26 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: Joanna, Mr. Hancock, and Mormonism Lite

Joanna Brooks, an unorthodox Mormon, wrote a book.  Ralph C. Hancock, apparently an orthodox Mormon (and a professor of political science at BYU), reviewed it in the Deseret News.

Joanna doesn’t need me to defend her or her book (which is great, by the way—I recommend it).

What I have a problem with is the underlying narrative behind Mr. Hancock’s review.  Here it is:

We—as in Mormons–have the Truth (with a capital T).  It is difficult, and often inconvenient, to follow that Truth.  Those that don’t follow that Truth are taking the easy path.  They have been seduced by a bland and empty secularism and are promoting a version of Mormonism—Mormonism Lite—that is compatible with that philosophy.  Beware.

So let’s start with the obvious problem.

For Hancock, the choice is between Mormonism Lite (designed to fit comfortably with “the increasingly ascendant secular ethic of boundless individual autonomy”) and the “true” restored Gospel (with its “path of obedience to laws and ordinances”).

So there you have it.  As Hancock sets up the dichotomy, the choice is between a “secular” ethic and the restored Gospel.

Let’s back up a minute and start at the beginning.  Let’s go back to the fork in the road where people like me (and Joanna, and other unorthodox Mormons) first begin to part company with Mr. Dichotomy and the rest of the “it’s-either-true-or-false-secularism-is-scary” crowd.

It starts by looking at the world outside your window.  Really looking.  And talking to other people.  And listening—really listening—to their experiences.  Most of the ebb and flow of humanity on this planet—6 billion and counting—have asked the big questions at some point in their lives (e.g. Is there a God?, If there is, what does God expect of me?, etc.).  Most of us have also been handed a set of answers to those questions—and those answers depended on our parents, our parents’ religion, and the time and place of our birth.

Many individuals, as they mature, begin to ask if the answers they’ve been handed are adequate.  The vast majority reach the conclusion that the answers they’ve grown up believing are the most comfortable—and give them the easiest access to religious experiences.

Religious experiences are the key to this process.  Religious experiences are those moments of expansive insight, peace, reflection, and communion with a higher power.  As Mormons, we’re taught that religious experiences are evidence of the truthfulness of our answer to life’s big questions—and also evidence of the inferiority of everyone else’s.

After a religious experience or two in the context of Mormonism, the focus shifts from assessing different “answers” to being exactly obedient, marching in line, and following the outlined path.  If one isn’t happy about that path, then it’s the fault of the individual—because the path is “true.”  If one isn’t happy with the picture emerging from one’s paint-by-the-numbers approach to life, then it’s the fault of the individual, because the picture is “true.”

But what happens when one realizes that spiritual experiences are universal?  That the peace and communion that one sometimes feels within the context of Mormonism isn’t unique?  That one’s friend, a Hindu, has also experienced it—in the context of Hinduism?  And Muslims, and born-again Christians, and even the Episcopalian that lives down the street have experienced it?  “But what about ‘absolute’ Truth, one might sputter? “There has to be a Truth with a capital T out there.”  And the temptation is to start inventing explanations—like the “shards” theory of Truth (i.e. Truth is a stain-glass window, and everyone else has shards of it, so their spiritual experiences are tied to those shards—WE, however, have the entire stain-glass window).  For many, the possibility that there may not be a Truth with a capital T is too much to process and they back away from the edge.  People who get this far react in all sorts of different ways.

It is this reaction that represents the fork in the road.  This is where the orthodox and the unorthodox begin to part company.  This is where it starts, in other words. Each person has to answer the following question: “Am I confident that my religious experiences are superior to everyone else’s?”  If one answers this question in the negative, they’ve taken the first step down the path to heterodoxy.  It strikes me as ironic that those most likely to answer this question in the affirmative seem to be the least capable of seeing the arrogance of their position.

For people that have gone down the unorthodox path, folks like Mr. Hancock are tiresome.  We’d like to send them off to play in a neighbor’s yard so they’ll stop bothering us.

His mistake is that he doesn’t understand unorthodox Mormons.  He relies on his black-and-white commitment to orthodoxy as a template for understanding heterodoxy—and he gets it wrong.  He seems to think that Joanna is committed to a kind of secularism (or liberalism, or feminism, or progressivism, or [insert scary word here]) in the same way that he is subsumed by his commitment to rule-following and obedience.  He tries to understand heterodox Mormons as people that are committed, in essence, to a different kind of religion.  He couldn’t be more wrong.

Many of us that have taken the heterodox fork in the road soon realize that we don’t really know anything.  Our religious experiences aren’t any more valid or profound or “real” than anyone else’s.  Our answers to life’s big questions are just that—they are “our” answers and however wondrous those answers may be to us (and however useful), the fact that we have answered life’s big questions in a certain way doesn’t mean that everyone else’s answers are inferior.

We are not committed to secularism (or liberalism, or feminism, or progressivism) in the same way that orthodox Mormons are committed to “exact” obedience.  We just realize that there is a lot we don’t know.  If God speaks to humanity through spiritual experiences, then why does he communicate such radically different information to individuals based on their religious context?  We don’t know.  That’s it, really.  We don’t know.

Many of us have gotten to the point of “I don’t know,” stared into the abyss, searched our souls for some reflection of deity, and then seen the same thing: We’ve seen each other.  We’ve come away from the experience with the profound realization that we–as in all of humanity—are in this together.  We are truly one.  Until further notice, therefore, it seems obvious that the one thing we can do—the low-hanging fruit, so to speak—is to be nice to each other.  We should treat each other fairly, and with dignity and respect.

Another common line of reasoning among those of us who don’t know much is this.  If God created us with individual agency and the capacity for reason, then it makes sense that God expects us to use those capabilities.  Let’s read Mr. Hancock’s opening dichotomy a little more carefully.  The choice, in his own words, is between “individual autonomy” and a “path of obedience to laws.”  If forced into this false dichotomy, I suspect that what we do with our individual autonomy will matter more to God than how well we follow directions.  For me it comes down to whether or not I believe God wants us to paint by the numbers or to paint our own pictures?  As parents, what do we value more from our four-year-olds?  A paint-by-the-numbers portrait identical to what’s on the box, or a free-spirited “Look, Mom, this is you and Dad in a rocket ship with a cow!” masterpiece?

The path of “I don’t know” is difficult.  Taking responsibility for one’s own spiritual life is difficult.  Being nice to people is difficult.  It’s not easy—not nearly as easy as the “exact obedience” path can be at times.  But there’s a reason why most adults have abandoned paint-by-the-numbers projects.

Here’s to hoping that Mr. Hancock grows up a bit.

[See more discussion of Mr. Hancock's review in the Bloggernacle here, here, here and here.]

[Last Post: 25 Conference Weekend and Rolexes]