Exploiting Self-Criticism in Interfaith Dialogue
Individuals of faith care passionately about their religious community. Evangelicals, Catholics, and Latter-day Saints care about the nature and role of teaching (what is taught and how it should be taught), the relationship between faith and society (the nature and extent of political involvement), and the way of the Church (policy and administration).
Engaging in self-criticism or self-critique is part of life in any religious community. Do we practice what we preach? Do we live what we believe? Do we engage in hypocrisy? Are we faithfully teaching the next generation? Does our beliefs make a difference in our community?
Every community has developed standards of appropriate and inappropriate critique. Indeed, there can be a fine line between disrespectful dissent or constructive criticism. Anyone who has been involved in the ‘Bloggernacle’ for any period of time know that Latter-day Saints have strong opinions about what it means to be a Latter-day Saint, what should be taught and how it should be taught, and how history should be understood. While individuals participate with various degrees of engagement—some more tactful and diplomatic, some more blunt and to the point—one can see that the impetus for this self-critique comes from a sincere place of caring deeply about the health and future of one’s faith community. The aim is not to tear down the faith, but to build it up.
A Latter-day Saint Example
One example of this from the Latter-day Saint context is Hugh Nibley. While deeply recognized for his contribution to Mormon studies, Nibley was a passionate social critic. His writings reveal a deep concern for improving the religious education in Zion. His BYU commencement ceremony address “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift” given August 19, 1983 was a pointed critique on things at the BYU:
Most of you are here today only because you believe that this charade will help you get ahead in the world. But in the last few years things have got out of hand. The economy, once the most important thing in our materialistic lives, has become the only thing. 
Two years later, Truman G. Madsen would say of Nibley:
There have been some things said of Brigham Young University by others, none of them are as painfully critical as what Nibley occasionally says, and the same goes for some aspects of the Church, institutionally speaking, he really is its gadfly critic. 
Yet Neal A. Maxwell felt that “because his commitment is so visible and has been so pronounced and so repetitively stated, that that’s not even the issue, so then we get on to ‘what is Hugh saying?’” 
Nibley explained his posture at the BYU:
I have criticized as freely as anybody else. Should I tell you about this? Yes. When I first came to Provo I went up and asked Brother J. Reuben Clark, “Should I ‘keep my nose clean’? I’m sassy, shoot off my mouth, and become very critical down at BYU. Shouldn’t I shut up?” He said, “That would be the worst thing you could possibly do. We have to have an adversary relationship if we are going to get at the truth in these things.” (He was a lawyer, of course.) So you have to have some forum for expression here, and nobody was freer in that than President Oaks when he was here. 
An Evangelical Example
One example from the Evangelical side happened in 2007 with J.P. Moreland’s paper to the Evangelical Theological Society with the title: “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What can be Done about It.” 
I believe most people could recognize that Moreland was not offering criticism of the Bible, but rather towards the appropriation of the Bible by Evangelicals. Moreland argues that the criticism of bibliolatry among Evangelicals is difficult to refute, but maintains his belief in biblical inerrancy. One of Moreland’s main concerns was that holding the Bible as the only source of knowledge effectively rules out other sources of knowledge and he gave three areas: “(1) natural theology and moral law; (2) the realm of spirits/souls; (3) divine guidance, prophetic revelation, words of knowledge and wisdom.” Each of these areas could effectively appeal to many of those outside the Evangelical tradition. Catholic thinkers could greatly affirm Moreland’s observation regarding natural law and Latter-day Saints can feel that Moreland is speaking their language in regards to “prophetic revelation.”
Unfortunately, this self-critique can be manipulated by those outside the tradition.
In the context of dialogue between those of different faiths, there is a temptation to exploit this genuine drive to offer constructive criticism. In the case of Moreland, there could be a temptation to make the argument that Moreland agrees and concedes the Latter-day Saint argument that Evangelical theology effectively cuts off revelation and therefore Evangelicals should convert to Mormonism. The effect of this kind of strategy can often lead Evangelicals to completely reject what Moreland is proposing simply because it can be too easily appropriated by those on the outside, when in fact, his critique is extremely valuable and aimed to strengthen Evangelical discourse.
In the case of those manipulating Latter-day Saint self-criticism the temptation should be easy to recognize. Get Latter-day Saints to complain about all the problems, all the issues, all of the things that need to be improved and then use that to suggest Latter-day Saints would be better off leaving the Church. It isn’t difficult to get Latter-day Saints to voice their concerns. The Bloggernacle is full of individuals with strong opinions. I believe, however, that most individuals are coming from a place of passion and care for their faith. It is because of love that they desire to improve the quality of teaching in the Church, to improve the quality of fellowship, to increase love and tolerance for others, to put down intolerance and self-righteousness, to seek to nourish the weak and vulnerable. Yet, these genuine and sincere concerns can be manipulated by the opportunistic critics of the Church.
What Can be Done?
First, I suggest that we need to seriously consider our approach and appropriation of self-criticism by the “religious other.” Second, we need to be aware of our goal for why we are appealing to the self-criticism of others. Are we doing it to strengthen their faith community of others or to tear it down? Third, we need to realize that self-critique should not be considered evidence of a desire for disaffiliation. People can tell whether self-critique is being exploited for purposes other than to build up and strengthen the faith community.
Done correctly, discussion of self-critique may have the potential to be a point for advancing interfaith dialogue. However, when poorly done, it only ends up further alienating the other side and losing trust. We should therefore use caution when appealing to self-critique in the faith traditions of others.
 Nibley, Hugh. “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift,” Dialogue 16/4 (Winter 1983): 12-21.
 Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley, Film Transcript 1985. Transcript published in “Eloquent Witness Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple.” The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 17, Maxwell Institute, 2008.
 Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon-Semester 1: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988–1990 Provo: FARMS, p.429.
 J.P. Moreland “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It.” Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society on November 14, 2007. Accessed from http://www.kingdomtriangle.com/discussion/moreland_EvangOverCommBible.pdf