Without Eugene England, I Probably Wouldn’t Attend Church

Reflections on the Growth-Promoting Gifts of Paradox

First, A Confession

Let me begin with a confession: I often don’t like going to church. I find the experience incredibly taxing, exacerbating, and just plain boring. Rarely am I uplifted. Frequently am I peeved. Paradoxically, and interestingly, I also find going to church one of the most redemptive experiences I am trying to learn to love. It is very difficult for me to articulate the origin, nature, and depth of this love-angst relationship. And to be honest, if I wasn’t aware of who Eugene England was, I probably wouldn’t appreciate the discipline of community that comprises church-going, nor respect its attendant paradoxes. Put differently, without Eugene England, I probably wouldn’t attend church.

This loaded, semi-provocative thesis needs unpacking before it’ll make sense to orthodox ears. Let me drill down a bit.

In 1986, Eugene England, a faithful, critical Latter-day Saint scholar, wrote a game-changing essay entitled, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” Personally, this essay has had a huge influence on me and my relationship with the institutional Church. It has carried me through difficult times in my discipleship, given me a lot of hope, beauty and pragmatic bearing, and has provided invaluable perspective on how “not only to endure but to go on loving what [is] unlovable.” In short, it is an essay that I think all Latter-day Saints should read and become familiar with.

The Power of Paradox: The Gospel and the Church

Much of England’s treatment of effective church-going meditates heavily on the power of paradox. Joseph Smith referred to the concept of paradox when he stated that “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” Half a century earlier, the poet William Blake had similarly observed, “Without contraries there is no progression.” Contraries, or oppositions, give energy, force and meaning to virtually everything.

Think about it.

The art you see in a theater, a museum, or historic site has risen from the tension of human conflict and opposition. Economic, political and social enterprises have and continue to emerge from competition and dialogue. Human life itself grows out of pain and controversy. Galaxies form spectacularly amid swirls of chaos and explosion.

The gospels, too, are awash with many paradoxical statements:

To be rich you must be poor. To be comforted you must mourn. To be exalted you must be humble. To be found you must be lost. To find your life you must lose it. To see the kingdom you must be persecuted. To be great you must serve. To gain all you must give up all. To live you must die.

Paradoxes, contraries, or oppositions can sometimes tempt us to think that two conflicting propositions will always be incompatible. Yet, it is often when we sacrifice traditional concepts and change our frame of reference that rival statements of paradox suddenly appear compatible.

A paradox, in other words, is not antithetical to the pursuit of truth, but in fact the very definition of it. In his acclaimed essay, “The Institutional Church and the Individual,” Bonner Ritchie stressed the importance of this pursuit: “By confronting the contradictory constraints of a system and pushing them to the limit, we develop the discipline and strength to function for ourselves. By confronting the process, by learning, by mastering, we rise above.”

“It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” is thus a profound statement of abstract theology in our scriptures that describes how vital paradox is to the development of all living things.

From the perspective of paradox, England is armed to build a persuasive case for why the Church (the Work) is as true as the Gospel (the Plan). Upon first blush, this rings like a weighty contradiction that just can’t be. The principles of the Gospel are pure and ideal, we say, but the workings and people of the Church are weak and imperfect. As Hugh Nibley once recognized, “The Plan looks to the eternities and must necessarily be perfect; but the Work is right here and is anything but the finished product.” We seem to envision the Gospel as a “perfect system of revealed commandments based on principles which infallibly express the natural laws of the universe,” says England, but in reality all we have is merely our current best understanding of these principles, which is invariably limited and imperfect. Such an unwieldy divine-human paradox seems to put us in a spiritual straightjacket.

In what world can the Church and the Gospel be as “true” as each other?

Consider first how England uses the word “true.” He’s not bearing down any sort of indexical relationship nor conflating the two with some grammatical set of historical, empirical, or metaphysical propositions. His approach is much more pragmatic and existential in nature. What he means is that the “Church is as true — as effective — as the gospel” because it is precisely the place where we are given a genuine and participating feel to practice the Gospel in specific, tangible ways. “The Church,” he says, “involves us directly in proving contraries, working constructively with the oppositions within ourselves and especially between people, struggling with paradoxes and polarities at an experiential level that can redeem us.”

Callings, for example, draw us into a very practical, specific, sacrificial relationship with others. We learn firsthand how exasperating people can be, how demanding and nagging human diversity often is. Paradoxically, when we work with, serve, and are taught by those who differ from and sometimes frustrate us, we allow ourselves room to become more open, vulnerable, gracious, and willing. When we grapple with real problems and work towards practical solutions with those we serve, we are pushed “toward new kinds of being in a way we most deeply want and need to be pushed.”

The “truthfulness” of the Church thus lies in its ability to effectively concretize the principles of the Gospel, bring them down to earth, down into our bodies, our hearts and minds, giving them corporeal form, thereby allowing imperfect agents to painfully develop divine gifts. And the better any church or organization is at drawing out these gifts, the “truer” it is.

Remember this point: “truth” from England’s perspective gains its meaning in relation to the quality of life, or being, it inspires.

England’s argument follows the late eighteenth century existential tradition of how our pursuit of truth must exist in relation to a more pressing concern than mere historical, metaphysical or scientific claims. Truth must lead us to a certain quality of life and quality of character —what philosophers and theologians have long since called “the good life.” Truth must bear down on the particular, not the general; the concrete, not the abstract. England isn’t elevating one over the other per se. He’s merely exposing the myth that the Gospel (the general) can somehow be salvifically divorced from the Church (the particular), as if pretending that sheer academic knowledge alone, and with it the freedom from dealing with the querulous, niggling life-pulse of a congregation, were sufficient for redemption.

This paradigm, he contends, is misguided.

Abstract and Practical Gospel Living

There are many principles of the Gospel that are conflicting and paradoxical and can’t be effectively lived in the abstract. They must instead be faithfully embodied for them to prove redemptive. Agency and obedience, for example. These two foundational principles are in dynamic tension with another, creating a critical paradox in the Church for how we work with others who may offend us or exercise unrighteous dominion. If God’s anointed leader makes a decision without inspiration, are we bound to sustain that decision? The friction created between obedience to authority and obedience to agentive conscience sparks the creative energy “we need to allow divine power to enter our lives in transforming ways.”

These moments of friction call us to walk an authentic path carved out between two easier paths of blind obedience and blanket rejection. They reveal the truth of how to act and not merely be acted upon.

England continues: “It is precisely in the struggle to be obedient while maintaining integrity, to have faith while being true to reason and evidence, to serve and love in the face of imperfections, even offenses, that we can gain the humility we need [to] …literally bring together the divine [the Gospel] and the human [the Church].”

The confession I began with is a good example of the tension I feel each Sunday while wrestling with these principles in the pews. I’ve attended many wards throughout my life, each replete with a common brand of middlebrow, prejudiced, intellectually unsophisticated types whose opinions I oftentimes vehemently disagree with. I’ve struggled endlessly with socially scripted class discussions, platitudinal public prayer, legalistic watchdogs, and those who proof-text the scriptures to support some idolatrous claim. The people in the Church, to put it mildly, have exasperated me to no end. And it is these very “exasperations, troubles, sacrifices [and] disappointments” that characterize my experience at church that England says “are especially difficult for idealistic liberals to endure.”

But herein lies the power of his thesis: it is precisely in our exasperations with other people at church — those who sometimes piss us off — where we are invited to enter a “school of love,” one that enables us to painfully grow in Christ-like character by “loving what [is] unlovable.”

How might this work?

Not many people I imagine willingly choose to build relationships with those whom they have very little in common with, or who have vastly different temperaments. Paradoxically, when we struggle to serve people we normally would not choose to serve (or possibly even associate with) we enter into a very specific, sacrificial relationship with them that allows us to exercise divine muscles that otherwise may have remained dormant. To accept this challenge, to enter this school, is to potentially become “powerfully open, empathetic, vulnerable people, able to understand, serve, learn from, and be trusted by people very different from [ourselves].”

By entering this school of contraries, we give birth to divinely needed gifts such as patience, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

These gifts are forged in the furnace of paradox.

Terryl and Fiona Givens have also rightly backed the paradoxes at play in England’s thesis. Sometimes we “imagine a religious life encumbered by fallible human agents, institutional forms, rules and prohibitions, cultural group-think and expected conformity to norms.” Sometimes we “insist on imposing a higher standard on our co-worshippers” by wishing that their prejudices and blind spots did not inflame us. We wish others could simply think about the Gospel like we do. Practice it like we do. Yet when we “submit to the hard schooling of love” the Church offers, we’re able to experience wards and stakes that “function as laboratories and practicums where we discover that we love God by learning to love each other.”

The Church’s perceived weaknesses, paradoxically, are thus actually its greatest strengths.

Each imperfect encounter we experience at church will no doubt stretch and wear down on us, and yet if endured with the right attitude, can act as the very experience, the very gift, needed to become more Christ-like.

If this sounds too sentimental, too lofty, if we would prefer instead our worship services to constantly align with what “we get out” of a meeting, we may be missing the point. England argues, “If we constantly ask “What has the Church done for me?” we will not think to ask the much more important question, “What am I doing with the opportunities for service and self-challenge the Church provides me?” If we constantly approach the Church as consumers, we will never partake of its sweet and filling fruit. Only if we can lose our lives in church and other service will we find ourselves.”

It is a fairly easy exercise to analyze these principles from afar, criticize and make stupid those whose opinions we don’t share. Sometimes we remain too bookish, academic, or idealistic, with little hands-on involvement for the ongoing life of faith. If knowledge and books and abstract learning is where we tap real meaning, and have not charity, the principles we claim to admire so much will have the hollow, disembodied ring of “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” We will not know the character-transforming truths that the Church means to imbue us with. It is only when we step into the arena with others, play the game, tussle with their ideas, wishes, and misinformed biases, and try to give constructive answers, that we come to slowly learn the truth of the child-like phrase, “I know the Church is true.”

Or rather: I know the Church is an effective vehicle for divine endowment, despite of, even because of, its very real and imperfect people.

And here is Mormonism asking us to do just that:

Step into the imperfect arena. Wrestle with our leaders. Create an embodied relationship with others. Maintain individual integrity in the face of pressures to obey and conform. Patiently serve those who irritate, bruise, thwart and offend. Love obedience and agency — learn not to resolve their tensions in favor of one conflicting set over the other. Rather, learn to transcend them in our own customized ways while still remaining true to ourselves and our community. Remember, it is not about blind obedience or wholesale rejection. It is about walking the harder path carved out between the paradox. In doing so, we develop divine character in creative ways that no abstract system of ideas (uncoupled from service) could ever produce.

By acting within the zone of this paradox, balancing our individual conscience while serving others and sustaining church leaders, we open doors to prove contraries and encounter truth in tactile ways.

But Really, How Necessary is Church?

Can we not find a framework for practicing divine gifts such as mercy, humility, patience, and service in any number of settings? Of course we can. The Church has not cornered the market on what it means to be a good person nor to practice goodness. All faiths and secular walks of life can be receptive to the larger world of truth and beauty and moral goodness.

Ok, but if the Church doesn’t provide unique opportunities for spiritual practice that can’t be obtained elsewhere, why go at all?

When England takes a hard, all-or-nothing line on this question by evoking the traditional, orthodox answer that the Church has the authority to perform essential saving ordinances, his response is less than satisfying. However, there’s another approach that hides in the margins of his thought that better articulates why church-going (or some semblance of formalized community) can be a powerful boon for developing divine gifts.

To start, we might ask:

How often are most people sufficiently finding ways of their own efforts to love those they would normally not choose to love? And what value could there be in loving those we might consider as enemies?

One way to approach these questions is to consider the kinds of people we normally choose to associate with: If, for example, we choose only to surround ourselves with like-minded souls, people who think, feel, share and welcome our commitments, praise our ideas, flower our egos, what reward do we have? If we salute only those who salute us, if we love only those who love us, what good does hearing what we want to hear and having others confirm what we think we already know do for us? In truth, such groupishness is thoughtlessness. It remains too cloistered. Too bubbled. It runs the risk of creating an in-group echo chamber that appraises the status quo while at the same time teaching us to demonize those who disagree.

Admittedly, it is often in the nature of religious institutions to homogenize disparities and command conformity.

We might ask, but isn’t church just some big, sequestered parrot hall where everyone thinks the same, talks the same, gives unfettered assent to the same basic truth claims? Loyalty to an organization of course can and should be a very positive force, but it can also be a careless excuse to unload responsibility for our spiritual lives onto another. Bonner Ritchie has persuasively framed the dangers involved. Loyalty bent on unthinking conformity, he says, can be “a force which victimizes the individual, who feels freed from the burden of moral choice…We cannot allow the dictates of anyone to relieve the burden, pain, or growth that goes with individual responsibility.”

Indeed, religious institutions are enmeshed in shared networks of meaning and moral matrices that tend to lean towards conservative groupthink, sometimes to the point of giving off the appearance of complete doctrinal uniformity and a fierce, hive-minded group homogeny.

Such tendencies and appearances do not yield optimal religion.

We need the wisdom that is to be found scattered among diverse kinds of people, those who can pull us out of the status quo and be willing to create the dynamic tension needed to constructively fight the overbearing cultural orthodoxy. We need people in our congregations who revel in distinctions, variations, and differences, even those we’d deem as enemies — those we would normally not choose to associate with or love.

As Adam Miller contends, our love of people must be fearless, “marked by [our] confidence that every truth can be thought again — indeed, must be thought again — from the position of the enemy.”

To translate Miller into England’s terms: we must learn to love those who differ from us from the position of paradox. While those who differ from us can always be found both inside and outside the institutional walls of the Church, the practice of going to church can have a unique way of positioning paradox and framing our enemies in redemptive ways that might not be as readily available or instinctive on the outside.

Take the Church’s organization, for example.

That congregations are organized at the local level with a lay clergy and are bounded “geographically rather than by personal choice” cannot be overstated in how Mormon culture is shaped. Many members attend the ward they locally find themselves in rather than shopping around for the ideal, heavenly congregation. There are exceptions of course, but the significance of such standard Zion-building creates a particular kind of community that keeps us within intimate range of each other. We’re threaded together with the devout, the wayward, the liberal, the conservative, the feminist, the watch dog, the intellectual, etc. All kinds of disciples and potential enemies abound. We need all kinds of temperaments, too, to complement the full body of Christ, providing a cohesive enough space to bind our temperaments and differences into mutual loving ties.

Callings, as mentioned earlier, then provide constant encouragement, even pressure, to practice this spiritual binding; they help socialize, reshape, and care for people who, if stripped of them, would have less opportunity to make the sacrifices needed to grow and develop divine gifts. As the Givens put it, church attendance causes us to be “forced back to the renegotiating table by an unavoidable proximity” to iron out, smooth over, and make atonement with those who irritate, bruise, and deeply offend. The luxury to click the block or mute button, like on social media, is not readily available. We are commanded instead to be in harmony. To be at one. And that it is up to each individual to get there through prayer, service and ritual. Though difficult, the rewards of such a community are often, paradoxically, the empowered gifts of patience, mercy, humility, charity, kindness, and forgiveness.

Nothing here suggests that non-religious people living in looser communities with a less binding moral matrix can’t find opportunities to equally advance a charitable praxis. Many in fact do. I’d wager to bet there are actually many atheists who care for people better than some religious people do. The point rather is to raise the question of how often we naturally feel compelled to associate ourselves with people of vastly different temperaments, especially enemies. How often do we assume the hard work of paradox, take up the mantle of sacrifice and renegotiation, then strive to love, serve, cooperate, and bless our enemies in ways that better awaken divine gifts?

This question gets at a critical distinction that has less to do with pitting religion against secularism and more to do with how we might better encounter the growth-promoting gifts of paradox. As Patrick Mason has observed, “there are many orbital paths around the sun, but not all are equally suited to maximize opportunities for life to flourish.” We might, for example, join a book club, attend a conference, or volunteer at a homeless shelter. Each of these activities would help foster a sense of community and provide chances to put the gospel into practice.

For England, the Church is the best vehicle “for helping us to gain salvation by grappling constructively with the oppositions of existence.” He doesn’t draw out specifically why church attendance is the best medium above others. Nor does he deny other existing contexts to help promote the good life. He walks the harder path carved out between the paradox that suggests that while the Church may be in possession of sacred and distinctive truths, it by no means owns a monopoly on truth.

It might be noted here that religious ideology, interestingly, even paradoxically, does make one thing obligatory that secularism doesn’t always reveal as instinctive: it sacralizes and binds us to the enemy.

We must do as Jesus says: we must love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and do good to those that hate us. No escape hatch. No transfer to another school. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized, cheap grace would be to remove ourselves from the “discipline of [this] community.” This distinction, this obligation to love someone who hates us, is ground zero for the greatest manifestation for the life of paradox and divinity to thrive. It is the ultimate school of love that reveals, as England would say, a “frustrating, humbling, but ultimately liberating and redeeming” spiritual praxis. To the extent that people feel a disproportionately powerful gravitational pull of being repeatedly drawn out of their comfort zone to love, serve, wrestle with, and sacrifice on behalf of their enemies, these communities provide the best context to awaken divine gifts. Whether we experience this pull in religious or secular settings is secondary.

What matters first is that we actually feel and experience it.

On a Personal Note

If we need to go to church, like we need ethics or community, it is because we live with other human beings. Who would need church, alone on a desert island? The very act of congregating with others helps us achieve together what we cannot merely achieve on our own. And yet, to be educated and wise is to admit what sometimes we would rather not: however special we believe our spiritual customs are, no church, no God, no system or secular organization has conquered the world so dramatically as to universally compel all human hearts and minds to follow it.

We are all, in our own way, still searching for the ideal community — that place to best awaken divine gifts.

While acknowledging that my community experience at church is far from ideal, I personally have yet to find a better substitute than Mormonism to work through and redemptively prove contraries. I have yet to hear a more compelling story of human potential; one that frames the divine nature of paradox in more educative, purposeful, and ennobling ways to help me realize that potential. In this regard, England is a big hero of mine. He’s opened my eyes to the real redemptive possibility of what the Church means to engender within me. It’s full of nagging, irritable people, yes. The historical record is muddy and replete with skeletons, yes. Our leaders are liable to sin and error and actually have made egregious mistakes, yes. The gospels themselves are rife with contradictory tensions, yes. And our meetings are often so boring and soul-suckingly lifeless, yes. Does this all mean the Church is a scam? That it’s broken? That it doesn’t work?

I believe, like England, that all of these detours and complications are paradoxes that can behave more as blessings than curses, if we let them. They encourage me, though sometimes painfully, to sacrifice traditional concepts of the divine, take risks, become vulnerable, and reassess my assumptions. They become harrowing lessons that help me “engage in not merely accepting the struggles and exasperations of the Church as redemptive but in genuinely trying to reach solutions where possible and reduce unnecessary exasperations.” Church attendance is not about singing kumbaya or blithely picking marigolds while ignoring the Church’s myriad problems, failures, and contradictions. That would be “returning to the Garden of Eden where there is deceptive ease and clarity but no salvation.”

Rather, church attendance for me is about being stretched and challenged, even disappointed and exasperated, in ways I would never otherwise choose to be. I’m meant to be bruised and irritated by the flaws and limitations of others, then called to walk the harder path of working to serve and love and patiently learn from them. These experiences provide lessons in grace, charity, and Christ-centered moral improvement. And when accepting these sacred bonds and obligations to love the unlovable, I’m given “a chance to be made better than [I] may have chosen to be — but need and ultimately want to be.”

Living with contraries is a burden for both the religious and irreligious alike. England has merely reminded me of how to thrive in the face of paradox rather than be frozen by it. He’s provided a redemptive context that’s helped me “see and experience the conflicts [at church and elsewhere] in more positive ways.” He’s framed a particular kind of discipleship that to me is most worth believing and following. Without him, I honestly don’t know how well I’d endure on the path of discipleship.

Who knows, without Eugene England I probably wouldn’t know if the title of this post was meant as hyperbole.