Are we killing the Zion dream softly?

December 8, 2004 | 21 comments
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My post begins with a pointed question: Are higher education and the scriptural ideal of Zion at odds? The question had never occurred to me until a few years ago while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The singles’ ward I was attending at the time, Longfellow Park, was filled people with higher degrees. Many were then enrolled in graduate programs. Kristine could tell us the names of all the many the colleges and universities in the immediate area—there must be six or eight, maybe more. These schools were like giant magnets drawing LDS young people from all over the country. A large number were attending Harvard. Probably 98% of the ward had been to some college, and a high percentage either had graduate degrees or were intent on obtaining them.

Enter into Longfellow Park my hometeaching companion, an amiable twenty-five-year-old convert of three years whom I will call Alex. Unfortunately, Alex’s was also a life going nowhere. A high school drop out, he was working part-time at McDonalds (“I’m lovin’ it�) and part-time as a grocery store bagger. Alex said he wasn’t interested in college. He didn’t have the money for trade school. He was caught in a downward cycle of one defeat after another and wasn’t sure how to escape. His father, who couldn’t be counted on, had taken off when Alex was a child, leaving Alex and his mother in a small house in nearby Watertown, where they had lived together for many years.

At church, Alex got no attention whatsoever. In the frenzied mingle in the foyer after sacrament meeting, no one seemed to notice him. He was on the outside looking in, and he often complained to me about not fitting in with this bookish crowd. “Why don’t they talk to me?� he asked over and over. I would tell him conversation was a two-way street, that he had to make the effort, that once they got to know him things would be different. All this was in vain. When Alex finally broke through to conversation, the members would quickly turn back to people more like them, leaving Alex standing there looking on. Burgers and Foucault were worlds apart.

As I observed these painful scenes week after week in the chapel foyer, I started seeing the Book of Mormon being played out before my very eyes. “And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learningâ€? (3 Ne. 6:12). There were “itesâ€? all over the place (4 Ne. 1:17), including my own extra-church socializing, which never involved Alex. For reasons unknown to me now I didn’t work hard at including him in social functions. By the time I left Cambridge, Alex had stopped coming to meetings on the claim that ward members made him “uncomfortable.â€?

I wondered then, and wonder still, how Zion, given our natural inclination to associate with people like ourselves, can ever be formed on the ground. Is Zion chimera?

Since moving from Cambridge, I have seen a similar social division in wards and social events. When educated Mormons socialize, we often invite only educated and accomplished people to the party–in other words, people like ourselves. We call these people “interesting people.â€? We interesting people huddle together in the hallways of our wards, we have each other over for dinner, we babysit each others’ children, we schmooze and fawn and try and out-clever each other. We ask potentially interesting people what they “doâ€? as a way of measuring whether they belong in our orbit of interesting people. In this rarified air, the uninteresting people, the Alexes of the world, are left off the invitation list.

I am as guilty as the rest; and I can’t fault people for finding friends for whom they have a special affinity. But what is the cost? Are we killing the Zion dream softly? I am both allured to and repulsed by this behavior and wonder in my quiet, radical moments whether higher education isn’t yet another measure of social segregation keeping people from coming together in peace and love.

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21 Responses to Are we killing the Zion dream softly?

  1. Matt Evans on December 8, 2004 at 2:43 am

    Excellent thoughts, Jed. I’ve thought about this for a long time and have been meaning to write a post on it. I’ll put my comments here instead.

    I used to conceptualize this problem more like you do, that it’s a function of pride. If only the proud, snobby people would work with the rest, then everyone would get along fine. But I’ve now decided that the problem is more universal and does not stem as much from pride as from blank-slate human nature.

    According to my former opinion, a Zion personality would find each person equally worthy of friendship. I believed the fact that I make friends more easily among people who are like me to be a fault to overcome. Now I’m not so sure. There was a Brazilian couple who was baptized into our ward about two years ago. We, and many of our friends, befriended them and welcomed them into our homes. Unfortunately, they spoke very little English, and communication wasn’t possible beyond cursory exchanges and smiles. We had them to our Christmas Party and to dessert, and so did some other families, but they stopped coming to church after a few months. For a long time I thought the blame rested on those of us who failed to successfully integrate them into our social groups. But now I realize that they may not have enjoyed coming to our house that much. Because they couldn’t communicate with anyone — the rest of us had each other — they may have found the interaction more taxing than fulfilling.

    Because I’m sympathetic to their situation, I don’t think it’s fair to say that this shows the Brazilian couple lacked Zion personalities, even if it’s true that it was them who dropped us, and not us who dropped them. At some point, it seems to me, it’s only fair that they would decide to smile and say Hi at church, but not put themselves through the painful process of having the same stilted conversation every week (exhausting their English) or try to pretend to understand the humorous remark someone tells them in a language foreign to them. Eventually they prefered, I’ve decided, to be at home with each other, watching Portugese TV and going to parties with their Brazilian friends. If I were in Brazil, I’d probably seek out people who I could communicate with, too.

    Your friend Alex is in a similar situation — he doesn’t speak the language of those in your ward. He understands English better than our Brazilian friends do, but there is a real communication barrier between him and your Longfellow friends. He relates to them on fewer levels, and shares fewer ideas — words — with them.

    Will there be friendships in Zion, or will I be invited to everyone in the ward’s house with equal regularity? (I don’t believe so.) Would there be Spanish language wards, if we were Zion-hearted? (I believe there would.) For me, the question has become, How much energy should we devote to overcoming these natural barriers, and how much should we accept them and work within them? What is the proper, Zion balance?

  2. Rob Briggs on December 8, 2004 at 3:07 am

    Jed, I don’t know the answer(s). But you have offered a powerful critique which probably indicts many of us. I confess to frequently rejecting the efforts of others to prooftext from the BoM to our social situation. But your text is spot on.

    I’m a generation removed & on the opposite coast from you. Still your post hit uncomfortably close to home.

    ***********

    So what does true education produce in us, pride or humility?? I’d argue that it produces humility; that as our understanding of our awesome world/cosmos expands, it produces humility. That it is an ersatz education that produces pride & haughtiness.

    That the bright kids at Longfellow Park (using them & it archetypally) were not really “educated” at all.

    I don’t think the Bad Boy is education. It’s that most ancient of tricksters, pride. Once again proving that there is no new thing under the sun.

  3. danithew on December 8, 2004 at 7:11 am

    Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. I had at least one female (married with kids too) professor at BYU who expressed the feeling that she was the only woman in her ward with an advanced degree.

    Still, when ranks are determined by wealth and/or education, it might be a harder road for those who are poor or uneducated. Being isolated and educated is hard but at least there’s a feeling of achievement. It’s already hard enough to be poor or uneducated … being shunned or isolated would just add insult to injury.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on December 8, 2004 at 7:46 am

    Education does produce humility, as well as other virtues; the moral argument assumed by the classical vision of humanitas, that becoming a well-rounded and intellectually engaged person would also make one a better one, is a reality. Unfortunately, it gets crowded out, in all of our lives, by another reality: class. Being educated (as a doctor, lawyer, academic, philosopher, engineer, English major, whatever) situates you socially and economically; it inculcates into you expectations and values that have relatively little to do with living a life of friendship and service, and a great deal to do with how much money you wish to make, where you wish your children to go to school, how you’re going to spend your vacations, whether you dress “blue-collar” or otherwise, etc. and so forth. Educational accomplishments and intellectual excellence needn’t conflict with the Zion ideal, but a social and economic environment which encourages us, or at the very least makes it easy for us, to align our affections with meritocratic rewards does. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the Zion sensibility would have had a hard time taking root in the pre-Revolutionary (both French and American) world of permanent class divisions and landed wealth; the fact that our divisions today are not quite as deep or permanent, and are based as least as much on scholarship money as on inherited property, does change the fundamental problem.

  5. Ethesis (Stephen M) on December 8, 2004 at 8:44 am

    That verse “And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning� (3 Ne. 6:12). and the points made by OCC in http://www.nauvoo.com/vigor/issues/08.html#nine (though for me, the text was in Isaiah about grinding the face fo the poor What mean ye that ye crush my people and grind the face of the poor?) came home to me about thirty years ago while I was on a mission.

    I’m not sure of the answers, though I know that part of Zion is overcoming such boundaries.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on December 8, 2004 at 9:02 am

    Oops. “…does not change the fundamental problem.”

  7. Kristine on December 8, 2004 at 9:02 am

    A couple of things–the Longfellow Park social scene is inscrutable. Despite being a student at Harvard, I felt completely at sea in the hallway antics. I always attributed it to being less pretty than my roommates, but there were plenty of pretty girls who felt left out, too. I just think that the combination of an attempt at worship with high-stakes mating rituals is bound to produce weird results. There are a few people who can pull it off, and the rest of us are left to attribute our discomfort to our most obvious difference or deeply-felt inadequacy–in my case my looks; in Alex’s case (or that of many nannies I talked to) the differences in class or education; for others, I imagine it would be tempting to explain in terms of racial or ethnic differences.

    I think I (gasp!) agree with Matt, that the making of Zion has to mean something besides transcending our usual social comfort zones. I’m not convinced that Zion is mostly about everybody being friendly to everybody else. It may well be that, too, sometimes, but I don’t think universal friendship is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for Zion. I find it perfectly possible to imagine a society in which there are no poor, and in which all are one in desiring to obey the Lord, but in which many people still find listening to me drone on and on about Brahms or Louisa Greene Richards stupefying, so that even in Zion, I may feel socially awkward and somewhat alone a lot of the time. The older I get, the more I *like* the idea of a Zion where we’re all still pretty much our bumblingly human selves, only more forgiving of each others’ lurching attempts at connection.

  8. Rosalynde Welch on December 8, 2004 at 9:10 am

    I’m with Kristine–I think it may be the *singles ward* that is killing the Zion dream softly. Forget whether or not capitalism is compatible with the gospel–is the singles-ward dating scene with its cruel social ethos compatible with the gospel?

    (I’m not arguing for the abolishment of singles wards. But I do think (hope?) that in a more organic social setting, where the personal stake in reproduction is not so high, it’s easier to overcome biases of class and taste.)

  9. Glen Henshaw on December 8, 2004 at 9:58 am

    I have to agree with Rosalynde. I had remarkably similar problems to your friend while at BYU, and at several larger singles wards in the DC area — and it had nothing to do with my education, intelligence, or life goals. It had everything to do with my somewhat introverted personality, skinnyness, and lack of fashion sense.

    On the other hand, I now live in a “regular” family ward on the far outskirts of the DC area. We have both very educated and almost completely uneducated members. We have very wealthy lawyers and impoverished mechanics. And for the most part we all get along. My hometeaching companion is very poor and uneducated. I have learned to appreciate all of his fine qualities. He’s a great guy, and a terrific hometeacher. Our bishop works on the hill as an aid to a senator. He’s also a great guy.

    I think one of the great parts of the church is that we are not free to choose whom to worship with. We’re all thrown in together, and as a result we interact with and serve people we would never meet by choice. Wards where there is great diversity are in my experience the happiest and friendliest; that breaks down somewhat in areas that are too homogenous or in “specialty wards” like the Boston, Provo, and DC area singles wards.

  10. Russell Arben Fox on December 8, 2004 at 10:17 am

    “I think one of the great parts of the church is that we are not free to choose whom to worship with. We’re all thrown in together, and as a result we interact with and serve people we would never meet by choice. Wards where there is great diversity are in my experience the happiest and friendliest; that breaks down somewhat in areas that are too homogenous or in “specialty wardsâ€? like the Boston, Provo, and DC area singles wards.”

    Excellent point, Glen. I think this is where the critique of class and the critique of singles’ wards meet: in both cases, what we’re looking at is situation wherein people are enabled, encouraged, or even required, to impose an extra does of selectivity on their affections and associations. A ward in Chevy Chase, MD, is going to be a ward that includes in its boundaries a tremendous amount of wealth and little else; people whose socio-economic positions have aided them in constructing living habits which revolve around exclusive neighborhoods, good schools, professional peers, etc., are probably, despite the best of intentions, going to be unaccustomed to dealing with and perhaps made uncomfortable by the arrival of an unemployed plumber or El Salvadoran immigrant in their ward. Similarly, Alexandria singles’ ward, at least on the basis of my brief acquaintence with it, was set up (like all singles’ wards) along highly selective criteria, encouraging a great deal of implied or even explicit stratification (“what’s she doing here? she’s too old, too poor, a single mom, a divorcee, she doesn’t belong, she doesn’t fit in our dating pool”).

    In the end, mixing is best, though given urban/suburban/exurban economic segregation, even being thrown together on the basis of geography often doesn’t do enough to counteract the exclusivity in human nature. Glen’s ward is far enough out in the provinces that the mixing is rather pronounced; I assume, Glen, that you’d agree that the mixing probably wouldn’t be quite as pronounced if you lived a little further north on Rt. 301.

  11. cooper on December 8, 2004 at 12:40 pm

    There is a interesting and sharp contrast here at T&S. It is this post and then the post of Nate’s on cluelessness. Each addresses a side of the same subject. Inclusion.

    It is interesting to note the style of comments on each thread. While one thread tries to address the perceived inability to be inclusive of one “not like us” the other looks at inclusion as “not noticing a distinct separation”. Likening it to one’s ability to not notice small details or large oversights on the part of the “outsider”, in this case Nate’s inability to notice someone’s annoyance at him due to his “cluelessness”.

    A great talk given by Bro. Carmack in Aug 1991 speaks to the issue of inclusion. While we try to make others feel welcome we find our differences are still too pronounced to make a connection on any level other than mere polite civility. Until we put our regular life aside and see each other with our spiritual identity will we will not find a common ground to enter into a relationship that is other than that acquaintance level. When we recognize the only compatability we truly need is our recognition of Christ, and his sacrifice for each of us, we are then able to respond with love and admiration for even the least educated or severely wealthy of individuals (for lack of better descriptives).

    Bro Carmack illustrates it well with a description of a church wide art exhibit. Members from all over the globe submit art to express a sincere appreciation for the gospel. It was inspiring. The submmissions took the “world” quotient out of the equation and allowed people to communicate their feelings of the gospel through their abilities as artists. No longer were they viewing people through a set of standards developed to guage success, educational superiority or economic viability. They were able to set a commonality as distinct, yet accepted as part of a whole, individuals through the use of art. So what do us non-artists do?

    Despite these simple and unifying doctrines and practices, there are some barriers to creating a greater unity amid our diversity. These barriers include racial and cultural discrimination and attitudes of separatism. The gospel is marvelously sufficient to create the desired unity, but people are imperfect. Discomfort because of language barriers, fear of accepting those with differences in skin color, alienation of singles—all have created barriers to unity. Usually, this mistreatment, isolation, and discrimination is self-justified by the use of labels. Labeling a fellow Church member an intellectual, a less-active member, a feminist, a South African, an Armenian, a Utah Mormon, or a Mexican, for example, seemingly provides an excuse to mistreat or ignore that person. These problems and many more need to be addressed if we are to create a society such as that which Enoch created.

    Bro Carmack states (and I agree with him): “As we become one with God, we will become one with each other. As we become one with each other, we will become one with God.

    This unity, which should come naturally, often comes painfully, a step at a time—“Line upon line, precept upon precept.â€? It took a graphic revelation for Peter to say, aha! “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.â€?”

    What labels will we remove to become more like Him?

  12. gst on December 8, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    I think it poor manners to ask someone “what they do.”

  13. Kristine on December 8, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    cooper, I’m glad you posted that–in some respects the earlier comments (including mine) were letting us off the hook too easily. While I think it’s unlikely that we’ll all ever be best friends, I think it’s clear we do have to do better at friendship and inclusion than we now do.

    I attended church in Kaimi’s ward in the Bronx a couple of weeks ago. It was really fun, and I loved the Relief Society lesson. But nobody, aside from one missionary, made an attempt to engage me in conversation, or really even say hello. I think racial barriers were partly an issue–I was one of three Caucasian women in RS–but mostly I think it’s just because we’re all too shy. I’m guilty in my own ward of not being welcoming enough, partly because I’m running around like the proverbial headless chicken (three kids, four callings, unavailable husband), but partly because I’m just more scared than I should be to risk an unpredictable social exchange. Perfect love would undoubtedly cast out that kind of fear!

  14. CB on December 8, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    For me, this topic shows what I think is both ingenious and inspired about Mormonism.

    Our wards are organized geographically, so a lot of the picking and choosing that goes on in other congregations doesn’t even come into play. The singles ward example noted above is just the exception that proves the rule. My participation in church brings me into contact with people who have different backgrounds, family situations, jobs, and overall outlooks on the world. I have come to value this.

    In my previous ward, I home taught two single moms, a university professor, a union electrician, and a man who works at a slaughterhouse. Every one of those people was my superior in some way.

  15. Jed Woodworth on December 8, 2004 at 3:24 pm

    Matt said: “But now I realize that they may not have enjoyed coming to our house that much. Because they couldn’t communicate with anyone”

    As you say, Alex and your Brazillian friends do not speak the language of the surroudning culture. Maybe Zion comes when we get beyond language, to a point in time when we know as we are known, to paraphrase John. Both parties have to be pure enough to “see through each other,” as it were. That may not come for generations.

    Russell said: “the fact that our divisions today are not quite as deep or permanent, and are based as least as much on scholarship money as on inherited property, does change the fundamental problem.”

    Longfellow Park was seeing class distinction in Alex. Education and class are often conflated as you suggest. And, without money for dental care, Alex had bad teeth, meaning gentility and refinement, a marker of class, became another barrier.

  16. Jed Woodworth on December 8, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Kristine and Rosalynde: Agreed. The singles ward is brutal on people. Brutal on self esteems. (Though Jim F. would question there is such a thing.) People size each other up and down and turn the other way if they see a mark of disagreeability. Eternal marriage is the schema at work. Singles so badly want the match they look for perfection upon sight. Men are worse then women, in my experience. Men size up (or down) far too quickly. I say “quickly” but ideally it should not be done at all.

    My narrative arc in telling Alex’s story obviously simplifies the crowd. I make it sound as though no one else feels as Alex does. Of course that is not so. There must be a bunch of Alexes out there in singles’ wards. I remember feeling out of the loop on occasion.

    Still, I don’t want to go too far with attributing Alex’s difficulty to the single’s ward. Intellectual interests, as well as class and race, overdetermines those in family wards in many ways. We have to guard against it. How is the question.

  17. Kaimi on December 8, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    Kris,

    I had previously instructed everyone not to talk to the weird lady from Swampscott. ;) And please let me know which of the missionaries broke that rule. I’ll make sure that he is disciplined appropriately.

  18. a random John on December 8, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    gst,

    What do you do?

  19. Mickey on December 8, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    I’ve rarely, if ever, felt “at home” with the social aspect of any LDS ward. That isn’t ever why I go. But then again different people have different needs. I was in singles wards for a long time but didn’t find them any better or worse than any other ward. The benign neglect that I read in the descriptions here doesn’t concern me a lot. The pride in material things and learning might be a problem for those caught up in it, but shouldn’t be a problem for the humble ones. What I see as a much bigger problem is the maliciousness that is too common in LDS wards. For example, my experiences would lead me to conclude that “Alexâ€? was probably often the subject or object of unkind comments. This would be the result of uncircumcised hearts and such a problem is not the unique domain of the rich or the learned. In a separate clueless thread the statement “I hate you and I hope you go to hellâ€? was put forth (I think tongue in cheek). The malicious comments say this in different words. Unfortunately in recent years I have also witnessed and been the recipient of “goodâ€? latter-day saints no longer bothering with the code-speak. Not only are some falling short of Zion, they are openly embracing the opposite. And such behavior often is treated with more tolerance than choice of fashion.

    Even in the absence of malicious behavior, the culture of what should be Zion too often uses and imposes worldly measures on fellow members. Politics, sports, career, education, fashion, and pseudo-doctrine are some of the most common standards imposed.

    The measure of Zion is whether or not anyone noticed when “Alex� appeared happy or sad, sleepy or energetic etc. and then spoke with him about it. These are aspects of the human condition that we all have in common and therefore can converse about. If this never happened, then Zion was absent. If it did, then hallelujah!

  20. gst on December 8, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    Random John, how ill-mannered of you. But, since you ask, I’m the Gambian Ambassador to the United Nations.

  21. Todd on December 9, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    I love this thread. :) (pardon the gush)
    I come from a family that was part-member (now all member, but not all active), had some dysfunctions (the evidences of such still exist). I’m engaged at 34. In other words, I don’t fit a lot of ideals in terms of the public persona of the active LDS member. But I’ve shrugged it off–most of my friends don’t fit that mold either, and a good many LDS people I know are trying too hard to fit that mold. The “can’t we all just get along” phrase comes to mind. (or is it “can we”?).
    Anyhow, forgive the ramble, but where I’m most sensitive to this issue is here: I have a Master’s. I’m a Ph.D. student. I am an academic, but my fianceé is a fully degreed nail technician. English is not her first language. The attraction’s staying power comes from the fact that she’s got a lot of wisdom about people. She has a great ability to shrug off things that people do that are not important, and an ability to recognize when someone is in need and give gentle yet direct advice and help. I’m sensitive when people ask her the question “what do you do?” because I’ve realized that this innocuous question, as has been concluded in this thread, is not innocuous. When people ask this to her, I get a chance to observe their reaction. It’s been in some ways an opportunity to inadvertantly sort those who are (forgive me) merely my friends from those whose grasp of the Gospel I admire and deeply respect–and thus it has deepened our friendships in that latter group.
    Last night (literally), my fianceé took into her apartment a woman who is LDS, and has made some less than good decisions. She’s also someone who has an advanced degree in mathematics (pure mathematics–all abstract). This woman is nice, but to be frank, is almost completely devoid of common sense and of the wisdom that I admire in my fianceé. She made social choices that were literally so naive that they put her in mortal danger.
    What’s my point? This is a stark example of how little book intelligence matters. It’s wisdom that matters. I seek to have in my life, those who demonstrate such wisdom, who can teach a little to me, OR those who are seeking such. When I encounter those who are new (or less active) in the church, I’ve slowly learned to try to find that thread of seeking which is common to both of us. That is why we go to church, I think–in terms of a practical, James 1:27, aspect.
    On more than one occasiona I’ve had transcending experiences in a room full of people with varying amounts of higher education simply because we were all seeking spiritual things. When the Spirit was present, the desire (or temptation) to judge on superficial things disappears. The desire to edify and be edified increased.
    While (at least for me) there is always a danger of being click-ish (or is it clique?), and while I always have (or hope to have) an inner circle of intimate friends. I would tend to think that my responsibility to the Gospel is to seek to enjoy the Spirit with those in my congregation–when I invite them into my home. Sometimes that should be a social exercise, but sometimes it should be a spiritual Family Home Evening or some such. When the Spirit is present, relationships are forged and experiences are had which bind us to each other and to the Savior. They are the experiences I remember.