One day in my Religious Histories class, after I had spent some time discussing my faith as a Latter-day Saint, one of my students asked me which, in my understanding of faith, I felt weighed more heavily: adherence to principle or personal loyalty.
I thought it was a very insightful question.
Without hesitating, I replied: Personal loyalty.
As a young man, I almost certainly would have responded to this question very differently. Maybe that's the definition of "idealism": to believe that adherence to principle must outweigh everything else, even interpersonal bonds or personal loyalty.
As I've matured, I've begun to realize that adherence to principle can only be righteous to the extent that our knowledge or our understanding of the principles in question is perfect. And I've realized that I am far too imperfect, and my knowledge is too imperfect, to insist that my understanding of a principle is the understanding. I have a great love of principle. But I can't insist that others adhere to it as I understand it. I've begun to realize that adherence to principle, in order to be righteous, must be viewed as a journey toward greater truth and greater understanding. As we evolve in our understanding, and as we discipline ourselves (i.e., as we become more capable of adherence), our adherence to principle becomes more meaningful.
At the heart of my current understanding of faith is my very personal encounter with God. As a result of my encounter(s) with God, I cannot think of God or my relationship with him in terms of abstract principles. In fact, it feels disrespectful (sacrilegious?) to do so, having encountered and interacted with him as a real person. God has communicated his love to me in very specific, very concrete, very personal terms; he has answered very specific questions; he has made very specific promises to me; and he has asked of me very specific things. I have in turn made pledges of love, confessions, expressions of gratitude, promises. And these interactions have not been a one time thing. They're renewed on a regular basis -- potentially every time I get on my knees to pray.
God and I interact within history. There are idiosyncrasies, peculiarities of the time and place in which I live that shape me as a person. Even without the constraints of history, I am a unique individual. God works with me, and responds to me individually and personally. We have a mutual history, a past, present and future.
I can never make any sort of claim to know the mind of God beyond what I've learned from my interactions with him. My interactions with God have taught me that God is far beyond my understanding. I realize I am incapable of knowing the mind of God to the extent that I am not like him. A major goal of my life's work is to become more like God, so that I can increase my capacity to absorb truth.
But in the meantime, my relationship with God must be grounded in trust and obedience. I must trust that his knowledge and love are greater and more perfect than mine, and I am on occasion required to do things I don't completely understand based on trust.
(This is not, by the way, a blind trust. It's a trust made possible by a personal history with God that has taught me he is trustworthy, that he truly loves me and sees further than I.
And, by the way, I don't expect that anybody take my word for anything in these matters. My understanding of faith in terms of personal loyalty means I always refer people back to the Source: back to God. If you have any question about any of this, don't talk to me about it. Talk to God. Get it from him.
That's my understanding of what missionary work is all about. In popular parlance, we talk about missionaries converting people. If that's what actually happens, then what we're talking about is a form of idolatry. True missionaries refer people to God, and God does the converting.)
The most important thing I've learned from God is that everything I do in the world must be grounded in a very concrete, personal and specific love for myself and for my fellow beings. My first and foremost obligation to you is to love you.
I'm not talking about the knuckleheaded kind of love in which I presume to know what's good for you better than you know yourself. That's not love at all, that's just presumption and arrogance, though presumptuous, arrogant people go around calling this "love." I'm not talking about the kind of love in which I see you as a means toward some end. That's actually called objectification, and it's a form of abuse. It's a sacrilege, it's a violation of the sanctity of the other.
I'm talking about the kind of love that involves the hard work of learning to understand you on your own terms; asking you questions and listening to your answers; interacting with you; knowing you. All of this presumes that love is impossible outside the realm of personal relationships and personal loyalties. Love requires a process of discovery. Love is a journey.
I cannot love you unless I'm willing to stick with you for a significant amount of time. So I have to make a commitment to you that transcends the typical vicissitudes of the normal human relationship. My love for you means that, on occasion, I will have to be pissed off at you. I will have to endure your imperfections. But guess what? It's mutual. So you will, on occasion, be pissed off at me and will have to endure my imperfections. Fortunately, outweighing the pissed off moments will be moments of delight as well, times when I am deeply grateful for you; when I learn and benefit from your strengths. (And you from mine!)
We will, over time, learn deep gratitude and appreciation for each other. We will be delighted in each other's happiness. We will hunger for some "greatest good" for the other. We will honor the freedom and the choices of the other, because we will recognize that no "good" is meaningful without freedom.
This type of love requires a relinquishing, a letting go. And this is why I must insist that in matters of faith and human relationships, personal loyalty must outweigh adherence to principle. Adherence to principle over personal loyalty negates the learning process that is required for real love. It requires efforts to achieve control that negate the freedom required by love.
There have been some discussions over on Main Street Plaza about Mormons marching in LGBT Pride parades. Some have expressed concern about whether Mormons who march in Pride fully understand the LGBT community, whether they fully support the aspirations of most LGBT people for equality. Some seem to want to require that Mormons pass some principles-based litmus test if they wish to march at Pride, or they shouldn't be welcome.
What I've realized from these discussions is that different people have different understandings of the nature and meaning of Pride.
Some see Pride as a declaration of principle. They therefore insist that in order to participate in LGBT Pride, you need to line up with LGBT principles.
Some, however, (myself included) see Pride as an expression of community. From this perspective, we would insist that LGBT Pride should include all who want to be in community with LGBT people.
I would argue that the principle-based definition of Pride is problematic, in that it assumes that all LGBT people have the same goals, needs and agenda, and that they all agree on what principles they stand for. A quick glance at the list of groups that march in Pride should belie that assumption. At Pride you find bars and sobriety groups. You find atheist groups and religious groups. You find all stripes of political candidates and political groups that any given marcher may support or not support.
I would argue that an assessment of that diversity of principle within the LGBT community forces us to boil the core principle of LGBT Pride down to the principle of loving and supporting LGBT people. That's why, so often, you see people at Pride carrying signs that say things like: "I LOVE MY LESBIAN DAUGHTER." I think in a very real sense, that is ultimately what Pride is all about.
Now Mormons who have marched in Pride have been doing in essence exactly what other marchers are doing, when they hold up a sign that says "LDS [heart] LGBT." They're essentially saying: Wherever this journey takes us, we're committed to you. We're committed to loving you. So I don't understand why the good folks at MSP have issues with faithful Mormons marching at Pride... Unless they have issues with faithful Mormons.
As I've made my case that this is about love, relationship and community, not principle, Alan at MSP has protested: surely everyone marching at Pride must agree to at least one rock bottom, core principle: namely, that homosexuality is not a sin. Surely we have the right to demand that people believe in that or adhere to that, or they can't march at Pride.
I would agree with Alan only in the sense that in order to enter into any sort of journey with me, you need to be willing to surrender your proclivity to judge, your hunger to prioritize your theology or your principles over your relationship with me. If you can do that, then you can walk with me, both figuratively and literally. If you cannot: if you must judge, if you must insist on principles over loyalty, then you cannot. Even if you walk with me physically, you are not really with me in this journey.
And -- by the way -- this is a fundamental Christian principle. The ideal of "judging not," of "forgiving debts" is deeply embedded in the teaching and life of Christ. It's deeply embedded in the kind of love that Jesus taught. So in asking members of my faith to do this, I am actually inviting them to live their faith more deeply and more fully. I am asking them to become more Christ-like.
I disagree with Alan in the sense that we cannot present a theological requirement. We can't say: You must believe X, Y or Z in order to march with me.
Or rather, we can say it, we can demand it, but to do so undermines the possibility for growth that comes through human relationships, through love. When I demand theological conformity, I injure your conscience and mine. When I invite relationship, I invite growth.
I would much rather march at Pride with someone who believes homosexuality is a sin, but who is willing to suspend judgment in order to learn to know me as a human being, than march at Pride with someone who knows homosexuality is not a sin, but who is uninterested in me as a human being, and who is willing to sacrifice his relationship with me for some abstract principle. I am wary of such people, even if they claim to be "on my side."
I know some folks will think I'm fuzzy headed. I'm a believer who says belief is not of ultimate importance. I'm a theologian who says theology cannot save us. I'm making a principled argument against principle. But the longer I have wrestled with the great questions in life, the more I have come to the conclusion that while all these things -- belief, theology, principle -- have their place, they can never trump real, concrete embodied relationships between human beings. The value of belief, of theology, of principle is to clear away the obstacles that prevent us from loving wholeheartedly. The minute they cease to do that, I say toss 'em.
With Paul, I affirm: prophecy (principle) will cease. But love endures forever.