Sophie’s Choice

November 6, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 5:12 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices

Within the famous novel/film a mother, Sophie, is forced to choose which of her two children she will save from the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  In a certain sense, the most gut wrenching aspect of the story is not that she chooses her son over her daughter in order to prevent them both from being killed.  The most gut wrenching aspect is not which child she choose, but that she had to choose at all.  She loved both of her children, which is exactly what made her choice so horrible.  

When we imagine ourselves placed in similar situations we desperately seek and actively contrive any loophole that we possibly can in order to avoid having to make choices such as these.  The church presents us with just such a choice.  It has been my strong conviction for some time now, that we cannot cling to both the gospel and Enlightenment values, no matter how much we care for both.  On that note, I have no doubt that essentially all of the “intellectuals” that I have critiqued over the past few years feel a deep love and connection for both sets of values.  Indeed, it is precisely because of this love for both that they perceive with horror the seeming nonchalance of many who abandon one or the other.  (Somewhat ironically, I’ve been accused of committing both of these sins.)

To me, yesterday’s SSM memo strongly confirms my suspicions that there can be no substantial or lasting overlap between the gospel and Enlightenment values.  Neither camp bears sole responsibility for this incompatibility, it’s just the nature of the beast.  As in Sophie’s case, the most painful part of this incompatibility is not limited to whatever choice each person makes, but the fact that they are forced to choose at all.  I’ve felt the pain and stubborn resistance to this choice in my own life and I know quite well how trapped or morally blackmailed one can feel by choices such as these.

It is so easy to intellectualize over the degree to which one must choose, or which choice ought to be made when such a thing must be done.  When it really comes down to actually making such a choice, however, the intellect tends to get drowned out by feelings of desperation and indignation.  This certainly seems to be what I am seeing in the Bloggernacle today.

The point of this post is to say that many of these feelings can and ought to be seen as expressions of love for the church, analogous to how Sophie’s feelings desperation and anger were of love for her daughter.  While I certainly would have preferred that a few of these people had made a different choice, it’s difficult not to sympathize with their frustration at having to choose at all.  I’ve been there.  It’s not fun at all.  All I can do is pray and hope for these people to find their own way of coping and navigating this difficult and painful decisions.


  1. Well said and may the same fate befall those who present this choice as those who made Sophie choose.

    Comment by Martin James — November 6, 2015 @ 8:48 pm

  2. Well, that’s kind of where the comparison breaks down. Each side blames the other, and that are both right. It would be as if the two children were trying to kill each other. This doesn’t change how emotionally conflicting the situation is.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 6, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

  3. You really might reconsider publishing a post in which you cast God and/or the First Presidency as Nazis. Perhaps you could look to the scriptures for a more appropriate comparison.

    Comment by Owen — November 6, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

  4. The most direct comparison would be to compare our modern apostles keeping children away from Christ to the ancient apostles who tried to do that. It’s an easy analysis really. Christ said that was wrong. Christ told his disciples to let the children come to him, and he didn’t say only certain children. He also had a stern warning for those who offend or hurt children who believe in him (Matt 18:6).

    Comment by Mimi — November 6, 2015 @ 11:22 pm

  5. Owen, again there are two parties at play here. One can just as easily blame the enlightenment values that forced the issue.

    Mimi, nice try.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 7, 2015 @ 12:45 am

  6. Elder Christofferson placed the choice firmly within the context of the enlightenment value of rights. The framework he presents idea that religious choices are one right among many and supports the idea that sinners should not be discriminated against politically in terms of their rights. This is completely different from pitting religious values against enlightenment values across the board. The church wants the protections offered by enlightenment compromises and is willing to compromise politically in some areas as long as religious rights are protected in that framework. Since when is freedom of religion not an enlightenment value?

    Comment by Martin James — November 7, 2015 @ 9:16 am

  7. Furthermore the church’s position is that avoiding conflict in the home and allowing parents the scope to patent unimpeded by conflicting ideas is better for a child than the gift of the Holy Ghost or membership in the church. That seems radically enlightened to me even relativistic.

    Comment by Martin James — November 7, 2015 @ 9:26 am

  8. If you think the church’s position regarding ssm is grounded in enlightenment values, then you must know something that I don’t.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 7, 2015 @ 10:40 am

  9. I’ve not listened to Elder Christofferson yet but I assume he’s talking about enlightenment values in the public sphere but the enlightenment value of letting people choose their own values in the private sphere of which religion was often seen as a prime example.

    Comment by Clark — November 7, 2015 @ 11:22 am

  10. I should add that if the church thinks that will work I suspect they’ll be mistaken. For all talk of liberal values there are clearly lots of illiberal moves by the broad politically liberal community. There’s grave distrust of religion already – especially as more and more of the very liberal move to atheism, agnosticism or at best loose deism or spiritualism.

    I think the church has been counting time and time again on a public view that’s just changed. You saw that with Prop-8 where they seemed shocked at the backlash. I think you’ll see it here again. Society has shifted significantly on these issues in a very short time. It’s still shifting.

    Comment by Clark — November 7, 2015 @ 11:25 am

  11. I don’t feel like I am being asked to choose between the Gospel and enlightenment values. I feel like I am being asked to choose between the Gospel and the church. The Gospel is the revolutionary claim that God so loved the world that he gave his son unto death so we could have everlasting life. The Gospel is about radical inclusive love. The Gospel is the teachings of Christ to be peacemakers and to love one another. Many feel the exclusionary habits we are now practicing in regards to homosexuals or we previously exhibited towards black people etc are not in alignment with the paradigm set forth by the Gospel.

    I think you are trying to use the word the Gospel to mean something like the will of God and to claim it is ineffable. I get that, but that is not the Gospel.

    Comment by matt w. — November 7, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

  12. I think that conception of the gospel only follows from a very selective reading of prophetic teachings that is itself filtered not by living prophets, or by the scriptures as a whole, but by a strong, enlightenment understanding of liberty, equality and fraternity.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 7, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

  13. My point is that the public and private spheres interact in all sorts of linguistic ways. I also think that scientific and technical progress do not cut evenly across issues. For example, if better ultrasounds make young people more opposed to a strict feminist argument about abortion, which side are “enlightenment values” on. We are obviously post enlightenment on all these issues and making the primary dichotomy enlightenment versus religious authority isn’t that applicable.

    Some examples of the mixing is the issue of age 18 in when a child is the age of majority. The churches policy seems to adopt an enlightenment framework for this age that the theological age 8 as the age of accountability. So at the same time the church is describing its religious position it seems informed by social and legal norms rooted I. The enlightenment. I already used the example of rights talk. Another example that is less clear is the use of the term “love”. It is not clear what sense that term is used but the context of a public relations statement makes it clear that it is not just an In group usage. Clearly it was a public dialogue usage that was not trying to oppose the church to general usage but to appeal more widely to this value.
    I just don’t see how these words and ideas stay in nice little compartments on this.

    Comment by Martin James — November 8, 2015 @ 10:16 am

  14. They don’t need to stay in compartments. All I need for my point is some – any degree of incompatibility. Like I said, *to the extent* that a choice must be made. What I see in this thread, however, are exactly the desperate searching about for a means of not having to make Sophie’s choice. Matt’s strategy, for example, was to draw yet another distinction such that he is able to choose the gospel over the church rather than gospel over enlightenment values due to a stronger overlap in the latter!!! Such is the degree to which our mindsets and moral sensibilities have been determined by secular sources.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 8, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

  15. Sometimes, love is not radical inclusion. Sometimes, love requires mourning, comforting, AND standing as a witness of truth.

    I often do things that cause my children to to be angry with me…even hate me. But when I enforce a rule they do not like, choosing their welfare over their good will, do I love them less…or more?

    My life has been defined, in large part, by my own Sophie’s choice. It is in such moments that we become a little more like God. It is then that we discover what we truly are, and what we truly love.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 8, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

  16. Once again, SR articulates the emotional side that I am so out of touch with.

    The main point was that it is such an emotional choice that we have every incentive evade it as best we can. These emotions and desires are hardly commendable in and of themselves. I do, however, think it’s helpful to understand them better.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 8, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

  17. Maybe the Enlightenment values that predominate mainstream culture are there to check religious leaders who as a group often tend toward ideological extremes. Maybe the reason Deseret did not become its own sovereign territory was because God did not want the leaders speaking for him to have the kind of absolute authority that could lead the Church astray.

    Comment by M — November 9, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

  18. M,

    I think that is EXACTLY what enlightenment values were and are aimed at doing. But this just is to say that those are aimed at interfering with prophets leading their people, without any regard for whether they are true or false prophets. Thus, they are obstacles to faith in true prophets.

    As for what God did or did not want in any of these cases is anybody’s guess.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 9, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

  19. Jeff, this is a great post, and I’m grateful for what you’ve written. I’d appreciate your feedback on something related to it.

    When Elder Christofferson gave his interview, he gave a reasoned explanation for the policy change. Before the interview I hadn’t come to terms with the policy itself but I was committed to sustaining those who made it. However, when he offered arguments to support the policy I was troubled, because the arguments were at least somewhat problematic, as others have pointed out.

    What, in your opinion, is the proper response to this? Should I support my leaders by accepting their arguments for the policy, even if the arguments seem to me incomplete or unsound, at least in part? Can I support my leaders by accepting the policy even as I reject some or all of the arguments for it? If an argument is given to support a policy, am I free to engage with the argument even if it’s offered by our leaders? Prophets aren’t required to offer reasons to support their revelations or declarations–what should we do if and when they do?

    Comment by Lawrence — November 10, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

  20. Matt W, while I can appreciate that feeling, like Jeff says I think it tends to arise from generalizing principles out of the scriptures that are very colored by enlightenment ideals.

    The reality is, that people keep forgetting, that Jesus simply restricted his teaching. That was opened up later, but the fact it required this vision to Peter and even then they didn’t go as far as Paul thought was necessary indicates that this was a break from Jesus’ pattern.

    Now, like you, I think Jesus is open to everyone who comes to him. But let us remember what coming to him entails. There are some very hard sayings of Jesus that we tend to downplay a great deal. (This is why scholars call them the hard sayings) Among these are Matt 10:33-38

    For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

    Now I’m not saying this necessarily applies here nor am I saying children should fight with their parents. I’m just making a hermeneutical point that typically because of enlightenment values the hard sayings of Jesus are repressed in these discussions. That is a Jesus is created who fits the enlightenment ethical ideals and is seen as the real Jesus. Yet this can only happen by very selective proof texting. (Ironically many of those doing this then attack fundamentalists for selective reading even though both groups really are following the pattern set up by early modern readings of scripture)

    I’m not saying this applies to the controversy at hand. My suspicion is that every the next few months we’ll see some major clarifications and refinement of this policy. However I have noticed a certain approach to scriptures about Jesus I find rather interesting. It’s not that I mind proof texting. I think we all do it to some degree. It’s just interesting to me that those reading scriptures through this lens of progressive liberal values don’t recognize that they are doing this.

    Comment by Clark — November 11, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  21. Lawrence, I think we can accept a policy we might even disagree with. I don’t think we need to accept the justification for a policy unless that justification is itself portrayed as revealed. From what I can tell this is portrayed as a policy decision but I don’t think the Church has claimed revelation for it. (Forgive me if Elder Christofferson’s interview goes through this – I’ve not yet had a chance to watch it) However to my eyes even if it’s policy made by inspired leaders doing the best they can in fallible ways, it’s their stewardship and we should sustain them as best we’re able.

    Comment by Clark — November 11, 2015 @ 9:46 am

  22. M, I think it’s quite reasonable to think that God has been inspiring philosophers, scientists and others in ways that have helped produce enlightenment values. Certainly I think that. I vaguely remember Elder McConkie saying something similar in his book The Millennial Messiah. (Forgive me, I’ve not read it since college but that’s my memory of it) It’s undoubtedly the case that a lot of the enlightenment was shaped as much by religion as skeptical philosophers.

    The problem is that of course just because the enlightenment has helped set useful boundaries it doesn’t follow that everything the enlightenment values leads us to in the particulars is correct. We’re then left with the epistemological problem of knowing what is correct in these particulars.

    Comment by Clark — November 11, 2015 @ 9:50 am

  23. I don’t understand the outrage. Say you’re a gay person in a same-sex relationship. Do you really want anyone asking your 9- or 14-year old to disavow you and your partner? We cannot wink at sin. We are not going to rewrite gospel doctrine for your convenience. However, we won’t ask your children to make any binding declarations until they are of a reasonable age to do so AND to then live with their choice. This does not seem like a terrible thing to me.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — November 12, 2015 @ 7:41 pm