If you spend any time here in the Bloggernacle, or leafing through the pages of any number of “alternate voices,” you are bound to encounter Eugene England. A founder of Dialogue, England — a former Bishop, LDS missionary, and BYU Professor — is a patron saint of the Mormon intellectual community, oft-revered as “our greatest essayist.” But for all of our lip service, we — as a Church and as an Internet community — could still learn a thing or two by actually putting his more challenging philosophies into practice.
A bit of background: I’m a relative late comer to England’s work. He was still teaching at BYU when I was there (’90-’91, ’94-’96), but I never took a class from him. All I heard was that he was “one of those Sunstone-type liberal Mormons.” Given my limited world-view at the time, I paid him little mind, assuming that he would talk himself out of the Church sooner or later. It was only a few years ago that I found a collection of his essays on-line via Signature Books. After that, I couldn’t get enough, and have spent many hours since curled up with an essay or symposium recording.
For me, England sits apart from other big names in the Mormon Studies world. I see folks like Michael Quinn and Todd Compton as the “head” of that particular body — they are fact gatherers, interested in overturning every possible stone in hopes of unearthing new facts shedding light on Obscure Historical Issue #467 (What phase was the moon in on the day of the First Vision?; What did he eat for lunch in Liberty jail?). Don’t get me wrong, these are worthwhile endeavors, but can leave one lacking spiritually. England, by contrast, is the “heart” of the movement. He rarely focused on historical minutia. Rather, he dealt with big-picture questions: what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to become “like God” in the hereafter and how do we prepare ourselves now for that state? How will men and women be united in the afterlife?
Heady stuff. As I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite essays, it has come to mind that, while we often pay homage to England, we’re more reticent to actually incorporate the lessons he taught into our worship. That’s a shame, in my book. In hopes of remedying the situation, I offer below two main themes of England’s work which, I believe, have the potential to aid us in our journey toward perfection, both as individuals and as a Church.[A quick disclaimer: this post does not aspire to be a comprehensive survey of England’s body of work. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you think I’ve mischaracterized him or his writing in any way.]
1. A “Theology Of Peace”: I’ve written at length in other places about the travails of being a Mormon Democrat, a role which often puts me at odds politically with almost all of my friends and fellow worshipers on any given Sunday. For the most part, that difference doesn’t bother me; I believe the world is big enough for Mormons from all over the political spectrum. However, what I do find heartbreaking is the lengths to which some of my more conservative-leaning Mormon friends will go to justify the war in Iraq. Armed (pardon the pun) with plenty of scriptures from Alma and Helaman, they prattle on about the need to use force to defeat evil, and speak in platitudes about “modern Gadianton robbers.”
This is not the Christianity I know. England offers a counterpoint to this approach. As he taught it, LDS theology — which he deemed a “theology of peace” — mandates the principle and practice of “effective pacifism,” whereby “we are called to do whatever we can that will genuinely create peace, even sacrifice our own lives.” The central tenet of this philosophy, drawn from the same scriptural basis relied on by Latter-Day hawks, is: “Enemies cannot be defeated, they can only be changed into other than enemies by true principles of love, and God will provide the power to do that if we will trust him and pay the price of trying things his way.” Christ taught that we must “love our enemies”; England believed that if were to take this principle seriously, it would bring peace not only to us individually, but also collectively to the nations of the world. Such a stratagem requires the most difficult of disciplines: knowing and treating your enemies as “humans like ourselves.” England, ever the realist, recognized that this theory would not always work, and he made room for a compromise position analogous to the Catholic notion of “just war.” But, in his eyes, “effective pacifism” is an ideal worth striving for.
Imagine the possibilities were the U.S. to adopt this approach in dealing with the Middle East. Could resisting the temptation to tear down existing political, social and economic structures abroad as a means for “bringing about a government more to our liking” have saved any of the thousands of lives lost? If we come to see the Iranians as children of the same Father in Heaven, rather than as godless heathens, how would that inform our approach towards them in this heated political climate? Thinking closer to home, if I were to recognize my neighbors first as sons and daughters of God, my thoughts and actions towards them necessarily would be lifted by an increase of love. Rather than finding cause for conflict, I would take the opportunity to serve them unconditionally.
2. Being “Mormon”: For my money, this was England’s forté. England was a Mormon, through and through. His essays are brimming with anecdotes from his childhood involving family prayers, conference trips and attending “boring” meetings. England saw everything through the prism of LDS theology. For example, he crafted well-reasoned, but always uniquely Mormon, positions on virtually every major political event from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, from Watergate to the Cold War to the Operation Desert Storm. Regardless of whether you agree(d) with him, England was not afraid to take a stand while flying his Primary-colored flag high (for those of you who have forgotten, our primary colors — sing it with me — are red, yellow and blue.)
But England’s deep and abiding love for Mormonism went well beyond his cultural and political endeavors. He grappled with the issue of what it truly means to be a member of the Church, and how that relates to being a disciple of Christ. England taught that former is a means to achieving the latter. Put another way:
The Church is true in large part because it provides an opportunity, for all who are willing, to endure all these things — and also to be guilty of them — and thus to learn how to be merciful, to be patient and forgiving, to accept forgiveness and help, to love unconditionally so we can accept the unconditional love of the Atonement and be saved.
The key to the Atonement, therefore, is to learn to love those with whom we disagree, or who hold opinions/beliefs that we find repugnant. Mandatory church attendance is a laboratory for developing this Christ-live and charity. It is our responsibility to progress beyond being mere “consumers” of the services offered at Church; we must actively participate in providing those services to others. To do so, we must resist the natural urge to find fault with, or to be offended by even the most genuinely offensive behavior of, our fellow travelers:
The Gospel is so overwhelmingly valuable that it crowds out the temptation to be overwhelmed by the mistakes people make trying to translate its ideals into specific Church expression and action — the real intellectual problems and puzzles that such human expression of the Gospel can get us involved in.
This statement took my breath away the first time I read it and, since then, it has changed (for the better) the way I view my place in the Church. Imagine how such an approach could enrich our everyday Church activity? How effective would your Ward be were it filled with “doers” as opposed to “consumers?”
This point is especially salient for those of us who frequent this insular world we call the Bloggernacle. It often seems we spend most of our time venting frustration that “regular” Mormons are unfairly dismissive of, or openly hostile to, what we perceive as our more enlightened/open-minded views. “I have to keep my mouth shut in Elders’ Quorum” and “nobody in my ward is interested in hearing the truth about Historical Issue X” are all-too-common refrains. We express a longing for unity and more open channels of communications.
At the same time, however, we hypocritically jump at the chance to find fault in those same members, with our most pointed criticism reserved for those in leadership positions. We further set ourselves apart from the pack by affixing labels such as “liberal” or “Liahona” Mormons. Were we to apply England’s vision of the Church, we would see the pettiness of such back and forth. Constructive dialogue and debate are healthy for, and necessary to, the building of a vibrant community. Bickering, however, serves only to divide us, and distance us all from Christ. How much more could we accomplish if our conversation was stripped of this infighting and prejudice?
There’s more to say, and further lessons to be learned, but this post is already too long. I hope that we can all take a second look at Brother England’s work and, as we do, that we dare to grapple with the questions he raised. Brother England, wherever you are, thanks for everything — although we never met, your words have been a ray of hope in my life.