Mormon Weakness

My position is a weak one. But the question is: why?

Paul is clear that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). God works through the weak and the simple.

That is, God preaches the cross.

But preaching the cross sounds, of course, like a dodge. It’s good cover for a position that is inherently weak. It’s a good ploy to claim that a position’s weakness is a mark of its own virtue. That kind of move is Rhetoric 101.

On this account, Jesus’ followers have to preach the cross because Jesus lost. They killed him. The Romans won and the empire, with hardly a hiccup, rolled on.

More, it’s impossible these days to read Paul’s claim — that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18) — without immediately wincing at the thought of Nietzsche’s rejoinder.

For us, Paul’s claim is unavoidably entwined with Nietzsche’s often painfully accurate critique of Christianity as a tradition that casts people as victims, valorizes weakness, wallows in pity, and lives on resentment. Christian thinking that valorizes the weak is, Nietzsche claims, saturated with a “slave morality.” It’s a system of thought built for slaves to keep them enslaved. Christianity isn’t liberty, it’s a self-serving justification for our lack of it. Christianity is smoke and mirrors deployed for the sake of either taking advantage or excusing it.

Nietzsche’s critique has bite. It’s always tempting to just agree with him and retire from the field.

I’m sympathetic to anyone who chooses to get off the bus at Nietzsche’s stop. Bless you, I say, as I squirm in my own seat every time that same stop comes back around.

But if I don’t get off here, if I’m convinced that Jesus and Paul have got hold of something crucial in their defense of weakness that Nietzsche doesn’t see, then I’m left with a dilemma.

Granted that, on Jesus’ own terms, our position is weak, the question is: why?

If my position is weak and looks foolish and is hard to justify, is this because my position is weak and foolish and (by any reasonable standard) unjustifiable? If my position looks weak, doesn’t it probably look weak because it is baloney?

Or, if my position is weak and looks foolish and is hard to justify, is this because I’m on the right track? Is this because I’ve connected, in some small part, with what Jesus and Paul were themselves after?

Let’s withhold judgment for a moment.

It’s important to let both these possibilities sit because, to be safe, self-deception should be my default assumption. Its undertow is strong. Decisions like these are ripe for self-deception.

If my position on Mormonism takes its own weakness as a virtue, then it is only fair that my honest working assumption should be that this position is, plain and simple, an act of self-deception. I’m too scared or too comfortable or too privileged or too lazy or too invested to come clean and see the truth. Self-deceived, I adopt a slave morality and then rationalize like crazy from there.

Now, granted, this may well be true. Certainly, it’s the simplest explanation. And, certainly, it’s most soundly in keeping with what I know about myself: I am, myself, weak and afraid. I should have gotten off the bus with Nietzsche but didn’t because I was chicken. And now I’m tangled up in escalating feedback loops of dubious, pseudo-philosophical, paper-thin rationalization. The emperor has got no clothes.

This may well be true. Even likely.

In fact, it may well be true because it feels false (even to me) to think that, of the two options, my position is weak because that weakness is (surprise!) actually a virtue in disguise.

It’s too convenient by half. It smells like dead fish.

But still.


If I sit still and I’m really trying to be honest, I would also have to say that it would feel even more false to deny that something bigger than me, something truer than me, something better than me, is at work here in all this Mormon weakness: in all this Jello, all these manuals, all this hypocrisy, all this self-congratulation, all this politics, all this confusion, all these pews, all these meetings, all these visits, all these faith promoting rumors, all these bureaucracies, all these failures, all these scriptures.

At least in my case, denying this weakness, denying that this weakness is in fact exactly what Paul claims that it is — the power of God made manifest — smells even fishier. Denying it would be even less honest.

The smell of self-deception is, while pungent in the first case, even stronger in the second.

At least in my case — and you, without exception, must think and act and speak for yourselves and in your own names when weighing this in your own hearts — self-deception is an ever greater risk were I to deny what has, to redemptive effect, repeatedly shown itself to me in all this Mormon weakness. I know what I’ve seen. And I know God knows what I’ve seen.

In my case, denying that God is at work in this Mormon weakness would itself be too easy. Too convenient. Too simple. It would itself be an act of self-deception.

No decision about this will be simple. No decision will be clean. You risk various measures of self-deception either way. But a decision still has to be made. And responsibility for the consequences of this decision, with all of its foreseen and unforeseen costs and rewards, will have to be borne. And you won’t bear the costs alone.

Is my decision unjustifiable? Yes. But the other seems even more so.

I love Nietzsche and I wave and smile whenever I see him. He has a beautiful mustache. And each time I see him, I fidget in my seat and worry that he’s right and that I’m just deceiving myself. And each time I see him, I admit that he may well be.

But, in the end, for my part, it’s the pressing likelihood of even deeper kind of self-deception that keeps me on the bus.

I don’t stay because I’m oblivious to self-deception. I stay because I’m keenly tuned to it.

20 comments for “Mormon Weakness

  1. This new strain in apologetics, and even Mormon leadership, to bracket truth questions and just focus on how living the Gospel makes one a better person might be persuasive if (a) the Mormon church didn’t still insist on truth claims and (b) the people focusing on a lived experience actually, you know, had a null case.

    Trade in all of those meetings for actual community involvement for two years (like an anti-mission) and see if you’ve shrunk or grown spiritually and then return and report. Until that time, this argument is just a nicer version of calling the Catholic church the whore of the earth.

  2. Thanks once more for a terrific post.

    I, too, have to admit that sometimes Paul seems like a square, a simpleton, or a goon when standing side by side with Neitzsche with all his erudition and sophistication and prolific facial hair.

    The thing that bugs me about Neitzsche, though, is that sometimes he seems like kind of a jerk. I mean, Paul may be simple, but at least he’s doesn’t make me feel like a dweeb for not appreciating Wagner.

    Moreover, when I spend a lot of time with Neitzsche, I find myself slipping into this uncomfortably critical and accusatory mind space where I start looking down on others rather than seeking out their core goodness.

    I mean, Paul may have his issues – he is a bit of a chauvinist if I’m being honest – but when he gets to talking about charity and nothingness and radical, transformative love.. that’s when I’m reminded of why I enjoy spending time with him instead of the mustachioed German dude. Even just learning to put up with Paul’s rough edges helps me become a decidedly better person.

    To each his own, though. The Ride of the Valkyries can be kind of fun, too.

  3. If I sit still and I’m really trying to be honest, I would also have to say that it would feel even more false to deny that something bigger than me, something truer than me, something better than me, is at work here in all this Mormon weakness: in all this Jello, all these manuals, all this hypocrisy, all this self-congratulation, all this politics, all this confusion, all these pews, all these meetings, all these visits, all these faith promoting rumors, all these bureaucracies, all these failures, all these scriptures.

    I think the thing is that for many people, this is not the case. It doesn’t feel even more false to deny that something bigger than them, something truer than thing, something better than them, is at work in all this Mormon weakness.

    I get that you sincerely believe this. But it cannot be taken for granted with every person. Unfortunately, everything hinges on this.

  4. Paul was strong…as Saul, the Pharisee. Strong. Self-confident in what he was doing…what he had done.

    But then Christ got a hold of him. And showed him that all that mattered was Christ, and Him crucified for sinners, the ungodly. And Paul realized that this was everything. All that was needed. And this was grasped through faith. And even that has to be gifted to us. So that our strength is ALL HIm. And none of us.


  5. I think there is something bigger than ourselves … just not this … 14 year old brides, racial bans and the book of abraham … not to mention claiming to translate plates when they aren’t in the same room … tough to swallow.

  6. Adam- your choice isn’t weak, but only an individual can decide how to perform their faith. If I could slip my offering to God into a private box and know it went for things Jesus taught I would feel more spirit. If partaking of the sacrament were truly the most important part of my membership/worship I would be at peace. I, like Paul, want to be centered fully in Christ. As a still participating Mormon that is my present goal. It used to be the Celestial Kingdom, and eternal family (which I still want), getting my handcart to Zion and magnifying whatever calling I had. All that has changed. If I can put Christ first in it – whatever part it is – I am yours. But if it represents anything else – sorry. No go. I guess I worship the cross too much.

    I am glad you have your peace. It’s what we all are seeking. Thanks for opening your thoughts up to our feedback. I imagine it’s been a rough couple of days.

  7. Adam, thank you very much for both of your recent posts. I hope you’ll accept these pushbacks in the spirit of goodwill and friendship from someone who greatly appreciates and admires your work. Part of the challenge I see with your argument is that in your last post you seem to be implying more than just that this is right for you, but that it is right for everybody, that there is something universally salvific in Mormonism. And yet here you say only that it seems better for you personally to stay than leave. This is completely valid, but it seems like a retreat from your previous position.

    Most importantly, the biggest thing that I often feel with your work is that you do not adequately and openly acknowledge that yours not just a heretofore neglected viewpoint; it is, for the most part, directly opposed to the views and performances that Mormons are currently encouraged and expected to adopt, and for which they are currently rewarded in the Church. I wish that you were willing to really own this fact, yet I constantly see you avoiding it so carefully. I think Nietzsche would criticize you more for not being willing to bravely acknowledge this than for your belief in the efficacy of Mormonism :-)

  8. A little of what I see from Adam’s critics:

    Critics from without:
    -But that’s not what the Brethren say
    -Mormonism itself claims more than you want it to
    -You’re telling me I’m distracted!
    -You’re not “institutionally legitimate!”
    -A little too Eastern for Mormonism, don’t ya think?
    -Too many questions not enough answers
    -You are neither logical nor spiritually honest
    -Nice try, but what about…THE CHURCH!
    -I don’t think “grace” means what you think it means.

    Critics from within:
    -But that’s not what the Brethren say
    -Mormonism itself claims more than you want it to
    -You’re telling me I’m distracted!
    -You’re not “institutionally legitimate!”
    -A little too Eastern for Mormonism, don’t ya think?
    -Too many questions not enough answers
    -You are neither logical nor spiritually honest
    -Nice try, but what about…THE CHURCH!
    -I don’t think “grace” means what you think it means.

    Preach on Brother Miller. You’ve got more than just a bit of Bruggeman’s propehtic imagination.

  9. I don’t think this post warrants any criticism, for in it Adam is merely expressing his reasons why he is in the LDS church, and those can’t be contested. His letter to a CES student came off as a criticism of those who have left the church and have cited reasons for doing so and did indeed warrant some critiquing. At any rate, Adam has a unique rationale for staying in the LDS church, and one that can certainly be appreciated. Nonetheless, it is not shared by many, it is not an approach used by the LDS leaders, and I think that those who leave do have legitimate reasons to do so. I think Adam respects that (even if he is suggesting that they are also self-delusion, a point which I would find worthy of some more extensive discussion), and I respect him for that.

  10. Now this is a real Reformation-Day post, even if it was posted on Reformation-Day Eve. Because Luther would like it. He’d probably like Nietzsche less than you do: oh, he might agree with Nietzsche on some things, like that Christians were slaves (to Christ) and weak, but he’d think N. a rascal for thinking that those things were necessarily bad, or the final state of things.

  11. Adam argues as though the only possible forms of evidence are inward and psychological. But there are ways of knowing that are less dependent on introspection alone. Joseph Smith’s tradition makes many claims and some of these claims are highly inconsistent with empirical evidence. The approach taken by pastoral apologists (like Adam) is to retreat every time this happens and to focus on how one’s life is affected by living Mormonism. But this comparison relies on an implicit counterfactual about how one’s life would look in a different tradition. However, much of our teaching in the church constructs this counterfactual in a negative way (e.g., “if it weren’t for the church, I’d be lost…) The fact is, however, that we don’t KNOW what our life would look like outside. Many people love their families, feel the love of God, serve others, etc. in other traditions that don’t require as many empirically questionable claims. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the position of truth in one’s thinking. Personally, I believe that living in accordance with the best available understanding of how things actually are, although perhaps painful in the short term, will lead to more human flourishing–including our own–in the long run.

  12. Steve, you make some truly excellent points. I have a few thoughts in response.

    First, I don’t think that the inward and psychological experiences are the only forms of evidence that Adam thinks we have access to. While those are the ones highlighted in this post, I think he would assert that there are also external evidences – “fruits” if you will – that emerge from trying to live a Mormon-based, Christ-centered life. Although it is, of course, inevitable that these external fruits – just like the internal ones – will be screened through our own prism of perception. Perhaps some really superlative research would be able to quantify, capture, and compare the fruits of participating in various faithful and secular communities and give us an objective perspective on all of these outcomes. Given the impracticality of random assignment, however, and the difficulties of accurately measuring outcomes – let alone all the relevant variables involved in producing them – I doubt we’ll ever get to that point.

    Relatedly, I don’t know how to deal with the clear fact that we only have one life to live. You are entirely right that we can’t prove the counterfactual. We can only cling – weakly and with a great deal of imprecision – to the conclusions we draw based on the results of this one very biased, poorly designed survey with an N of 1 that is ours to live. Unfortunately, I don’t know a way of improving the design, removing the bias, or increasing the sample. I am stuck with what I have. Given this, it only makes sense for me to try to figure out some sort of underlying mechanisms for producing good and to try and move forward with faith. A self-less, family-focused, Christ-centered, charity-based lifestyle seems as good and reasonable as any alternative I’ve personally come across.

    Third, it’s true that there are other traditions and communities with fewer empirically questionable truth claims. It’s just not immediately evident to me that rejecting a community such as Mormonism because of implausible narrative, historical, or doctrinal teachings in favor of embracing a community with fewer such implausibilities will, in fact, be more conducive to a life well lived. I have seen and felt tremendous good through and because of Mormonism. Certainly a secular life would involve fewer implausible truth claims, but I have no guarantee that such a life would lead me to experience a commensurate level of redemptive, powerful good. I can see the appeal, but I have no indication – let alone guarantee – that such a transition would pay off.

    Finally, I think I actually agree, for the most part, with the idea of “living in accordance with the best available understanding of how things actually are” in order to maximize personal and social “flourishing.” I think Adam does, too. That’s why he is trying to create space for a more thoughtful, more realistic perspective on evolution, historicity, fallibility, etc.. within the Church. Wrestling to reconcile the givenness of what is externally valid with the givenness of our biased, imperfect experiences of what is beautiful, just, and true about lived Mormonism is an endeavor that is worth pursuing; one which should be encouraged. Sure, such a perspective is weak, and it is a matter of faith. But so, too, is the pursuit of any other course. Perhaps that’s why charity is that without which we are nothing, and why we are commanded to withhold judgment absolutely.

  13. Walker,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Here are some responses. (And since you are a sociology grad student, I’ll use some data!)

    I agree that “fruits” are important. I would contend, however, that our sense of advantage here is largely based on wishful thinking. Good studies are hard for all the reasons you say. But my analysis of the General Social Survey panel data shows that people who join the LDS report being no more or less happy than before, those who leave report being no more or less happy than before, and that among constant identifiers, changes in attendance and identification have no effect on happiness. Of course, happiness isn’t everything, and we’re talking about panels with only 80-90 LDS people, but it’s better than nothing. The same goes for cross-sectional data. If you match LDS people to non-LDS people with the same age, gender, marital status, education, and level of religious identification, there are no LDS/non-LDS differences in happiness. (And this is a much, much larger sample using the 1972-2012 GSS). Again, happiness isn’t everything. But it seems to me that we spend a lot of time in testimony meetings, etc., talking about how we’d be “lost” outside the church. To the extent that subjective happiness is a decent indicator of good fruits, that hypothesis doesn’t seem to be supported.

    The other thing is that we focus on good fruits only. I agree that many people experience a real sense of community, meaning, purpose, etc., from participating in Mormonism. But what about the bad fruits? One of the reasons we began to question our family’s participation in the church is because of the messages my teenage daughter was getting about “modesty,” sexuality, and her future role. I don’t think the subtle, jovial condescension that many women experience in the church is good. I don’t think the us-and-them mentality (“the world would have you believe…”) is good. I’m sure you could provide other examples for yourself. There are not ONLY good fruits here.

    I agree we have one life to live and that this is the essential limitation of any experimentation. We’ll never know what the “best” course of action is for us so we must make the best choices we can. If a person is totally happy in the church, that’s great. I have no objection whatsoever to that. Seriously.

    The trouble starts when we start to feel tension and dissonance. Pastoral apologists like Adam and the Givenses seem to want to put responsibility for that tension on how WE think and approach things. If we just thought differently, lowered or changed our expectations, etc., everything would be OK. This approach also encourages the development of a “shadow Mormonism” that exists primarily in our own minds. We develop our own meanings of words, interpret the temple questions idiosyncratically, keep our thoughts to ourselves, and foster a culture of subtle deception and equivocation. All our public statements have footnotes that few in our congregations are aware of and even fewer read. That seems bad to me, too.

    The other approach is to examine the tradition and see if maybe IT is the problem and that our tension and dissonance is indicating something that’s bad for us or, perhaps, more generally bad. Given that Mormonism doesn’t have a monopoly on good fruits, it doesn’t seem like preserving the tradition at all costs should be the top priority.

    What strikes me is that the church DOES have a monopoly on many of our family relationships and THAT’S why so many are motivated to make it work. Leaving can destroy relationships because believers think that a person who leaves is an apostate who will bring certain misery on herself and her family. Some (not all) parents even say that they wish their child had died before questioning the faith. That, too, is a fruit of the church, and one of the worst of them, in my view.

    I agree that every life must be based on faith to some degree. But I don’t agree that ALL courses of action are equally matters of faith. The evidence always runs behind practice in every domain but some require less than others. Some medical treatments require more faith than others, some diets, too. Some experimentation is always needed because otherwise we risk missing out on something really good. But sometimes evidence DOES come in. And it’s OK to use that evidence to change our minds and, sometimes, to leave our tradition.

  14. Steve Vaisey, thanks so much for your comments. You should comment here more often. Your observations about Adam’s engagement of Mormonism are spot on. The trend in this sort of neo-apologetics that Adam and many others on the bloggernacle are engaging in is to retreat when confronted with an inconsistency between Joseph Smith’s claims and empirical evidence. It is almost as if they espouse a sort of pragmatic theory of truth: that something is true because it is useful in one context or another.

    Also thanks for pointing out what too few on the faithful bloggernacle sites (especially the modern-day Danite ones such as Millenial Star) repeatedly fail to acknowledge: that the idea that someone will be miserable without the church leads them to shame, shun, and use high pressure tactics to practically coerce family members who decide to leave the tradition to come back. That is a negative fruit of the church, and one that needs to be acknowledged especially by such well respected apologists such as the Givenses.

  15. Thanks, Steve Smith. I’m fine with a somewhat pragmatist approach to truth as long as it’s a two way street. It’s fine to suspect provisionally that things might be true because they work to accomplish a desired end. But it’s also important to acknowledge that practices based on truth are the most likely of all to work in the end.

  16. Great thoughts, Steve.

    I think you hit on many of the church’s weak points: claims of institutional exceptionalism, some terrible traditions around sex, the horrendous practice of shaming or shunning family members who have exited, gender roles, etc.. Happily, I think Adam and the Givenses – and others – are helping move many of us in a positive direction on these issues.. but the critique is still relevant and well taken.

    What can I say? You make valid points. I still stand with Adam in thinking that – my own biases and self-delusions notwithstanding – I would be losing more than I would gain by leaving the Church. I am not arrogant enough to consider my position a strong or infallible one, just the best one – in my calculations – for me and mine at the moment; and a defensible one for any number of people. More, I can’t deny the merits of your course, wherever that might lead.

    Since reading Adam, I have focused less on whether God exists and more on whether I am being faithful – read attentive, careful, responsive – to the people and situations God has placed before me. Whether in or out of the institutional church (which I agree cannot be an absolute end in and of itself), I feel like this is an orientation toward life that is tremendously rewarding, personally and socially. I hope you and your family are successful in finding a way and a place to “flourish” even as we try to pursue our own.

    Thanks for a thoughtful and provocative dialogue!

  17. I see talk about Mormonism “making you a better person.” I believe that undermines it when coming from believers. In my experience, it’s the teachings of the atonement of Christ that I feel and see at work in my own life, His sacrifice doing the things that the scriptures and the prophets say He will do.

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