A way to talk about religion when you disagree with someone you love
How Wayne Booth found peace as a doubting Mormon missionary in the 1940s
This article contains excerpts from the book When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life.
Wayne Booth grew up during the 1930s as a Mormon in American Fork, Utah. By the time he was 20 years old, he had become deeply skeptical about many of the truth claims of his religion. He doubted many literal readings of scripture, several supernatural stories about Joseph Smith, and the validity of a number of Mormon cultural beliefs (including the belief that blacks shouldn’t have the priesthood).
And yet, after a long conversation with one of his professors at Brigham Young University, he decided to serve a mission. The professor had convinced Booth that the best way to improve the Church was to reform it from the inside.
Unfortunately, Wayne Booth’s doubts continued to plague him through his entire mission. What right did he have to tell people what to believe when he wasn’t even sure what he believed himself?
To overcome his worries, he decided to focus above all on connecting with the people he met. He focused on discovering what they had in common. Then, when he was sure he understood that, he talked about Mormonism. He found that this practice helped him understand and love the people he talked to regardless of whether he converted anyone to his religion.
Booth remained interested in this process of empathetic dialogue when he returned home from his mission. He studied at BYU and then got a PhD at the University of Chicago. Eventually, he became one of the most influential voices in the field of rhetoric in the 20th century, coining terms such as “unreliable narrator” and writing the notable The Rhetoric of Fiction.
A Strange, Useful Word
More than focusing on traditional rhetoric, Wayne Booth wanted to promote understanding. To do this, he coined an admittedly strange (but useful!) word:
Whereas rhetoric is the study of how to persuade someone else to believe what you believe, rhetorology is the practice of exploring what you have in common with someone you disagree with. The word comes from rhetor (Greek for “speaker”) and ology (Latin for “study of”).
Rhetorology: The empathetic study of speakers.
Essentially, rhetorology is the practice of distancing yourself from your position so you can attempt to impartially explore what the position has in common with other positions on the topic.
Booth defined it as “the probing of the deepest convictions underlying both sides in any conflict.” In other words, rhetorology has no concern for winning an argument. Those who practice rhetorology don’t ask, “How can I persuade an opponent to my way of thinking?” but “How can I find common ground with my opponent so that we can grow together?”
This is a potentially painful practice. After all, rhetorology demands that you open yourself up to the possibility that your position is wrong. As Booth said, “Any genuine rhetorologist entering any fray is committed to the possibility of conversion to the ‘enemy’ camp.”
Practicing rhetorology means that you must openly acknowledge the weak points of your own position. This openness allows you to genuinely listen, to consider the possibility that you might enter uncharted territory and grow in new ways.
Let’s look at an example of how rhetorology might work in practice, keeping a focus on Mormonism.
Example: David and Cherie
David and Cherie are active Mormons who have been happily married for 12 years and have 3 kids.
Recently, David has read a series of essays published on LDS.org about difficult topics in Mormon history. He has discovered that the Book of Abraham translation doesn’t match the papyrus it was said to be based on, that the decision to ban blacks from the priesthood seems to have come from the prejudices of Brigham Young, and that Joseph Smith gave multiple, conflicting accounts of his first vision. Reading these essays leads David to dig deeper and read more widely about these topics. In the process he discovers that many of his former views of his religion are no longer coherent.
Eventually, David tries to tell Cherie what he has found, but she shuts him down. She tells David she doesn’t want to hear about the subject and invites him to trust that the Church is true.
At first David turns combative. He continually brings up messy details from his research, even against Cherie’s wishes. Every time he does this, she feels angry and hurt, and the conversations go nowhere. For two weeks every interaction between David and Cherie is tense, and the idea of divorce crosses their minds.
Then David tries a different approach — an approach centered on vulnerability, empathy, and love (what Wayne Booth would term as practicing rhetorology). He sits down with Cherie and asks her to help him list all the beliefs or values they still have in common.
Cherie initially resists, but when David starts listing some of their commonalities, she joins in. They find that they both want the best for their kids, they both enjoy (most of) the people in their ward, they both have had profound spiritual experiences in Mormonism, they both feel a need to serve in their community, they both like singing in the ward choir, and so on. By the time the list reaches 20 or 30 common beliefs or values, the anxiety that had pervaded the house starts to diminish slightly.
Then David writes out Cherie’s position as best he can and asks her if he’s accurately captured her feelings. She reads what he wrote, changes a few words, and then says that she feels understood. Primarily, she wants to raise good children, stay connected to God, serve in the ward in meaningful ways, maintain close relationships with ward members, and remain tied to the traditions of her family and heritage.
David then invites Cherie to explain her view about his new beliefs as honestly as she can. As Cherie does this, David listens. He doesn’t turn combative or tell her that she is closed-minded or that she misunderstands him. He just listens.
From there David asks if he can explain his position by talking about his intentions, without getting into the uncomfortable details of Church history again. Cherie says yes, so David explains that he wants to live a quality life with Cherie and their kids, that he wants to be a better husband and father, and that he is trying his best to be earnest and objective in studying Church history.
When David is done, Cherie writes out his position as best she can. David feels understood.
From there, they revisit their list of common goals and decide to be more deliberate about meeting those goals. They commit to spending more quality time with their kids and serving more frequently in ways that speak to them. Cherie agrees to read each essay on LDS.org with an open attitude, and David agrees to let any transformation happen more organically.
Over the next few weeks, David realizes that he and Cherie both had good intentions but had been talking past each other. He wanted her to get the facts straight (as he understood them) while she wanted him to bring peace into their home.
As David learns to bring peace into the house, he builds trust with Cherie. Their relationship improves, even though David still has doubts about certain Mormon truth claims.
The Secret of Living Well
So do David and Cherie stay in the Church, or do they leave?
Answering that question is not the point of the story. The point is that as David and Cherie practice empathetic dialogue, they move in a positive direction together, whatever that direction might be for them. They move closer to living a quality life.
Who knows where David and Cherie will end up? The point is that by practicing empathetic dialogue, they will move upward together. As the author Rachel Remen puts it, “The secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” We simply don’t have all the answers, but we know that if we grow in love and understanding for each other we’re moving in the right direction.