This fall, Mark and I have been laying out some of our ideas and experiences over what we’re calling the Third Space – asking ourselves, Can Current & Former Mormons Have Vibrant and Beautiful Relationships? And if so, what would that look like?
We’ve been exploring this in phone calls for well over a year now. This Thanksgiving, he and Elizabeth were in town for the holiday – giving us a chance to meet in person. Over camomile tea and coffee in a Brigham City cafe, we spent three hours talking everything from eternity to this moment.
It wasn’t easy – but it wasn’t hard either. Given our connection, we felt comfortable asking each other direct questions (“so if we died today, what do you think God would think about me?”) and being transparent about our answers…steeping in the messy contrast, like two tea bags.
I left the conversation with all sorts of questions and feelings – and with an appreciation and affection for Mark that had grown.
So why do we avoid these conversations? Isn’t it because we hardly see a way for them to be anything but ugly? In a previous post, I threw out five possible conditions for a productive conversation: (1) Come as you are, (2) Stand where you are, (3) Understanding as top priority, (4) Conviction is welcome, (5) Uncertainty and struggle are welcome too.
Here are a few more ideas – based on my experience with Mark and a few others:
6. Holding out for Real Relationships. So with all the potential challenges, why would people want to wander into the Third Space?
From the perspective of your friend or family member across the divide, consider this question: Do you want me in your life – more than an awkward, superficial, pretend-relationship? Do you want me in your life in a heart-felt way?
Then why not experiment with leaving the ridiculousness behind – and finding a way to do this – working at it to see what is possible?
More than simply a back and forth intellectual exchange, what we’re going for here is actual community. The kind where you worry about each others’ families – and try to walk in each others’ shoes a bit.
I’ve already mentioned Doc Foster on the phone with me at 10:30 giving advice and reassurance when our 2 year old had a scary illness. I’ve felt his concern in other ways – and found myself worrying about his job in transition myself. It’s sharing sorrows and hopes and challenges with each other – and just enjoying small talk every once in awhile (just once in awhile, though…there’s too many other BIG stuff to explore!)
Above all, it’s trying to deepen our felt sense of empathy for each other: what it’s been like for Mark. What it’s like for me. Do I (Jacob) really understand where Mark is coming from?
Compared to when we’ve started, I can say that I better grasp today his goodness and the integrity he’s sought to follow and honor. I appreciated, for instance, Mark’s latest post Meet the ExMos – and encourage people to read it.
7. Insisting on Non-aggression. This is a tricky one – and one that we’re both sensitive to and agreed in our conviction. One thing that can happen in the First Space and Second Space many of us occupy in these conversations is that we “preach to the choir” and “rally the base” – sharing things with an intensity and energy that we’re well aware may not be accessible for others.
Mormons, for instance, can sometimes paint a picture of eternity that might leave someone who disagrees with them trembling. Invocations of divine authority on earth can sometimes feel like a cudgel to get people in line. And mentions of “Satan” and words such as “Anti-Christ” can carry an extra-ordinary rhetorical power as well – and one that can feel anything but welcoming.
On the other hand, former Mormons can likewise paint a picture of Joseph Smith and Church history that might leave someone who disagrees with them trembling. Invocations of scientific authority can sometimes feel like another kind of cudgel – sprinkled with words like “rational” or “blind faith” or “sheep” that can leave Mormons feeling anything but welcoming.
No one is suggesting that people be unable to say what they really think about divine authority or church history. Wouldn’t it be nice, however, to create a space where people in both camps could come together to explore (minus the trembling)? This isn’t just a matter of language choice – and not an attempt at some kind of language policing. On the contrary, any and all of these words and concepts can still be explored, as long as it’s in a spirit of mutual exploration – and not of getting people in line (read: aggression).
In other words, we don’t call anyone an “Anti-Christ” or “apostate” in the Third Space. Nor do we call them a “sheep” or “delusional.” We don’t use the “Satan card” – nor do we pretend that all Science is on our side. Any and all of these concepts is up for discussion – no question. But in line with making space for people to stand where they stand, the intention together is to preserve a productive, welcoming space for exploration together.
8. Welcoming differences. Implicit in everything above is the idea that thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree deeply about Mormonism and its history. I believe that. And if not able to feel the same yourself – maybe you could just stay open to the possibility.
To both sides, I would say the same thing: If you’re asking for others to understand your full experience(s), then can you respect the space needed for theirs? That may include things you don’t like – such as anger or sorrow – or deep disagreements about the deepest of beliefs. Are you okay with that?
My experience has been that often the disagreements we thought we had aren’t always the disagreements we have at the end. One effect of entrenchment is to warp our view of the other side – and so it’s common to see differences in a kind of fun house mirror. That’s why so many breakthroughs can happen where you go “oh, that’s where we really disagree – not there.” David Blankenhorn calls this “achieving disagreement.”
On one level, then, the task before us becomes making MUCH MORE space for beloved neighbors, family members and friends to have VERY different experiences of religion (and of sexuality, of politics), etc. Rather than resist that, fight against it, and resent it, this is about beginning to flirt with the possibility of bringing some generosity and tenderness to these divides – and even a bit of curiosity?
We might find that even historical details like Joseph Smith’s plural marriages have been interpreted in fundamentally different ways by thoughtful, good-hearted people (including me and Mark – who have an ongoing disagreement with me about how much legitimate diversity of interpretation exists within science and history).
Maybe the one thing we can ALL agree on is that “Follow the Prophet” is, indeed, a creepy primary song (Repeated chorus in a minor tone? Really?) Speaking of common ground…
9. Excavating common ground. Building on all this foundation, comes one of the most enjoyable aspects of Third Space: discovering areas of sharp agreement.
Mark wrote a note to one of his family members who expressed concern with his leaving the Church, in which he proposed real conversations together. In that note, he said, “I think we’d actually have a lot to talk about in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Seriously! We wouldn’t agree on a lot of specific things, I’m sure, but we would agree on most general things: the importance of honesty, compassion, courage, accountability, family values, healthy living. I don’t think you’d find me threatening at all.”
I agree! And I mourn the loss of intimacy between current and former members…a loss that may not be as necessary and unavoidable as many assume.
10. Having some fun together. Within this place, I can assure you of one thing: It’s not all hard. I’ve personally found it quite exhilarating – as kind of an adventure.
One of the magic moments happens where a level of confidence emerges together where you can really press each other – like Mark and I did in Brigham City.
This is where it really gets fun!…Where you can drop the worries and the fears – and really get honest and explore things together.
Looking Ahead. Some people believe that deep community is dependent on shared ideology. I don’t believe that – sensing a higher (or deeper) understanding that might just subsume competing ideologies. Something like – we’re all human beings. Needing love. Seeking understanding. Relishing respect and appreciation. Can we rest in that place together for a moment?
Some may wonder if this is even okay or somehow contrary to religious teachings. Elder Holland was once asked about what he would do if a child left the church, and he said this: “If I had a son, this very day given the office that I have…If I had a son or daughter who left the church or was alienated or had a problem, I can tell you I would not cut that child out of family life” (6:45 – 7:03 BBC interview)
More than ‘not cutting that child out’ – what if you could re-discover a real, vibrant relationship with him or her?
I believe WE CAN DO THIS. We can hear out each other more deeply across even vociferous difference, we can sit with our discomfort – and we can stop questioning the hearts and motives of someone simply because his/her actions don’t conform to our own narratives.
If we end up feeling some anger or defensiveness or heart-ache in the meanwhile, let’s make space for that as well! Because as evident above, those emotions are so very real, and also deserve space as part of this conversation too.
Compared to stewing in our resentments or homogenizing into tribalized factions, let’s give this a shot. Who knows, we might even start having some fun together?!
So there you have it: Give us feedback. And then go and give this a try. Let us know what your experiences are – and we’ll share them in future blogs. After we get more feedback, we will be formalizing some Third Space Agreements – something that we feel we need a lot more input. We don’t have plans of trying to launch a formal organization. After all, this space isn’t an actual cabin after all. It is the space between us – not my space, and not yours…a third space.