In 1967, Dialogue published Richard Poll’s “What the Church Means to People Like Me,” a talk Poll gave in his Palo Alto ward earlier that year. Using imagery from the Book of Mormon, Poll described two “ideal types” of active, believing Mormons: Iron Rods and Liahonas. Iron Rod Mormons, Poll argued, are obedience-minded, loyal, and devout. They do not search for questions, and easily accept authoritative answers. Seeing God’s hand in their daily lives, they feel salvation is assured by clinging to the Iron Rod of revelation as found in the standard works, the words of General Authorities, and the workings of the Holy Spirit.
Liahonas, on the other hand, are preoccupied with questions and are skeptical of easy answers. They accept that God’s word, whether it is found in ancient scripture or the words of modern prophets, is always mediated through the lens of culture. They recognize the all-too-limited perspective of human understanding, the elusive nature of truth, and the intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying feeling of facile answers to complicated questions. They are, thus, less confident that God is directly involved in human affairs since there are so many questions left unanswered and problems left unresolved. Nevertheless, they are champions of Mormon teachings about the radical nature of free agency and unlimited human potential.
Poll believed that these two Mormon dispositions were more “a function of basic temperament” rather than “pre-mortal accomplishments or mortal choices.” Furthermore, he recognized that each side harbors misunderstandings and frustrations for the other. “To the Iron Rod a questioning attitude suggests an imperfect faith; to the Liahona an unquestioning spirit betokens a closed mind.” This sometimes results in contention. As Poll put it, “we sometimes criticize and judge each other. But usually we live and let live—each finding in the Church what meets his needs and all sharing the Gospel blessings which do not depend on identity of testimony.”
Few sermons have had as much influence on the LDS intellectual community as Poll’s. He captured a point of tension that is, I believe, at the heart of Mormon culture. And while this tension can be frustrating for practicing Mormons who try to work and worship together, it can also be productive, leading to some of the best works of Mormon fiction, drama, poetry, and cinema. Moreover, as Terryl Givens stated, “the divide Poll describes is one that, at some level, operates within thoughtful Mormons as much as among them.”
I certainly feel that divide in my own soul. Most recently, I’ve felt it with regards to the November policy about gay families. I find my own conscience and yearnings conflicting with the words of Church authorities and their interpretation of scripture, while at the same time, I revere and respect these authorities. I am preoccupied with questions and heartache, even as I am committed to the cause of Zion.
This is where Dialogue comes into the picture. Dialogue has been and will continue to be a place I can work out this tension in productive ways. It was in the pages of Dialogue that Lester Bush helped me understand the all-too human origins of our pre-1978 exclusion of Black people from priesthood blessings; where Duane Jeffrey persuaded me that evolution and the gospel can coexist; where Eugene England helped me honor the sacrifice of my ancestors (especially my great-grandmothers) to live in polygamous marriages, while finding solace that polygamy is not eternal; where Bert Wilson helped me accept the interplay between faith and folklore; and, more recently, where Taylor Petrey helped me imagine a Mormon theology that could accept my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Dialogue has exposed me to the murky reaches of Mormon history, as well as to Mormon approaches to cutting-edge scientific and philosophical conundrums. It nurtured in me a love for Mormon women’s history, as well as a desire to see expanding roles for Mormon women. It has helped me confront theological problems like Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings, as well as historical problems like polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It has given me new ways to think about the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham and the concept of scripture.
In short, Dialogue has helped me integrate my inner Liahona and Iron Rod, helping me think more deeply about my faith, while simultaneously deepening my commitment to it.
Please join us on Friday for our Spirit of Dialogue conference at UVU and our gala at the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City as we celebrate fifty years of Dialogue and look forward to the next fifty!