Hot Tubs and Doctrinal Discord
This post mentions sexual abuse.
Recently I went to Utah for work and was reminded of the peculiarities of our people. One evening, after my meetings ended, I ran out and grabbed a smothered burrito at Cafe Rio as a nod to my college years, and headed back to the hotel for a night swim. Three people occupied a four person hot tub, so after my laps were done I asked if it would interrupt their tête-à-tête if I joined them. They graciously invited me in, asked where I was from, and engaged me in conversation. Keep in mind I live on the East Coast and don’t typically run into Latter-day Saints in my everyday comings and goings. Doctrinal conversations don’t just pop up casually in my community. When these conversations do occur, it’s usually in church on Sunday. Because it is during the regimented 2 hour block, in a reverent place, I definitely don’t seem to be able to have the nitty gritty conversations about faith that I seem to be desperate for lately. I am currently frustrated with several aspects of my worship and need a time and place to talk about things with fellow worshippers, but I don’t know when and where to make that happen. Instead, I get annoyed with what I feel are ignorant comments in class, dismissive comments in testimonies, and generally surface level lessons that only seem to separate me further from the unity in my faith that I crave. So when the people I joined in the hot tub were looking for some hearty discussion, I was in.
My new late night hot tubbing friends asked why I was in town and I explained I work for the judicial system and was conducting some training.“What does someone from Virginia have to teach anyone in Utah about judicial practices in Utah?” In no surprise, the conversation quickly turned to politics, as it does, and I chuckled as they presumed my political leanings based on my confession about having attended BYU. We had a healthy back and forth discussion about doubt and faith, about the LDS Church’s “faux pas with the LGBTQ community” (his words not mine), about creating space for doctrinal questions and doubts, guns and school choice, and of course about faith and grief, because that’s my jam.
We agreed on almost nothing. One of the individuals drove the conversation, but I inserted my two cents regularly. In passing he mentioned he has gotten a bit calloused about people taking offense when something bad happens to them at church. He confessed his lack of sympathy for those who stop coming to church because another church member said or did something offensive. He proceeded to share some pretty terrible things he’d experienced at the hands of a bishopric member and scout leader back in the day, but conveyed how he decided to not let it “get it him.” He’d been physically and sexually abused by male leaders at church, but he didn’t let it impact his testimony. His conclusion was that if those experiences didn’t drive him away, he had little empathy for the seemingly “little” things (to him) that drove other folks away. It was a heavy topic for our hot tub heart to heart. I expressed my sorrow over his childhood experiences and he was quick to minimize and move on. I followed his lead, respecting the attention he did or did not want to give his trauma at that time and place.
I offered that I too, have grown a bit calloused, but for reasons on the other side of the spectrum. I have felt a bit frustrated lately because many members of the church are being so offensive. Taking offense versus being offensive, a dichotomy worth dissecting. I explained how I feel a little frustrated with those who feel entitled to do or say whatever they want, sensitivity be damned.
We somehow landed on discussing gay rights, probably because the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) had recently passed in the House. When I spoke in support of RFMA and about how disappointed I was that we as a religion were not making better strides in offering a safe, welcoming space for LGBTQ Saints to worship, he wasn’t having it.
He talked about a gay couple who attends his ward who is welcomed by everyone and even though they can’t get baptized, “they are fine with it.” They even have responsibilities at church and are loved by all, even though the couple’s daughters couldn’t get baptized. Or they could. Or wait, maybe they couldn’t, but shouldn’t. Or now they can. Or not. He couldn’t quite remember where all that stood.
I said, “I don’t know this couple, so maybe they are ‘fine with it,’ or maybe they aren’t, but why are you fine with it?” I explained about two friends of my own who are gay and tried to attend a ward and were not only not given callings, but also ignored and othered, and unsurprisingly, they left. Two different wards, two different experiences for gay Saints.
One friend in one ward praying to Heavenly Mother, no problem. Another friend in another ward, shamed into keeping silent. Two wards, two different experiences. Two friends struggling with wearing their temple garments daily, two different wards, two different messages from leadership.
Across the board, there are doctrinal gaps. In these gaps, there has got to be room for multiple interpretations, I tried suggesting. He couldn’t see the gaps, only the black and white handbook he could quote, and he kept telling me I was being too critical. But for him, all of this was just as casual as talking about the weather forecast. Conversations like these never happen with strangers I meet in hot tubs in Virginia.
“How can some people engage in certain behaviors and still hold their temple recommends, while others do the exact same thing three stakes over, and yet be denied theirs?” I asked my hot tub friend pointedly, “If doctrinally all of these bishops are called of God, but have very different interpretations of worthiness, doesn’t that mean there are some doctrinal gaps we need to acknowledge? Maybe, could there be a gap in revelation about gay marriage, for example?” He shook his head slowly enough to let me know he’d wondered that too, maybe, but that was all the space he was going to give it.
I tell you this story because as much as we disagreed, we talked. My hot tub friends asserted their notions of things and I did the same. I did not back down but I was not confrontational. They did not back down, but they were not confrontational. For the record, I do believe in confrontation at times and that we can, and should, be mad about things. But on that night, me and my three new hot tub friends shared our contradictory beliefs all housed under the same doctrinal umbrella of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each of us, our own version of a Latter—day Saint. Each of us not understanding how the other could believe what they believed, but all accepting the love of our Heavenly Parents, and at that point, that shared knowledge was enough. When we were all shriveled past the point of pruning, we walked away civilly. It was good for me. I was able to have a hearty discussion about problematic doctrines of the gospel with individuals who can’t see things the way I see them, but we did all agree the other should have a place to worship in the same pew. It was a reminder to me that there are so many doctrinal gaps, so many things I will never see eye to eye about with others I go to church with on Sunday. This was no surprise. The surprise was that in accepting that knowledge, I felt oddly powerful. I will look for allies where I can find them, and where I can’t, I will seek to create them. Where I can neither find nor create allies, I can remove myself.
We all had different opinions that night, they listened to mine and I listened to theirs. I wondered if we were all so respectful of each other’s differences because we were strangers and would never have to worship together. It inspired me to be more forthcoming in my own ward, and not just when I am a stranger in a strange land. Ironically, I think I learned that creating spaces for doctrinal discord is the only way I am actually going to find unity.