- 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.
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.