Q. Are you an apologist or neo-apologist?
A. No, I’m just a philosopher. Others have said I’m an apologist, but I’ve never been interested in apologetics. Mormonism can stand on its own two feet and it doesn’t need me to defend it.
I am intensely interested, though, in what it means to live a religious life. This question is my almost exclusive concern. This is what Letters to a Young Mormon is about.
What does a religious life look like? What kinds of beauty or liberation does it foster? What kinds of costs does it impose?
More, I’ve always been sensitive to something that prophets, saints, and mystics of many traditions (Mormonism included) confirm: that there is a paradox or inversion, a kind of Mobius loop, at the heart of a religious life that looks like moonshine from the outside and that can only be verified by tracing your very own finger along that same twist in the path.
I want to trace this loop with as much of my body, heart, and mind as I can manage. Writing and thinking about the loop can look like a new kind of apologetics, but it will always fail on that score and that’s not what I’m after.
I don’t want to defend the weird topology of this knot, I want to think it.
Q. Are you a Mormon? Why?
I’m Mormon because I was born and raised a Mormon. It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones. Mormonism has me by the brainstem. That’s not a defense, just an explanation.
Also, I’m Mormon because I’m a well-educated, American, heterosexual white-guy. I’m a privileged member of the tradition and that privilege makes it easy to stay and harder to leave.
But, too, I’m a Mormon because of spirit. Mormonism introduced me to spirit and spirit keeps me in the pew each week.
There is a live current running through Mormonism, a subtle but palpable current of electricity that occasionally arcs in spectacular ways but that mostly, humming in the line, is just strong enough to regularly jar me out of my daydreams and into caring for the ordinary run of daily life. Ordinary life is the place — and I’m increasingly convinced that it may be the only place — where the twisted ends of the transcendent and the immanent join to justify the costs and effort of a religious life.
This electric spirit is not unique to Mormonism (and Mormonism doesn’t claim that it is) but Mormonism’s way of configuring and distributing this current — it’s manner of boosting and converting it — has some unique and obvious strengths.
Q. It seems like you’re asking “spirit” to bear a lot of weight. Why hang the whole tradition on a subjective, psychological phenomenon like “spirit”?
Spirit is the thing. There’s no denying this.
But I would deny categorically that spirit is a subjective or psychological phenomenon. It’s a basic but common mistake to think that spirit is subjective or psychological.
Spirit is, rather, fundamentally a relational phenomenon. It manifests only to the degree that I’ve gotten outside of my own head and am, as a result, more tightly intertwined with the people and objects around me. In this sense, spirit is more objective than subjective.
But it’s also true that, in the end, spirit defies objectivity as much as it does subjectivity. This is why it’s really hard to talk about.
Spirit depends on my being exposed to the root that’s common to both the subject and the object. It depends on my being exposed to the original ground they share. Spirit shows itself at that ur-place where world bleeds into mind and mind bleeds into world.
Spirit is that place where the ends of the loop join.
It sounds mystical, but to arrive there, you just have to do the most ordinary things.
You have to be still and pray. You have to sit and read old scriptures that you don’t understand. You have to sing a song in church while you hold your wife’s hand. You have to find your great-grandmother’s tombstone. You have to bake a pie and go home teaching and knock on a stranger’s door. You have to play checkers with your children for half an hour on Monday night.
This is nothing special. And it’s tempting to think that you don’t need Mormonism to do these things. Maybe you don’t. But I wouldn’t be doing any of them without Mormonism. And the way the tradition configures my relation to these ordinary things, though subtle and pragmatic, is what makes them crackle with enough life to wake me up again and again.
Q. What is grace?
Grace is what you didn’t choose, didn’t earn, and couldn’t deserve. Grace is a name for the give and take of life, for the costs and gifts involved in even our smallest exchanges with the world that embeds us.
Grace can save us, but it can do so only because that’s what it’s always (already) doing. Grace is another name for spirit.
This may sound like a pretty idiosyncratic definition of grace, but I think it’s consonant with both Mormonism and the broader Christian tradition.
I’ve written a dissertation and published two books about this. They’re a little technical, but you probably prefer that kind of thing anyway. The devil’s in the details.
If you’re interested, try my book Speculative Grace, published by Fordham University Press in 2013.
Q. It’s your view that people should be quiet, stop asking hard questions, and just do their home teaching?
People should do their home teaching. And I think people should spend more time being quiet. Spirit shows itself in silence.
But I don’t think people should stop asking hard questions.
In fact, I think a problem many people have is that they don’t ask enough questions. They’ve got a handful questions and then stop with those.
We tend not to range far enough with our questions. We just ask the same handful of comfortable questions over and over again, regardless of who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about.
The questions themselves start to feel safe. That’s a bad sign.
Ask your questions. Ask more questions. And then ask your questions even more seriously than you already have. Stop assuming that you already know the answers to your questions before you even ask them. And, especially, be sure to ask really hard questions about your really hard questions.
Always work to ask even better questions than the one’s you’ve already asked.
Don’t stop halfway with your questions. If you stop halfway, you’ll just lose what you had and fail to find what you could’ve.
Whatever you do, once you start asking questions, don’t stop. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.
I think this is good advice.
And it’s advice I need to hear as much as anyone else.
Thanks Adam. The idea that the spirit is neither objective of subjective is new for me, and it rings true.
Thank you Adam for teaching me more about your view point. i admit your first post really unnerved me. I am glad to comprehend the pain that so many experience. I don’t know right now what I will do with the knowledge, but I am working hard to also understand people who never experience the pain. Thanks for helping me with that. It may take me a while, but every drop of rain counts.
I like the acronym G-R-A-C-E:
God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense
(just thought I’d through that one in – thanks)
It seems to me there are two reasons to stay in Mormonism: (1) you believe it’s true and/or (2) the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. It seems like you, Adam, are in for reason 2 and that’s great it works for you and your family.
I think where you personally may be doing more harm than good is implying that if people just try harder, or think differently, or are more patient, they’ll surely find the spirit and grace you find as a Mormon. But many people don’t ever have that experience no matter how hard they try. Or they have it so infrequently that it seems always just out of reach. Saying that people will “arrive there” by just “doing ordinary things” is generalizing without warrant from your own experience. What is more, the implication of your argument is that if I haven’t arrived, I must not be doing these things right. Are you sure that’s what you want to say?
I agree that people should keep asking questions and keep asking new ones. For my wife and me, it’s only been in the past 6 months that our new questions led us some place we never expected — out of the Church. If you’ve never asked them, some good questions might be: what truths am I actively resisting to protect my beliefs about the church? What role do fear and guilt play in my spiritual life? What are we afraid will happen if we leave the church? Is that fear justified? Is the church actually the best thing for our sons and our daughters? What good could we do in the world with 10% of our income? What good things could our family do together with an extra day a week? These were important questions for us. And we continue to question. New questions every day.
So, yes — keep going!
Hi again Steve. As always, you have some good, challenging thoughts. However, I think Adam is less deterministic (and harmful) than you assert.
Yes, he feels there is something about Mormonism that makes it spark and hum and occasionally arc spectacularly. (In other words, it’s true, just in a different way, perhaps, than we normally consider.)
And yes, he would say that many of us get too distracted, too caught up in our stories (i.e. how we would like the world to be in the past/present/future), to pay attention to that electric Spirit that has the power to awaken us and engage us in the grace of what God has actually given us, right now.
But, he is not claiming that trying harder, thinking differently, or being more patient will “surely” lead to such a redemptive awakening. Just that it’s possible, and we can/should try it out. As he states up front, he is not an apologist. He has no interest in convincing anyone that there is a pattern of cognitive framing or engagement with the world that will inevitably and in all cases lead us to join or stay in the institutional church.
Rather, his intent is to trace his journey along that Möbius strip that starts with engaging in the ordinary things of a Mormon life and ends up at a spiritual inflection point of being redeemed and awakened and sealed in a profound and real way.
This is Adam’s experience of Mormonism. It is a transformative process that many (if not all) of us could likely experience if we were more focused on different things than those that usually command our attention. Maybe we have already experienced it unwittingly. Or perhaps our path lies elsewhere. Adam’s spirit is very much that each of us must work out our own salvation, “undergo our own ascesis.”
He is merely describing his own pilgrimage and graciously inviting us to hazard a similar journey.
For my part, I have read and re-read quite a lot of Adam’s writing – you should too, seriously! – and I have benefited tremendously from doing so. As have many of my friends and family. In light of these experiences, I sincerely doubt that the good he has effectuated through his work is in any way outweighed by the harms you are – incorrectly, I think – attributing to him. Unfortunately, I don’t think you have to look very hard to find others within the church for whom the charge of “doing more harm than good” has a great deal more merit. Although, it goes without saying that I don’t think church members have a monopoly on bias and bigotry any more than they do on spirit or truth. :-)
Thanks for the engagement. This is Adam’s statement: “to arrive there, you just have to do the most ordinary things.”
In logical terms, we can write O –> A (you will arrive if you just do the most ordinary things). Therefore, if we add ~A to this (you haven’t arrived) then we can infer ~O (you haven’t just done the most ordinary things) by modus tollens.
You extend his argument by arguing that most (if not all!) of us could experience this if we weren’t so distracted. Again, this places the blame for our bad experiences on the people struggling rather than on the church where (at least logically) the blame might be more accurately laid. I’m not saying it IS the church. I’m just saying that this type of reasoning never even allows for that possibility.
To put it metaphorically, sometimes we feel sick because we’re not sticking to our diet and sometimes we feel sick because our diet isn’t based on accurate ideas about nutrition. We should at least consider the latter possibility.
As for reading Adam’s work, I have read Letters to a Young Mormon. I bought it because I wanted to help my older kids think differently about their engagement with the Mormon tradition. But I was so frustrated with it that it ultimately became one more piece in my decision to distance myself from the tradition.
I don’t think developing a “shadow Mormonism” with its own private meanings is respectful to truth. I did that for years. Among other things, I think such an approach unwittingly misleads those who don’t share your private interpretations, leading them to believe that you share their literal interpretations and thus reinforcing their plausibility. In a nutshell, I believe it’s dishonest. Benevolently, charitably, dishonest. But still dishonest.
Steve, here are a few thoughts in reply.
First, I think it is more appropriate to read: “you can arrive” or “you may arrive” rather than “you will arrive.” Again, he is being descriptive here, not prescriptive or deterministic.
Second, I see how my “if not all” was ambiguous. I meant it in the sense that probably not all of us would have this experience, rather than the sense that perhaps all of us could have this experience.
Next, I see your reasoning about the diet and the church and not blaming victims, etc.. I think Adam’s framing stems from the idea that it is easier to change the way we think and act than to change the way the church or God or other people think and act. His is an invitation to let go of our impulse to blame and fret and feel guilty and to instead take ownership for what lies within our control. In his case, doing so restored his health. But your mileage may vary, of course.
As for your dislike of Adam’s book, what can I say? Is your main concern that following the path Adam points to would lead to the sort of “shadow Mormonism” you speak of? I don’t know if that’s an inevitability. To continue your metaphor, I think the book offers treatments that may be off-label without being illegal or unethical. His approach to doctrine may at times run perpendicular to correlated materials, but I still find it to be consonant with the gospel. And if the theological underpinnings are heterodox, the lived implications are entirely orthopraxic.
I see what you are saying, and I really do respect your perspective on truth and dishonesty. For me, though, I feel like it would be a greater dishonesty to deny the substantial, positive good that has been wrought in my life through my engagement with the church. There are supernatural things I may doubt or have little experience with, but there are many other things of a superb, yet natural quality that have transpired in my life as a result of my membership. I’ve actually found it quite liberating (and well received) to be honest and open about my doubts even as I’ve sought to anchor my faith in the immanence of Christ’s atonement more so than in its transcendence.
Perhaps it’s a privilege of living in Seattle, but I don’t feel like I have to hide my heterodoxy under a bushel. In the end, I think both God and our fellow ward members will judge us less by our “belief” in things remote and more by how we care for, attend to, and nurture things those things and people who are right in front of us.
You ask whether we could be putting our time, resources, and energies to better use outside of the church. Almost certainly. For me personally, though, I really doubt that I would, even if I could. I fully acknowledge the probability, however, that you are just a better person than I am. :-)
I really appreciate Adam’s work and now Steve’s given us a lot to think about here. Thank you both for laying out your perspectives. I hope you continue. This conversation is particularly meaningful to me.
When you say,
I definitely read this latter possibility into Adam’s articles. I mean, it seems to me that one of the major undertones is that the typical way many members go about Mormonism (especially as a result of a faith crisis) isn’t based on accurate ideas about nutrition.
It seems that you disagree that Adam’s solution is actually an accurate idea about nutrition (to continue the metaphor), but my disagreement is something different (and maybe a disagreement you also have). My disagreement would be more that Adam has no institutional authority to talk about nutrition in this instance, and at the very least, he should point out that his nutritional advice is based on something very different than what people were raised with and what is institutionally accepted.
In other words, Adam’s Mormonism probably is better than Mormonism as it is currently lived by so many. But it’s not the same Mormonism, it’s not institutionally supported, etc.,
Steve and Walker –
Both of you have authentic, interesting insights. I can’t speak for Adam, but I would think that the kind of engagement and reflection embodied in your comments is precisely what Adam’s essays are intended to prompt. So, kudos.
But from where I sit, there’s also something slightly absurd about arguing different positions using Adam’s writings as a jumping off point. They simply reflect a way of thinking about the church and about gospel life, full stop. As Walker says early on, there are no truth claims here or apologetics per se. And so it’s more a question of whether Adam’s musings are USEFUL (in a pragmatist philosophical sense – c.f. Dewey and Rorty et al). That is, do the insights resonate in some useful way, or not? If they do, and therefore if you find Adam’s perspective refreshing and useful – great. Devour Letters to a Young Mormon and share with friends/family, as I have. But if not, that’s fine too.
Steve, it seems to me that your position (which you’re absolutely entitled to, as it’s valid for you), as well as Andrew’s similar view (that focuses on church institutional authority) presupposes that church devotion is a binary: either someone has some Adam-esque mystical, nuanced, shadow-Mormon, “private interpretation” of the gospel/church, or they have what Steve describes as a “literal” interpretation of the church’s teachings. One, or the other. And therefore, possessing private interpretations and never sharing them with the more literal minded members of one’s ward (who presumably believe Noah actually crammed two of every species in the ark, or that the Earth is 5k years old, etc) is dishonest. I can appreciate your conclusion, but I think it flows from a suspicious premise. You’ve rigged the game, here. (Although I do think, by the way, that your insight does surface a valid and useful criticism for myself: those of us who have more attenuated/examined/nuanced/private views of the gospel DO have some obligation to speak up and air those views with our fellow saints. Do I do this enough? Good reflective question for me..)
Nevertheless the problem I see with the binary view Steve seems to presuppose is that it simply isn’t accurate. There’s no consistently monolithic “institutional” literal view of things in the church – that’s a straw man. There are countless examples of dialectical/pluralist views of doctrine or policy in the church: Smith and McKay famously fought over differing views of evolution, for instance. And one need look no further than the confusion last month over whether the women’s meeting was officially part of General Conference (or not) for evidence of some disagreement/confusion over things in the official/institutional church. Which in my view illustrates precisely what I’m trying to point out: that there aren’t just “orthodox” members on one hand, and “shadow Mormons” with unorthodox private conceptions on the other. Rather, put three dozen Mormons in a room, and I suspect you’ll find a surprising amount of variance on a number of doctrinal questions or devotional practices. I don’t want to overstate this variance – certainly I’d acknowledge that there are plenty of bright doctrinal lines – but I also think it’s a mistake to understate the variance, to suggest Mormons are either literalist hardliners, else they are shadow Mormons living devotionally dishonest lives.
As a close (non-member, swears-like-a-sailor) friend of mine put it to me once: “Mormonism seems like a big tent.” I certainly think that’s true. I’m glad for that. I took it as a compliment to the church. Like Adam, I find a place in that big tent for myself and my family. And therefore, I find his perspective useful, and resonant. Others won’t. Which is fine. Steve has articulated why Adam’s writings aren’t resonant for him (from the perspective of someone who has left the church), and I can also think of at least three dozen devout members of my own current ward who likely wouldn’t find them resonant either (from the more orthodox perspective). But I’m glad to have someone like Adam occasionally articulate something in a way that taps into something I seem to feel in a deeply similar way.
[Although I should also note, as an aside, that as much as I loved this essay and Adam’s Letters to a Young Mormon, I found Adam’s entry on “Mormonism isn’t about Mormonism” to be bizarre and nonsensical. It DOES seem to me that it’s possible sometimes to overthink things.. :) ]
Anyhow, you get my drift: all of this is about finding the connection to the spirit and the path to walk that’s authentic and right for you.
Good points well made BlueRidgeMormon. Thanks!
Let’s be frank — there are still truth claims being made here, so there is still an apologetic going on here. The entire thing with pastoral apologetics (as opposed to traditional apologetics) is that the truth claims are refocused on pragmatic claims about lived experience. I mean, pragmatism is also an epistemology. It’s not Adam and others just saying, “Well, this is how things work for me.” It’s not Adam and others simply saying, “FOR ME, There is a live current running through Mormonism”. It’s a claim that Mormonism has a live current running through it.
But these claims can still be challenged.
Anyway, I do not really dispute that there are multiple perspectives within Mormonism — even among the GAs (per BlueRidgeMormon’s comment.) But it’s not as if one can’t broadly discern what orthodoxy is. It’s not as if we don’t know in general what an orthodox Mormon is by his or her beliefs vs someone who is not. Views can pass or fail a smell test here.
Try to post something like this at Millennial Star. I dare you. It won’t be criticism from apostates and disaffected Mos there.
“Apologetic” is to the disaffected Mormon as “anti-Mormon” is to the believing Mormon – a pejorative word used as a rhetorical device to dismiss an argument or position immediately on principle. Tell a disaffected Mormon that Adam is an “apologist” or his position is “apologetic” and their brain immediately registers, “Not to be taken seriously” or, “Needs rebuttal, because it’s probably wrong at best, deceptive at worst.” The same could be said for a believing Mormon encountering material that has been labeled “anti-Mormon.” Insofar as these words are used as a rhetorical bludgeon, they are not useful in civil debate or discussion about Mormonism. Thus, I completely understand why Adam is trying to distance himself from the word “apologetic” – “pastoral” or otherwise. The audience he would most like to reach, I think, is allergic to the word.
Andrew (#12) – this was precisely my point. A view like Adam’s (or yours, or mine, or anyone else’s) might in fact be challenged by disaffecteds on one side, and by more orthodox members on the other. Precisely. In fact I said that very thing. And of COURSE at some level there are personal, “lived” truth claims made in a piece like Adam’s, just as there are from the pulpit every first Sunday of the month in Sacrament meeting. You’re right about that. And as such, I guess you’re nominally correct that those truth claims can technically be challenged. But I guess I simply don’t see what the point is.
Whether something falls into the category of traditional apologetics, or pastoral apologetics, or testimony bearing, or criticizing, or however else we want to categorize things, also seems sort of beside the point. (At least to me.) As Adam articulated himself, he simply likes to actively think about his faith and his devotion. To examine it. To try to understand it. These are his reflections. They make sense to some, and don’t make sense to others. What I was suggesting in my earlier comment is that I think some of us are asking more of this activity than it can deliver.
On the topic of smell test and discerning an orthodox Mormon – I also agree, of course. To a point. The “big tent” of Mormonism I referred to earlier certainly doesn’t readily accommodate, for instance, temple-attending members who smoke cigarettes. Or the performing of hard rock devotional music in sacrament meeting. Or sexually active homosexuals in leadership positions. Or, apparently, women attending inside the SLC conference center for the Saturday evening session of conference. In other words, yes of course there are some brighter lines etc. (And, some of these are more contested than others, some appear to be changing, some are less controversial…) I alluded to that. But in my experience, even some of these “orthodox” positions might reveal more variance and complexity than initially supposed. Put 100 Mormons in a room and put truth serum in them (how’s that for an interesting thought experiment!). Everyone would of course likely broadly agree that temple worship (and full fellowship) requires full tithe paying. 10%, as opposed to 5%, or 9%. Right? But probe deeper, and you might find wide variance on the old trope of gross versus net, or even more complex ideas like: how to tithe retirement savings? Or small business loss/gains? I suspect you’d find much variance. Similarly: ask them what their views are on evolution and its potential role in the creation of humans. I suspect you’d once again find wide variance. Finally: most would likely agree that prenatal abortion is morally problematic, and certainly shouldn’t be employed lightly as an ad-hoc or frivolous birth control measure. But I suspect you’d find wide variance on the acceptability of IUDs or birth control pills. None would be likely to disagree that it’s important to keep the Sabbath… but I suspect you’d find wide variance in practice of how to do it.
The point is, there are all kinds of “lived Mormonism”. There isn’t just the orthodox and the unorthodox. And therefore, the engaging in an examination of various positions or assertions, or of frameworks for how to think through this stuff, is of interest to many of us. But contesting the baseline assumption that there’s something real about one’s testimony seems more pointless.
In contrast, I don’t think that Adam wants to reach out to disaffected Mormons at all. I think he and the other T&S permas are probably quite perturbed whenever any of their posts get linked to r/exmormon, for example.
But we’re at a more fundamental issue. Where someone undergoing a faith crisis is asking, “How can I feel comfortable with paying tithing in any definition when I am not OK with what the institution is doing with the money?”
No amount of “living Mormonism” is going to ameliorate this concern. No amount of variation on the details of how tithing is paid is going to ameliorate this concern.
We can quibble on where the Book of Mormon took place, but if you actively went to the temple recommend interview or to fast and testimony meeting and pointed out that you don’t believe it is historical in any sense, you assuredly are unorthodox. Sure, sure, so you might say, “I don’t know if it’s historical, but I still get practical value out of it and that’s the point” Some might tolerate this, but this still is unorthodox, and if you tried to teach this, that would not be acceptable. The church is — whether this is good or bad — very much invested in the certain literal truth claims. And I mean, I think that conservative members make a good point — if Joseph Smith didn’t REALLY see divine personages…if there really AREN’T plates, then all of a sudden, the stakes of what Mormonism is about do change a whole lot.
So, the big disagreement with Adam and other folks is that you can’t put this question aside and focus on “lived Mormonism,” because part of “lived Mormonism” is whether you are a member in good standing who is worthy to attend the temple. Contrary to what Adam has presented (bracketing or deferring the literal truth claims), lived Mormonism in most wards and stakes heavily involves the performance of knowledge claims that by definition are called into question with a faith crisis.
It’s great that there are some unorthodox wards and stakes where this isn’t as heavily emphasized, but we can know that these are exceptions to the rule, rather than the rule.
Andrew (#15), I think you are correct on that point. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Adam wishes to reach out to those struggling through a faith crisis, wondering whether they should stay in the boat or not (to borrow Ballard’s analogy), rather than those who have chosen to leave the boat. Alternatively, as BlueRidgeMormon (#14) points out, perhaps Adam has no target audience in mind, and he “simply likes to actively think about his faith and his devotion,” allowing us to glimpse his thoughts. But I find this latter possibility less likely, considering the tone of “Letters to a Young Mormon” (addressing someone who appears to be struggling with the faith) and the explicit allusion to Jeremy Runnels in his recent post, “Letter to a CES Student.”
Since I do think that pastoral apologetics actually is trying to reach out to people (rather than just being a personal reflection that is not apologetic in any sense)…I agree with you that your former possibility is more understandable than the latter possibility.
However, my big issue here is that even if I concede that there are two different segments — those struggling through faith crisis who can still be reached, and those who have become disaffected who are “lost causes” as it were — it’s REALLY easy for someone in the first group to move to the latter group. If they don’t find the answers satisfying, or at least, not satisfyingly Mormon, they aren’t going to be persuaded.
I am 100% sure that “Letter to a CES Student” is NOT meant in any way to actually be a response to “Letter to a CES Director” and that the title is just meant to be a rhetorical play on terms. Because Adam is not in any way actually addressing Jeremy — and I think Jeremy would fit securely in the class of “lost causes”.
…not to put words in Adam’s mouth specifically, but still.
“T&S permas are probably quite perturbed whenever any of their posts get linked to r/exmormon” Only when those commenters who appear from the link fail to read the post or contribute constructively. Times&Seasons is not the site for airing one’s grievances or bearing one’s loss of testimony.
Wow, lots of action while I was off teaching! I can’t speak to all of this but I want to mention a couple of things that struck me.
I do think Mormonism is a pretty big tent in a lot of ways. I think members can definitely disagree about gross vs. net, white shirts, women’s meeting, evolution, etc. There are non-trivial things that members in good standing can really debate and sink their teeth into. I acknowledge that and I have always lived in university towns (as I do now) where people could and did have such discussions on a regular basis. My frustrations are NOT about living in conservative wards or stakes.
I do think, however, there are bright lines and more bright lines, perhaps, that are being recognized here (except by Andrew). What if someone doesn’t believe there were gold plates, believes that polygamy was never commanded by God, and/or believes that the Book of Abraham was not translated in any sense of the word? Even if he believes in following Jesus, even if he experiences spirit and grace, even if he loves doing home teaching, loves holding hands with his wife and singing hymns, he would ultimately either have to be deceptive in public or be relegated to second-class citizen status in the institutional church.
That’s the tension here and that’s why I keep putting it in terms of “shadow Mormonism.”
Grace. It should be so simple, no one would need to write a book about it.
Here is the way I see it. Christ did all the work and fulfilled the law. Or he didn’t, and we need a new law given in new temples with a new priesthood through new ordinances. Either grace alone is sufficient, or it is insufficient until it is rendered complete by something only Mormonism can provide.
Paul said it can’t be both grace and works. It is grace, and if it is by works, then grace is no longer grace. Paul says that if we think we are justified by law, we are fallen from grace. Do or do not Mormons take upon themselves the bondage of law in the temple? If we take upon ourselves the bondage of law, James says we need to live ALL of it, or we break ALL of it. What is it that Satan tells us will happen to us if we don’t live up to ALL our covenants? Wake up! You’ve been enslaved under a refurbished Old Testament system.
Of all things, I think there is nothing more subjective than the spirit. You list the ways that you encounter it – in the pews, reading scriptures, singing hymns. In none of those ways am I able to access it – but rather I find it in the lonely places – in the wilderness.
I think if we think of the Spirit as a means of appreciating sacredness rather than literal communications from a specific being, we make more sense of the experience, and the disparate experiences all over the world of people trying to wrangle it and make it support their own path and no other.
Good points Andrew (16) and Steve. Here’s a quick thought.
There are no baptismal or temple interview questions related to polygamy, the Book of Abraham, or even golden plates. I agree there probably are certain concrete beliefs that we must be willing to claim as our own, in some manner or other, in order both to stay in the church and to avoid the “shadow Mormonism” route. But I think those brightest of bright lines are fewer than we typically think — especially if we are on board with the hymn singing, hand holding, pew sitting, service rendering stuff.
I imagine the real dissonance comes if our beliefs develop to the point that we can no longer affirm – even weakly – that we have faith in God, the Atonement, the restoration, or the leadership of current prophets and apostles. Here, too, I think there is a good deal of latitude regarding what we can attest to without being dishonest with ourselves or others. But there probably does come a point where our convictions might no longer hold up. Certainly, it would be hard to remain in the church if I could not find anything divine, redemptive, or restorative in its doctrines or practices.
I guess my main point is just that the bright lines are not always where we think they are, and unorthodox practices are much more likely to create a “second-class citizen” situation than unorthodox beliefs. Aside from a few very core concepts, in fact, I think the bright lines have been shifting throughout the history of the church, and they will probably continue to do so. In the end, I think testimony is more truly rooted in practice and orientation than in believing this or that narrative (which, like all stories, will inevitably be untrue to some degree).
I echo the sentiments expressed by Steve Vaisey and Andrew S. Mormonism just can’t be whatever you want it to be. It is a religion that may be able to accommodate a diverse array of lifestyles and beliefs, but there are core doctrines that are strongly emphasized at church no matter where you go. Since there is no lay-clergy split in the LDS church, each member is asked to hold a calling, and in many of these callings they are asked (if not tacitly expected) to explain and defend core doctrinal principles. The Mormon moment isn’t just something that one may experience because of an outsider who puts them on the spot by asking a binary question (i.e. do you really believe that the Nephites and Lamanites actually existed?), it is experienced at church quite frequently. There are environments within Mormondom wherein a middle path member can hide from answering the binary ‘do-you-actually-believe’ questions, but it is not easy. Furthermore, the LDS experience doesn’t provide for any sort of long-term lay option. It isn’t like being a Catholic parishioner, at least in some dioceses, where you can simply go, listen to a priest, and participate in the rituals, and experience a long-term religious life without having to answer for the doctrinal positions of the papacy. (Heck, many Catholics I know openly disagree with the pope’s positions on a whole host of issues, but continue to identify as and be identified as Catholics). As a Mormon, you are quite frequently confronted with the question of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s position. You can opt to retreat from answering such questions and redirect the issue to other more lived aspects of Mormonism (as does Adam), but to be considered Mormon, you must not express any open doubt. For the minute you do, you get hit with a groundswell of ‘how can you call yourself a Mormon and believe such things?”
Steve Vaisey is right. You can have hold some sort of private interpretation of Mormonism and play dodgeball with the binary questions over core doctrinal points, but at some point it just becomes a dishonest representation of Mormonism. For by virtue of holding a calling and engaging in regular participation, it is just assumed that you accept all of the core doctrines as true.
Hi Steve (Vaisey): I was surprised to run into your concerns here, of all places. Your points are getting buried in the comments section of two very lackluster posts (sorry). Have you systematically written out your story and/or concerns somewhere? Would be great to have a conversation. Best, Teppo
Great points about the distinction between LDS and Catholic-type congregations, Steve Smith!
I agree with you, Steve Vaisey, and Andrew in your assertion that “at some point” it becomes untenable.
But I still believe there is more flexibility than we often think. More, there seem to be active efforts — by Elder Uchtdorf (this conference), Elder Holland (“help thou my unbelief”), Adam Miller, the Givenses (esp. in Crucible of Doubt), and others — to widen the latitude for acceptable beliefs.
Certainly Mormonism can’t be everything to everyone, but I think it can and will become more to more people than we typically consider it to be.
Teppo: Yeah, I didn’t plan to start thinking about these issues publicly in the comments section of a blog but it just sort of worked out that way. ;) Email me and we’ll talk.
Steve Smith: you’re right on about the differences between lay and professional forms of ecclesiastical organization. What actually brought my situation to a head was the looming ordination of my son. I didn’t feel like I could honestly participate in that because of my beliefs and that caused a chain reaction of social consequences and “coming out” to my parents. (Fortunately my wife and I are on the same page.) If I could have just kept coming to church as a layperson, this might not have happened. For men, not performing these ordinances immediately makes you a pitiable second-class citizen. I was EQP six months ago. I couldn’t bear the idea of people assuming I had a pornography addiction or something if someone else ordained my son.
Walker: these new efforts are about “doubt.” But I don’t have “doubt,” I am as sure as I am of anything that there were no plates, no Nephites, no command to practice polygamy, no command to deny blacks the priesthood. I’m not “struggling” to believe some of these things; I simply DON’T believe them. That’s different and it’s over the line. Perhaps in the future things will change. I hope so. I’ve love to be a “Univeralist” Mormon of some type. But that institution doesn’t exist now and I can’t simply conjure it in my imagination.
I really loved your book Letters to a Young Mormon. I read it as a 39 year old Young Mormon on her journey to growing-up in her faith. It was like oxygen to my bleeding heart. It helped me be OK with asking questions. It helped me not be afraid and fear those answers I might get. I heard today (paraphrased): When you think you know, then you don’t know.
I was asked by my bishop some questions Sunday and he didn’t like my answers, and now I have no calling or temple recommend. I am OK that he does not see a place for my new paradigm. I knew the risk of saying, “I don’t know” and “I don’t have a testimony of_______” because I can’t see it as black and white anymore(or good/bad), but I know that I have a great faith in God I don’t understand. My testimony is more complex but beautiful. It sees the goodness across all race, nations, cultures, and people.
This journey has been interesting and my husband was surprised by the fact there was no room for my beliefs as he sat next to me in the bishop’s office. I am an agnostic but can a person be a “Mormon agnostic” and still fit it? I find that I may be leaving to find peace without organization. That is hard for me to think but it seems the more I look for depth to my journey, I find it in Mindfulness.
If this hadn’t been such a spiritual journey, I would have been angry but I know that the path for me is about an end to suffering. Buddha said something like (not a direct quote): Life is suffering, there is a end to suffering, the end is the path. I was tired of suffering. I do wish my faith had not been so vested in priesthood, prophets, historicity, and apostles. It makes transition so much more difficult when you are almost 40 with 5 children all taught correlated Mormonism very well. I feel peace with the unfolding, trusting the path, grace is abundant, and I love learning and growing spiritually.
I love your writing and your way of explaining things in fresh new ways. It feeds me to hear depth and not just “obey” and “follow the prophet”. Thanks again. I am glad your way is accepted and encouraged by most main stream members. Most would be shocked by my new lens (family and friends).
What a robust conversation in the comments this has become! I appreciate all the perspectives, I really do. I think that some of what Steve Vaisey and Andrew and others point out is absolutely valid.. I think I’d simply say that, in essence, I agree with you. If you’ve already decided that the entire edifice of the church, doctrinally speaking, is a sham – – that there were absolutely no plates, etc – – then I’m not at all surprised that Adam’s way of processing things (faith and doubt and fitting in etc) isn’t helpful or useful at all. I can completely see where you’re coming from.
This is what I meant when I said that perhaps we shouldn’t expect from an exercise like Adam’s more than it is capable of delivering. There’s nothing here to convince someone that Joseph actually saw God, or that the Nephites were real, etc. As Andrew points out, no amount of “lived Mormonism” can help if one isn’t comfortable paying tithing at all. Absolutely right.
So in part it’s a question about audiences, and where one actually is on the spectrum of othodox to heterodox, MINO (Mormon in Name Only) vs TBM, etc. For those of us at a certain place on the spectrum, who are convinced of the veracity and reality of the “live current” Adam refers to, yet may still have doubts about certain truth claims or some discomfort with tithing going to, say, Prop 8 campaigns, this kind of reflection (or “pastoral apologetics” if you insist) are, well, sorta useful. Much less useful for someone who is as certain (as Steve Vaisey seems to be) that essentially ALL of the truth claims of Mormonism are bogus. But one doesn’t have to go all the way to Steve Smith’s caricature of wanting Mormonism to be “anything you want it to be” to find reflections like Adam’s useful. It’s simply not one or the other – – I do think that Vaisey, Smith, and Andrew are wrong about that.
Nevertheless, I think I’m guilty of making the error of attributing to everyone else reading the blog and reacting to it that they’re in the same place as me, and that’s clearly not true, and you all have done a great (and articulate) job of reminding me of that. I do wish I had something to offer to someone in Stever Vaisey’s position that is helpful – but I just don’t. And as several of you point out, Adam might not either.
(p.s. Teppo, in England? Jared H here!)
Thanks to all for the thoughtful posts.
My little brother once told me a story about a woman who gave a sacrament talk in his ward. She is a socially awkward and prickly personality. She stood up and explained that “I really don’t like to be here.”She went on to explain that her whole association with the church was generally uncomfortable, but that she had been pressed upon with the dismaying realization that that was where God wanted her to be. Interesting, to me.
From what I can tell, none of us are particularly comfortable in our own skins most of the time. Much of life seems to be a journey into belonging and back out again. We have many moments of arrival and departure. I suppose the arrival moments might represent the aforementioned grace. However, I guess I’m far more interested in the ultimate object of my worship than in the trappings of that worship or even my own shivery moments or lack thereof in the process of that worship. I’m seeking God. I want to see the presence of God in the world and people around me. I want to feel a measure of God’s joy and perspective and love operating in myself. I do not worship the church. It is merely my set of tools and they have proven highly useful. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable too, but that is part of the process for me.
(Jared: Yes, England. Great to run into you. Small world. Send me an email – would be fun to chat. I’m sad to see some academic friends and very bright minds leaving.)
I think Sue’s case is an example of the endgame here. If you’re honest (i.e., you respect the meaning of words and don’t invent a private language) then you’ll end up marginalized in the church if you take Adam’s approach to Mormonism.
But there is a history in the church of this kind of double language (e.g., saying “I don’t practice polygamy” out loud while silently thinking “because celestial marriage is not polygamy”). So perhaps many people are comfortable with “carefully worded” expressions of faith that are not technically dishonest but are ultimately misleading. I’m not comfortable with that.
Like Jill (hi Jill!), I found the church to be a useful set of tools for a long time. It saved my family of birth from a very bad path. It led me to BYU, where I got an excellent education. It provided me many valuable spiritual (and other) experiences. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best decision for me now or my family now. When the question finally changed from “CAN we stay” to “SHOULD we stay,” the answer for me was surprisingly clear.
Steve – (Random interruption) Are you the same Elder Vaisey that I knew in the Paris France mission? What wonderful memories of Normandy and the “Mormon missionaries” rendition at zone conference!
Francophile: I did serve a mission in France (Bordeaux). You’re thinking of my brother, who served in Paris.
P.S. Jill: being uncomfortable due to spiritual growth is not the same thing as being morally uncomfortable with misleading people. I’m fine with (and embrace) the former but I’m not fine with the latter. Leaving the church is anything but comfortable, I assure you!
Re Jill’s comment (#30):
The story of the prickly woman resonates, as does Steve’s response (#35). I think it’s important to investigate what kind of discomfort affiliating with any religion causes us. Are we uncomfortable because we are asked to do things that cause or encourage us to grow spiritually or are we uncomfortable for other reasons? My discomfort stems both from the fact that the Mormon church causes/encourages me to grow as a person by giving service and demonstrating charity to my fellow human beings (something I’d rather not do, but recognize as important) and from the fact that I disagree with church doctrines and policies that are not, in my view, in harmony with Christ’s gospel. Call that discomfort a crisis of conscience, perhaps. It’s important to distinguish between those different kinds of discomfort, I think, and to decide how we’re going to act. Like Jill, I don’t worship the church; I try to seek the evidence of God in my fellow beings and in the world around me. Reading Gerard Manley Hopkins always seems to help, if anyone is facing the same dilemmas I am.
And to Jill, are you the Jill Hemming who was in Peter Makuck’s creative writing class at BYU? If yes, you were a great poet.
I understand your concern. But I think it’s somewhat to be expected — if people perceive that they are being talked about (which was uncertain but from the title of the post, it seemed like it was paying homage to “Letter to a CES Director”…and again, I don’t think that, but that’s what it looked like), then they are going to want to address that and set the story straight.
I agree that there aren’t specific questions about polygamy, translation of the Book of Abraham, or even the existence of the golden plates. However, the way that the restoration is taught, the way that the concept of a prophet is taught, the way Joseph Smith’s story is taught, answers to these questions are made relevant. When you’re shown and taught the basic story about the translation process, then doubt about the existence of the plates calls into question whether Joseph Smith is a prophet, whether the restoration occurred, etc.,
It might be the case that these things SHOULDN’T be emphasized. Maybe it’s about lived Mormonism. Notwithstanding that this can also be criticized, the basic issue is that there is still a gap between what members are taught in Sunday School, in seminary, and what the Mormon Studies crowd finds in their research. Jumping between that gap is a very difficult concern to address.
I want to reiterate that *speaking out* one’s unorthodox beliefs is very much an “unorthodox practice,” and so as you note, it will create a “second-class citizen” situation. So, the options available are the 1) speak one’s doubts (or even outright disbeliefs) and risk becoming a second-class citizen, or 2) be silent about these doubts and disbeliefs and risk a “shadow Mormon”/inauthenticity situation.
Part of the “practice” of being a Mormon is performing one’s assent to truth claims. This can be through bearing testimony, teaching Sunday School (or just giving answers to questions in Sunday School), seminary, missionary work, home teaching, etc., etc., Part of the “orientation” of being a Mormonism is an orientation to trusting the church and the institution. Both of these are areas where having a different kind of belief can easily cause problems.
I want to emphasize that dividing people into categories is problematic. Like, it’s problematic to describe one category of folks who are convinced of the reality of the “lived current” (yet may still have doubts on certain things)…and describe another category of people who are certain that essentially ALL of the truth claims of Mormonism are bogus.
The main reason this is problematic is that the very idea of faith crisis or faith transition implies movement…particularly, all of the people in that latter category presumably started out in the former category but over time, something happened.
To show this using your examples…I think that Prop 8 definitely was something that, for many members, caused some people to question the live current in Mormonism. It wasn’t that from the outset they believed the truth claims of Mormonism to be bogus. It’s that their *lived experience* of Mormonism did not really confirm the reality of the “live current.”
I mean, there’s something even about this framing that kinda is off-putting to me. Like, the idea that one can be convinced by the veracity and reality of the “live current” but that Prop 8 is just a side show, “some discomfort” etc., I mean, I get that for straight folks, it might not have been a big deal, but Prop 8 wasn’t a sideshow for many folks…Like, if your live current is unaffected by something like Prop 8…I mean, we just live in different worlds. (I mean, obviously that is the case, but…)
There are plenty of people who want things to work out. They want Mormonism to be a good experience for them. But it’s not just about their desire. It’s not just about making it work. It’s also about how accepting and welcoming the environment is…and many people find out that the community doesn’t want them as they are. (And I definitely think that Mormons should be able to set standards for who is a member in good standing, what people should believe, what the church views as righteous or sinful, whatever. But then we should be clear that these standards exist.)
So your identity is Mormon and you want to intensely live your identity.
I guess that’s a philosophy. It’s just not a philosophy involving any sort of critical thinking.
What part of experience do you not consider psychological?
For example in being quiet. In what way are you thinking that being quiet affects us that is not psychological?
Is only a part of experience psychological for you in how you are using the term?
“or be relegated to second-class citizen status in the institutional church”
There is at least a Christian tradition that one can only be a true Christian if one is second class in the institutional church.
This is how I live my mormonism. As a high status person in the secular world, I love the transformative experience of attending church as a second class citizen. Being judged as unorthodox and not precisely categorizable gives me access to the arc and the spiritual that Adam describes.
For example, I bear my testimony that the 11th article of faith applies within mormonism as well as outside of mormonism, that In bearing my testimony I am exercising my right to worship according to the dictates of my own conscience.
I do not try to make converts or argue others out of their beliefs, I just express mine when it is topical. Even that much can be unsettling for some orthodox members. However, in most wards, many people are looking to “accept” some unorthodox people as friends as a proof of them being charitable and loving.
I just can’t relate at all the desire to “fit in” in this world, even in church, to Jesus’s teachings. So, it is very interesting for me to see the younger communitarian-type mormons who very nearly identify mormonism with spiritual-relatededness in a community, rather than seeing religion as where you learn to put conscience above peer pressure.
He that loses his life (and first class citizenship) shall find it.
Interesting post. Asking many questions or asking hard questions, or even asking many hard questions may not be nearly as important as asking the right questions. But it may take asking many questions or asking hard questions, or even asking many hard questions before we arrive at the right questions.
Andrew, terrific point, and I couldn’t agree more, as elaborated upon previously in #14. It would seem that we may now be in agreement about the limitations of dichotomizing/categorizing, and that’s been my primary point from the very beginning. That said, all I was trying to say in #29 was that for many folks who fall somewhere along that continuous spectrum of faith, the kind of reflection employed in the OP may be useful. But for those who have already decided to leave the faith – not questioning, not in some minor faith crisis, but already certain that the core truth claims of the church are specious – for folks in this position, reflections like those in the OP may be less useful, for all the reasons you and others have helped point out.
I suppose in that sense I’m acknowledging that the “category” of “absolutely-certain-I’ve-lost-faith-completely” might be a meaningful distinction, at least with respect to the usefulness of certain approaches to thinking through one’s faith. That was the epiphany I described in #29: that I now understand better why some might find a post like the OP lacking.