An open dialogue about “open dialogue”

Like many, I’ve been struck by the passion invoked by the John Dehlin-Kate Kelly sagas (on all sides). My own reactions two weeks ago generated more than 800 visits in two days.  Something, however, didn’t feel quite right about my words.

After getting some helpful feedback (thank you C.J.), I realized how my writing reflected some of the same subtle hostility I had been decrying.  Neither did my essay embody the qualities of mindful listening and dialogue that I care about the most – e.g., seeking more understanding across the most vociferous of differences.

So I took the essay down – replacing it, after some soul-searching and additional feedback (thank you Lisa, John & C.J.!), with “take two” below.  With apologies for the excesses of the prior post, I welcome your feedback on this one – especially if you disagree…

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Anyone who’s been listening to the public back and forth about John Dehlin and Kate Kelly has heard some mention of “open discussion” or “open dialogue” – and whether or not members of the Church are allowed to explore openly and ask “hard questions.” Speaking of his disciplinary proceedings, for instance, Dehlin recently commented, “I fear the message this is sending is that the church doesn’t want people who question openly…or have hard questions” (Kenley Fry, Herald Journal, 2014). In the past, he has stated that promoting this kind of dialogue was his main hope: “I’m honestly not  trying to push people out of the church, I’m not trying to convince them to stay, I just want there to be an open healthy dialogue” (Steadman, et al., 2011, 16:28).

In all the attention to a need for more open discussion and dialogue, there seems to be one interesting question getting lost:  What exactly do we mean by “open discussion” or “open dialogue”?  We act as if we all know what that means in practice…do we?  Or might there be very different ways of going about it?  If we disagree on the particulars, does that matter?  And most importantly – could a more thoughtful “conversation about the conversation” make a difference in clarifying some sticking points?

One view.  From my own reading, it seems that the most common use of the phrase “open discussion” or “open dialogue” is in reference to bringing some kind of attention to a thorny issue in the Church – whether historical or doctrinal or socio-political or all-of-the-above.  From this vantage point, any increase in exposure for a neglected issue is a step forward.

The details of how that “open discussion” happens are less important than whether it happens. What matters most from this perspective is that we move past a limited or “closed” discussion with implicit (or explicit) restrictions on what can or can’t be discussed and what questions are encouraged or allowed.

When an “open discussion” like this takes place, the overarching goal seems to be educating and helping open minds – this, as part of an attempt to bring to pass some kind of broader change.  As Dehlin once argued, the Church’s behavior is “dysfunctional,” “misguided,” and “broken,” but “I stay [in the Church], because maintaining my membership increases my ability and influence to effect positive change within the church” (Sunstone, 2012).

Those who promote this kind of open dialogue are, at times, heralded as almost heroes or pioneers for showing the “bravery” of actually being open.  One reader on Dehlin’s site posted, “What I love about you is the fearlessness you have shown in publicizing and talking about these difficult issues” (“LB” comment under Mormon Stories, 2013).

Given all this, virtually anyone who brings more open attention to hard questions – Dehlin or otherwise – may be considered part of the movement towards “open dialogue.”  Whether or not everyone feels welcome at the dialogue is not as relevant – as long as the tough questions are being explored in some way.

Another view.  From another perspective, bringing greater exposure to an issue is not the only thing that matters.  What’s also important are the details of how exactly we go about raising attention or awareness via “open discussion.” In this sense, the phrases “open discussion” or “open dialogue” reflect more than simply “bringing greater exposure to an issue” – with equal attention given to whether the space is experienced as literally “open” – and to whom:  do diverse individuals feel genuine space to explore a particular question openly?

And unfortunately, the answer to that question is too often “no” – for various reasons that deserve exploration.  One kind of open exploration is describe above.  Another kind pushes for something a bit more specific, and more “dialogical.”

The word “dialogue” intrinsically refers to the free exploration of different views. As defined in a research article on liberal-conservative exchange: “genuine dialogue entails the “bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons and two unique perspectives. The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be ‘dialogue’” (Hess, et al., 2009).

From this vantage point, if a dialogue aims to be a legitimately open exploration of a contested issue, then by definition, the terms of the dialogue cannot blatantly favor only one perspective. To illustrate, I recently organized a conversation exploring gay rights and religious freedom at the upcoming national conference of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation.  Knowing how silly it would be for an active Mormon to try and convene this discussion on my own, I’ve reached out to a thoughtful group of other colleagues to help me frame the conversation – including a gay Christian man, Arthur Pena and a lesbian woman, Tracy Hollister, one of the national leaders in the organization Marriage Equality U.S.A. Most inspiring has been Heidi Weaver – who has worked for years bringing together conservative Christians and the LGBTQI community into open-hearted dialogue (see Love Boldly).

This is the same pattern reflected in the ground-breaking Boston abortion dialogues in the 90’s convened between pro-life and pro-choice leaders facilitated by the Public Conversation Project. Once an open, gentle (and legitimately fair) space is created, remarkable things can and do happen – starting with new insights and usually consummating with shifts in practice itself.

The primary goal of open discussion or dialogue, in this sense, is not to persuade and proselyte – but instead, to deepen understanding on both sides. This is not simply my personal view – but that of a large community of dialogue and deliberative professionals (see National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation).  Harold Saunders writes, “Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists” (A Public Peace Process). Tom Atlee adds,”Dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility” (The Co-Intelligence Institute).

While participants can still hope that others in the dialogue will gain new perspective and education about your position – this goal necessarily remains secondary to the primary focus:  your own education and deepening understanding.  And when this kind of exchange happens, buckle up:  the learning, insight and deep education happening on both sides can be profound. I’ve never had a more refreshing, honest, open and in-depth discussion about the gospel than with my dear friend Phil Neisser – an atheist and leftist who disagrees vociferously with most things I hold dear, but still manages to call me his friend (see You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought – But You’re Still Wrong on This American Life).

The challenge.  This latter kind of “open dialogue” is not for the faint of heart.  Dialogue across real divides is hard work – especially internally.  Like beginning meditators, we learn to “sit with discomfort” as we hear someone out fully – not reacting to push away the person in front of us.  We are stretched and invited into a visceral trust and vulnerability as we hold space for ideas (and people) that may be hard to hear.

And let’s be honest:  None of us do this very well.  We’ve all got struggles in this regard, depending on the issue (my issue being “open dialogue!”).

Given all the subtle barriers that can crop up, it can be remarkably difficult to hold a space like this.  In 2006, I was part of a team that developed the first university-level liberal-conservative dialogue course in the nation.  As the conservative co-facilitator, I was joined in teaching the class by a facilitation partner who was socially progressive. The course was carefully planned – with ground-rules and a progression of hot-topics that students voted on.  We soon discovered, however, that virtually everyone signing up identified as politically progressive: the conservatives were simply not showing up! As we re-examined our marketing materials, I noticed the invitation to “open dialogue” was being framed as a part of “social justice education.”

Bingo! Similar to the infamous Democrat-sponsored health care town-halls, the terms of our dialogue space sent a subtle message of this-is-really-motivated-by-a-hidden-agenda to half the people we were trying to reach. The dialogue felt disingenuous.

This seems to be how Dehlin’s site feels to many members of the Church – calling for a dialogue, but not making real space for it.

And in fairness, that also must be how the Church feels to many people struggling with certain questions – agenda’d in the other direction.

In either atmosphere, an “open exploration” can sometimes be remarkably difficult – even on simple questions!  My father tells the story of a Sunday School lesson where he mentioned research that suggests Christ’s birthday was on December 25th (and not April 6th).  An older woman on the next row grew visibly upset and effectively agitated to shut down the discussion.

Do we have things to learn about openness in the Church?  Absolutely.  For a faith that began with Joseph and Brigham’s pronouncements that one of the “fundamental principles” of Mormonism (Bradley, 2006) is accepting truth “no matter who has it” (BY Teachings), we have plenty of room to grow!

My mother used to bring up in Relief Society how helpful mindfulness meditation was in coping with her cancer – but typically only found awkward silence.  One friend writes that it can be hard to discuss hard questions in the Church, because “it seems to infer that our religion does not have all the answers.”

So let’s talk about this kind of hesitancy and resistance!  Let’s really explore what’s going on there – so we can move beyond it.  What better time than now, to embody as a Church the radical truth-openness that Joseph and Brigham taught?  Isn’t this something that both LDS apologists and LDS critics could agree on?

Dehlin once thought so –  stating in 2006: “In the end, I believe that they [the apologists and the critics] are all both fighting for very similar things, and almost united in a common cause…e.g., a love for the truth.”

In that same blog post, Dehlin spoke about having an awakening after a multi-hour, open-hearted encounter with an LDS apologist – and deciding that his “new hope and mission” was to build “more bridges” (Dehlin, 2006)

According to many of Dehlin’s readers, he has succeeded in that over the subsequent years. For others – including that same apologist – the hoped-for “new mission” didn’t ever materialize fully (Midgley, 2007).

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Dehlin’s attempt.  Like most human beings, Dehlin’s is nuanced and complex. One individual who calls John a friend wrote this in an e-mail to me, “I think he can’t really be pinned down. I think he’s lots of things – I think he vacillates between faith and doubt, and expresses each as it comes…I think he encourages people to stay and to leave [the Church], depending on where he’s at at the time….[this] reminds me of some of the things we all do when we’re searching around in the dark for answers that we really feel like we need. Fits and starts, and he just happens to be doing all this bumbling in a public arena. I don’t think he’s malicious, I really don’t. I think he’s a good man with a terribly messy process.”

That description was helpful to me.  As an interview researcher and a dialogue lover, when I heard years ago about Dehlin’s work, I was naturally excited – “wow, a narrative-based inquiry into our culture!”

Right from the beginning, however, something felt fishy.  As I listened to the interview he was conducting, all sorts of research red flags went off for me – from the type of questions being asked to the underlying tone of the interview itself.  “Hold on,” I thought, “isn’t this guy trying for an objective, open exploration?”

Others have raised similar concerns.  One individual remarked on the “undertone of doubtful pessimism and manipulation” on his website:  “Why do the sources he directs members to, all have a feeling of negativity?” In one thorough 2013 review of Dehlin’s work, Dr. Gregory Smith describes how often “normative beliefs and certainties of the general Church membership are the focus of relentless negative analysis, dissection, and criticism” (p. 25).

Dehlin’s own suspicion goes beyond Mormon history details or social issues of our day – right to the very marrow of Mormonism.  Commenting about Jesus, Dehlin states in one interview, “This idea that we have to punish someone else for a bunch of other people’s mistakes—that just bothers me…punishing that guy over there for what I did doesn’t make sense at all.”  Reflecting on repentance and the atonement, Dehlin continues, “the idea that God makes us imperfect and then we’re supposed to beat ourselves up over our imperfections just seems screwed up to me” (Larsen interview, 2012, 17:40./ 17:10–18:00).

Please don’t misunderstand:  It’s not a problem to have serious, thoughtful questions about Christ or his message. Surely we ask too few questions – not too many – when it comes to His work and message.  Neither is it a problem to arrive at questions about God’s nature or existence (don’t we all have our own journey of faith?)

The problem is when someone (anyone!) tries to facilitate dialogue on such intense and important questions – without any co-facilitation or counter-balancing voice -e.g., like me trying to facilitate the gay rights discussion on my own.

Everyone has bias – and no one can escape their bias completely.  That’s why we need collaborators to press us, challenge us and help us be honest about our standpoints.

If Dehlin wants to facilitate a genuinely “open dialogue” on issues throughout Mormonism  – why not partner with someone who firmly believe in the faith’s core message?  Why not lay out some ground-rules and clarify intentions enough to draw in the full diversity of perspectives?  These elements are best practice in the world of dialogue and deliberation:  co-facilitators, ground-rules, and consulting with all sides to ensure a safe space.

Of course, Dehlin hasn’t been trying to facilitate “dialogue” in the most formal sense – instead, conducting interviews in hopes of somehow stimulating dialogue by exposing people to certain ideas.  The same need for balance and accountability applies to the interview process.  As an interview researcher myself, I know that depending on the questions asked and the frame of the conversation – one can lead the person interviewed (and others listening) in profound ways.  That’s why when we conducted interviews with citizens on gay rights, I collaborated with my gay classmate in deciding on the questions and conducting the interviews.

If Dehlin was open to it, I would welcome a chance to explore co-facilitation.

Once again, some of Dehlin’s readers tell me he’s done all these things on his own – or least tried to create a safe forum on his website for exploration.  I respect that intent.  And yet, when I listen to his interview work, I hear him portraying members who don’t wonder about questions like he does as “asleep” (Dehlin, 2006) and not having “intellectual integrity” (2014 Facebook post) about their faith.  Church leaders and LDS apologists are likewise sometimes characterized as unhelpful, ignorant and even harmful.

No wonder Dehlin’s space is not accessible to most Mormons – even many who might appreciate a chance to explore these questions. [But in fairness – these are the kinds of things we say about others when we don’t have someone to hold us accountable…I’ve done the same thing about Dehlin himself in prior versions of this post, but his readers have called me out].

Maybe a different conversation is not what Dehlin wants – which is fine.  (And maybe, as my friend Heather pointed out, Sunday school isn’t the place for open dialogue – which is also fine).

But if so, then who else is facilitating this kind of  “open conversation” (the second variety) – e.g., open dialogue about tough issues in Mormonism with enough space for anyone interested in the questions?  Where else is it happening?  I’d like to know…I’ll bet it’s happening in more places than we know – within a marriage here, a family there, or a bunch of friends. And if we work at it – maybe that style of “open dialogue” can become more mainstream.

Towards more robust dialogue. What would it take to multiply open dialogue about tough issues in Mormonism that is more productive (and safe) for anyone?

1.  Laying down our swords.  It might start with appreciating that we’re more alike than not.  Writing of Dehlin and similar bloggers, one of my friends “they assume I don’t have my own difficult questions and thoughts, and that because I simply address them [differently] that I’m somehow lesser than they.”

Challenging questions are more universal than we realize.  As Dieter Uchtdorf said in 2013, “There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.”

My default assumption is that most human beings have thoughtful questions (whether religious or not).  Why not approach each other in this way – and brainstorm ways to explore them together?

Within this kind of dialogue, perhaps active members could learn that questions from critics need not be feared.  And maybe those outside the Church could learn that tough questions really are “okay” in the Church.

2. Clarifying intentions.  Maybe we can also – you guessed it – talk more about what we mean by open exploration or open discussion or open dialogue:  What are our intentions and hopes?  How do we plan to go about it?  In a day when even Syrian President Assad call for more “dialogue” – we desperately need to draw some boundary lines.

Once we do so, I think there are real possibilities for what could unfold in and around and through the vast, diverse Church membership.  It can be as simple as asking (that person in your family or ward that you totally disagree with), “Help me understand” – with absolutely no other agenda at stake.  As Louise Diamond writes, “Dialogue means we sit and talk with each other, especially those with whom we may think we have the greatest differences. However, talking together all too often means debating, discussing with a view to convincing the other, arguing for our point of view, examining pro’s and con’s. In dialogue, the intention is not to advocate but to inquire; not to argue but to explore; not to convince but to discover”(The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy). Tom Schwandt adds, “Parties to the encounter are not viewed as opponents who seek to expose the weaknesses in each other’s arguments. Rather, the conversation begins with the assumption that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding. The initial task is to grasp the other’s position in the strongest possible light. . . . The other is not an adversary or opponent, but a conversational partner.”

This goes beyond simply a “tone argument” – as Kate Kelly insinuates characterizes her Bishop’s concern with her work – to exploring the core intention that shapes the sharing and communication itself.

3. Building the space.  In the world we’re living in, genuine space for healthy dialogue doesn’t just happen.  We have to be mindful and deliberative about shaping it – and making sure the essential qualities of that atmosphere aren’t inconsistent.

The best way to ensure that happens – just as in the American government – is checks in balances.  Rather than pretend one individual (however well-intentioned) can be objective and unbiased – this would entail getting two (or three or four) inescapably biased individuals who disagree on the issue at hand – but agree on the need for high-quality exchange.

Those facilitators could ensure the ensuing space was equally spacious for those with various perspectives on Mormonism.  Glenna Gerard writes, ‘Dialogue is about expanding our capacity for attention, awareness and learning with and from each other’ (The Dialogue Group).

John Dehlin’s own open-hearted extended conversation with an LDS apologist is a excellent example of this dialogue (see Midgley’s summary).  Why not helping that that kind of conversation happen over and over and over again – even when it’s hard (especially when it’s hard)?

Of course, dialogue may not always be appropriate – or may not feel enough.  At times, something more may be called for…Kate Kelly certainly thought so.  Open dialogue was not enough.  She needed to advocate and organize.  She is after all, a civil rights attorney – turning to the tools of social movements in her own church.

If nothing else, I can at least understand her impulse to do so.  Whether or not it’s helpful or the right thing to do – can then become another topic of open dialogue.

4. Having fun.  And for those of us who want dialogue across this divide (and others) – well, let’s have it!  Heaven knows, we’ve got plenty to talk about!   I, for one, want to explore how we approach mental illness in our church community – and more broadly, exploring the implications of means-end religion where the gospel becomes a kind of cut-and-dried algorithm.

What would happen if Church members really sought to understand concerns that motivated Kate Kelly?  What if her concerns became another difference to explore – allowing the diversity of voices on the subject to speak for themselves?

There is so much potential for “open dialogue” in Utah that it’s killing me!  “In place of the relentless, wearying battles to persuade and convince,” Dionne and Cromartie (2006) write, “we may thus increasingly approximate what Tinder calls ‘the attentive society'” – a place “in which people listen seriously to those with whom they fundamentally disagree” and where is cultivated a “widespread willingness to give and receive assistance on the road to truth” (p. 8, in Hunter & Wolfe, 2006). 

 How cool would it be to have a diverse group come together to attempt this at ground zero here in Utah – a kind of Public Conversation Project in our own state.  Let me know if you’d be interested considering something like this…I’m actively looking for collaborators interested in launching something (write me at jzhess@gmail.com).

13 responses

  1. A great summary of the issue at hand, with plenty of quotes from the original sources. Thanks for putting this all together in one place. It’s especially important because the mass media is not presenting all sides of the story.

    • Thanks, Nathan…one of Dehlin’s supporters was pretty angry with me – and I’m having a dialogue soon with another. I’d like to understand those who say they’ve been benefited by John’s work – and sense I may revise this essay after I understand their perspective better (as it stands, I’m pretty much just calling him out for being disingenuous). But my gut tells me it’s even more complex than that – and that, in fact, there are moments where Dehlin has, in fact, really tried to do what he’s saying he does.

  2. Thank you for this.

    I could not agree more with your analysis. There is no such thing as true “objective” publication. Any schoolboy knows this.

    But it goes further than that, I think. Anyone who has listened to his podcasts cannot deny that his subtle agenda becomes increasingly clear. Even a quick look at the directors of Mormon Stories should be quite telling. According to their bios, quite all of the directors are either admitted ex-Mormons or in admitted stages of inactivity or faith crisis. Of all the directors, only one is both (1) a member and (2) active, though that person also admits that she is “unorthodox” — whatever that is supposed to mean. Dehlin, by his own admission on his bio is both “inactive” and “unorthodox.”

    It would appear that anyone making a genuine attempt to have “objective” conversation and dialogue would seek at least half of his board to be both “active” and “orthodox.” Dehlin’s failure to have even a single person on his board that would meet such a requirement is quite telling. He is a textbook “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and his actions on their face are both intellectually dishonest and disingenuous.

    • Your last paragraph really recaps my argument Jeff – legitimate “open exploration” requires accountability and balance that comes from co-facilitation. And of course, the deeper structure might also need shifting. Although Dehlin has recently reached out to active members like Daniel Peterson to join him – without a fundamental re-structuring, this would simply appear to legitimize the broader educational campaign going on.

  3. This part stood out to me, “The most painful thing for me is how close Dehlin got to doing something amazing: namely, living, breathing “open dialogue” (the second kind)…something that could have helped all Church members.”

    I don’t think it is Dehlin’s responsibility to make sure the Church benefits from open dialogue. I think the leaders of the church are responsible for creating open dialogue that helps all the church members. This is a gap that I think Dehlin is trying to fill and I am grateful for his efforts. I would be supportive of other groups that could build upon his efforts to come even closer than he has.

    I don’t live in Utah, but I’m supportive of your efforts to facilitate open dialogue there. The more space we can create the better. If Dehlin’s efforts do not meet the needs of all the members of the church, additional groups would certainly help.

    • Thank you, Scott. Your comment made me think more about that phrase – and I think you’re absolutely right. That’s not Dehlin’s responsibility – and I’m not suggesting it is. I’m only arguing that there’s another way to frame dialogue that could bridge even active members into the mix. If that’s not Dehlin’s aim and intention – that’s okay. I would simply ask that he not pretend that it is – and be clear what his intentions are. That’s a basic part of ethical dialogue practice – not to mention scholarship itself. I took out the line you mentioned…thanks for the suggestion!

  4. I appreciate the time and energy that went into this article. As I read it over, I kept coming back to Stephen Covey’s description of the 6th Habit, Synergy. Quoting Covey, “Valuing the differences—the mental, emotional, and physiological differences between people—is the essence of synergy.” What empowers dialogue is having different perspectives come together to, hopefully, create synergy—producing results we would not get on our own. I think this article has articulated well the essence and importance of synergy. I believe this (synergy) to be a true universal principle, as did Covey.

    I enjoyed the article, old friend. Thank you.

  5. I think the two obstacles we face in having productive dialogue are fear and pain. One side is in so much pain, and that does sometimes (often?) lead to lashing out. The other side seems to be afraid that listening to those who struggle with various issues at church is the beginning of a slippery slope to apostasy. It’s overwhelming to try to overcome even just the pain side, and I can’t control anyone else but myself, but I am very interested in working toward greater communication and understanding.

    • Beautiful, Alice! I think your assessment is right on – both about the pain and fear dynamics, and the futility of trying to “control” things.

      As I understanding it, the process of dialogue involves no coercion and no force. All are welcome – but none are pressured to participate.

      While fear and pain are very much allowed space in dialogue – we seek to “work with” them skillfully and spaciously – rather than allow them to “drive” the process (as you articulated it nicely).

      Thanks for sharing this…I’d be interested in talking with you more – and reading your work. –Jacob

  6. Jacob, have you called John Dehlin to see if he will do a podcast with you so you can explain the principles of dialogue. Or, if that doesn’t materialize, schedule a meeting with him to discuss dialogue and how useful it could be for what he’s trying to accomplish. Please let us know what happens if you decide to make the call. Your friend, Ron

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