Do We Know How to Be Loving Critics in the Church?


Several years ago I heard former Secretary of Defense William Cohen lament the sad state of affairs in American politics where, as he put it, “the Democrat and Republican parties seem to have stopped being loving critics of one another. Instead, we seem only to find uncritical lovers of their own party, and unloving critics of the opposing party.” I’m sure many of us sometimes wonder whether we are witnessing a similar polarizing trend in online discussions about the Church, and possibly even see ourselves as being part of the problem but are unsure of what to do about it.

Before he became Elder Hafen, Bruce C. Hafen was President of Ricks College, and while serving in that capacity in 1979, he gave perhaps the best speech I have ever found regarding the need to be loving critics within the Church.

I’ve excerpted below what I think are the most poignant passages of that speech, followed by a few questions of my own. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts about Hafen’s remarks in the comment section below. So without further ado, here are Hafen’s excerpted remarks:

Early in life, most of us think of things in terms of black or white—there is very little gray in either the intellectual or the spiritual dimension of our perspective. . . . As time goes on, however, experiences often accumulate that introduce a new dimension to a student’s perspective. In general, I would characterize this new dimension as a growing awareness that there is a kind of gap between the real and ideal, between what is and what ought to be. . . .When we sense that some things about ourselves or the circumstances we witness are not all we wish they were, we become aware of the distance between these two boundaries. At that point some frustrations can arise. . . .

There may be the beginnings of skepticism, of criticism, and unwillingness to respond to authority or to invitations to reach for ideals that seem beyond our grasp. . . .Given, then, the existence of a gap for most of us between where we stand and where we would like to be, and given that we will have at least some experiences that make us wonder, what are we to do? I think there are three different levels of dealing with ambiguity.

At level one . . . we simply do not—perhaps cannot—even see the problems that exist. Some seem almost consciously to filter out any perception of a gap between the real and the ideal. Those in this category are they for whom the gospel at its best is a firm handshake, an enthusiastic greeting, and a smiley button. Their mission was the best, their student ward is the best, and every new day is probably going to be the best day they ever had. These cheerful ones are happy, spontaneous, optimistic, and they always manage to hang loose. They are able to weather many storms that would seem formidable to more pessimistic types, though one wonders if the reason is often that they have somehow missed hearing that a storm was going on. . . .

I invite you then to step up to level two, where you see things for what they are, for only then can you deal with them in a meaningful and constructive way. . . . If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from facing bravely the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary for our ultimate preparations. . . .We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction as they come to us.

Despite the value of a level-two awareness, however, there are some serious hazards at this level. One’s acceptance of the clouds of uncertainty may be so complete that the iron rod fades into the receding mist and skepticism becomes a guiding philosophy. . . . As a teacher in the BYU Law School, I noticed how common it was among first-year law students to experience great frustration as they discovered how much our legal system is characterized not by hard, fast rules, but by legal principles that often appear to contradict each other. However, by the time our law students reached their third year of study, it was not at all uncommon for them to develop such a high tolerance for ambiguity that they were skeptical about everything, including some dimensions of their religious faith. Where formerly they felt they had all the answers, but just did not know what the questions were, they now seemed to have all the questions but few of the answers.

I found myself wanting to tell our third-year law students that those who take too much delight in their finely honed tools of skepticism and dispassionate analysis will limit their effectiveness, in the church and elsewhere, because they can become contentious, standoffish, arrogant, and unwilling to commit themselves. I have seen some of these try out their new intellectual tools in some context like a priesthood quorum or a Sunday School class. A well-meaning teacher will make a point they think is a little silly, and they will feel an irresistible urge to leap to their feet and pop the teacher’s bubble. If they are successful, they begin looking for other opportunities to point out the exception to any rule anybody can state. They begin to delight in cross-examination of the unsuspecting, just looking for somebody’s bubble up there floating around so that they can pop it with their shiny new pin of skepticism. And in all that, they fail to realize that when some of those bubbles pop, out goes the air, and with it goes much of the feeling of trust, loyalty, harmony, and sincerity so essential to preserving the Spirit of the Lord. . . .

I am not suggesting that we should always just smile and nod our approval, implying that everything is wonderful and that our highest hope is that everybody have a nice day. That is level one. I am suggesting that you realize the potential for evil as well as good that may come with what a college education can do to your mind and your way of dealing with other people.

It seems to me that the most productive response to ambiguity is at level three, where we not only view things with our eyes wide open, but with our hearts wide open as well. . . .

The English writer G. K. Chesterton once addressed questions similar to those I have raised today. He distinguished among “optimists,” “pessimists,” and “improvers,” which roughly correspond to my three levels of dealing with ambiguity. He concluded that both the optimists and the pessimists looked too much at only one side of things. He observed that neither the extreme optimist nor the extreme pessimist would ever be of much help in improving the human condition, because people can’t solve problems unless they are willing to acknowledge that a problem exists and yet also retain enough genuine loyalty to do something about it. More specifically, Chesterton wrote that the evil of the excessive optimist (level one) is that he will “defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, ‘My cosmos, right or wrong.’ He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing everyone with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.”

On the other hand, the evil of the pessimist (level two), wrote Chesterton, is “not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises.” In being the so-called “candid friend,” the pessimist is not really candid. Chesterton continued: “He is keeping something back—his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. … ” (Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Garden City, N.Y.: Image Book, 1959, pp. 69–70).

In going on to describe the “improvers,” or level three, Chesterton illustrates by referring to women, who tend to be so loyal to those who need them. “Some stupid people started the idea that because women obviously back up their own people through everything, therefore women are blind and do not see anything. They can hardly have known any women. The same women who are ready to defend their men through thick and thin … are almost morbidly lucid about the thinness of his excuses or the thickness of his head. … Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 71.) . . . .

All I ask, then, is that we may be honest enough and courageous enough to face whatever uncertainties we may encounter, try to understand them, and then do something about them. Perhaps then we will not be living on borrowed light. “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Overall, I think Hafen did a good job outlining the problems associated with being an optimist who can see no flaws in what he loves, and a pessimist who sees so many flaws in what he used to love that he’s lost his ability to love it still. As he says, both are incapable of effectuating any real improvement. Applying this to Mormonism, I think these two extremes could be represented by the uber-apologist-TBM-types whose mind-bending mental gymnastics can twist their way out of acknowledging any fault in the Church, and the DAMU folks whose disaffection has boiled over to a point where they can’t seem to see anything in the Church worth loving anymore.

But even after reading Hafen’s speech a few times now, I’m still not quite sure exactly how those who want to be “improvers” in the Church — who are keenly aware of the Church’s shortcomings but love the Church enough to want to improve it — can and should go about doing something about it. He does a good job of identifying what we shouldn’t do, but I feel at a loss to understand exactly what he thinks we can and should be doing to be “improvers” in the Church. And I find myself asking the following questions:

1. Do we have a Church culture that recognizes a need for “improvers” by welcoming and valuing candid but loving feedback? Or do Church leaders tend to encourage the “optimist” sentiment that shuns and avoids any attempt to candidly acknowledge any shortcomings?

2. Are there restrictions on who is allowed to be an “improver” in the Church? For example, is it acceptable for a rank-and-file member to attempt to be an “improver,” or do Church leaders see that “improver” role as being restricted to themselves alone?

3. Have Church leaders provided clear, consistent guidance about how regular members can and should go about being “improvers”? For example, have Church leaders established clearly-defined communication channels that would-be “improvers” can use to provide candid but loving feedback to Church leaders?

4. Who are the “improvers” in the Church, past and present, how have they been received, and how effective have they been in helping improve the Church?

5. If we do not have a Church culture that welcomes and values “improvers,” will that cause those who’d like to be “improvers” to gravitate toward the “pessimist” camp?

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

(Thanks to Nitsav and my brother Brent for bringing this speech to my attention.)