The Sanctity of Dissent
by Paul James Toscano
“On Love” was delivered on 5 December 1993 at a gathering sponsored by the Olive Branch, an ad hoc committee organized to publish in The Salt Lake Tribune a 28 November 1993 notice expressing support for those excommunicated, disfellowshipped, and otherwise disciplined by the church for their religious opinions.
[p.177]”For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). In spite of this reassuring scripture, there is fear among us—even though God is not the giver of it. At the same time, there seems to be so little love. Have you ever noticed this? How little love there is among the Latter-day Saints? There is obedience, of course, and service. There is sacrifice and restraint. We are responsible, clean, conscientious, a little clannish, hard-working and healthy, righteous and reliable, often sentimental and sometimes naive. Many non-Mormons say that we make good neighbors, but poor friends. Chiefly, we are known for being nice. Not for being loving.
Last week I was talking religion with three disaffected Mormons in their early twenties. They asked me what the core of my beliefs was at this point in my life. “Grace,” I said.
[p.178]”I’ve banked everything on the grace of God—on God’s unconditional love.”
One of the two young men scowled at me. “How I hate unconditional love,” he said. This was an interesting and unexpected response. I asked him why.
“Because that’s what my parents always say—that they love me unconditionally, that no matter what I say, or think, or do I will always be part of their eternal family.”
“This is bad?” I asked, pressing him.
“Yes,” he said with visible energy. “They don’t really know me, what I think, how I feel. They don’t want to hear about the experiences I’ve had because they are not the experiences I should have had as a Mormon. They don’t want to hear about my questions, my doubts, my views. They just want me to smile, show up at family gatherings, and fill the place they’ve made for me in their eternal family. They don’t love me as a person. They love me only as a role.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s like the way some people love the homeless. It’s a lot easier to love them as a group when you don’t actually have to know and deal with any of them personally.” We talked about how much easier it is to love in a general way the ideal of the family, the church, the country than it is to love any of the specific individuals that make up those groups. This is how some Mormons love the church without loving any of its members. I was reminded then of a remark made by Elder Dallin Oaks. When he was told that many people of the 1960s’ generation were losing their faith, he responded: “Well, it won’t hurt the Church.” He was thinking, of course, of the collective—not the individual struggling Saints. He had lost sight of the body of Christ, where damage done to one member is damage done to all. He was, perhaps, thinking of the church as a beehive or an anthill or even a machine in which the loss of a few cogs is [p.179]insignificant since there are so many of them—each one fungible, replaceable, dispensable. Perhaps, momentarily, Elder Oaks forgot Jesus’ statement: “As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
This isn’t really love, of course. It is sentimentality. Sentimentality is affectionate and emotional, but it keeps itself at a distance. It makes no permanent attachments. It is without commitment, without depth, without meaning. For this reason, sentimentality is usually found in the service of authoritarianism. Tyrants are almost always sentimental. They think in terms of the welfare of the collective, not of individuals. They love Catholicism not Catholics. They are loyal to Germany not Germans. They are devoted to Israel not Jews, Palestine not Palestinians. They love the “one and only true”—whatever they may imagine it to be—but they do not love seekers after truth.
Sentimentality is the partner of compulsion because it lacks the most critical component of true love. It lacks passionate and specific desire for another, the desire we feel as inexpressible attachment or unfulfillable longing—the untamed devotions and desires that draw us beyond our cherished settled categories into the unpredictable, unknown, mysterious, and dangerous realms of another’s heart. As a people, we Latter-day Saints are schooled all our lives to distrust and avoid such desire, such attachment, such passion. We do not give our hearts easily. Nor do we accept the hearts of others. We prefer the safety, the certainty, the sanity of sentimentality. For sentimentality allows us to enjoy lukewarm feelings that can never boil over, relationships without risk, pleasantries without pleasure, and poignancies without pain. Sentimentality allows us to preserve ourselves against the change that must inevitably follow the true love of another.
[p.180]The way we Mormons justify our resistance to change is by invoking the icon of purity. We say we want to keep ourselves, our families, our institutions, our doctrines pure. What we mean is that we want to avoid changing our minds. We want to preserve ourselves and our views in a condition that is static, unadulterated, and unmixed—a state that is utterly innocent of the experiences, hopes, and fears of others. Our obsession with purity is the foundation of our judgmental view of the world. In the name of purity we justify our exercise of control—self-control and control of others. In the name of purity, we seek to alter our environment—physical, spiritual, psychological—so we do not have to be altered ourselves. In the name of purity, we avoid repentance. For the pure need no repentance and no forgiveness. From the high tower of our purity, we look down in detached serenity at those who are not so wholesome, not so correlated as we are. We can pity them, invite them to be like us, advise them, admonish them, threaten them, exclude them, and even damn them. But we are never touched by them because we are not joined to them—not deeply, not permanently. In the words of Elder Neal Maxwell, “we need them not” or “we heed them not.” It does not matter which phrase he uttered. The point is the same. We are not part of them. They are not part of us. Our purity protects us. It is the ultimate prophylactic.
True love, whose essence is passionate devotion and unquenchable desire, is the enemy to all control. It breaks upon us without warning. Like a deluge, it overflows the banks of our righteousness. It sweeps away respectability, turns dignity into mud, lays waste the levees of our vaunted invulnerability. It pours into us, filling us with the longing to be longed for, the desire to be desired, the urge to know another and to be known by another, to embrace and be [p.181]embraced, to join and be joined, to enter and yet to encircle, to be made hungry by what most satisfies. Call it what you will—eros, philia, agape—it does not really matter. At heart, these loves are all one. And when felt in the pith of the center of the soul of our being, love breaks down the tower of judgment, undermines the foundations of control, and washes away the walls of detachment. It lays open our shame and exposes us to pain, not only our own, but the pain and shame felt by those we love, and those they love, and those they love. It leaves us changed, repentant, and forgiving. It leaves us connected and unprotected. It leaves us contaminated with holiness.
True love is open, equal, reciprocal, specific, intimate, intense, knowing, forgiving, repenting, hopeful, sacrificial, passionate, and desiring. It sees beauty not just in form but in content. It is guileless and vulnerable. It abandons control and embraces mystery. It leaps away from ego and into the soul of the unknown, into the heart of the divine.
Is it any wonder that we Mormons fear it so? And the fear of love casts out love, just as much as the love of love casts out fear. In our weakness and our poverty, we do not seek love. We reject it. We reject the emptiness that longs to be filled. We reject the fullness that longs to be emptied. Instead, we seek substitutes that have the form of love, but deny its power and mystical beauty.
The call of God to us—through the prophets, through Christ, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit—is that we love one another as God loves us: passionately, specifically, unconditionally, as equals, without injury, compulsion, dominion, or control. The call of God to us is that we repent of our fear, that we truly be with one another, even as God is with us through the Spirit. To withhold love is the greatest sadness. To give it in the full measure we are able and to [p.182]receive it in the full measure we are able is the greatest joy. Thus, we go from grace to grace until we are filled with love and a perfect brightness of hope. And, as Joseph Smith said, those who are filled with such love can never fall.
Tonight, many have gathered here in support of a few. But that is not the whole of it. We are all one body. Damage done to one is damage done to all. Even as you have felt our pain, we have felt yours. But I hope that you can also feel our love. I, for one, feel your love. This is the purpose of the gospel that we love one another as God has always loved us, that we may be made whole, and complete, and one. May we pass beyond the darkness of fear into the marvelous light of God’s love. May God bless us all in the name of Christ our Father and the Spirit our Mother.