Mormonism, Purity, and the Conditions of Truth


Ecclesial Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Authoritarianism
In essence, secularists are those who advocate separation of state from religious institutions. In this sense, most religious Americans might be considered secularists. Even those who self-identify as secularist do not usually actively seek religion’s dissolution, nor are they of necessity temperamentally hostile to religion and religious peoples. They merely wish to be free from religious conceptual and institutional imposition. However, I’m more interested here in a more narrow and specific subset of secularism, what I have labeled “ecclesial secularism.” 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 or ecclesiastical, 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 and otherwise non-religious institutions. Like many churches, ecclesial secularism:

  • claims ideological universality. Its ideas aren’t meant to only apply to certain regions or cultures or groups, but to everyone everywhere as the sole possessors of the “truth” of enlightenment and rationality.
  • accepts the legal reality of separation between church and state (in those areas of the world where such exists), but actively works 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 sought to maintain religious monopolies in order to eliminate their competition.
  • attempts to be closely allied with cultural, academic, and political institutions in order to diversify and intensify the enforcement of its beliefs and ideas. Churches have also almost always tied themselves to state and/or secular powers for the same reasons.
  • attempts to gain converts through aggressive proselytizing.

Both fundamentalists (small “f,” denoting the tendency within a group to adopt an attitude that unyieldingly embraces a set of irreducible literal truths and interpretations, not capital “F” Fundamentalism which often refers to specific denominations) and ecclesial secularists attempt to exploit the authoritarianism found in 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 more liberal or heterodox worldviews. 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 attempt to exploit religious authority, 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 religious modernist by showing the modernist that their modernism is not possible. Religious authority is posed as the fully embodied expression of the totality of the religion; by its nature, authoritarianism imposes itself in such a way that it attempts to overtly and 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 both from authority from within and from secularist critics from without.

However, expulsion from the community is the least effective and most narrow way in which modernists are tamed. Much more potentially damaging 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 seeming 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, yet chooses to remain anyway, purposefully violating morality and logic in such a way that she becomes just as dangerous as the fundamentalist if not more so because her refusal to dissociate from the organization and fight against it is perceived as collusion. There is no escaping authority when your religion is reducible entirely to that authority (a “church”). If the religion is entirely reducible to the church (and it is in the interest of authority to promote this view), and the church is controlled by the authorities, then losing against authority is losing your religion.

The Enchantment and Disenchantment of Religious Modernism

The ecclesial secularist is smart to attack the modernist here because though the limitations of authority help to shape the modernist as a 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 understanding of her wider tradition. In other words, the modernist has learned how to fence with authority. She rarely if ever wins, but she has learned how to lunge, feint, parry, and counter-attack in just such a way as to not lose outright, which enables 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, the only other obvious option being certain death by direct confrontation.

The modernist feels this deeply, swims in it unceasingly, this 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 or it began to leave me behind. By the time we become aware that we feel positively entangled and converted or disentangled and disenchanted, numerous elements we never saw coming have already impinged on us, shaping and colorizing 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, and in possession of 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. 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.

An observation from Charles Taylor, a renowned thinker on the contours of religion and secularism, illustrates my second and more important point. To live in an age of multiple competing worlds—the secular age in which we all have lived for a very long time—is to live in a “contested, cross-pressured, and haunted world” (to quote Taylor interpreter 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. The journey through secularism is not an escape from this situation. To live in a secularized world (as opposed to the fundamentalist tunnel vision that sees the purely religious world as 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-legitimizing 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.

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 propping up 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 traditional ritual and communion. She makes no significant distinction between her intellectual orientation and her religiosity, and 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 (often less enthusiastically) with her critics on the right that there is something worth preserving in the institution. 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. 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.” But this is 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, unconcealed, unhidden (the True). Yet this competition between the two appears inevitable when our idea of goodness seems completely opposed to our idea of truth, and with no apparent way to reconcile them. In contemporary Mormon discourse, ideas of goodness and truth in tandem are so powerful because they are perfectly harmonious with one another, 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, through baptism, repentance, re-commitment to leaders’ teachings, living the standards, etc.

Truth is institutional purity, in that the institution was divinely created 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 essentially the same, or at least they are made to be perfectly harmonized within the religious discourse of the community. In other words, something cannot be good if it is not true, because then it would be impure. Likewise, nothing can be true if it is not good for the same reason.

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 and metaphysical 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 institutionally pure church. In other words, two conceptions of the Good begin to conflict. That alone makes their continued engagement 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, individual freedom, feminism,etc.—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, which has preserved the structure of institutional purity as truth. And now every event of purist 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 itself into deception and falsity. It’s not, of course, 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.

Truth and Belonging

Religious modernists (or, not to put too fine a point on it, postmodernists), then, might claim that many leave modern religious institutions not because they changed in some significant way, but because they did not change enough. Their orientation toward the Good, like that of the modernist, was transformed entirely, but the transformation of their orientation toward the True didn’t go far enough. That is, the institution became shot through with pure falsity that dovetailed with the fall of the traditional Good because truth was still that which corresponded to facts. There seemed to be no way to short circuit the misalignment of narratives and historical facts. But religious modernists questioned (and had the tools to question) what constituted facts and narratives in the first place, to interrogate traditional interpretations and especially traditional conclusions. Even more importantly, they questioned the supposed facticity of moral conclusions made by authority, and that moral facts are of the same stubborn substance as historical facts. The tools of (post)modernism helped them to tell alternative stories, stories that competed with the stories promoted by authority, that showed moral conclusions to be malleable and not predestined. In other words, the logic of truth as mere correspondence could be shown to be extremely problematic, especially within a postmodern milieu. In this sense the Good and the True have become re-harmonized through the trope of “heterogeneity” or “multiplicity.” That is, while the pure was at the base of the Good and True in traditional discourse, the multiple is at the base of the Good and True for modernists. The multiple is complex, diverse, interpretative, perspectival, and run through with cracks, fissures, vagaries, and obscurities, allowing for multiple stories to be told about events and phenomena, multiple worlds to be revealed, as opposed to the controlling meta-narratives and stainless metaphysics of the pure.

And 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? Yet 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.

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 can, does, and will happen, and not merely because they couldn’t have faith, or were steeped in sin, or were disobeying the rules. We must recognize the full authenticity of those decisions and realize our 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. 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, universalizable, 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 a church—and therefore a church’s rules and norms—just because it is mostly widely expressed and made visible 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 as 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 (or false or disbelieved). 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. 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 such stories will never be finished, and it’s unlikely everyone will resonate with them and want to pass them on, though a few will if we’re fortunate. But that doesn’t mean telling them shouldn’t be taken up, or that they are automatically invalidated because they are alternative to prevailing myths.

In connection with all this, a final word about fundamentalism. I’m sure I’ve unfairly caricatured it in some ways, but fundamentalism is the true danger to this enterprise.  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 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 and narrowly 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 sense especially, the struggle for the Good and the True is never over.


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