Letters to the Editor: Issue 168

Emergent Community

Parker Blount’s article “The Word of God: A Tale of Two Paradigms” from the June 2012 issue of  Sunstone came to my mind while in priesthood meeting a few Sundays ago when one brother told the class that the LDS Church is “a church of repetition.” He seemed pleased by this idea, and the rest of the class, including the teacher, voiced their agreement.

Like the “emergents” Blount writes about, I wish that our interactions in church could go beyond repetition and into conversation. Indeed, I think that this move is at least partially what Jesus was talking about when he warned, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions” (Matthew 6:7).

But entering into a vital religious conversation is a lot like walking into a minefield. People’s views on religion are built on a multitude of experiences and interpretations of those experiences, most of which are deeply meaningful to the person and completely invisible to everyone else. To compound the problem, you have a multitude of your own thoughts and experiences that other people are unaware of.

For example, while talking with a friend, I mentioned how frightened I had always been of God. Since he and I shared many similar attitudes toward religion, I assumed he would share this feeling. But instead, he was amazed. “I’ve never thought of God as anything but loving and supportive,” he responded.

It is differences like these that tend to trip up conversation. And if that conversation is trying to achieve a goal, these differences can easily derail it all together. I think this is the reason why the brother in my priesthood class was so willing to accept that we are a church of repetition. If we enter a church classroom aware that there are strict limitations on what you can say (it must stay within the delimitations of the lesson, it must not be speculation, it must have some kind of recent authoritative precedence), then we can affirm the community’s basic rules and teachings without the messiness of encountering the deep differences in each person.

M. Scott Peck wrote about this difficulty in his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, where he argues that if one is trying to build a healthy community, the group will start in pseudo-community (everyone has their happy faces on; they avoid difficult issues) but descend into chaos once differences start to arise. Most groups will respond to the chaos by retreating to the safety of pseudo-community. However, if the group wants to get beyond the chaos, its members must “empty” themselves: of their need to be right, of their ideology, of their need to “convert” or “heal” someone in the group. In other words, they have to let go of most of the things they use to identify themselves. It’s a kind of death.

But out of this death, you receive a community, which Peck describes as “a laboratory for personal disarmament,” and “a group of all leaders,” where the people are egoless, contemplative, and able to “fight gracefully.”

It seems to me that the emergents Blount describes are looking for this kind of community. But apparently the way there is fraught with difficulty—probably more so than what we encounter in the church of repetition. I think it’s still worth a try, though.

Brady O’Connor

Mesa, Arizona