A discursive break: Orthodox & heterodox conversations

Posted by on Apr 3, 2012 in Religion | Comments Off on A discursive break: Orthodox & heterodox conversations

This past weekend I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at Utah Valley University’s annual Mormon Studies conference. The panel experience was unlike any I’ve sat on at other academic conferences — likely because the stakes, for the panelists and the audience too, are so high in terms of parsing out legitimate Mormon identities.My co-panelists are — put lightly — polarizing figures in various Mormon circles: Scott Gordon, President of FAIR, a website dedicated to apologetic defense of largely traditional and orthodox Mormon teachings and practice; and John Dehlin, founder of Mormon Stories, a progressive blog and podcast designed to “explore and challenge” those selfsame teachings. Each man uses the platform afforded by digital technologies to voice their experience and opinions to thousands of eager readers. Both represent communities of Mormons differing in important ways, but eager to be heard and understood on their own terms.

And yet both spoke past each other. I’m sure you can imagine the dynamics on the panel: Challenge on the one hand, defense on the other. Challenge, defense. Challenge, defense. Sometimes the defense became a challenge, and on and on. The point is that neither party was heard by the other.
The audience was divided, as well. Occasional bursts of applause marked moments of particular divisiveness when John or Scott said something particularly partisan. It was clear that they each had “supporters” in the crowd– and also clear that their supporters were sitting, quite literally, on opposite sides of the room.Of course, there I sat, the outsider, the non-Mormon, the “dispassionate academic”. Ironically my presentation had been on the narratives that faithful, heterodox, and former Mormons tell about their religious identities (their “testimonies”), and how their speech mechanisms mirror each others’ in distinct ways without ever acknowledging the others’ legitimacy. I felt quite like I imagine a marriage counselor often feels when tension and stakes are high, and when salvaging the marriage is nearly beyond hope. Afterwards conference-goers noted the tension on display during the panel, but hinted that at least it was “a step in the right direction”. For my part, I’m not so sure. True that the two men sat at the same panel and spoke to the same audience. But they did not speak to one another in any meaningful way. They did not dialogue.

Is dialogue possible when the stakes are so high, and both sides are already convinced they are right?