Note: This is Part 1 of an article series is adapted from a presentation originally given August 2021 at FAIR.
Let’s imagine two roommates, James and Greg, who both attend BYU. They live under the same roof, they are both practicing Latter-day Saints, and they both claim to believe in the doctrines taught by the Proclamation on the Family about sexuality and gender. However, despite these shared beliefs, the way they experience Church culture, policies, practices, and traditions couldn’t be more different.
For James, BYU’s honor code seems like a natural expression of those doctrines, an institutional scaffold that helps reinforce our moral intuitions. For him, discipleship involves participating in a community that encourages and reinforces our shared values and priorities, and helps us maintain our ideals and live out our convictions.
For Greg, the community norms those doctrines give rise to are disclosed to him, experienced by him as stifling and burdensome for LGBT students. He concludes that his faith requires him to engage in political and social advocacy on behalf of his LGBT friends, to make the university and the church more hospitable for those who live LGBT lifestyles.
How can two people who share the same doctrinal beliefs arrive at such wildly different conclusions? This question is relevant to those of us who want to help members maintain faith and conviction. The Gregs of this story do not always experience a crisis of faith and leave the Church, but Greg’s approach may prime him towards distrust of the Church’s policies and traditions, and sow the seeds of continued disappointment and future disaffection when the Church doesn’t change in the ways he prefers.
I believe the answer to this question is that doctrinal propositions are not always the primary source of our most central convictions. More often than not, our convictions form as a result of our worldviews.
What is a worldview? A worldview is a set of values and assumptions about the world, through which we interpret our experiences. More specifically, worldviews shape our understanding of what human flourishing and the good life look like. Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford explain that worldviews “tell us what we should love or despise, what is valuable or unimportant, and what is good or evil.”
Like a pair of colored lenses, our worldviews shape and inform where we look and what we see when we look there. This picture, as a metaphor for worldviews, is misleading because it implies that we could take our worldviews off and see the world as it really is. However, we can only ever trade one for another. There is no way to look at the world except through the lens of a worldview.
Wilkens and Sanford have written a fantastic book called Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape Our Lives. Written from a broadly Christian perspective, they identify a series of non-Christian worldviews that sometimes shape Christian thinking, worldviews such as consumerism, nationalism, or naturalism. They argue that worldviews are more than lists of propositions. Worldviews, at their core, are rooted in stories.
Stories give us characters, and in every story, the characters have goals, desires, or aspirations — the things that the characters are striving for. By setting forth the goals and aspirations of the characters, stories also describe the conflict that drives the story, or the problem that stands between the characters and their aspirations. Worldview stories also set forth the expected, anticipated, or hoped-for resolution to the conflict. In all of these, they shape our understanding of human flourishing and the good life. These stories also define the villains or antagonists of the story.
So what is the Gospel worldview, or the Gospel story? Well, as characters of this story, we are sons and daughters of God with a divine destiny. Our goal is salvation and exaltation — to return to live with God again to lay hold upon all the blessings of eternity. What stands between us and our desires? That is, what’s the conflict that drives this story? We (the protagonists) have been alienated from God through sin. What is the anticipated, expected, hoped for resolution? We find redemption through Christ by making and keeping covenants and participating in sacred ordinances, and by so doing lays hold upon the fruits of the Spirit in our day-to-day life. We become reconciled with God and commune with Him in holy temples.
When we embrace and internalize this worldview and its story, we see human flourishing and the good life as bound up in the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, and in temple worship — regardless of our life circumstances, or the trials we face. The villain of the story are sin, vice, and the Adversary who entices us towards sin and rebellion.
Confessional vs. convictional beliefs
It is in the translation of these stories into our lives that we form our convictions. To be clear, convictions here are more than mere stated beliefs. Wilkins and Sanford argue that our stated beliefs — that is, our confessional beliefs — can be at odds with our convictional beliefs. Confessional beliefs are those doctrinal commitments that we profess to hold to. Convictional beliefs are those values that are reflected in how we live.
In their book, Sanford and Wilkens explore consumerism as an example of a worldview that competes with the Gospel story. Consumerism is a worldview that depicts us as consumers, built to enjoy — and our aspirations are a life of material comfort. What stands in the way? Scarcity or lack of money. The hoped for resolution is improved employment and income, the accumulation of wealth, and increased material comforts and enjoyment. In this worldview, human flourishing is found in material consumption. The villain of this story is anything that gets in the way of material comfort and prosperity, be it income inequality, unemployment, underemployment, etc.
It is possible for a Christian to openly confess that their aspirations are discipleship, sacrifice, and service, and yet live as if their highest priority is material comfort instead. Their confessional beliefs (the doctrines they claim to believe in) may diverge from their convictional beliefs, which are handed to them by an undetected consumeristic worldview. In the same way, in the example above, both James and Greg share a confessional belief in the Church’s doctrines on the family, but Greg’s convictional beliefs may be informed by something else. We will get to what that “something else” is in a moment.
Sanford and Wilkens explain that our questions and discourse can often be informed by “hidden worldviews” that sneak into our thinking and shape our convictions:
It is not the worldviews that begin as theories or intellectual systems that mold the lives and beliefs of most people. Instead, the most powerful influences come from worldviews that emerge from culture. They are all around us, but are so deeply embedded in culture that we don’t see them. In other words, these worldviews are hidden in plain sight.
[W]e are more likely to absorb them from cultural contact than adopt them through a rational evaluation of competing theories. … Because of their stealthy nature, these worldviews find their way behind the church doors, mixed in with Christian ideas and sometimes identified as Christian positions.”
In a similar way, I believe that many Latter-day Saints today struggle with their faith not because they’ve learned about something Brigham Young said or did, or because they’ve discovered some nasty facts surrounding polygamy, or some of the eccentricities of Book of Mormon translation. Many think that their trials of faith center on these questions, and some of them may be right.
But it seems to me that many of those who struggle with these historical questions do so because they’ve first embraced unquestioningly, and often wittingly, other worldviews with stories that tilt them towards doubt. Having done so, the historical questions provide a pretext for a faith crisis that has been in the works long before they ever realized it. And the true reasons for the crisis are often beyond their ability to articulate — they are merely living out the story handed to them by their worldview.
The Joshua Tree Principle
We often don’t always have a shared language for talking about these competing worldviews. Let me share a story that is told by a graphic designer named Robin Williams:
Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. I was at my parents’ home, and after all the gifts had been opened I decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before I went out, I read through part of the book. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now, the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, ‘Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in northern California. That is a weird looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.’ So I took my book and went outside. My parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. I had lived in that house for 13 years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. … Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere.
This is what I sometimes call the Joshua tree principle. If we cannot name something, it is often invisible to us. And our own worldviews are often invisible to us precisely because we don’t have names for them. And so by giving names to these worldviews, and showcasing them with examples, we’ve done perhaps a third of the necessary work. We will have revealed to many who are struggling something about their own thinking that they, before, did not fully notice or realize. For some, this unveiling and revealing might even be enough to show them the source of their difficulties and the path back into faith and conviction. For others, it might at least be a start on that journey.
Let’s look at a worldview in depth. Expressive individualism is a worldview that gives self-expression a privileged place among human goods, and treats the social freedom to engage in self-expression as a paramount virtue. Like all worldviews, it hands us a story. In this story, we aspire to become who we truly are. The conflict of this story is aptly illustrated in the writings of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, who argued that the threat of judgment from others creates a split between our private and public selves. Because of cultural norms, family expectations, or religious conventions, we hide our “true selves” from the world.
Therapeutic healing, in Rogers’ view, requires us to break free from the shackles of ‘oughts’ and ‘thou shalts,’ and embrace what we have hidden from others. The expected, hoped for resolution to this conflict is that we step into and assert our true selves. Carl Rogers explained: “Over against these pressures for conformity, we find that when clients are free to be any way they wish, they tend to resent and to question the tendency of the organization, the college or the culture to mould them to any given form.”
Human flourishing, then, is defined as living in a community that celebrates our uniquenesses and differences — a community that doesn’t evaluate our choices or have an agenda for our lives. The villain of the story is anyone who makes us feel self-conscious or evaluated for our self-expression. In this way, expressive individualism leads us to be suspicious of any religious mores, cultural norms, or societal institutions that discourage self-expression.
In its most extreme forms, expressive individualism presumes that there is no greater moral authority than the self, to decide what the “good life” or human flourishing looks like for us. Expressive individualism makes an idol of personal autonomy and free choice, unfettered by stifling religious conventions. From this view, community norms and religious precepts that lead people to evaluate our choices — especially choices that we see as the outgrowth of our natural selves, our true selves — hinder personal development.
Let’s put the expressive individualist story and the Gospel story side-by-side. The expressive individualist story takes place in three stages:
- First, the protagonist finds herself in a community of oppressive norms and expectations. This could be a community culture that discourages rocket building in favor of coal mining. This could be a religious community that discourages embracing LGBT lifestyles. Whatever the case may be, the community does not celebrate their unique preferences, desires, or aspirations.
- Next, the protagonist breaks free of the constraints of her family, community, or faith, embraces authenticity and self-expression, and becomes the person she wants to be, to be true to her heart. She embraces whatever parts of themselves they were formerly hiding from the world, be that rocketry or an LGBT lifestyle.
- Finally, the protagonist returns, revisits, or reinvests in his community, for the purpose of remaking the community’s norms to accommodate the new version of themselves. They seek reconciliation by re-inventing the community in their image. For example, they might engage in social advocacy to dismantle norms that discourage LGBT lifestyles. Or they might start a rocket science club in their school.
The Gospel narrative can also be expressed in three stages:
- The protagonist comes to acknowledge the ways in which she has alienated herself from God through sin.
- The protagonist seeks redemption and reconciliation with God through Christ, by making and keeping sacred covenants.
- She ends up becoming a disciple, and serving Christ, and enjoying the fruits and gifts of the Spirit.
This isn’t to say that all examples of expressive individualism are bad. Individualism is a wonderful thing if you are a bookworm or theater nerd in a high school that prioritizes athleticism. Or an aspiring rocket scientist in a community that expects you to become a coal miner (if you have read that book or seen that movie). Sometimes we need to re-evaluate community norms that stifle legitimate self-expression, and be more deliberate in valuing and celebrating individual differences. However, as a worldview, these stories set forth different values and priorities for us. Where expressive individualism makes community norms the central hurdle of the story, the Gospel makes sin the central hurdle of the story.
Worldviews affect our vocabulary
Worldviews, and their stories, not only shape our values and assumptions, they can also shape our vocabulary and how we experience the world. And here’s where we circle back to James and Greg, from earlier. The reason why James and Greg have such different experiences in the Church — despite superficially similar doctrinal beliefs — is because Greg has embraced expressive individualism as his core worldview.
Expressive individualism can influence how we define and experience love. Expressive individualism defines love as the absence of judgment, and also as an affirmation and celebration of whatever ways you differ from the community. Carl Rogers argued that human flourishing requires spaces of unconditional positive regard, therapeutic contexts in which individuals feel no hint or threat of evaluation or judgment. Only in such no-judgment zones can individuals freely experiment with and step into their “truest” selves and become who they were built to be.
As useful as this might be in a therapeutic context, as these ideas found expression in popular culture, the term “unconditional positive regard” was unwieldy and a bit niche. So it was shortened to “unconditional love.” This term “unconditional love” was rarely used prior to the advent of humanistic psychology. It began to be used in the 1960s, and exploded in the 1990s and 1990s as humanistic psychology became popular. And because of this, the term has some undeclared baggage and smuggles into our discourse some unwitting assumptions about the nature of love.
Basically, many people, including many Latter-day Saints, have come to see love and discernment as opposites. Just as a therapist who evaluates his client’s decisions is not providing “unconditional positive regard” (according to Rogers), so it is that when parents, friends, teachers, or Church leaders evaluate someone’s choices in light of the Restored Gospel and the covenants they have made, they are not providing “unconditional love” (according to an expressive individualist worldview).
As a consequence, any attempt to reinforce a community’s distinctive norms is taken to be unloving. In this view, love means celebrating uniquenesses and differences, encouraging others to live out their differences, and facilitating that in whatever ways we can. The purest expression of love, in this view, looks a lot like social advocacy. And because worldviews shape how we experience the world, when expressive individualism is absorbed as our guiding worldview, anything short of affirmation doesn’t “feel” like love to us.
I want to be crystal clear here. We should be patient with others, refrain from needless criticism, and help those who wander feel wanted and valued within our congregations. God is patient with us, and so we should be patient with others. We should create a community where God’s abiding love is unmistakable — a bonfire of redeeming love that warms those who have felt alienated from God. Those who sin should feel welcomed, loved, and wanted in our congregations and communities. And any time we falter in this regard, we should take corrective action.
However, this open-hearted Christian humility, compassion, and charity is fundamentally different from the expressive individualist notion of affirmation and celebration. In a Christian worldview, love is all about genuine concern, with an aim towards the salvation and exaltation of souls, through repentance, forgiveness, and transformation through Christ. In a Christian worldview, love is not indifference, and indifference is not love. Self-righteous judgment, self-serving condemnation, prideful nitpicking, moral grandstanding, etc., are all lapses in love. But so is apathy towards, or even celebration of, choices that contradict divine teaching.
So it is that while James experiences a community of loving concern at Church, Greg experiences a community of unloving judgment. Their experiences are the same but are experienced differently by each because of the worldview lenses through which they are seeing the world. Similarly, when James and Greg hear President Nelson encouraging members to stay on the covenant path, James hears this as love, and Greg hears this as a lapse in love, as a threat of judgment should he or others deviate from the covenant path.
The “Rogerian” baggage of the term “unconditional love,” and the subsequent linguistic drift in our definition of love, can go a long way towards explaining why President Nelson, in 2003, and Elder Christofferson, in 2016, both warned against the term, with a preference towards divine love, abiding love, infinite love, or love unfeigned. Unlike a Rogerian therapist who imposes no expectations on the client, our God — a being of infinite, pure, abiding love — has tremendous expectations of us and an agenda for our lives and eternity.
Expressive individualism can influence how we define terms like Zion. Latter-day Saints who embrace expressive individualism often define Zion as a place where no one feels self-conscious for being who they are, where their differences are celebrated by everyone in the community. I would submit that, from a scriptural perspective, Zion is a place where God’s laws and teachings are no longer merely aspirational ideals, but have become shared commitments and community norms.
The consequences of these vocabulary shifts are tremendous — they effect how we perceive and experience efforts to reinforce the distinctive norms of the Latter-day Saint community, and to what extent we believe those norms should reflect our teachings about chastity, marriage, and gender. For example, while James sees robust norms that encourage chastity as part and parcel with the “Zion experience,” Greg begins to believe that we cannot achieve Zion until same-sex couples can freely express their sexual preferences — their true selves — in Church or at BYU without ever fearing judgment from those around them.
Let’s flesh out the Gospel alternative to expressive individualism a little bit more. Whereas expressive individualism assumes that we flourish most in a context where no one else has an agenda for us, we belong to a religious community that does have an agenda for us. We call it the covenant path. And the guide-rails and signposts on that covenant path may not always dovetail our personal inclinations. I like to refer to the alternative to expressive individualism as Christian discipleship, which I see as a willingness to be disciplined by Christ — and also by institutions that bear His divine authority and name.
As Latter-day Saints, we strive embrace a Gospel worldview in which commitments to community can transcend personal aspirations, where higher duties such as parenthood, priesthood service, and personal covenants take precedence over personal preferences. From the view of expressive individualism, individuals are the sole experts on what the good life looks like for them. But from a Christian perspective, we are not always the expert on what human flourishing looks like for us. There is a higher power, a divine moral sovereign, who we trust more than the self to know what our eternal destiny looks like. C.S. Lewis expressed this well when he wrote,
The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … Our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and natural desires. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.
Here, C.S. Lewis depicts us as subject to a divine sovereign who has an agenda for us — an agenda that we do not necessarily, right now, have for ourselves. Human flourishing is not centered primarily on self-expression, but just as much on submission, and sacrifice, and living beyond ourselves in pursuit of commitments, duties, and covenants. It can involve a very different future for ourselves than we currently imagine or wish for — and, in fact, when Christ is done with us, we might wish or want very different things for ourselves. As Alma the Younger put it immediately after his conversion:
Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures.
In short, Christ can change the desires of our hearts — the things we value, prize, prioritize, and most earnestly seek after (and at times wait for) in our various life circumstances. Genuine, lasting conversion involves something more than asserting our uniqueness in the world, which is the rubric of expressive individualism. It involves a change in our values and priorities, so that they more closely resemble God’s values and priorities.
To be crystal clear, I am not saying that discipleship means that community norms are exempt from scrutiny, or that discipleship involves blithely complying with all existing community norms. That’s traditionalism, not discipleship. Traditionalism can be a counterfeit of discipleship. The expressive individualist says, “Follow your heart.” Salvation is found in being true to ourselves. The traditionalist says, “Follow the rules.” Salvation is found in following the rules. In contrast to both, the Savior said, “Follow thou me.” Salvation is found in Him.
And as we follow Him, we allow him to change our hearts, and we also at times set forth to change our communities for the better. But what that looks like will be different, depending on the worldview we embrace.
In conclusion, the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ offers a powerful story about who we are and where we are going. We lived with God before, we stepped into mortality for glorious purposes, and each and every one of us has been alienated from God to some degree through sin. Through Christ, we can find redemption and reconciliation. We travel that journey by making and keeping sacred covenants. And the end, the goal, the telos of all of this — at least in the here and now — is to enjoy the fruits and gifts of the Spirit in our day to day lives. I want to share my witness of the Savior and His role in this story. We like to think of ourselves as the protagonists of the Gospel story, but the hero of this story is and always will be Him.
To be continued in Part 2.