Monday, July 14, 2014

Miroslav Volf, Wisdom-Reception, and Mormon Missionary Culture

Back in March, I read Miroslav Volf's 2011 book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.  (For those not familiar with him, Volf is a Protestant theologian from Croatia who teaches at Yale Divinity School.)  It started off a bit slow, and seemingly meandering, but Volf's overall argument emerged when he tied things together at the end.  He makes a powerful, gentle, and nuanced case for the validity of religious reasoning being employed in public policy decisions and in public discourse about social and cultural issues - and clearly our era needs to take note of just such a case.  

But this post is not about that.  It is, instead, about a thought that occurred to me when I read a brief remark he made in the sixth chapter ("Sharing Wisdom"), in which he casts religious persuasion, or evangelism, in terms of offering a distinctive form of wisdom.  Christian evangelism is offering wisdom of an integrated Christian way of life - and, ultimately, offering Jesus, who is himself the Wisdom of God.  Thus, as Volf says (102):
For Christians, wisdom is a peculiar kind of truth that concerns all people - and concerns them in the deepest way.  It concerns them as human beings, not as members of this or that group or as performers of certain tasks or pursuers of certain goals.  To reject wisdom as a way of life, or Christ as the embodiment of wisdom, is not like leaving the dessert untouched after a good meal; rather, it is like refusing the very nourishment without which humans cannot truly flourish.
Volf goes on to say that Muslims will plausibly offer Islamic wisdom, and so forth for other proselytizing faiths (103).  As for Christians, we share wisdom because "Christians have an obligation to share wisdom" (103), because "the obligation to share wisdom is an expression of love for neighbors", and because "the wisdom dwelling in them seeks to impart itself through them to others" (104). Wisdom-sharing must not be done via forceful imposition, or "by the power of rhetorical manipulation, or with inducements of material gain" (106), nor should wisdom-sharing be reduced to a commodification of wisdom, which is done when 'wisdom-sellers' "seduce buyers into making a purchase by tailoring the merchandise to fit the desires of the buyer" (107).  Rather, "Christian wisdom is fundamentally about what God gives free of charge and must therefore be imparted free of charge" (108).

All this leads up to the point that struck me and made me think of issues particularly relevant here: "As we share the wisdom of our religious tradition, we should keep in mind that the person to whom we offer wisdom is also a giver, not just a passive receiver.  As givers, we respect receivers by seeing ourselves as potential receivers too" (111).  I will be first to admit that mainstream Christians have often failed, and continue to fail, in this regard: in many instances, we as individuals and even as a community have not even been open to the idea of receiving what others might want to share.  This is a distortion of a virtuous stance (the desire to protect the pure integrity of the faith from adulteration or pollution by foreign elements - for such an admixture risks syncretism, heresy, or apostasy) - but it is a distortion all the same.

That said, it seems to me that this quote from Miroslav Volf encapsulates what I consider to be one of the gravest problems with the culture of the Mormon missionary program.  I gladly affirm that some elements of the Mormon missionary program are commendable, and that even the unique features do have some real benefits.  But there are also points of weakness, and not just tactical weakness.  This, I think, is one of them: LDS missionaries are inculcated with a mindset that discourages the possibility of reception.

What I mean is, almost never have I had an LDS missionary show the slightest interest in what I believe, save on rare occasion to get a stripped-down version of it for polemical purposes.  Consistently - not universally, but so near to it as to be rather consistent - their apparent interest has been in adhering to the conceptual script of how LDS missionary encounters are supposed to go.  What's more, attempts to share distinctly non-LDS wisdom with LDS missionaries are consistently (again, not universally, but commonly so) quickly categorized as "anti-Mormon", and common defense mechanisms are employed to squelch or dismiss the foreign wisdom.  (Not to say that all of these defense mechanisms are always wholly illegitimate, of course, but clearly many of them are susceptible to critique on a number of fronts.) 

Again, I am not saying that this resistance to wisdom-reception is a uniquely Mormon phenomenon.  What I am pointing out is that it is a considerable part of many Mormon subcultures, and perhaps especially Mormon missionary subculture, in spite of the fact that wisdom-sharing is so central to that subculture (and to significant components of Mormon culture in general).  This, I think, ought to be remedied.  What would the Mormon missionary program look like if demonization of so-called "anti-Mormon" literature and viewpoints were replaced by eagerness to learn about other perspectives and evaluate them fairly?  Indeed, what would Mormon culture look like if this replacement were widespread?  Very different, I think, and in many cases for the better.  I hope that these changes will someday take place in Mormon culture (and mainstream Christian cultures, for that matter). 

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