In Memoriam: A Plea for a Different Discourse

tug of war

I recently learned of the passing of Steven H. Webb, a relatively obscure theologian who taught at Wabash college. Although he had a successful academic career, you probably would not have heard of him unless you have an academic interest in Karl Barth and the metaphysics of matter, or happened to attend one of his lectures or stumble upon his writing. For me, it was the latter. I don’t know how exactly I discovered his book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from Latter-Day Saints, but I devoured it upon  discovery. The acknowledgements begin with the phrase, “Studying Mormonism has made me a better Christian,” and Chapter 1 starts with, “I am not a Mormon, but sometimes I wish I were one.”

I actually cried as I read Webb’s examination of my religion simply because it was kind. (It was also insightful and informed, but the kindness is what set it apart.) I had grown so accustomed to reading commentary on Mormonism that I found short-sighted, biased, condescending, and demeaning, that this open-armed and nuanced discussion felt like the first warm day after a long winter. I didn’t even realize that I had been figuratively clenching my teeth, and tensing my shoulder and neck muscles against the cold until I sensed that it was no longer needed; I relaxed into the warmth of Webb’s writing. Although we never met, I mourn with his loved ones for his death. I did not feel comfortable writing my condolences in the online guestbook alongside those who actually knew him, but I wanted to honor him for the grace he showed me through his kind and thoughtful dealings with my community of faith.

As I considered Webb’s kindness, I was struck the way we demonstrated what I call “unconverted admiration.” Webb never converted to Mormonism, but he was able to appreciate its richness and nuances as an outsider. He remained a faithful Catholic despite his deep understanding and admiration for my faith. Although he did not dwell on them in his book, he likely had doctrinal/theological disagreements with Mormonism that led him to maintain his personal preference for Catholicism. But these differences did not prevent him from seeing the beauty and depth of another religion. Unlike many other commentators, his message did not boil down to something like, “You’ve got to admire Mormons’ family values and their tightly-knit communities, but their religion is crazy.” Instead, he seemed to say, “Mormonism offers so much. Sometimes it might be hard for outsiders to see, but I think I see it, and what I see is wonderful.” Reading Webb’s writing, I felt known, understood, and appreciated. Although he offered a unique perspective as an outsider, it seemed to me that we were both looking at the same thing, and we looked at it with a similar love and awe.

Obviously, there are moments when outright criticism is more appropriate than unconverted admiration, but those moments may be fewer than we think. And in the current political climate when “e pluribus unum” seems to mean “from many perspectives to mine,” a bit more appreciation of plurality might mitigate the polarization of our politics. But unconverted admiration is not easy. Being either sarcastic or indignant toward differing views is far easier. It is easy to never distance ourselves too much from our comfortable echo-chambers. It is easy to disengage with uncomfortable conversation and quickly retreat to our same-minded circles where we can congratulate or comfort ourselves for saying what we think and standing up for our beliefs.

Although there are virtues to this kind of standing up, I’d like to see more sitting down: a Trump supporter and Sanders supporter chatting over lunch, an LGBT+ rights advocate and an opponent to gay marriage meeting up for a cup of coffee (or hot chocolate!), and pro-choice and pro-life proponents sharing a meal. The ultimate aim of these sit downs need not be ideological proselytism or even across-the-aisle collaboration (although more of that would be nice); it could simply be unconverted admiration–and where outright admiration is not possible, at least appreciation. That kind of “e pluribus unum” is rarely realized, but I think we glimpse it in the friendship of Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From what I can tell, this “team of rivals” did not sit down together simply out of necessity. Somehow they were able to transcend their ideological differences and cultivate a relationship of unconverted admiration. They seemed to recognize the brilliance of the other and understand the underpinnings of his/her stances while fundamentally disagreeing. Their friendship gives me hope.

At the same time, though, I am more aware than ever of the obstacles along this path. Many of us are not prepared to discuss our own perspectives with any degree of depth and nuance, let alone those of other people. And as anybody who has sat through a class without doing the assigned reading knows, when our understanding is superficial, engaging in discussion is a frightening prospect. Thoughtful preparation seems a prerequisite to unconverted admiration. When we have examined the foundations of our own beliefs, we will likely be less defensive in our discussions both because we are more confident and articulate in our opinions, and because we are more aware of their limitations. I wonder if some of the unproductive conversations I have witnessed resulted from a perfect storm of standing up for one’s beliefs without being truly prepared to discuss them–a distasteful combination of indignation and ignorance.

Ironically, as our society increasingly embraces the ideals of equity and diversity, our politics are increasingly polarized. As some have tried to cultivate colorblindness, we seem to see only in black and white. We should be more wary of people who are absolutely sure that they are right and that others are wrong, who are quick to condemn and slow to understand, who stand up and speak out against people with other perspectives, but never sit down with them–that approach will only lead to alienation. Realizing the dream of “e pluribus unum” depends on an ethos of unconverted admiration.

I intend to pay forward what I received from Stephen H. Webb. May he rest in peace. And may we emulate him and become better instruments of peace. 


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