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Is Mormonism a Social Game?

November 21, 2011

This post is also a response to Mormon Matters’ 60th episode: Matters of Integrity. I have written another post here responding to some of the podcasters’ points on a topic-by-topic basis, and this is a continuation of that post.

Temple Recommends and Worthiness

At 2:09:17, Jeff begins to ask Dan what seems to be one of the biggest question elephants in the room. I think it’s the question that all people in this non-orthodox groups — whether it be uncorrelated Mormon, stayLDS, Mormon Stories, Mormon Matters, NOM, middle way, whatever — have to ask…if you’re talking about living a life of integrity in a post-faith crisis life while remaining in the church in some capacity, then how do you navigate things like the temple recommend interview questions which seem like they would do a quick job of separating the orthodox from the less-orthodox?

There is a sense to which people associated with these movements are playing a social game. They are play-acting, and they understand that there is a specific role they need to play for the Bishop for the show to go smoothly. But as a result of the play-acting, it doesn’t seem like these people take the system — or various members — seriously and honestly.

I don’t know if I’ve written about it, but my faithlessness crisis was my realization that all of those years, I had been treating church as a game, but I felt that church wasn’t meant as a game. I thought that religion was for people who really believed that stuff, and not for people who had just practiced the right answers and could buzz in with them in Seminary, in the temple recommend interviews, in classes, or elsewhere.

So, even when I was writing a section-by-section review and response of John Dehlin’s magnum opus How to Stay in the LDS Church After a Major Challenge to Your Faith, the section on how to navigate the temple recommend interview seemed duplicitous to me. It seemed to me that if someone were having a crisis of faith — especially on the grounds of “betrayal” and “misinformation” and things like that — that John’s advice would seem appalling.

And so, getting back to the podcast…Dan just lost me with his answer (beginning at 2:11:16).

I just don’t worry about the specific questions…I just come to see the choice to participate with the temple or not as to be completely up to me and God, and if the church thinks those questions are the true gatekeepers of worthiness, they’re wrong. It’s the intent of my heart, it’s the goals I have, it’s my reasons for wanting to separate from every day cares, dive into an archetypal story…and so, I know it’s going to feel like a cop-out to you, but isn’t just 15 years of living into this perspective that I have where I trust myself and my own relationship with God to not even worry about pleasing this ecclesiastical leader who, in the full integrity of his heart is doing his best job, but…I don’t think he REALLY cares what I think…I think he just wants me to say, “I’m on a path that says I’m worthy to celebrate in the ritual life of my community in this way.”

After a bit, Jeff clarifies his question. To summarize, if the church emphasizes temple activity to the extent it does, then Mormons who want to have a space in the church will still feel pressured to be worthy to attend the temple. But if someone goes through a faith crisis where they lose belief in certain truth claims of the church, then how do they answer questions regarding those truth claims while maintaining integrity?

It Depends on What the Meaning of the Word “Is” Is…

Here, Brian steps in. He points out, as has been pointed out in related discussion in these kinds of groups, that with these temple recommend question often come baggage that doesn’t need to be there.

OK, so I’m willing to buy that we may bring baggage that we don’t have to bring.

However, Brian goes further…even if you reasonably expect the Bishop to attach certain baggage to the questions (and you know that your answer will be interpreted as implying you support that baggage)…you don’t have an obligation to disclose that you define things differently. At 2:22:07:

And I know the person on the other side of the desk may be attaching different baggage to it, but that’s not my problem.

I think that position is a little bit better, but it gets into some other problems (namely, if you have one understanding and you reasonably can expect the Bishop to have a different understanding…are you still being honest if you are aware of that miscommunication is a reasonable expectation? Personally, I’m still not really getting the vibes of “honesty” to just go with your understanding and say it’s the Bishop’s problem if he interprets it in a different way.)

This is something that became a big point of discussion in the comments. Tim, of LDS & Evangelical Conversations’ fame, wrote a substantial comment questioning whether we would consider the actions and recommendations of the podcasters “honest” or “integritous” in other situations.

If a woman asks her husband if he is cheating and he decides to nuance the meaning of the question because he knows his heart is in the relationship for the long run, is he exhibiting integrity?  Is he honoring her and her expectations?  Perhaps he thinks he just has a physical urge that must be satisfied. Perhaps he’s found a stage 4 way of viewing monogamy, but he excludes his wife from the difficult feelings she may experience.  Is that really integrity? I think a discussion about how integrity views and treats other people was missing in the discussion.  The focus seemed to be on internal integrity more that external.

In listening to how Dan chooses to answer the TR questions, I really have to ask, are you honoring your Bishop?  Would he feel respected by your choices?  Are you being honest in all of your dealings?  Is courage on display in your life when you choose to obfuscate? Do you nuance your answers for your benefit or for the benefit of the LDS church?

Brian offers the first answer, and his is interesting:

I think this person might be acting out of integrity, but they are not being honest.  They might be acting consistently with their values if they lied to their wife.  They just happen to value their relationship more than honesty.  Taken to a more broad extreme: I think an evil person who acts evil is exhibiting the characteristic of integrity.

Of course, even during the podcast, Brian tried to distinguish between honesty, integrity, and another related idea: authenticity. So, for him, when he is discussing “matters of integrity,” that may not be the same as matters of honesty.

A Matter of Conscience?

However, Katie L responds in a bit of a different way. A selection thereof:

Let’s say that a Bishop views caffeinated beverages as against the Word of Wisdom.  Do I have an obligation to “confess” drinking Coke to my bishop in my temple recommend interview, even though I do not believe it is against the Word of Wisdom?  No.  And, I would argue, my bishop would not expect me to either (unless you’re dealing with a really tyrannical bishop, in which case your first obligation is to protect yourself from spiritual and psychological abuse).There is a reason that the questions are written as they are.  There is a reason bishops are instructed NOT to deviate from the wording of the questions.  It is because the onus of responsibility is upon us to answer the questions in good conscience, not to be accountable for the beliefs of the bishop and stake president.   I believe this is part of the contract and both parties understand it, which changes things a bit from what you’re saying, Tim.Having said that, I agree that if you have to reinterpret many of the questions past the point of common recognition, there is probably some wisdom in praying to God and asking if the temple is really the place for you.

I think that this is the best approach of them all…it attempts to refocus the discussion to say that theologically, Mormonism is and never was about trying to agree or disagree with your Bishop’s point of view. If, instead, it is internal, then the issue is whether or not you internally believe that the way you are answering the questions is valid.

My issue is that I don’t think that the way these guys are answering the questions is valid. For me, it would not be answering the questions in good conscience. However, I understand that if they don’t have a problem with it, then there really isn’t a problem for them.

My secondary issue, however, is that whereas Katies tries to frame this as being something all LDS people understand (e.g., “this is part of the contract and both parties understand it”…and earlier, she points out that “this is something that an outsider — even a thoughtful and observant one…might not understand”), I’d be willing to be that the church is not intending for this to be the way people interpret things, and as a result, many people — insiders and Mormons! — will understandably not buy this interpretation.

Back to the Social Game Aspects…

Notwithstanding Katie L’s comments that this is all an internal gut-check, there was an interesting play on the idea of things as a game.

…I thought it was interesting that the TR question discussion came right after the discussion on ritual, and metaphor and using ritual to get to truth, rather than a concrete truthful action (not quite sure how to word it) and yet there was no mention of the TR interview being part of the ritual, which to me – is exactly what it is, and I can find interesting insights and truths in my answering or contemplating the questions without ascribing the questions maybe the literal meanings the Bishop or Stake President might expect

I’ll never look at the idea of “ritual” the same ever again.

One thing I find fascinating is that, whereas my “faithlessness crisis” began because I felt I was making a game out of things that ought not be play-acted…increasingly, I see more and more people who are arguing that at some level, the nature of religion — or of Mormonism — is to dive into ritual, myth, archetypes, etc., They increasingly see it as a meta-game of social expectations…what does your Bishop really expect from you when you’re answering the questions? Does the system (and your Bishop, as an agent of that system) expect honesty, or expect that you play along with the system. Hints that people may expect others to just “play along” can be glimpsed from comments like these:

I’ve had similar experience being fairly open with people, including with Bishops and the Stake President.  I find that irritating people quickly stop asking me questions when they know deep down they really don’t want to hear my answers.  The questions and challenges just stop.

Then again, I’m pretty sure that any organization with serious problems would work in a similar way. Does the fact that people in a corrupt corporation don’t want to hear about their corruption mean that someone should just go with the flow about their doubts and apprehensions about company policy?

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