of our powers of procreation in relation to that ultimate purpose? It seems more likely that Mason’s understanding of the method of the natural sciences as the complete model of rigorous reason simply accepts without question the authority of the modern, self-affirming self, and assumes that “science” will work towards the dissolution of more traditional understandings of morality.
As we have seen, this popular position in favor of the absolute experience of the self, borderless inclusiveness, and reason as a critical scientific method (from which only the Self is exempt) is reconciled with the Gospel by means of a reduction of Restoration Christianity to an idea of “love” purified of all commandment or purpose that might contradict the experience of the self. Faith in the self as the ultimate ground of truth and meaning, in boundless inclusiveness, and in the “scientific method” as the essence of critical thinking is clearly popular in the world at large, and shows up frequently in Faith Matters content that grapples with moral questions in the contemporary Church. Given these commitments, it is not surprising that Elder Holland’s speech was experienced as harmful or abusive.
The whole question between Elder Holland and these Latter-day Saints at Faith Matters concerns the distinction between loving and condoning, that is, between seeing sexual orientations that diverge from the revealed norm as “challenges” and seeing them as expressions of eternally valid and uncriticizable identity. And it should be noted here that Elder Holland’s distinction between loving persons and condoning proscribed behaviors or unorthodox teachings is hardly new. It is evidence of the confusion wrought by this kind of complex and “expansive” reasoning, along with the accompanying distaste for the simple categories of either/or, that these brothers and sisters were somehow surprised and disappointed that the apostle should insist upon the difference between loving a person and agreeing with a person’s opinion on a moral question. Elder Oaks’ classic 2009 address “Love and Law,” is a notable example. But Elder Holland himself has long been very clear on the question, as in his remarkable 2014 message, “The Cost and Blessings of Discipleship”:
At the zenith of His mortal ministry, Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” To make certain they understood exactly what kind of love that was, He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” and “whosoever … shall break one of [the] least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be … the least in the kingdom of heaven.” Christlike love is the greatest need we have on this planet in part because righteousness was always supposed to accompany it. So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others. Jesus clearly understood what many in our modern culture seem to forget: that there is a crucial difference between the commandment to forgive sin (which He had an infinite capacity to do) and the warning against condoning it (which He never ever did even once). (My emphasis.)
It is hard to understand how any Latter-day Saints attentive to General Conference teaching could be surprised to hear once again from the apostle’s mouth the clear distinction between loving a person and condoning that person’s immoral behavior or erroneous opinions about morality. Elder Holland, it must be recognized, remains quite attached to what certain thoughtful members regard as simplistic either/or thinking.
We should note that at one juncture in the interview, Patrick Mason is bracingly candid about a divide that exists in the Church on questions surrounding sexuality and marriage:
How can we sustain the prophets and apostles and how can we love our sisters and brothers? It seems impossible … we have our own Zion canyon right now. Where on the one side, we have the prophets and apostles teaching doctrine, which is their prerogative. And we sustain them as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their calling to do so. Part of that doctrine that they declare is the doctrine of love and the doctrine of compassion, but it’s also doctrines around sexuality and around marriage. On the other side of the canyon, we have the real experiences of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers who are, as Tom said, they’re not only in pain, but there is a lot of pain. Looking across the canyon, it’s hard to know how we would ever bridge that.
Does Mason appreciate how his own framing of the situation may itself help create and expand the very chasm he laments? While the interlocutors lament the “false dichotomies” Elder Holland was presumably teaching, they seem somewhat oblivious to the impact of their own words on the conversation—and the intense dichotomies implicit in their own efforts to shape the thinking of Latter-day Saints.
It is true that having clearly defined the chasm, on one side of which he clearly stands, Mason then offers some reassuring and familiar rhetoric intended to turn our minds away from the either/or he has just represented to us:
In the middle of that canyon is just a ton of pain and confusion and hurt, and it’s felt on both sides. There are some people just lobbing artillery shells back and forth, but there are a lot of people who want to build bridges, who want to find a way to bridge that gap and aren’t sure how. I’m convinced that that’s where the work of Jesus happens.
What is not clear is just how this version of “the work of Jesus” is supposed to bridge the doctrinal gap that Mason himself has so clearly alluded to. However, if we step back and consider the different elements of the larger arguments being made, I think it becomes clear that this work of “building bridges” has two main elements.
The first rhetorical element, which is certainly not unique to this interview or to Faith Matters itself, is the defining of Christian love as safely within the orbit of the sacred self of modern ideology. On this view, to do Jesus’ work by “building bridges” is to identify the Savior’s teaching with an understanding of love that is subservient to the self’s asserted identity, whatever that may be. If this is a “bridge” between the contradictory teachings Mason has referenced, then it’s a bridge that only pretends to extend towards the other side but in reality, turns around and affirms its own starting point in the modern self.
The second rhetorical element worth pointing out here is the specific way in which they approach continuing revelation. Since there is much we don’t know, then why not assume that the truth embraced by “expansive” minds such as ourselves is the true morality towards which the arc of revelation necessarily tends.
Thus, the essential role played in the Faith Matters worldview by the idea of continuing revelation: if we can only be patient, understanding the present limitations of many members of leaders, then we can hope for new revelation which will align official Church teaching with the faith of Faith Matters. Faith Matters is able to represent what appears to be a moderate disposition by its stance of patience towards members and the highest Church leaders who simply are lagging behind the arc of progress, the destiny of which has somehow been revealed to them but not to the rest of us. As Mason remarks:
That’s the challenge that we have before us. I don’t think we have the answers yet. I think we’re looking for conversations like this. The conversation’s there, but the prayers that have been said over the past two weeks, the prayers that Elder Holland said that he and his brethren and the leadership offer daily, that’s how we’re going to get there. Because the Lord’s going to give us more revelation. We’re not there yet … Where we’re at right now, we can’t stay here because the gap is too big. Our job together is to fill that canyon. I hope we fill it with compassion and love and discipleship and trust and all those kinds of things. But it’s going to take a little patience as we seek the Lord’s revelation.
It is true that Mason wants to avoid making promises he can’t keep, or unduly encouraging impatience with the movement of revelation towards the vindication of the self and its “experience.” As he notes:
I never want to give people the false hope that we’re living in 1977. That six months or a year from now, we’re going to get an announcement from the President of the Church where we do a 180 on this thing. Because, for me, I have no idea what the future holds. I absolutely believe that God has many great and important things to reveal to us, and this seems pretty great and important. I have full expectations we’ll receive more light and knowledge on the subject, but I don’t know what that means, I don’t know what it looks like, and I don’t know what the timetable is.
What are we to make of this profession of total uncertainty regarding what the future holds? While respecting Mason’s no doubt sincere efforts to practice humility, is it not clear that his hope for more light and knowledge already has a certain orientation, a certain content? Since he has already clearly defined a dichotomy between a doctrine that holds to certain substantive truths about sexuality and the family and one in which all such truths are dissolved in an idea of “love” completely open to the demands of the modern self, is there really any mystery remaining about the resolution of the conflict that he hopes for and expects?
That being said, I believe Patrick Mason is correct when he judges the present conflict between Church teaching and the “lived experience” of “LGBTQ” members and their advocates to be “unsustainable.” On the one hand, Elder Holland and Church teaching, in general, exhort members that we must love those who “struggle” with orientations that do not align with the plan of salvation as it has been revealed through prophets, but must not “condone” sexual behaviors or understandings of the deepest meaning of sexuality that spring, not at all from the Gospel, but from the modern idea of the self-affirming self as the touchstone of morality. Of course all of us fall short of the familial ideal that, despite some elusive implications and unanswered questions, informs the Great Plan of Happiness; and all who embrace this plan and keep covenants associated with it, whatever our challenges related to orientation or, for that matter, our marital status, are on the same gospel footing as those more fortunate in their present family circumstances. On the other hand, Faith Matters appears to embrace the view, increasingly dominant in contemporary society, that individuals should proudly embrace orientations or self-definitions not consistent with the plan of salvation. As Patrick Mason at least, among the Faith Matters voices, seems at bottom to understand, we really are confronted with an “either/or” question of morality and religion.
In my judgment, the faith advanced in this and other Faith Matters content is not compatible with Elder Holland’s faith. The talk of “complexity,” the rejection of “either/or thinking,” the rather empty rhetoric of “building bridges,” provides a rather thin veil for the hope that Church will sooner or later abandon Elder Holland’s faith for one that puts no boundaries on “inclusiveness” towards the demands of the modern self.
The rhetoric of building bridges of “complexity” and thus somehow overcoming “either/or thinking” is simply a way of averting our eyes from an unsustainable tension. It is time to recognize that Faith Matters (at least as represented in this interview) is committed to a faith quite different from Elder Holland’s – and we will have to choose between the two. And this faith in the absolute priority of the claimed “experience” of the self is certainly widely held among many Latter-day Saints today.
Returning to Elder Holland’s focus on the mission of BYU, it seems quite probable that this version of faith often advanced by Faith Matters (and many other voices) holds sway among many professors and students at BYU. We will all have to decide whether our loyalty is to this version of faith or to the doctrine as understood by Elder Holland and the Church for which he speaks. No doubt there is much complexity to explore in issues surrounding sexuality and the gospel, and many bridges to build, but in the end, Patrick Mason is right that the present tension between the final authority of personal experience and the moral doctrine at the core of the Plan of Salvation is unsustainable. This is an either/or that will have to be faced at BYU, and in the Church more widely.