Confessions of an Aging, Hypocritical Ex-Missionary by Wayne C. Booth

Confessions of an Aging, Hypocritical Ex-Missionary by Wayne C. Booth

Confessions of an Aging, Hypocritical Ex-Missionary
by Wayne C. Booth

From Sunstone, March-April 1998, Vol. 21:1, Issue 109, p. 25-36.

Placed on the internet with permission from the author and publisher.
Do not redistribute without permission of the copyright holders.

Until I was far into my teens, I was an utterly unquestioning Mormon. My parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles were all visibly, audibly, aggressively devout–all except one uncle, a smoker, a “black sheep.” For our family, non-Mormons were beyond the pale–to be tolerated, of course, even treated kindly if they behaved themselves, viewed perhaps as potential converts, but never courted or married, and never even visited socially. They were certainly not destined, like us, to enter the celestial kingdom. We knew that in the next life those lost souls would not even be allowed to come near us, as we all continued our eternal progression, pursuing knowledge and righteousness–concepts that when defined correctly turned out to be the same thing.

What I remember as most important to me was that in heaven the non-Mormon or non-devout males down there in the lower kingdoms would have no hope for what I had a strong hope for, if I kept my nose clean: becoming the god of another world, accompanied by a pious female helpmate. Meanwhile, here and now, non-Mormons were so far beneath us that it was dangerous even to get near them. I remember feeling scared to walk too close to the one non-Mormon church in my home town, American Fork, Utah. I would always cross the road and walk on the other side, to avoid contamination, and I was thankful that we lived in another ward, far from that wicked place.

In short, until my first questioning began at about fourteen, I was a 100 percent devotee of what might be called an exclusivist, or particularist, anti-ecumenical version of Mormonism. That boy, the very young Wayne Booth, would perhaps these days be called by non-Mormons a fundamentalist (the word wasn’t in our vocabulary, I’m quite sure). Born and reared in the pre-Darwinian nineteenth century, as you might say, he was for about fifteen years unaware of what had been happening to western thought from long before he was born.

Where am I now? Well, I’m still a “Mormon,” but one who puts quotation marks around most of my religious commitments the marks always translated not as “disbelief” but as “Allow me my own definitions.” The pious young believer and I have engaged in a variety of dialogues for going on seven decades. As my beliefs and unbeliefs have shifted about, the debates have, of course, changed ground. At times I’ve treated the boy as a stupid oaf, and he’s treated me as a lost soul. Sometimes he has been so shocked by my ideas, and even more by how low I rank coffee or wine drinking on the scale of sins, that he has simply and angrily cast me off, even as I have lamented his naive commitment to silly superstitions and destructive prejudices.

Now, though, as he and I face the many conflicting religious and anti-religious conflicts flooding our world, the distance between us seems to me far less, and the need to get together, in spite of his remaining conviction that that is impossible, seems ever greater. After all, I tell him, many of my admired religious friends now talk about an apocalyptical ending fully as confidently as he does. And some of them even have in mind, as he does, a second coming: if we can just probe space far enough and vigorously enough, we’ll find some planet to escape to when this one collapses. Isn’t it time, I now ask my young self, to probe beneath the superficial “verbal” differences to the true grounds of our strongest convictions? Isn’t our real assignment, as we approach the new millennium, to discover what we share and then decide, probing our differences, just what can be cast aside?

He’s a bit more open these days to that suggestion, but for many decades he viewed my profession of commitment to various “liberal” versions and virtues of Mormonism as simply a hypocritical disguise for genuine betrayal:

You’re betraying Grandma and Grandpa Booth and Grandma and Grandpa Clayson and Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother Hawkins and all the Chipman pioneers. You’re casting aside the very testimonies that I have borne in fast meeting at least ten times already. You’ll make it so we’ll not be allowed to talk with any of the family in the next world. Even though you list yourself as a Mormon in Who’s Who, you’re not a Mormon any more! You don’t even believe that Mormons have the Only True Church. You say you believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and in Joseph Smith as a true prophet, but I know that you mean all that as something covered by a word I just learned in school: it’s metaphor for you, not literal truth. You are just plain hypocritical.

And off he rides on his bicycle to go to a Boy Scout meeting, or to collect fast day donations, or to remind the other boys in his deacon’s quorum that they must attend both meetings Sunday or the other quorum will win the contest for best attendance.1

Sometimes I can manage, though, to entice him into a real discussion about what beliefs we still share. My claim in those discussions is that he and I still share the most important Mormon truths, the ones that are most truly “religious.” That radical claim continues to disturb him: “I don’t see how you can make that claim, and I don’t see how we can even discuss it. When you arrogantly reject what I know to be true, I just don’t want to talk with you.” But I go on arguing–as I shall argue here–that beneath our differences, he and I still share common ground that is far more important than our differences.

Finding common ground even with enemies and remaining open to conversion.

As I’ve talked not just with that young fundamentalist but with various “enemies” and other “selves” over the years, I’ve been learning the kind of rhetorical practice that these days I risk labeling with a neologism, “rhetorology”: not rhetorical persuasion but rather a systematic, ecumenical probing of the essentials shared by rival rhetorics in any dispute–whether about religion or about other important matters. Though rhetorology shares many features with other “dialogical” efforts, what it perhaps most resembles is political diplomacy. But unlike skillful diplomats, rhetorologists do not just try to discover the rival basic commitments and then “bargain.” Nor do they just tolerate, in a spirit of benign relativism. Instead, they search together for true grounds then labor to decide how those grounds dictate a change of mind about more superficial beliefs. Any genuine rhetorologist entering any fray is committed to the possibility of conversion to the “enemy” camp.

For decades I’ve been especially interested in the quarrels between those who specifically label themselves as religious (and who dismiss all atheists as inherently benighted) and many of those who call themselves atheists or unbelievers (and who dismiss all religious talk as nothing more than superstition). As I have struggled to write a book on that subject,2 my imagined conversations with the lively, probing young believer I once was have come to seem more and more important.

For me, the pursuit of such a rhetorology has become a vocation that could be called religious, a kind of “faith” in, or unshakeable conviction of, the ultimate value of pursuing understanding and improved dialogue about shared fundamental values. The validity of such a faith could never be proved with hard logic or scientific evidence. It is as much a faith as any overt commitment to a church, but in my rhetorical terms it is both a religious and a rational faith: one that can be genuinely supported by careful argument of “the right kind,” even though it can easily be described as naive or flatly absurd, according to some narrow notions of rational proof. There are obviously no scientific or strictly logical proofs for the importance of ecumenical, pluralistic probing. But I can find no good reasons to doubt its service to genuine religion.

Skeptics concerning this special kind of religious pursuit are found in every field and in most religious groups. And they always find good evidence for their skepticism. Our world is full of evidence showing that attempts at dialogue between contrasting faiths fail more often than they succeed; think of the failed conversations now going on among–or flatly denied by–Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. Indeed many philosophers and politicians and defenders of religion will claim that there can be no genuine discussion about religion between a pluralist like me and that fourteen-year-old religious dogmatist; religious dispute is inherently the kind that gets nowhere. As the self-proclaimed “atheist” Richard Rorty put it not long ago, religion should be “privatized”–it should be “kept out of the public square.” It is bad taste to “bring religion into discussions of public policy,” because all overtly “religious” groundings are irrational, refuted by the “Enlightenment” that he claims still to embrace.3 In short, I’m sure that for him the “faith” undergirding the article I’m writing here is absurd.

As a young missionary,
Elder Booth wrestled in his journal
with the world views competing
with his Mormon orthodoxy.

Why should anyone persist in such a faith, looking back on a lifetime and out at a world, both of which seem to exhibit more failures than successes in the search for common spiritual ground? Within the Latter-day Saint community, one seems to see more and more drawing of sharp, impermeable lines, less and less embrace of the notion that religious devotion expresses itself best when “believers” get together and think through the grounds of their belief. Of course there’s no way of proving that the lines are sharper now than when I was young. But it is clear that throughout my lifetime most Mormons would be skeptical about my claim that the young literalist and this old metaphorist belong, in the deepest sense, to the same church.

Such a claim might well lead in hundreds of directions. For the rest of this article, I’ll pursue just one of them, with the question:

Where did I pick up a faith as difficult to defend as the faith in what I’m calling rhetorology not just ecumenicism but the pursuit of ecumenical dialogue?

Only recently have I begun to suspect that it was the direct result of my two years as a confused, probing, often-troubled Mormon missionary.

Part 2