Skepticism, “Freelancing,” and Organized Religion

Greetings, Times and Seasons bloggers!

I have been enjoying the discussion on T&S for months, reading here and there in between my own coursework, looking on from behind the glass as many of the visitors to T&S inevitably do. When Gordon invited me to guest blog, I was delighted with the prospect of sharing the same forum with the many rangy thinkers in this group.

(As a side bar, my own contribution to the “Six Degrees of Times and Seasons” thread is minimal but may be worth noting here: Nate and I were enrolled in the same history of philosophy sequence, taught by Jim Seibach and Jim F., at BYU, in 1993 or so. Kristine, Melissa, and I met in Provo in 2003 while they were studying in the Smith Institute summer fellowship program with Claudia Bushman. I worked for Jack Welch, Rosalynde’s father-in-law, for a few years. And, of course, Gordon is my Elders’ Quorum President here in Madison.)

My post takes its cue from a program broadcast on NPR the other night. The program was interviewing Karen Armstrong, the author of numerous books on the history of religion. Armstrong, you may recall, is a former Catholic nun who left the convent to study English literature at Oxford. She later returned to religion in authoring biographies of Buddha, Mohammad, and the best-selling A History of God. The program was a platform for Armstrong’s latest book, a personal memoir called The Spiral Staircase.

As Armstrong described her spiritual odyssey, I became increasingly attuned to the language of this very gifted scholar. Her words made me conscious of the divide separating Latter-day Saints from other faiths. Armstrong left the convent, she said, because she came to see Catholicism as a limitation. The daily routine, the restricting movement within the city, was confining enough, but she was talking about much more than the nun’s daily life. She came to see denominationalism itself as a limitation. The sacraments of the Catholic church could not possibility contain all the truth there was in the universe. There could not be one way back to God. After a bout with agnosticism, Armstrong found her truth in the more open and airy fields of literature and world religions. She now calls herself a “freelance monotheist,” worshipping God but adhering to no one tradition.

I see Armstrong’s choice to leave organized religion as symptomatic of a larger movement in Western and perhaps even world history. The issue is not new, of course, but it is does seem to be accelerating. Intellectual people are not just disenchanted with authority; they are disenchanted with the totalizing claims of authority. They have come to treat as suspect any organization (and especially corporations) who claims special access to truth. They do not want a religion with seven sacraments; they want a religion with no sacraments, or a religion where anyone can define what a sacrament is or can be. People do not want to be confined. They want to be “freelancers.”

Mormon intellectuals, in my view, are especially vulnerable to becoming freelancers. The faith claims of Mormonism push aside other claims to authority. And the church demands many hours of our time, sometimes to the exclusion of the intellectual activities we crave–activities like reading English literature and studying world religions. The question is, how do we keep from becoming embittered? how do we resist the intellectual impulse of our time that sees organized religion as a burdensome yoke to be thrown off?

11 comments for “Skepticism, “Freelancing,” and Organized Religion

  1. In 1967 a fellow named James Mitchell gathered a collection of essays by various thinkers largely disenchanted with religion. The book was titled _The God I Want_. The title alone is indicative of what you describe above when you speak of someone not wanting religion to have the authority it ought to have.

    But once you take away the all-demanding aspect of religion you have essentially cut its legs out from underneath. Wittgenstein states it this way: “Believing means submitting to an authority. Having once submitted, you can’t then, without rebelling against it, first call it in question and then once again find it acceptable” (_Culture and Value, 45).

    How to keep from being embittered? Good question. I suppose part of this is actually believing that God is in the picture, that he is asking something of you (this thing rather than the other that you might be interested in). I remember one evening when I was a senior in high school. I was in my room in a rather intense gospel study of scripture and some church books. This was all an effort to learn the gospel, to be close to the Lord, to have the Spirit, etc. In the middle of this, Dad made it clear that he needed some help in the yard or the garden. I remember feeling annoyed that I was being taken away from things of the Spirit. But the thought immediately came that if I wanted God’s spirit, if I wanted to be doing his will, I should be out helping. And though that work might not have been as appealing as pouring over the books, I had as much right to the Spirit there in the work to be done outside as I did anywhere. In fact if I was to continue to have the Spirit I should go and go with a glad heart to be doing God’s will. I went to help, though I wish I could report that I want with a glad heart and without resentment. Still, the lesson wasn’t completely lost on me.

  2. It seems the big issue to consider is that there is a big difference between authority and truth. I’ve noticed a lot of Mormon intellectuals unfortunately conflating the two. It was often taught that while Mormonism will eventually contain all truth, that there are many truths in other arenas and religions. Thus we ought to study out of the best books, study science, and even be open to truth from other faiths.

    I’d suggest that many Mormons doing apologetics often note many truths in the various texts we study while trying to defend the faith. And of course all scientists recognize this.

    The problem is a view that any organization should provide to us passively everything we need. Such a view seems to be what people constrict against when such provisions aren’t provided. Yet it seems a fundamental aspect of our theology that we ought be anxiously engaged in a good cause and be doing things on our own.

    I meet many members, probably more among “non-intellectuals” who think that because they are members they have everything they need and needn’t really pursue much. I think such a view is unfortunate and is constricting their progression. First off such people often don’t read the scriptures much and when they do read them they read them in such a way as to close off questioning. Secondly such an approach is like thinking that because one pays ones tithing one has completely all the requirements of charity. Far from it.

  3. Clark,

    One of the problems we have in an organized Church is the extent to which everyone tries to outdo others in their interpretation of what is what.
    I don’t want to specifically criticize your comment on tithing, but I have noticed a number of comments on recent blogs where an average performance (i.e. below Celestial, in some peoples eyes) ensures that most of us aren’t going to make it. That is one way to really destroy hope, in my mind, among those who are not intellectuals, but drift among the common folk and never achieve anything significant in or out of the Church.
    I’ve recently been given the opportunity to view from a distance the destruction of faith in a man who is very bright and was once a Bishop. Jed’s comments on the challenge of intellectuals is very true based on this particular individual.
    I also sat as a witness in Sacrament meeting a couple of weeks ago when a former Bishop, now a High Councilman was quoting Malachi 3. He got to verse 11 where the Lord says:”I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes…”. He bore his testimony that his family had been so blessed because they had no children with deformities, were not lacking in money, and were enjoying good health, thus showing that the devourer had been rebuked – this with at least 3 families sitting in the congregation with children with different challenges.
    I am off topic on Jed’s blog and I apologize to Jed for that. To get back on topic, it seems to me that the real problem with intellectuals who leave the Church has to do with where they place the most emphasis.
    There is a great pull to become well versed in what is written. From time to time someone pops up with a life altering tale that has some resonance in our lives. We then search deeper into their thoughts and find empathetic arguments that allow us to further explore our experience. Without a strong countervailing argument on an intellectual scale we are dragged, not kicking and screaming, but almost with a sense of relief to a point where we can deny all that we previously held to be true.
    There is an argument from the other side of course and that would be the experience of C.S.Lewis. On that I will leave others to discuss.

  4. Alan Wolfe in The Transformation of American Religion describes the transition over the last century toward an ambiguous Christianity, in which the vast majority of adherents have no idea of the doctrines of their churches. This is accompanied with a freelance attitude toward denomination. I find it fascinating that this trend, which is most pronounced among the proverbial proletariat is mirrored for very different reasons in the intelligentsia.

  5. I don’t think my comment on tithing is particularly controversial. Indeed I’ve heard such comments from general authorities – especially regarding fast offerings. Last year the church in particular mounted a strong campaign regarding the United Way which had the Presiding Bishopric in a radio campaign.

    Regarding my other comments, this isn’t somehow criticizing the common folk but suggesting what everyone ought to be doing. As Pres. Kimball said, we ought to lengthen our stride. I think we, as a church, are too complacent. Heavens, I think I am too complacent and can think of numerous things I could be doing considerably better.

  6. Welcome, Jed! Great post.

    I’ve often heard the Reformation and reformers praised as forerunners of the restoration, sort of proto-prophets who prepared the way for Joseph’s work of restoration. There’s value to this claim; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what our church would look like without the Protestant reformation, or how it might have been established worldwide.

    At the same time, though, the accommodation of state and civic structures and the individual human psyche to a thoroughgoing pluralism, such as the Reformation introduced and exemplified, might be one of the most devastating assaults on faith in modernity. Pluralism provides a useful model for living with diversity, but it doesn’t resolve ideologically with absolute faith claims. (Incidentally, and to ride my own hobby horse for a moment, the idea of private conscience evolved precisely to mediate the competing claims of absolute truth and civic pluralism, as I outline in my post of a few weeks ago.)

  7. Rosalynde wrote: “At the same time, though, the accommodation of state and civic structures and the individual human psyche to a thoroughgoing pluralism, such as the Reformation introduced and exemplified, might be one of the most devastating assaults on faith in modernity. Pluralism provides a useful model for living with diversity, but it doesn’t resolve ideologically with absolute faith claims.”

    Yes, there is a sense in which the Restoration and the Reformation are profoundly at odds–with pluralism, the case you mentioned, being the most jarring. Kathleen Flake has gone so far as to say that the Restoration actually critiques the Reformation more than it does Roman Catholicism, our normal way of thinking as Mormons raised on Talmage and McConkie. Priesthood, authoritarian structure, and ritual are all ways the Restoration undercuts the Reformation. But the curious thing is that every element has within it its own undoing, its own counter-discourse. All the Cathotholic-looking structures have a kind of democratization the Reformers would have loved. Priesthood is given to all adult males. Everyone has the capacity for revelation and interpretation of scripture in their own sphere. And ritual was given first to adult males, then to adult females, then, through temple baptisms, to youth.The Restoration is both democratic and anti-democratic at the same time.

  8. Welcome aboard, Jed, it looks like you will have some interesting things to say. I actually read The Spiral Staircase a few months ago, and I think you are misrepresenting Armstrong’s difficulties as a member of her order in the convent and her decision to leave it. We can hardly criticize her dawning realization that there were problems with the Catholic doctrine and history she was studying. And life in the convent as she described it was not merely confining but oppressive to the point that her health and mental balance began to deteriorate. Her decision to leave sounded more like simple survival than some kind of “I want to be free to be me” liberation. And it was, for her, a wrenching decision taken with precious little sympathy or support from her superiors. [Her account made me think of the difficulties a Mormon missionary in a similar situation would encounter.]

    After leaving, she taught school for a few years, and only later moved into writing. She was not an “intellectual” who rebelled against the limitations of her order — her writing came only later, and her decision to teach, then write, was (she said) largely because eight years (?) as a nun left her with few other job options. And while she may describe herself as a “freelance monotheist” (which sounds a bit flippant) her attitude and comments on faith, religion, and even Catholicism are generally friendly and sympathetic, not critical or dismissive, although she obviously has criticisms of some aspects of institutional religion. I’m sure there are plenty of intellectuals who fit the picture you paint, but I don’t think Armstrong is the best representative of that class, at least based on the story she recounted in The Spiral Staircase.

  9. A helpful corrective, Dave. I am not surprised that someone reading T&S has read the book!

    You used the word “oppressiveness” in your post. Armstrong came to see the convent as oppressive, we both agree. That is what I fear Mormon intellectuals may start to feel about the faith as the demands on their time increase. (It is by no means clear we are busier today than in agrarian times, but we certainly do have more options, increasing our potential for busy-ness.) Take this blog as an example. It feeds the soul of the people who read it and write on it. It can consume many hours, the very hours that in theory compete with time the church asks to us to devote to its welfare. There is a sense in which the intellectual life has to be bracketed, tamed, harnessed, for devotion to the church to go on in all its capacities–and if not the church gets turned into an oppressor. Intellectual concerns have to be set aside for me to go to Scouts every Tuesday evening.

  10. Frank: I understood Rosalynde to be saying that the danger in seeing events in American or world history through a gospel lens is that the events can easily become distorted or reduced to startingly narrow ends. The locomotive, Mormons like LeGrande Richards might say, had to be invented to bring early converts to Utah, but are we comfortable saying that it was invented mainly for this purpose or more narrowly solely for this purpose? I for one want to look at something for what it is, not for what it must be.

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