Twenty years ago, there was an interesting debate between two political philosophers at Harvard that ultimately does a lot to explain the inevitability of pain for Mormons who embark on intellectual discussions of their religion. The first philosopher, John Rawls, argued that the most important value in a well-ordered society was the ability to change our beliefs. Human beings, he argued, must be thought of primarily as beings whose beliefs are secondary to their choices. Hence, the highest political good was liberty, which preserves the ability of free individuals to revise and choose their beliefs. The second philosopher, Michael Sandel, argued that Rawls’s argument for the priority of liberty was mistaken. By conceptualizing human beings first and foremost as choosers Rawls, according to Sandel, had denied the possibility of having beliefs that were constitutive of our identity. In other words, according to Sandel, some beliefs are not simply things that we as fully formed and choosing individuals take from the philosophical and spiritual cafeteria of life. Rather, these beliefs define who we are prior to any choosing that we may do. I think that Sandel’s basic insight did a lot to explain the intensity that swirls through Mormon discussions.
People can get really riled up when talking about Mormonism. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is — I think — that in some sense Sandel was right. There are certain beliefs that we have that are not simply things that we have chosen, but are part of who we are. When these constitutive beliefs are attacked, we are faced not simply with a set of arguments marshaled against some abstract proposition. Rather, we face an attempt to negate some part of our being. And so it hurts and we lash out. Our beliefs about God, the Gospel, and the Restoration are very likely going to be these sorts of constitutive beliefs. Hence the heat that one often sees in Mormon discussions.
There are a couple of ways that one can react to attacks on one’s constitutive beliefs. First, one can become hyper-defensive, responding with a thunderous broadside to every musket pop, no matter how small. Second, one can simply withdraw from any discussion in which one’s constitutive beliefs are challenged. Third, one can separate one’s beliefs from one’s being. This doesn’t mean that you think that the beliefs are false, simply that one doesn’t think of one’s self as being defined by them. Finally, one might try to develop certain virtues that allow one to cope with the pain of attacks on one’s constitutive belief, a kind of intellectual version of the Roman cultivation of calm forbearance in the face of pain.
I don’t like the first three possibilities. Hyper-defensiveness is spiritually and intellectually exhausting. It requires that one devotes enormous energy responding to every possible challenge, no matter how small. Withdrawing from any discussion in which one’s constitutive beliefs are challenged means that ultimately you will be deprived of many — if not most — of the conversations that you might have about the things that matter to you most. Finally, working to sunder one’s identity completely from one’s beliefs, so that every possible discussion is an abstract tourney between concepts and their relations seems to render one’s soul somehow shriveled and draws the fire and blood from conversation.
Which leaves us with the final Stoic possibility. I think that we want constitutive beliefs. Our life is richer and more meaningful when we are defined by our convictions. This, however, necessarily involves the possibility not only of being wrong, but being tragically wrong. To be wrong about a constitutive belief is not simply to be mistaken about the world, but also about your very identity. Constitutive beliefs — coupled with conversation — also makes pain inevitable. Intellectual life becomes like the tourney of opposites that Lehi describes in 2 Nephi 2: we know the sweet only by guaranteeing that we will also taste the bitter.