When I started A Mormon in the Cheap Seats, I decided I’d write fifty posts. Here are my last three posts—48, 49 and 50. Here’ a link to Part I: What’s Real. Here’s link Part II: Deconstructing John Dehlin.
Part III: My Thoughts on Religion
So what have I learned from my fifty MCS posts?
My father-in-law, a history professor, once commented that religion could be viewed as a mechanism for passing life wisdom down from generation to generation in a way the next generation will accept. In other words, religion is the packaging that makes a generation’s wisdom palatable to those coming behind it.
I believe that.
John Dehlin, in the interview referenced above, said this in response to a question about the restoration of the church: “Phil Barlow really helped me with this in that Thoughtful Faith interview I did. He said, ‘It’s not so much that the church is perfect, occasionally marred by the flaws of mankind; it’s more that the church is completely mortal and flawed and that it’s one group of people’s attempt to understand and interact with the divine.’ I think that every major religion that exists is a group of people trying to collectively understand spirituality and God, and so I believe that Mormonism is as legitimate as any incarnation of a people’s attempt to access the divine, and the power of the divine, and the beauties of the divine. And, yeah, it’s a mess, but every other religion is a mess if you peel back the covers, and secularism is a mess, and science is a mess, and they’re all beautiful.”
I believe that too.
I believe that religions are built on the willingness of individuals to make sense of the world—and their place in it—in the same way. This can be observed in the Mormon Stories community as easily as it can in the church (see this link, and this link). The implications of this insight, however, are sobering. This suggests that fellowship, sense of community, and spiritual communion may be inextricably tied to uniformity of thought, cultural constraint, and group insularity. In other words, the former may not be possible without the latter.
It also occurs to me that if “true” and “real” are treated as two different axes, then crossing these axes yields four groups. There are those for whom the church is both true and real, those that may be unsure of its truthfulness but for whom it remains real, those convinced of its truthfulness but who have difficulty experiencing it as real, and those for whom it is neither true nor real. We all know people in each of these different groups. There are those with a firm “testimony” who have a difficult time getting along, in a cultural or political sense, with their fellow ward members (i.e. the church is true, but group fellowship and spiritual communion is difficult). There are those that have significant doubts, in terms of epistemology, but value the fellowship and connection they feel with other ward members. Those for whom it is both true and real tend to be the most stalwart. Those for whom it is neither true nor real generally disassociate themselves.
Thinking about this post reminded me of a story I came across in graduate school in an academic paper by Karl E. Weick, a well-known organizational theorist. It’s about a young lieutenant of a Hungarian military unit on maneuvers in the Alps. Here’s the original poem that Weick’s story was based on:
The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
snowed for two days and the unit
did not return.
The lieutenant suffered:
he had dispatched
his own people to death.
But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.
The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees.
Miroslav Holub, Brief Thoughts on Maps, Times Literary Supplement, Feb 4, 1977
The moral of this story is that sometimes, we just need a map—any map. And in some cases, the “truth” of the map is irrelevant. What matters is that the map is “real.”
None of this makes things easier for those of us in the cheap seats. I continue to be surprised by how frequently life experience contradicts standard Mormon narratives. It’s not a question of doctrine. It’s a question of whether or not it’s worth it to try to reconcile what one’s religion says about reality with one’s perceptions of it.
If belief—or a desire to believe—were all that were required to “commune with the saints,” things would be a lot easier. In practice, however, one has to make sense of the world in the same way as other members, and that’s much more difficult. In other words, in addition to epistemological issues, many of us have a difficult time experiencing the sense of fellowship and connection that would make it real.
Here’s a list of a few differences that make this a challenge for me:
- I don’t believe that the “world” is going to hell in a hand basket. By almost every conceivable measure, such as the spread of democracy, life expectancy, global poverty rates, respect for human life, crime rates, and many others, the world is a better place now than it was 50 years ago.
- I don’t believe that the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ, as an organization, is infallible, or even particularly efficient. I see numerous problems, including extensive corporate interests, no systematic reporting, no transparency, centralized wealth accumulation, a gated-community mentality that results in more than 95% of resources being directed internally instead of dedicated to external religious or charitable efforts, chapels that are utilized ten or twelve hours a week, multi-million dollar temples designed for visibility, an estimated $1.5 billion investment in City Creek Center to “dress up” downtown Salt Lake (see this MCS post), and so on.
- I don’t believe that religious doctrine is always superior to scientific inquiry.
- I don’t buy the church’s growth mythology (see this MCS post).
- I reject the increasing emphasis on obedience (at the expense of agency and personal responsibility). I recently sat through a sacrament meeting in which a speaker suggested that obedience is the “greatest” of all the commandments, for example. I attended another meeting in which a speaker explained that it is better to be obedient and wrong than disobedient and right (an argument that I thought had been put to rest at the Nuremberg trials).
- I have a difficult time with religious double-speak and other contradictions (e.g. the highest exercise of agency is to choose to surrender it, wives are “equal partners” with their husbands, who preside over them; see this MCS post).
- I don’t believe that women should be subservient to men (see this MCS post, and this one, and this guest post on Feminist Mormon Housewives).
- I believe that women should be able to actively participate in church leadership (see http://ordainwomen.org/).
- I don’t believe that young women should be taught that their “divine” role is to get married, have children, and take care of their husbands.
- I don’t believe that being gay is a sin, and I believe the best way to “preserve the sanctity” of marriage is to allow all consenting adults to participate in it (see this MCS post).
This talk, given by a stake president in a stake conference in Utah, illustrates the problem. I don’t see (or perceive) the world the same way he does, and it’s difficult for me to get past those differences.
I’ll end with one final question. Here’s what I wrote in a post defending Mormon heterodoxy: “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?
How we answer that question will largely determine how much control over our beliefs and behaviors we’re be willing to surrender to a religious institution, and that, in turn, will largely determine the degree to which we’ll be able to find fellowship and communion within it. Like everything else in life, it’s a balancing act. After fifty posts, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there aren’t any simple answers.
[Here's a sincere thanks to all of you that have read my MCS posts. I've appreciated the comments and the discussion. I plan to continue blogging at Doves & Serpents, so look for another series from me in the future.]