- Part One: Ecclesial Secularism, New Atheism, and the Supposed Impossibility of Religious Moderate
1.1 Ecclesial Secularism
1.2 New Atheism
1.3 The Impossible Moderate?
2. Part Two: Hermeneutics, Humanism, and the Theological Foundations of Secularism
2.1 Hermeneutics and Contexts of Understanding
2.2 The (Necessary) Invention of Humanism
2.3 The Theological Foundations of Secularism
3. Part Three: Mormonism, Purity, and the Conditions of Truth
3.1 Ecclesial Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Authoritarianism
3.2 The Enchantment and Disenchantment of Religious Modernism
3.3 Cross-Pressure and Diversities of Truth Processes
3.4 Tribes within Tribes
3.5 Truth-Formation and the Correspondence Logic of Purity
3.6 Logics of Different Worlds
3.7 Truth and Belonging
Full article in PDF format: The Struggle for Goodness, Truth, and Belonging in a Haunted Age
The problem is that moderates of all faiths are committed to reinterpreting or ignoring outright the most dangerous and absurd parts of their scripture, and this commitment is precisely what makes them moderates. But it also requires some degree of intellectual dishonesty because moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside.
In the 21st century, the moderate’s commitment to rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value, values that are potentially universal for human beings, comes from the last 1000 years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there.
Moderates seem unwilling to grapple with the fact that all scriptures contain an extraordinary amount of stupidity and barbarism, that can always be rediscovered and made wholly anew by fundamentalists, and there’s no principle of moderation internal to the faith that prevents this. These fundamentalist readings are, almost by definition, more complete and consistent, and therefore more honest. The fundamentalist picks up the book and says, “Ok, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what god wants from me – I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.” Conversely, every moderate seems to believe that his interpretation and selective reading of scripture is more accurate than god’s literal words.
Granting that in the oral format of a popular podcast there’s only so much one can say, so it’s bound to be simplistic or reductive in some way, but there are some things going on here that illustrate a few common New Atheist themes often encountered in contemporary public conversations surrounding religion and secularism, and representative of common but vacuous ways of thinking about religion in the modern world. That’s worthy of commentary by itself, but some of the contours of New Atheism also mirror a subset of exited Mormons whose ideas and beliefs are championed by John Dehlin and certain others within the Mormon Stories community (though not necessarily representative of every person or issue within that community). It’s not a stretch to say that a similar, obviously more “Mormon,” version of the above passage could easily have come from within that circle. That’s not an inherently damning thing by itself, but it points to the prevalence of a certain kind of orientation toward secularism and religion, one that in some ways parallels religious fundamentalism. There are strong parallels between New Atheist expositions of the roles of religion and secularism and those post-Mormons who see religion in general and Mormonism in particular as nonredeemable sites of toxic fundamentalism directly opposed to human flourishing. More importantly, they insist that “religion” as a cultural system is essentially entirely reducible to “church” as a specific site for religious expression, and that all practitioners of religion are at minimum willfully deluded about the “truth” of the religion they claim, or directly complicit in its evils. This is not only not supportable, but actively undermines the shared project that both secularists and religious people should both be undertaking, which is the curtailment of genuine fundamentalism.
The essay is laid out in three parts. In the first part (below), I lay the groundwork for the operations of “ecclesial secularism” and New Atheism, and how they resemble something like a church of skepticism and reason. I also critique Harris’ general criticism of the religious “moderate,” and show how the moderate not only occupies a legitimate place in modern religions, but is even more invested in limiting fundamentalism than the secularist.
In the second part I address the two more specific problems with Harris’ account, only briefly elaborated on in those short quotes, but prevalent throughout certain corners of secularism: Harris’ shallow or maybe even non-existent understanding of interpretation, especially as applied to textual interpretation, and his lack of understanding with regard to the theological underpinnings of secular modernism. These are both important for understanding how interpretation has religious communities in the past and how it could help to shape them in the future, as well as they various ways in which secularism and religion are intertwined, not simply opposed.
In the final part I apply the secularism-religion discussion to Mormonism specifically, and use the CES Letter as a case study. I’ve been none to kind to the Letter in the past, but I’ve since realized I missed something important–possibly the most important thing–that prevents certain critics and supporters of the Letter (and the culture from which it comes) alike from hearing one another. The reception of the CES Letter reveals some understated but critically important things about religious and secular values, the meaning of truth, secularism’s fraught relationship with religion, and the importance of understanding and guarding against both religious and secularist fundamentalism. And possibly most importantly, I’ll try to show how the agonizing dissonance that is so prevalent throughout many corners of Mormonism (particularly in online blog and podcast discussions) is at least partly a result of competing understandings of what in the history of philosophy has been referred to as “the Good and the True.”
This entire piece is well over 10,000 words and absolutely should be expressed more briefly, but if such a version will ever exist, it won’t be any time soon. Because of its length and the many enormously complex topics it tackles, I haven’t covered any one of them anywhere near extensively, so there is plenty of room for addition and subtraction. Most of these topics are well-worn in philosophy and cultural studies, and those who are familiar with that territory will no doubt find much of this almost scandalously underdeveloped, but I’ve tried to convey larger ideas within an admittedly hastily wrapped package. Hopefully the comments will improve it in this regard.
Part One: Ecclesial Secularism, New Atheism, and the Supposed Impossibility of the Religious Moderate
New Atheism is a subset of what might be called “ecclesial secularism,” or an ideological understanding and utilization of secularism that makes secularism, for all ironic intents and purposes, somewhat like a church. Ecclesial secularists see in secularism an all-embracing or universally encompassing worldview, the shape and contours—obviously not the content—of which look quasi-religious because of its totality, whose adherents are devout, organized, and committed to not simply maintaining a separation between religions and states, but to actively promoting the erasure of religious institutions and ideas throughout all of human culture, not merely as they touch on political institutions. Ecclesial secularists would like the idea of “separation” to become obsolete for the reason that there remains nothing to be separate from, in the same sense that such an idea would have been nonsensical in the Middle Ages because there was nothing to separate from. All of the above is generally in contrast to other, more conventional (and more common) secularists, who are unqualifiedly non-religious, but merely wish to keep balanced the separation between church and state, particularly as regards to what they see as aggressive attempts from churches to tip the balance in favor of religion (and in this they would not be misguided). But they don’t actively seek religion’s dissolution, nor are they of necessity temperamentally hostile to religion and religious peoples.
Like many churches, ecclesial secularists:
- claim ideological universality. Their ideas aren’t meant to only apply to certain regions or cultures or government, but to everyone everywhere as the sole possessors of the “truth” of enlightenment and rationality.
- grudgingly accept the legal reality of separation between church and state (in those areas of the world where such exists), but actively work to undermine and ghettoize religion where possible with the ultimate purpose of eliminating it from competition in the arena of ideas and loyalties. Likewise, churches historically have maintained religious monopolies in order to eliminate their competition.
- attempt to be closely allied with cultural, academic, and political institutions in order to diversify and intensify the enforcement of their beliefs and ideas. Churches have also almost always tied themselves to state and/or secular powers for the same reasons.
- attempt to gain converts through aggressive proselytizing.
This last attribute applies especially to New Atheists. New Atheism is ecclesial secularism as evangelism, secularism sermonized and preached and pamphleteered. As David Foster Wallace describes it, this kind of atheism is a mode of worship, “a kind of anti-religious religion, which worships reason, skepticism, intellect, empirical proof, human autonomy, and self-determination.” In other words, ecclesial secularists, with the New Atheists as their self-appointed missionaries, don’t simply value reason, empirical proof, autonomy, etc., not even as the highest values. Instead, they have elevated these values to a status worthy of veneration and devotion.
“Atheist” is barely even a properly descriptive term for the New Atheists, no matter how hostile they generally are to religion. Atheism is more wide-ranging and diverse than simply not believing in a god, but that particular non-belief (or, really, belief) requires a rather thorough understanding of the theism one is set against. Those identifying as New Atheists have virtually never demonstrated anything close to a robust understanding of the theology or theologies they are opposed to, particularly in opposing religions by the measurement of their most extreme and/or simplistic theologies and never the more nuanced and ecumenical theologies that can always be found within their ranks (which are de facto invalidated as not being sufficiently representative). Not being able to speak credibly about theology doesn’t undermine one’s goal to destroy religion as a certain kind of secularist (nor one’s general status as such) but it does undermine one’s credibility in defending anything more than a superficial atheism. At best, these are cheap atheists, their atheism acquired at almost no cost and too weak to confront three dimensional, uncaricatured religion. By the same token there are cheap Christians, Muslims, etc, too weak to confront the array of atheisms that exist, not to mention the ideas of the less extreme or less orthodox adherents of their own religions. New Atheists (and probably many self-proclaimed atheists in western societies) are arguably best understood simply as secularists.
The Impossible Moderate?
You can see all of this play out rather nicely in the Harris quote. His overall fundamental problem, endemic to all of New Atheism, is that he is aggressively uninterested in what a significantly large number of the religious –so-called “moderates”—have to say about their own religion and how they practice it. The underlying assumption here is that organized religion is both ideologically unsustainable and morally compromised, not just because of its dangerous fundamentalists but because of its more ordinary (moderate) practitioners. Why? Because if you are a “moderate” you are in complete self-denial about the One True Reality of your religious tradition, which you have been too cowardly to face. And if a significant number of modern religious practitioners are moderate, then a significant number of religious people in the modern world are deceiving themselves and others, thus religion is a lie and thus again it becomes immoral to belong to a religious organization, therefore and finally, it is imperative that our morally irreproachable secularized societies find ways to be rid of religion once and for all. This is a clever (and long overdue) take, because the usual New Atheist strategy has been to tag fundamentalism as the entirety of religion, which most people have seen as dangerous anyway (and more profoundly seen as such than an atheist would likely understand). But this strategy was easy to deflect because truly detrimental and crippling fundamentalism exists at the extreme edges of religion, and such a reductive argument was no more than a part-whole fallacy, or that something must be true of the whole if it is true of some part of the whole. New Atheists had been conflating religion with fundamentalism and it took some of them a while to actually quietly begin—but only just begin—to move away from this basic category mistake (one that Dawkins in particular is still eye-rollingly prone to make).
The above quote is clearly aimed at those most likely to hear New Atheist arguments in the first place: those of the practicing religious who consider themselves at least somewhat intellectually informed and sensitive, ethically majoritarian, and averse extreme ideologies. You most effectively take these people down if you can show that they don’t really exist, and then all you have left are the fundamentalists, who at least possess the “virtues” of honesty and consistency. The moderates don’t even have that. And now we are at last left with what religion truly is at bottom: an irrational, hyper-ideological disease that can only be eradicated by baptizing humanity anew in the waters of science and reason.
Using “moderate” to describe self-deceived non-fundamentalists is itself a tactical choice because “moderation” only makes sense in the context of extremism. Referring to the non-radicalized, adaptable, and intellectually curious practitioner as a “moderate” reduces his or her entire worldview to mere reactionary protest against extremism (not to mention the fact that it’s much more familiar in a political rather than a religious context). While not unproblematic and too broad in other more specific contexts (and trying to avoid the largely unproductive debates that so starkly separate modernism from postmodernism), I think the term “religious modernist” (or “modernist” for short in this essay) is a more accurate way of distinguishing the theologically liberal from the more conservatively religious. (Liberal in this context does not directly refer to Progressivism or political liberalism; there are conservative faith practitioners who nevertheless hold to a liberal theology, which is a more unorthodox theology that has developed in the wake of the Enlightenment). Those that are religiously modernist or liberal are attuned to biblical hermeneutics, hold values that are compatible (but not necessarily identical to) the greater modernist milieu in which they live, embrace science and education, and are firmly non-dogmatic. “Modernist,” it seems to me, is more accurate a description than moderate.
In any case, most of these so-called moderates actually focus more—not less—on the “dangerous or absurd parts of their scripture,” precisely because traditional interpretations have, in a more modern era, made such passages particularly dangerous or absurd, and this because they wish to “moderate” such danger and absurdity, or more accurately, develop better, more relevant, and more holistic interpretations of their religious texts and traditions. For the New Atheists, religious fundamentalism is the primary reason religion cannot be allowed to exist, and in this they’ve not only been consistent (though willfully ignorant about significant distinctions), but they’re also more or less surprisingly on-target, though not in the way they think, because moderates already also perceive fundamentalism as being a principal threat, not only to human societies but also to their own religion. And here’s the real kicker: If your goal really is to rid the world of religious fundamentalism, then because this is happening in their own community, and they therefore understand better than anyone the reasons for fundamentalism and what works and what doesn’t, and, most importantly, because they themselves have managed to escape or avoid the pitfalls of fundamentalism, these moderates are far and away your best shot for doing that. It would be much more effective to find ways to work with them in order to legitimately curb fundamentalism, especially as it touches on politics and culture.
Part Two: Hermeneutics, Humanism, and the Theological Foundations of Secularism
Hermeneutics and Contexts of Understanding
This brings us to the first of two very specific errors with Harris’ statement, errors that are illustrative of larger, more systemic trends in ecclesial secularist/New Atheist discourse. This first error is the idea that there is a clear, objective, assumptionless, and timeless meaning of a text, the one that plainly reveals the danger and absurdity of the foundations of religion. In other words, when you read the Bible, it is clear that the only possible reading of it must conclude that it is mostly nothing but violence or nonsense, and therefore it must be universally condemned. But such a clearly universal reading of almost anything–to say nothing of something as complex as the Bible–is not possible, and the reason is, essentially, hermeneutics. Put briefly, hermeneutics is interpretation, particularly of complex and difficult texts. Interpretation is the attempt to understand. Understanding is mediated or transmitted through language, culture, history, genetics, etc., and it changes over time and incorporates new perspectives while shedding others. Embedded in perspectives, and as a consequence of mediation, are prejudices, biases, prejudgments—ways of seeing and thinking about the world that are simply part of what it means to be human. We cannot understand without these prejudgments, and yet these prejudgments limit our understanding to our individual experiences. We cannot come to a text by stepping outside our prejudgments, prejudices, perspectives, or tradition. But we can cultivate awareness of these conditions and try to understand these limitations, including those of other interpreters.
Because of our interpretive limitations, texts are virtually never perfectly clear. We do not and cannot possess the One True Meaning of a text, even if it existed (which it doesn’t). To come at a text purely objectively, meeting all the criteria for being universally unbiased, unprejudiced, and nonpartisan, devoid of logical, cultural, linguistic, historical, and experiential assumptions is impossible. Nor is it possible to shed our own perspectives even when taking into account (as we must) the history, culture, and language in which the text was produced, or in other words, do everything we can to understand everything about it. We can’t come to any understanding of a text without spilling ourselves all over it. Meaning isn’t frozen in time so that what the author of a text meant thousands of years ago is what the text irrevocably means today. It’s rarely possible even to fully know exactly what an author’s intent is or was. Scriptural meanings and interpretations have radically changed many times over the centuries, and it’s not because succeeding generations just kept getting the original meaning wrong, like a chemist who can’t seem to make thallium acetate because he keeps flubbing the formula. Textual interpretation doesn’t work like that at all. The most profound and impactful interpretations take account of history, culture, and original language, but they also extract relevant applications, metaphors, and narratives for contemporary readers and contemporary issues (think of the modern master of biblical exegesis, Robert Alter). And besides, there is no way of arriving at a totality of original intent. Even studying the history of the United States Constitution, as well-documented as its creation was, doesn’t reveal a singular, uncontestable “original meaning.” Interpretation is a form of story-telling, and there’s more than one way to tell a story.
Consequently, Harris’ description of fundamentalist readings of texts as the honest and clear ones—”Ok, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what god wants from me – I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.”—is ironically the very thing he himself is doing in castigating religious modernists for their “interpretations and selective readings.” In other words, he’s actually advocating a fundamentalist reading of scripture—and relatedly of all texts—by which we should be able to see the obvious “true meaning” of those dangerous and absurd passages, and this because such a method is “consistent, complete, and honest.” Interpretation, on the other hand, is self-deceptive and cowardly, a clever but vacuous way of avoiding hard truths about one’s tradition. Yet everyone, Harris and fundamentalists and modernists alike, interpret. Harris’ argument is itself an interpretation of the best way to read scripture, which, of course, he thinks objectively reveals scripture’s clear and constant advocacy of violent extremism and anti-science absurdity, and that’s all it does (or at least that result is important and dangerous enough to ignore anything else scripture might do). But there is no escape from interpreting, and no universal meaning that can be objectively determined. Every reading is selective. “We must accept what is says at face value” is just a non-starter. There is no face value.
Of course, as noted, interpretation goes all ways. Not just the fundamentalists or the secularists/atheists but also the modernists, also religious leaders, etc. Yes, that’s exactly right. And where religious leaders in particular operate through authoritarianism, their interpretations become particularly powerful and entrenched. But we know they change, and that they can change, that not even authorities can escape their own interpretive natures. Since we are all human beings with particular cognitive functions, we must all of us ultimately be persuaded, not simply coerced. Coercive meaning can attain temporary and immediate victories, but they only threaten to become permanent when there are no alternatives to challenge them (hint: through other interpretations). However lacking in bureaucratic authority others may be, they do hold—at least potentially—the authority of persuasion, which is ultimately a weak power of reasoning, imagination, and love that can and will out-endure a strong power of force and punishment. Interpretations compete with one another and there are none whose shelf-life is indefinite. Authoritarianism attempts to short-circuit this process through sheer power, but all power must be spent and exhausted, and the sheer and dominating kind burns the hottest, but flames out the quickest.
Finally on this point, both the religious and the secular often conflate contexts of discourse, which happens because each wants to impose on the world a singular, binding perspective that will force certain obligations on one side or the other. Both often insist on reading the Bible, for instance, scientifically as a way of squaring or condemning the Creation account. But the context for the Bible is not science, it is religion, and must be interpreted religiously and challenged religiously if need be. Science must be understood scientifically and challenged scientifically if need be. But both religion and science often insist there is only one legitimate context through which to understand the universe, and this is a particularly myopic mistake.
The (Necessary) Invention of Humanism
The other fundamental error here is regarding Harris’ basic understanding of the relationship between secularism and religion, illustrated by his conclusion that religious modernists are intellectually dishonest because they deceive themselves into thinking that their retreat from fundamentalism is due to a (false) enlightenment derived from within their own faith:
…moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside. In the 21st century, the moderate’s commitment to rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value, values that are potentially universal for human beings, comes from the last 1000 years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there.
Harris is essentially saying that because modernists see the importance of so-called secular values (justice, equality, human rights, etc), they are halfway to secularism already and they’d be all in if they’d just stop lying to themselves. In theory religious moderation would be great, except that it’s simply not possible, because distancing yourself from the things that make religion dangerous or primitive is equivalent to distancing yourself from the entirety of religion. You’ve now found yourself on the outside of your religion. The very things that you’ve come to believe are important and care about are the antitheses of your religion. You cannot continue to claim to embrace what you admit are necessary modern moral values while at the same time identifying as a member of a religion which is hostile to those values. Both/and is not an option here, not if you’re honest and not if you’re committed to basic logic. The world may not be black and white but this choice is, and it’s your religion that is forcing it. You just need to wake up and take responsibility one way or another.
But Harris is operating within a common, yet far from contested understanding of secularism and its values, one that is far too simplistic to account for the complexity of both religion and secularism. The common view is that secularization is “not-religion.” Whatever value, philosophy, or worldview is not religious in nature is by default secular and opposed to the religious. Where the world was once full of believers who lived and thought by faith, now the world is increasingly filled with non-believers who live and think by the light of evidence and reason. And it’s this “community” that is responsible for all the values that the modernized world collectively considers to be morally good and right.
This is what Charles Taylor, one of the world-renowned thinkers on this issue, has identified as the “subtraction or remainder story” of secularization, the understanding that the Enlightenment was essentially a movement to subtract out superstition and religious belief from human thought and practice, and what is left over is secular rationality, which brings us scientific advancement, human equality, individual freedom, etc. (Taylor is a notoriously difficult and dense read, but James K.A. Smith provides a superb summary of his work which is highly recommended).
However, Taylor argues that the struggle for modernity was not just an attempt to subtract God and religious belief, but also an attempt to replace transcendence (meaning and value derived from an omnipotent God) with immanence (meaning and value derived here below from humanity itself), something he calls “exclusive humanism.” If secularism was merely subtractive, then it might make sense to say that the world could now be divided between those (the religious) who continue to depend on what is essentially no longer there (because it was subtracted) and who therefore must now truly resort to blind stubborn faith and belief; and those (the secular) who hold a worldview that for the first time in human history is rationally and clearly observable and provable, who don’t need to rely on mere belief because they have sure knowledge of the causes and meanings of their world. On this account, religion isn’t even necessarily inherently evil, it’s just primitive. And as a species we’ve simply moved beyond the primitive.
Notice how in this account it becomes much more plausible to reject the idea of pluralistic and non-authoritarian interpretation, because a subtractive secularist sees interpretation as only the unfortunate result of an antiquated worldview whose invisibility in the modern age makes multiple perspectives inevitable. But humanism is an addition to modernity’s carving of the world, not a subtraction. Humanism developed with principles, axioms, theories, experiments, etc. It was not, as the subtractive story would have us believe, what was under religion all along, shiny and new and whole, waiting to be uncovered. This is important because humanism is something that, like religion, must be believed; humanism is no less an invention of humans than religion was, and connecting the invention to the external world requires a kind of faith, faith that this new story (and it is a story) gives us a truer account of that world and our place in it than religion ever could. Therefore, the story of secularism is not about exactly what should be believed or disbelieved, but about the conditions of believability itself. The world is not divided between believers and non-believers, but among various kinds of believers, and belief or non-belief in God is only one kind of belief among many. Our age is one in which no single belief system can be taken as the only true and valid one, not that belief systems are obsolete. Secularists are believers, too. Not in God or religion, of course, but in the system of beliefs that make up their particular humanism (there are, of course, multiple humanisms), and their beliefs undergo revision, expansion, and reduction as well.
The Theological Foundations of Secluarism
But even if we concede that secularists are believers too, what about what secularists actually believe? If secularists champion human rights, equality, freedom, etc, especially in the more progressive forms they appear in today, then can’t we say that for modernists of all stripes secular beliefs are morally superior to religious ones? Surely these are the cultural values that oppose the patriarchy, racism, violence, and economic exploitation of religion, the ones that have improved the quality of life for so many generations of people. As Harris says, when a religious modernist adopts these values, she’s adopting the values of the enemy, not of her religion.
However, certainty in secularism’s singular creation and ownership of modern values is completely misplaced. Enlightenment rationalists (and, importantly, intellectual radicalists within their own religious traditions who significantly contributed to the birth of the modern age) didn’t create the values of the modern age out of nothing. In his 1922 classic Political Theology, Charles Schmitt notes that, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure.” And over time, theological analogies shifted and adapted to political events that came to define their eras. For example, immediately prior to and during the beginning of the Enlightenment era, the transcendence of the sovereign ruler in relation to the state corresponded to the theological concept of the transcendence of God. By the 19th century, the more democratized idea of identifying the ruler with the ruled corresponded to the theological concept of the immanence of God. Many of our modern ideas and institutions are intimately bound to their analogical religious forbears. Thus, “finding modern ethical commitments within scripture” is not self-deception but seeing broadly familiar themes within a tradition that are more pronounced or pronounced in a different way within the walls of secularism, not to mention through the tools of modern hermeneutics, as mentioned above.
What this means is that the religious and the secular are entangled in one another. The secular didn’t imagine modern liberal values out of nothing; it grew out of religion and extended, adapted, and promoted values that were embedded in religious peoples, texts, and institutions for centuries. At the same time, there was absolutely a need for a pluralization and fracturing of a world order in which religious institutions were the repositories of every kind of spiritual and political power. The Enlightenment was, in most ways, a necessary good that has benefitted the lives of many generations, but its primary threat is from and to religious and secular fundamentalists, not the “moderates” in those camps. Secularism didn’t and doesn’t slow the advance of religion, it diversifies it. The religious modernists have secularism to thank, in part, for a more egalitarian context within which to think more pluralized and ecumenical notions of religion and theology. The insistence by ecclesial secularists, bent on the installation of secularism as the new world order, that religion is a totalitarian singularity and not a multiplicity, is the primary error of secularists of this order. Religious modernists contribute—often more effectively than any others—to what is arguably the best overall reason for secularism’s continued stable existence, which is to curb the excesses and encroachments of fundamentalism (arguably, it is when fundamentalism is collectively resisted that science and egalitarianism advance, not when religion as a whole is decimated or destroyed). But when secularists preach that secularism is a victory of progressive social evolution over thoroughly barbarous or absurd religion; that all religious people are dangerous and/or dishonest and stupid; that there is a simple, clear, singular interpretation of texts and histories, and it’s the fundamentalist one, and this is why religion is both an evil and a waste; that the truly enlightened and honest religious person is already a secularist anyway and has utterly rejected religion; and that secularism owes nothing to religion or anything else for its conceptual foundations and the political and cultural institutions it supports, then secularism becomes itself a kind of fundamentalist offshoot of the greater cultural and political project of human flourishing to which it has ostensibly dedicated itself, and whose own excesses it is in danger of succumbing to.
Even the values that secularism prizes the most are always being contested within its own house. Freedom, equality, gender and human rights, feminism, etc., do not have universally agreed-upon meanings and ways of implementation. We too casually throw modernism around like it’s a pre-manufactured, all-purpose, and unbreakable toy, when in fact the battles for those values are constant, and those values are always undergoing revision. They are constantly subject to the very debates and struggles that, even in spite of authoritarianism (and usually because of it), religious values are subject to within religious communities and sub-communities. There’s an immense intellectual, cultural, and spiritual intra-plurality within religion that is often not seen or purposefully overlooked. People who feel most at home living within these spaces move in and out of the secular and religious worlds with ease, as if they were seamlessly coherent. They think in both secular and religious terms. If not for the fundamentalists and official priests in their midst (not to mention the secularists), they would likely not make a substantive distinction between those two worlds.
Part Three: Mormonism, Purity, and the Conditions of Truth
Ecclesial Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Authoritarianism
Both fundamentalists and ecclesial secularists exploit the authoritarianism found in all organized religion to one degree or another. The inherently conservative nature of authority allows the fundamentalists to use the religious authorities in their tradition to repudiate the modernists or unorthodox and advance their own worldview. Many authorities, of course, are not strictly fundamentalist, but the structure in which they operate is conservative enough to allow and sometimes encourage the advance of the overall fundamentalist agenda of keeping modern/liberal elements within the faith in constant check, if not excluded entirely (though there is a good sociological case to be made for moderate checks).
But by this same token, ecclesial secularists also deride the modernism/liberalism found in these otherwise conservative traditions and exploit religious authority, obviously not because they wish to preserve or return to the mystical or supernatural fundamentals of the faith, but in order to show that the faith itself is not viable. Here, religious authority is used against the modernist by showing the modernist that their modernism is not possible (as already discussed in Part 1). The religious authority is posed as the embodied expression of the totality of the religion; by its nature, authoritarianism imposes itself in such a way that it attempts to overtly or covertly influence and control every aspect of religious life. Authoritarian appeals to anything within the faith—sacred texts, rituals, teachings, spiritual feelings or experiences, etc.—are ultimately self-referential appeals to authority itself in order to continually reinforce its own power as the creative fountain and/or boundary line of legitimate religion within the community. Because authority is inherently conservative and wary of extra-religious developments in the wider world, the modernist’s status as a modernist is automatically threatened.
However, expulsion from the community is the least effective and most narrow way in which modernists are tamed. Much more potentially damaging for the ecclesial secularist is to show that the modernist is deceiving herself and that she cannot morally or logically live in a “middle space” without coming undone completely at some point. Ecclesial secularists hold up the supposed totality of authority as evidence that the religious modernist has lost the battle before it even began. However creatively she can interpret, however well-versed she is in history, however adept at harmonizing the secular and religious worlds, the modernist is one who has elevated willful blindness to an art form. Or, worse, the modernist is fully aware of the contradictions of the religious and secular worlds and feels helpless in the face of authority, yet chooses to remain anyway, purposefully violating morality and logic in such a way that she becomes just as dangerous as the fundamentalist. There is no escaping authority when your religion is reducible entirely to that authority (which we can also call a “church”). If the religion is no more or less than the church, and the church is controlled by the authorities, then losing against authority is losing your religion.
The Enchantment and Disenchantment of Religious Modernism
All the prior elaborations of the weaknesses of the ecclesial secularist’s position apply here, yet there is no doubt that the primary struggle for religious modernism is with authoritarianism. The secularist is right to attack here because though the limitations of authority help to shape the modernist in certain ways, authority is manifestly the modernist’s Achilles heel. Typically, though, the modernist doesn’t address the legitimacy of authority directly. Instead, she provides more contemporary or novel interpretations of scripture and history that go well beyond orthodox readings. Instead of overtly questioning authority regarding social issues, the modernist employs various reasons why those issues don’t have to be a problem for her wider tradition. In other words, the modernist has learned how to fence with authority. She doesn’t often win, but she has learned how to lunge, feint, parry, and counter-attack in just such a way as to not lose outright, which enable her to make meaningful advances within the tradition on a number of fronts (artistically, literarily, academically, etc).
This dance is something the ecclesial secularist cannot abide. For the ecclesial secularist, the very necessity of the dance is a sign that authority has already won. But he doesn’t necessarily want the modernist to challenge authority directly. They both know that when a modernist decides to directly face down authority she will usually be crushed, and so most modernists will not be persuaded to do this. No, the ecclesial secularist merely wants the modernist to see that she is in the truly impossible situation of having to choose between the constant struggle to creatively re-define the middle ground without succumbing entirely to one end or the other, or face certain death through direct confrontation.
The modernist feels this deeply, swims in it unceasingly. There truly is a constant inner struggle to honor one’s own multiplicity amidst competing familial, religious, axiological, and intellectual loyalties. And many of course do choose to leave their religion for a variety of reasons. But there are two points to be made here. First, cultural systems as old and entrenched as religion are enormously complex. It is usually very difficult to see where I chose religion versus where religion chose me, and conversely where and when exactly I began to leave it behind. By the time we become aware that we feel positively entangled and converted or negatively disentangled and disenchanted, numerous elements we never saw coming have already impinged on us, shaping and colorizing real contexts for choice and belief. Our beliefs usually hold us, not the other way round. This is only to say that adherence to either religion or secularism cannot be described as purely rational (or irrational) choice. The nature of living in a complex world with well-developed cognitive functions is to find ourselves aware of being embedded in the world in such a way that distinguishing between what causes us to hold one view versus another and what choices we make within our embeddedness are usually not possible to ascertain, and of course this is true of everyone. Therefore, we are not in a good position to make clean, ethical judgments about why and how a person sticks with religion or leaves it behind.
Cross-Pressure and Diversities of Truth Processes
Another observation from Charles Taylor illustrates my second and more important point. To live in an age of multiple competing worlds—the secular age—is to live in a “contested, cross-pressured, and haunted world” (to quote James K.A. Smith). “Cross-pressure” is the experience of feeling counterpoised forces like doubt and longing, faith and questioning, existential loneliness and belonging, not in succession but simultaneously. But the escape into secularism is not an escape from this situation. To live in a secularized world (as opposed to the fundamentalist tunnel vision that insists that sees the purely religious world is the only true world) is precisely to live within this constant cross-pressure. Both the religious and the secular experience doubt and longing, faith and questioning, existential loneliness and belonging, and other competing forces. They might experience these in different ways and within different contexts, but unlike previous ages, this is the heart of the secular age in which we live. And this is where ecclesial secularism dovetails most closely with fundamentalism, in that both see a single, rationally comprehensible, cleanly moral world, and that vision must be defended, even (and especially) at the cost of de-legitimating and exiling or destroying all other worlds. They both would insist that cross-pressures, contestation, and hauntedness only exist for the weak and less faithful (the charge of fundamentalists) or for the self-deceived and psychologically and morally compromised (the charge of ecclesial secularists). They have wheeled from one certainty to another.
Nevertheless, we’re still missing something here, something that’s much further down below our various criticisms of one another and the tribes we’ve declared loyalty to. My wager is that this missing something is the critical importance played by how we process and speak truths within the religion and secularism wars (and within religion and secularism themselves). In order to understand what is fundamentally going on in the ongoing wars over values and how those values impact actual lives, we shouldn’t focus so closely on what we believe is true, but how and why we believe what is true. I’ll illustrate this through a relevant and contemporary Mormon example: the reception of the CES Letter.
I’ve been pretty cold to the CES Letter in the past. My thoughts about it have received both praise and condemnation (which you can clearly see in the post at the above link), but upon some reflection I came to the conclusion that there was something important I had been missing that made my approach to the document and its reception not entirely fair. To see this, I had to take a careful and measured look at my own background.
Before I entered grad school to study religion, I had been a fairly representative sample of many if not most American Mormons. Though I moved around a lot, I mainly grew up in a conservative household in Utah. I held nominally conservative beliefs (not particularly vigorously) and was intellectually curious, but I was no culture warrior by any means. At one point in early adulthood I had aspirations to teach within the CES program, but a series of events put that possibility out of reach. I still wanted to teach and write about religion, though, and I eventually made my way to the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California, and then, after an M.A. in Religion, to Claremont Graduate School across the street to study for a PhD in philosophy of religion and theology.
I arrived in Claremont just in time for the inauguration of the first large-scale Mormon studies program, headed by eminent historian, itinerant fireside speaker, and all-around excellent human being, Richard Bushman. I spent my years there studying both Mormonism and philosophy and theology. It was a challenging but immensely rich experience. I attended religion classes with Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists, as well as representatives of nearly every political persuasion. We had what are surely some of the best teachers in the academic study of religion on the planet. Our readings and discussions were wide-ranging, and I spent most days discussing and arguing various aspects of religion with students of other faiths and no faith, followed by just as rigorous discussions with my fellow Mormons and former Mormons. We argued with and taught one another in equal amounts. We always came away with more questions than answers, and frequently our discussions were peppered with rants about something that made us angry or sad about the Church and its members, as well as stories of spiritual loss and fulfillment. My experiences in Claremont were both glorious and demanding, for which I am enormously grateful, and whose location in the relatively distant past sometimes causes me tremendous heartache.
My grad school experience was, in essence, the absolutely ideal experience for any religious person trying to live in a secular world (and for the secular trying to relate to the religious): relentlessly challenging, brimming with the best expositions of a variety of world views, staffed by world-class professors, men and women who ranged from the militant atheist to the devout in several religions and everything in between, connected only by their seriousness about the study of religion. Nothing was off the table, and we talked about the best and worst of religion and secularism, and traced their movements and impacts from ancient history to the present. I’m convinced that replacing the CES program with a variation of the Claremont experience would revolutionize the church, and entirely for the better.
I didn’t fully realize until I left Claremont how formative the experience was, and much more importantly, how few people had the privilege of similar experiences. Around that time I began to engage in the ongoing online discussions of religion in general and Mormonism specifically and eventually fell in with the By Common Consent crowd. It was a natural fit; BCC was perceived (for good and ill) as a group of faithful intellectuals, and I identified with that (rather reductive) label. Predictably, this is also how I would engage others in conversation. For a long time, I felt frustrated with many of the discussions, whose participants insisted that the conversations proceed from particular caves—apologist, intellectual, feminist, progressive, conservative, post-Mormon, etc. If you spoke from a particular cave, certain others in other caves would automatically invalidate you based on your cave alone. But then, I played along with the identity politics, too. I invalidated others on this basis as well (and often still do; I’m in slow recovery).
Tribes within Tribes
In online Mormonism, the name for “religious modernist” is often “faithful intellectual,” or even just “intellectual.” It’s a term of derision as much as it is a self-identification (and often a smug one), and it’s also generally a misnomer because others within the wider range of Mormonism (including fundamentalists, ex-Mormons, apologists) could also accurately be characterized as intellectuals, but the name has stuck to this particular group. Every religious group has its modernists or “intellectuals”—they’re well-educated, but usually in the humanities and social sciences more than the the hard sciences and business. They engage their religion intellectually, often finding themselves nearly incapable of engaging with it on a spiritual or sentimental level. They’re not traditional apologists; although apologists are often well-educated and are plenty comfortable in the realm of the intellect, apologists adopt a defensive posture oriented toward institutional authority. The apologist’s tools are intellectual, but preservative and stabilizing. The reputed intellectual, by contrast, has no direct interest in defending the institution per se, but rather in thinking of alternative ways to live in it or alongside it, ways that honor her worldviews and competing commitments. Critics of the intellectual from the left accuse the intellectual of nevertheless being a stealth apologist for the institution by looking for and creating unorthodox ways to live within the institution rather than confront it directly as the purveyor of destructive values it is perceived to be. Critics of the intellectual from the right accuse the intellectual of disloyalty and undue reverence for the life of the mind at the sacrificial price of faithful acceptance of institutional norms.
The intellectual sees this opposition from both sides as confirmation of the rightness of her position. She is unendingly uncomfortable with or disturbed by orthodoxy, yet sees her education and forging of alternate paths within her tradition as themselves part of her religious practice. In other words, part of her reasoning for why her education and interest in books and texts and citations and high-level argumentation and credentials are so important to her is that they are just as much a part of her religious world as ritual and communion. She makes no significant distinction between her intellectual orientation and her religiosity, and naturally she believes that this is an ideal religious existence. But at the same time, this puts her in tension with her surrounding environment, with both her worlds inversely informing her that she is not sufficiently authentic to be considered a full-fledged citizen and that she needs to finally decide which world she is going to live in.
She agrees wholeheartedly with many of her critics from the left about the flaws of the institution, critics who would otherwise be her political allies, and with whom she feels more of a natural affinity. In fact, she considers many of these folks to be oriented intellectually like herself. She agrees (sometimes less enthusiastically) with her critics on the right that there is something worth preserving in the institution, something worth fighting for. That relative lack of enthusiasm is largely due to the pain she sees that various institutional mechanisms inflict on certain of its members and on herself, and this reveals that she isn’t really a pure centrist; she usually (though not exclusively) lives and thinks from somewhere to the left. (Where this isn’t the case you have that rarer creature whose individual views are genuinely pluralized, so she’s starkly left on this issue, starkly right on another, but her general orientation is to the right).
The burning question here is: what is keeping her from simply fully accepting her tentative lean toward one world and going all-in on secularism and repudiating her religion as just as damaging as she often complains about it, and almost always for the very reasons that secularists give their salute? The answer, I believe, resides within competing notions of truth.
Truth-Formation and the Correspondence Logic of Purity
Competing understandings of truth form the basis for all substantive arguments about values, and are the ultimate reasons for war and attrition of all kinds. To illustrate this with one example, we often hear some variation of, “All things being equal, I would rather have a church that is good than one that is true.” This is actually a false dichotomy. It pits what we think is morally right or just or worthy of enacting in the world (the Good) against what we see as disclosed to us, or unconcealed, unhidden (the True). Yet this competition between the two looks inevitable when our idea of goodness seems completely opposed to our idea of truth, with no apparent way to reconcile them. In contemporary Mormon discourse, goodness and truth are more or less structurally equivocal, so that they are harmonized, and what enables them to be in harmony is the idea of purity. Goodness is material or personal purity (also referred to as righteousness or worthiness), a state of innocence before God and humanity, either as the natural state of small children, or as a result of personal repentance and obedience to God and God’s chosen leaders. When we say that something or someone is good, we are saying it is materially pure, without stain or sin, uncorrupted and clean. When we say that “He is good,” we are saying that he is righteous, that he has done what is necessary to be worthy, whether through baptism, repentance, re-commitment to leaders’ teachings, living the standards, etc. Truth is institutional purity, in that the institution was given to us whole and complete, and therefore what flows from the institution is pure and untainted. So when we say that the church is true, we are really saying that the church is pure: It is the only entity of its kind that is unsullied by human hands, given to us and preserved in its full integrity by God. This additionally means that all of history is sacred history and only relevant as it touches on and contributes to the purity of the institution. When we say that the Book of Mormon is true, we are really saying that the book is pure: It likewise came from God and is unsullied by human hands, containing none of the human falsities or half-truths that are present in every other book to some degree or another. Truth and goodness, then, are both in essence that which is undiluted, not watered down or thinned out, that which isn’t weakened by sin or human reasoning. In varying contexts they are distinguishable, but in the end, truth and goodness are the same.
When otherwise conservative religious people begin to see greater and greater worth in modern values and become gradually more modernist, they tend to undergo an axiological transformation, replacing the contemporary Mormon idea of the Good (material purity) with that of secularism’s more egalitarian understanding of the Good (justice and equality for all), but then often fail to likewise replace or let go of the logic underlying the Mormon understanding of the True (institutional purity). When this happens, Mormon modernists begin to see a disturbingly aggressive disconnect between their moral values and the actions of their necessarily pure church. That alone makes their interaction with Mormonism difficult, but at the same time, their following of the logic chain of Mormon truth claims as tied to its sacred history remains a purist one. But because Truth and Goodness are tied so closely together, their newly adopted value system—social justice, equality, individuality, feminism, individual freedom—already in deadly tension with their former understanding of Goodness (and which former understanding is still the operating one in their communities), collides catastrophically with their epistemology, in which the structure of institutional purity was the keystone that made truth the Truth. And now every event of Mormon history is run through with cracks and fissures as it crashes against those various values, and the realization that history isn’t as sacred and pure as was once believed severs the link between truth and institution, and this severed link makes truth falsity. It’s not that they continue to literally believe the narratives as they have always been traditionally told (increasing secular influence has largely contributed to that), but that they continue to think with the same correspondence-logic that declares that truth is wholly reducible to the perfect correspondence between narrative and fact, or in other words, that something is true only if it corresponds to an actual state of affairs (in the present or past). But contemporary Mormon historiography has revealed that this is often not the case–the narrative no longer aligns with the facts, and yet it is continually emphasized and held up as an object of loyalty. The end result for many is the sense that the Good has been corrupted and the True has miserably failed. There’s nothing left.
Unless, of course, the True were also to undergo a transformation, and this is what I had failed to see before. The CES Letter is the perfect example to illustrate this, as it has become a key component of a familiar exit phenomenon that often is under girded by the purist idea of truth. Reputedly, thousands of people have found in it confirmatory evidence that the church is not true, and perhaps most importantly, it functions as a succinct repository of the most damning criticisms of the church (all of which have been around for a long time but usually not all together, and never in such aesthetically appealing form). What’s more, it is said to initially come from a place of authenticity, not blatant manipulation, first formulated when its author had sincere questions about church history, teachings, and social issues that were not being satisfactorily addressed by church authorities. It is written both out of a conviction of the secular Good (particularly as it applies to the sexism and racism within the institution’s history), and within the correspondence-logic of institutional purity (again, the logic, not the literal belief in the truth-claims of the institution). It has become the perfect manifesto for the disaffected post-Mormon who has come to believe not only that the church is fundamentally and fully false, but that it’s also fundamentally and fully harmful. But its full and unthinking trust in the logic of correspondence that upholds institutional purity is its own undoing. Unless, of course, we are not required to follow that chain as far as it goes.
Logics of Different Worlds
Many Mormons firmly entrenched in the Mormon Good and True would probably not even be exposed to it for the simple reason that they are not in an alienated mode of searching and questioning, and even if they were, they might be expected to dismiss it outright as a result of their conception of the Good as personal purity (touch not the unclean thing, don’t go looking for answers on the Internet, avoid the very appearance of evil, etc). But other Mormons—though still linked to the traditional Good and True, but perhaps more loosely—might be tempted otherwise. The Letter’s structure and its themes are familiar enough to at least give one pause, if not provoke a full-blown crisis, especially when it becomes difficult to find a satisfactory clear alternative answer. This particular phenomenon is the bread and butter of the apologist industry, which operates under the same correspondence logic but points to conclusions that reinforce the institution, not destroy it. But apologists are less convincing in large part because they still hold to the traditional idea of the Good, and as I am arguing, the Good and the True must be harmonized in order for trust to exist. And this similarity in thinking in terms of the logic of correspondence is why both the post-Mormon critics and the apologists both have much to say to one another but do little to advance the conversation, since it consists in both sides using that logic to one-up one another.
When I wrote my piece on the CES Letter, several colleagues with backgrounds similar to mine (even some former Mormons-turned-atheists) praised it particularly for what might be called “the middle-way approach of profundity” between the apologists and the critics, arguing that both their approaches were similarly simplistic and two-dimensional. I wasn’t going to play that particular game, I saw nothing that required me to, and I saw more productive and sophisticated ways to deal with intellectual and historical difficulties. Critics of the piece rolled their eyes that of course I hadn’t read it all the way through (I hadn’t, though now I have), and what’s more, I didn’t answer a single question that the Letter posed! How could my criticisms be taken seriously when I refused to respond to any of the specific issues the Letter raised? Typical Mormon “intellectual,” thinking his flowery language and references to famous philosophers could be a substitute for actual engagement with the problems. This avoidance is all the more evidence that the Letter cannot be refuted.
But none of us (including so-called intellectuals) saw the competing theories of truth at the bottom of this and every other exchange. They, no different from their opponents, argued about specific things in specific terms and were left in disbelief that others couldn’t see the force of their arguments. But they almost never saw how their understanding of truth informs all of their thinking, and the problem was that that understanding wasn’t shared by everyone. For example, I thought it was pointless to respond to any of the questions specifically, because my theory of truth allowed for a lot of latitude in looking at a text or considering the philosophical import of a statement, or assigning value to the narrative of a historical event. And the general framework and themes of the Letter were far too reductionist and simplistic. In fact, however, their theory of truth followed the Mormon logic behind the idea of the True, which looked for correspondence between what the Church has taught and what actually happened, or what is or isn’t there. Not being able to demonstrate such correspondence, the Church was shown to be clearly “false.”
This can be shown by considering what might plausibly happen if I do attempt to answer the questions individually. To the first question, “What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? An ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?” I could answer, “Blake Ostler’s expansion theory of translation clearly allows for anachronisms in the text because it is partly derived from Joseph Smith and his environment,” or, “Obviously because Joseph Smith likely authored or orally transmitted the Book of Mormon and used that addition of the Bible to help him, but ‘authored’ allows for a wide range of natural phenomena that include creativity, hybridization, automatic writing, the experience of being inspired and subject to the ‘daemon’ that many non-religious writers have described, and even, why not, being inspired on some level by a divine being, because for all we know inspiration might come from earthly things.” However, we already know what the “correct” answer is, and we know this because we have all bathed in the waters of the Mormon idea of the True for decades and could pick it out of any lineup. The correct answer, intended to yield larger specific conclusions is, “Because Joseph Smith wrote it with the assistance of the 1769 King James Bible [okay, that seems to follow, I guess], which shows that it’s not an ancient text [ah, yes, that would then be true] and that’s important because Church leaders continue to teach you that it is [uh-oh], therefore the Church is not true [HOLY FETCH].” The answers to all the other questions more or less have this form and content, especially the italicized phrase. And the phrase builds on itself and multiplies the deeper you get in to it, emphasizing over and over again that the thing that made your entire world meaningful is actually full of lies, from one end to the other. This is so powerful because truth as institutional purity has set itself up for precisely this problem, so that for many, when it arrives, it arrives with the force of a hurricane, and there is little to protect them. And for that reason it cannot simply be dismissed, and apologists are right for attacking it (and should probably do so more if they understand how close to home it really hits) and it’s so broadly effective because it sows so much doubt into the foundation of institutional purity by using the very same logic that sustains it in the first place. Consequently, not every question/answer has to be thoroughly damning, not every issue or concern has to be irrefutably challenged, (maybe, some might say, some of the apologists’ responses seem to be plenty reasonable) it just has to produce enough doubt and distrust to throw a wrench in the logic chain, or like a jury charged with finding merely reasonable, not exhaustive, doubt in order to exonerate the accused.
But what if I hold an alternate theory of truth? What if the institutional purity/correspondence model no longer convinces me? Because this had been one major result of my graduate school experience and often is a result of a certain kind of extensive education (which some will see as Satanic and others salvific). There, no different from online Mormon discussions, competing ideas of the True were the undercurrents of every class, book, and discussion. Exposure to so many of these was fairly effective by itself, but we often tore away the manhole cover in order to actually be able to point to them and name them. There was a sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken demand that we be aware of how various understandings of truth colored everything. And the more exposure I had, and the more I became aware of how truth impacts the entire structure of thought, the further away I moved from the Mormon idea of the True (while I was simultaneously embracing alternative ideas of the Good), and saw other candidates for Mormon ideas of the True (plural). I saw the questions of history and value and truth claims through different eyes and saw that no particular way of arriving at truth was binding on me, except for the one that happened to actually bind me. Sure, I could answer all the questions in the Letter, but they would simply be dismissed by those still under the hold of the correspondence logic of purity as psychobabble, avoidance of hard truths, etc, while those who see truth similar to me might say that I’ve destroyed it once and for all. But is either side right? So the obvious response to this is the ecclesial secularist’s response to the religious modernist: If your idea of the Good and the True isn’t shared by those who administer your religion (or the fundamentalists), then you can no longer consider yourself a true member of your religion. Welcome to the desert of the Real.
Truth and Belonging
But that’s the crux of all this, isn’t it? Do I still get to call myself a Mormon if I don’t share some of the fundamental understandings of how contemporary Mormonism presents its truths? Is it legitimate for me to critique or imagine alternate pathways from within the religion? Am I not morally obligated to step fully outside in order to do that? If I don’t subscribe to the very understanding of truth which other members and more importantly the authorities themselves subscribe to, how can I even be a legitimate player in the game when I don’t follow the same rules? But that’s the force of finding oneself convinced by other methods of truth-making. That church leaders, for example, teach one thing about history but history shows something else to have occurred is still problematic, but my truth process doesn’t require that those kinds of things destroy the entire edifice because church authorities are no longer standing there alone, holding it up. Further, it’s not that promoting misinformation (ignorantly or purposefully) is now okay, it’s that the logic that makes of authority the single linchpin of my personal experience with religion is no longer operable. My religion has exploded beyond those bounds, and there are now several things I understand that are not dependent on that authority, and I can conceive of a vast religious landscape that authority did not and cannot cultivate because in many, many ways religion is far vaster and more mysterious than authority could ever hope to encompass, no matter how it tries. It doesn’t erase the tension with authority , of course, and in some ways only heightens it, but at the same time it allows me not to be immediately crushed when the logic of purity doesn’t deliver. And that’s not even to say that my truth is The True. But showing how I believe it is and why it seems to differ from others’–that’s where my focus should be in conversation and argumentation.
None of this is to say that the pain of association with one’s religious community can never be justification for separation, regardless of one’s utility with truth. It is manifestly necessary for some people to leave in order to heal and become whole, and we should accept the reality that this sometimes happens, not because they couldn’t have faith, or were steeped in sin, or were disobeying the rules, but because there were those who couldn’t love them as they were, including authorities. We must, I believe, recognize the full authenticity of those decisions and have obligations of love and respect toward those who choose this. Further, authoritarianism remains a problem for the religious modernist or “faithful intellectual,” one that is often avoided in favor of intellectual or artistic expressions that touch on everything except for authority. It’s true that intellectuals have learned a kind of non-confrontational tango with authority, but I think they need to do a better job in being honest about this and finding better ways to talk about it. Authority is not less damaging or potentially damaging merely because one can engage with it at a certain level (and virtually every so-called intellectual I know acknowledges this). We must acknowledge the real dangers and limitations, where they exist, and remain vigilantly aware of our own advantages and what makes us free where others are not.
But I challenge the idea that there are rules that must be agreed upon beforehand or one is too compromised to compete. You don’t learn how to live in this cross-pressure or change the way things are merely by confronting power on its own terms. Some might feel called to do that, and their actions can sometimes cause much-needed shifts in the status quo, but others offer a compelling vision of how the rules themselves could be different, that we can change the way we make and see the truth that informs how we see the world. And I don’t find compelling or legitimate the general orientation and specific critiques of ecclesial secularists who evangelize exit narratives and preach the gospel of face-valued, uncomplicated, and antagonistic secularism, one that continues to obsess over religion in much the same ways that fundamentalists obsess over first principles. This space where we determine collective and self-authenticity is where the heat of battle is hottest, and rightly so, because that’s where the fate of the mind and soul of Mormonism is most directly determined, where the fate of the mind and soul of any religion moving through the secular age is determined. That’s where we take stock of what form of truth informs our thinking, and if another form can have a claim on us. Must truth be revealed through the prism of history (the organization of a church), or can it be conceived of as an event (something that has happened to us or to others, but not the thing that was produced as a result)? Cannot truth be speculative and not merely that which corresponds? Is religion entirely reducible to the church—and therefore the church’s rules and norms—just because it is mostly widely expressed and seen there? Can we interpret something differently from how authorities interpret? Are the ostensibly modernist values I hold dear entirely derived from secular culture? Are they incompatible with my religion? There are risks involved with all these propositions, no doubt, not just the risk of ratcheting my tension with authority to unendurable levels (for both myself and authority), but also the risk of becoming so enamored with my world that I, too, begin to become blind to other worlds, other ways of thinking and seeing. But determining all this should be the result of ongoing negotiation and mediation as I try to live according to my truths among others who are striving according to theirs. And just because I am not as loud or confrontational or uncompromising at others doesn’t mean that my own comparatively quiet revolutions are invalidated.
Secularists are no freer than the religious in this regard. They do not live in the vacuum of an exceptional situation, devoid of uncertainty and interpretation. Cross-pressure is ever-present, and negotiating among truths, falsities, perspectives, values, norms, relationships, etc. is an ongoing project. Tension cannot be wholly avoided, even if it must be managed in certain ways. What we must try to understand are the actual conditions for truth and belief, not simply make judgments of what is specifically proclaimed as true or believed. It’s not that one view of truth is the “Correct” one, but that one single view should not be allowed to permanently overshadow the rest. Obviously this is a direct problem when it comes to authority proper, but I’m speaking more specifically of negotiated truths among other groups within and without religion. Truth must be made and won, not simply declared. (Or it must be declared through the process of making and winning it). This isn’t an argument for moral or value relativity, but an acknowledgment of the way the process actually works. Sometimes our views will win out. Sometimes we will absolutely be certain of what we know. And other times not. But the process of negotiating, persuading, arguing, listening, understanding, is ongoing, no matter what vantage point we see from. Our awareness of these conditions—our interrogating of the ways truth is seen and expressed—will make all the difference in how we interact with one another, within and between our various tribes.
Competing claims for truth are no more than the stories we tell. But story-telling is deadly serious business. Its rules are stringent and unyielding. A true story must be believable, agree with and understand the structures of accepted laws and norms in order to provocatively and believably violate those laws and norms when necessary (what is the story of Mormonism but just such a violation?). It must captivate its audience, be adaptable for all kinds of people, and call forth new shapes and creatures made of those things that inspire us and break our hearts. So when I say that there are alternative truth-stories we can tell about what matters most to us–for both religion and secularism–that’s something that can only be undertaken with fear and trembling at a demanding price, and they will never be finished, and it’s unlikely everyone will agree with them and want to pass it on, though a few will if we’re fortunate. But that doesn’t mean telling it shouldn’t be taken up, or that it’s automatically invalidated because it is an alternative.
Finally, I’ve talked a lot about fundamentalism in this piece. I’m sure I’ve unfairly caricatured it in some ways. Nevertheless, fundamentalism—religious or secular—remains the primary overall threat to human societies for all the reasons previously listed and more, but ultimately it is dangerous because it is utterly devoid of genuine universality. Or put another way, its universality is singular (only for those who believe and act in particular ways), rather than plural (allowing for the differentiation of the world though still committed to a specific world). In other words, fundamentalism does not allow even the potential for those that don’t meet its requirements to live. It is the parsing of the worthy and the unworthy, the accepted and the exiled. Fundamentalists don’t negotiate. They don’t listen and weigh and analyze. Fundamentalists see the world in complete linearities, a perfect grid where everything is allotted its place and time and nothing can be moved except at the price of its existence. Fundamentalism doesn’t “try to find a way,” it is the way. Its purposes are deadly clear, certain, and without exception. It is most certain of who should live and who should die, sometimes literally and other times tribally, or legally (in terms of rights) or spiritually.
All of which is to say that the battles between the secularists and religious are often so much tilting at windmills. The true danger comes from the unconditionally certain in our midst, religious or secular. It’s not that it’s unfair to demonize religious “modernists” or “intellectuals” (boo-hoo, they’ll get over it) it’s that it directly undermines the real shared project of attempting to keep as much of religion and culture as possible out of the hands of those whose eyes are filled with an uncompromising utopia that must be realized at all costs. In this, the struggle for the Good and the True is never over.