“Are you willing to understand another view even as it pressures and challenges your view?” - Dr. Finlayson-Fife
Sherrae Phelps: In an interview I had with Dr. Finlayson-Fife in November 2017, she talked about an experience she had with her brother when they were at college together. Here’s her account from that interview:
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Are you willing to understand another view even as it pressures and challenges your view?
For example, when I was at BYU, my brother was reading a lot of church history as he was going through a faith crisis. He wanted to talk about it and I hated the fact that he wanted to talk about it because it was pressuring my view. I found it very threatening, and I remember as I was driving back to my dorm one night praying and telling God that I was going to distance myself from my brother and not spend as much time with him. I remember having a very strong impression that that was dishonest of me; that it was unloving, and that the truth could withstand love. Whatever is true could withstand knowing and caring about my brother. So even though it terrified me, I decided to stay close, rather than distancing myself from him.
Sherrae Phelps: Were you terrified because of the effect that it might have on you?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yes, I was afraid that maybe I would not believe and I didn't want to not believe. I was afraid of the historical realities that were challenging. I was afraid of facing another idea about who Joseph Smith was. I was afraid it would break me from my view.
Sherrae Phelps: After that interview with Dr. Finlayson-Fife, I started wondering if all conversations discussing conflicting beliefs were valuable to engage in. What about controversial conversations? Is there value in listening to offensive ideas? Are there times when it is morally courageous to give others platforms to speak, and other times when it would do more damage than good?
As a first-year student at Williams College, Zachary Wood joined a student organization called Uncomfortable Learning. The group brings controversial viewpoints to campus by inviting individuals to speak. One controversial speaker who was invited was John Derbyshire, a white supremacist known for extremely racist and sexist views.
But John Derbyshire never got a chance to speak. Adam Falk, President of Williams College, canceled the speech. In a statement President Falk said:
Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire...The college will not provide a platform for him.
Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it.
We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.
Are all conversations discussing conflicting beliefs valuable to engage in? Are there times when it is morally courageous to give others platforms to speak and other times when it would do more damage than good? Is there a line?
In 2019, I had the chance to interview Dr. Finlayson-Fife again and to ask her more about her experience with her brother:
Sherrae Phelps: You mentioned that you were terrified to have those conversations with your brother because of the effect it might have on your faith. But isn’t that a legitimate concern? I’m trying to sort out when it would be morally courageous to engage in conversations with others about differing views and when it would be wise to remove yourself from certain conversations.
Finlayson-Fife: I think it's a legitimate concern. You don't just want to have things that you hold dear be destroyed by somebody's point of view. But I think for me--at least in this case--it felt cowardly to me. It felt like I was afraid of my brother's reality. It wasn't that my brother was trying to convince me that the church wasn't true, and he wasn't trying to get me to see things his way. He was just struggling himself honestly and talking about things that were scary to me like church history and things that I had never heard of. And it scared me because I was afraid that that reality would infect my view or that my brother's experience would infect my view. And that felt dishonest to me. It felt more like I was trying to get away from information that I didn't know if I could handle, or that I wasn’t sure my testimony or my beliefs could handle.
That is why I felt that, if I care about my brother--because I didn't feel like he was trying to manipulate me--that the truth can handle me loving him. Meaning, what is true will withstand my caring about him and his perspective, if they are honest, even if I don't even end up agreeing with his perspective. The truth can withstand caring about him.
Sherrae Phelps: I kind of feel like there's almost a little bit of risk in opening yourself up to really take in others’ views and beliefs. I'm wondering how you can use good judgment to distinguish when it's valuable to listen to those opposing views or participate in those conversations, and when it would be wiser to stay away and avoid them.
Finlayson-Fife: Do you mind saying more about what you see as the risk? Risk of what?
Sherrae Phelps: The risk of being misled because of a well-articulated and persuasive view, even though there may not be any truth in it. Does that make sense?
Finlayson-Fife: Yes, that you could be sort of persuaded into an idea that is bad for you or that is wrong?
I think that for me, the defining thing is whether or not I think the person talking to me has an agenda that serves themselves, as opposed to speaking honestly about their real experience and their real beliefs even if they're different than my own. Is it about an honest conversation and sharing of perspectives with someone who is sincere but different than me? Or is it somebody who has an agenda to get me to reinforce their view by agreeing with it? Or someone who could somehow take advantage of me by getting me to buy into their view? The motivation is what would make the difference in terms of my openness to it.
Sherrae Phelps: One time when we were talking you said, “If you're too rigidly married to a particular ideology, and you're rigidly defined by it, it makes you less flexible.” What's the difference between being too rigidly married to an idea, versus being firm, steadfast, immovable, and having integrity for your beliefs?
Finlayson-Fife: I have a couple of thoughts. A principle that I've never wavered on is my belief in truth and love. I shouldn't say I have never wavered, and I don't mean it so ideally; I'm saying that it is something I've really never questioned. What I've questioned is whether or not lower principles stack up against that standard of both what is true and what really creates love and strength.
When we talk about the love of God, I think it’s about a love of true goodness and creating goodness, standing up for what's true and creates strength, and the capacity to love ourselves and others. And so the “steadfast and immovable” aspect is there, but it’s not about rigidly hanging onto lower principles. Christ was very critical of the Sadducees and the Pharisees taking lower principles and then holding onto them in a way that was self-reinforcing and that actually created weakness in them. And so the criticism was that they weren't really about loving. For them, it was more about posturing and reinforcing oneself, not about creating real strength within oneself and within one's relationship.
I think when you're really living by true principles, or when you're standing up for true principles, you’ll know them by their fruits. It creates goodness and it creates strength in you and in other people. This is why I believe in truth and love. And I have a testimony of truth and love in many ways because of the work that I do. I see people embrace more truth in their own lives, including truth about themselves that's hard to see and to deal with. And I see people who are willing to walk towards it and deal with it for the sake of love and for the sake of creating more strength in their marriages or creating more strength in their lives. And I’ve watched people transform. I watch people get stronger and become more trustworthy, and I watch people become more confident in themselves because they are aligning themselves with a higher principle. The evidence
is right there that when we live by true principles it creates real strength.
Sherrae Phelps: When you're in a relationship with others who have conflicting beliefs, it may feel like you have two options: either sever the relationship with that person so you can hold onto your beliefs, or sever your beliefs so you can hold onto the relationship. How can two people have an intimate relationship (I think the more distant the relationship the easier it is to make room for those differences) that respects both individuals’ differing and conflicting beliefs?
Finlayson-Fife: First of all I do think that's hard for people. And I see a lot of people that come in experiencing exactly what you're talking about--that challenge or change in how each is orienting to what's true, and to what they value, and to what they want to create in their lives.
But I think that a lot of times we relate to our faith--either our belief in Mormonism or our disbelief in Mormonism--tyrannically. We do it in a way to basically get other people to reinforce us through seeing things the same way. I see people do that in the church and I see people do that out of the church, or as they're leaving the Church. And that's ungodly, it's un-Christian, it’s unloving, and it's un-Mormon in the best interpretation of our faith.
And so for me the question that is often helpful for people to confront is whether or not they're going to stand up for the best in their faith, and love their partner even if their partner isn't reinforcing their beliefs. Or will they basically choose to not love in the name of goodness? In the name of goodness, are they going to betray what they promised God they would do for this other person? Or are they going to allow that they relate to God and goodness and faith differently? And am I going to stay true to what I believe is right in order to create goodness in my life without making you reinforce me?
Just to tell this story kind of quickly, one time when I was younger, I was talking to my mother about my struggle with the temple. I told her that I was really having a hard time with it and that it felt wrong to me the way in which the relationship between men and women is understood. And I was telling her that I was choosing to not go to the temple for a while. And as I was talking to her about it I said to her, "Mom I really don't want you to worry about me.” I was basically saying to her that I didn’t want to break her heart.
My mom did something very kind and very Christian. She told me that I didn't need to worry about that. She said, “I see who you are and I see the goodness that you do. I don't have the same struggles that you do around the temple, but that doesn't mean I'm right and you're wrong. I have my own fallibility to concern myself with and my own relation to God. And I fully trust your ability to sort that out for yourself even if you do it differently than me. And that's not my job to worry about you.”
And I just really appreciated that response because she wasn't telling me that she needed me to act in a certain way to reinforce her, or to reinforce her beliefs, or to reinforce that she was a good mother because I was doing the things that she has stood up for. But she was saying, “I trust your ability to sort out what is good, and I trust your ability to sort out your relationship with God, and I've got my own work to do.” And I think that's a very humble position. She wasn't saying her beliefs were wrong, but she also wasn't tyrannical about them. And I think that's very decent and it allowed the relationship to be stronger actually because I felt more able to be real with her while knowing that we see it differently.
Sherrae Phelps: Are you compromising your own beliefs by supporting someone in their actions and their beliefs that contradict your own?
Finlayson-Fife: I think people have to figure out what they really feel is right and the level they feel right about being involved or supportive. Are they driving the getaway car?
Are you doing something that by colluding in it or participating in it you're really creating destruction in either other people or in the person themselves? Or is it that I don't think you should drink coffee, so I'm unwilling to pick up coffee beans for you while I'm at the grocery store? I think that's a little more indecent because I'm going to come in and dictate how you should choose. Rather than something that's more overtly destructive to other people or the person themselves.
So is it that you're getting rigidly attached to “you need to reinforce me or what I think God expects of us” versus am I really standing up for the higher principles of love, decency, fairness, and goodness and looking at my role in promoting them among people who are different than me.