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Constructing, Deconstructing, and Reconstructing Mormonism

February 3, 2013

The latest frenzy in the liberal/new order/middle way/uncorrelated Internet Mormon circles has been discussion of John Dehlin’s latest interview with A Thoughtful Faith, as has been reposted at Mormon Stories. I hope to make a longer post about some things I got from the interview, probably at Wheat & Tares, but that would involve me to re-listen through the podcast, devoting far more attention than I normally do. And it would involve notetaking. Then writing. Then creating jazzy little graphics.

I care about my art.

The basics of the story is that unlike most podcasts where John is interviewing someone else, in this podcast, John was the one being interviewed. And this three-hours-over-three-parts podcast delves into John’s history…but more importantly, his present and future, especially with the church. As the title of the podcast episodes say, he has reconstructed his faith, and is returning to church activity.

…of course, everyone is freaking out about this. Does this mean that middle way Mormonism is dead? That the Big Tent is not really possible? Does John really think so poorly of disaffected/ex/post or former Mormons? (That last topic will probably be more addressed at Wheat & Tares, since there’s a lot to unpack about the moral progression and/or regression of Mormons undergoing faith crisis.)

For this post, I just wanted to respond to Kiley’s latest post at We Were Going to Be Queens, and some related topical comments she made on FB. You may notice that this post is almost completely stolen from my my comment over at We Were Going to be Queens. Wanna fight about it?

Early in her post, Kiley describes Mormon Stories thusly:

If I had to summarize what Mormon Stories has meant to me I could do it in one simple sentence.

The church is not and never has been what it portrays itself to be.

I agree here. In fact, I think this idea is crucial for discussing what “middle way Mormonism” looks like. (For this post, I’ll use the middle way and Big Tent interchangeably, even though I feel like they are referring to different things.)

But the thing is: with this simple statement, there is a question: what now? Given that the church is not and never has been what it portrays itself to be, what do we do next?

And I think that when we deconstruct the assumptions about the church that we previously had, that gives us a lot of freedom in choosing what we will do about the deconstructed parts. I think that is where the middle way or where the Big Tent can come in.

I was confused about one line that Kiley had in her post (which it seems is part of the disconnect here, but I’m not sure if that’s it):

That gray space between “in the church” and “out of the church” is not a place where you get to stay. You have to choose at some point. You have to take a stand at some point.

Because to me, I rephrase this as like this: “in the church” and “not in the church.” (This may be problematic — someone may not mean the same thing by “out” as “not in”) And then, rephrased as this, it becomes a simple case of the Law of the Excluded Middle. There is NO third possibility, when every possibly option can be logically included in the set “In” or “Not in.”

But I’m not saying with that that the Big Tent or the Middle Way is rendered impossible.

To me, the middle way and the Big Tent come from the deconstruction present within Kiley’s one sentence: The church is not and never has been what it portrays itself to be.

Given that, what is “in”? What is “not in”?

We might think of “in” as the sorts of actions someone who has never deconstructed might do. We might think of “out” as the sorts of actions someone who has fully deconstructed might do. But we might think of the middle ground as being the process of reconstruction. You can’t really put Humpty Dumpty back together again…so a reconstruction will never be the same as the never-deconstructed. But in fact, you have a lot of options when it comes to reconstruction — you can try to make a Humpty Dumpty lookalike, or you can take the pieces and make something that looks considerably different than how Humpty Dumpty originally looked. You have all of these options.

This raises some interesting questions…can someone who has had a faith crisis ever return to a faith that could be recognized as “stereotypically TBM” (however problematic that term is)? Or will they always become some sort of uncorrelated figure?

…my sentiments are that even if this is possible, this is pretty much not the case for John Dehlin. I think people read too much into his return — when people say he has returned to “full activity” (or heaven forbid, that he has “returned to faith”), what does that mean? Because even if it is a recognizable difference from where he might have been a few months ago, I’m thinking that the details make it a lot more nuanced. When you drill down, the “full activity” that would fit for John is probably not going to be the same kind of “full activity” that we would attribute to a pre-deconstructed “TBM”. The “full faith” attributed to John is not going to have the same sorts of assumptions and contents as that of the pre-deconstructed “TBM”.

(Of course, the reason I put “TBM” in quotes like that is that I think that when one goes through the deconstructive process, they should have enough information to piece together that even the idea of a “TBM” doesn’t really grasp at any tangible reality. There is no monolithic ur-TBM…just a variety of people who we lump together as being similar, while collapsing the differences that make a difference.)

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22 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    I don’t read too much into Dehlin’s return. Neither do most of my friends in apologetics. They’re all happy to hear that he’s making steps to foster emotional/spiritual health in his own life and own family. But we don’t really get the sense from his interview that he’s any more intellectually OK with… say…. polyandry than he was before.

    Dehlin seems to desire a return to emotional authenticity. He tried intellectual authenticity and found it simply wasn’t an adequate substitute. And he found the heavy involvement with all corners of the ex-Mormon community to simply be emotionally and spiritually toxic. I can vouch for that. Dealing with ex-Mormonism is probably some of the most depressing work you can do. The sort of stuff that just kills your faith in humanity. This is largely due to how susceptible the ex-Mormon community is to being hijacked by bitter extremists (something else Dehlin noted in his observations about the Mormon Stories community). It’s an incredibly fragile and unregulated group. And it just tends to be dominated by jackasses (the work of basically decent folk like Chanson and Andrew here notwithstanding).

    I do think the phrase “TBM” is fraught with problems. Just like the phrase “ex-Mormon” or “anti-Mormon” or other generalizations can be. But yes – I don’t think that once you’ve deconstructed the religion, you can ever view it the same way again. But this isn’t a bad thing. And it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t reclaim the magic again.

    As someone who has deconstructed the religion, and found my rightful place in it, I feel there is a robust new paradigm for faith to be had. But this is nothing new. As the apostle Paul said “when I was a child, I spake as a child and thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

    It has always been so with faith.

    • I sure didn’t mean to rate this a ‘five’. Once you’ve deconstructed a religion you can never view it the same way again, to be sure! In the case of Mormonism, you could never reclaim the magic. The best you could do is choose to deny the facts. The writing on the walls is not in favor of Joseph Smith being a true prophet. It just did not happen. Are you going to gather under his name anyway?

      • Seth R. permalink

        Actually, I was more excited about Joseph Smith and MORE convinced of his prophetic office after learning about his personality defects, his early mysticism, and his marital practices than I was before I knew about that stuff Judy, so no – it doesn’t always work that way.

        And I do consider Joseph Smith one of the greatest and most compelling figures in United States history. And a bona fide prophet of God.

      • Just Judy,

        In your comment, you say…

        Once you’ve deconstructed a religion you can never view it the same way again, to be sure! In the case of Mormonism, you could never reclaim the magic.

        To quote from what Seth said in another comment to this very article,

        no… I don’t think you can reclaim the same old magic. But you can have something fresh and new in its place.

        So…I guess that’s that.

        • That is interesting in view of all the history that is known. What is there about Mormonism that excites you now? I would really be interested–not to argue, but to understand.

          • Seth R. permalink

            Let’s take one of the big “stinkers” Judy – Joseph Smith’s marriage practices. Polygamy, polyandry, etc.

            We all know the reasons why this upsets people, so I won’t go into that.

            But here’s what learning about it did in my case.

            1. At first it was titillating. Gave me a bit of a gleeful rush to think that I knew something everyone else didn’t. We all like to feel like we have one up on our neighbors, or like we are privy to a well-kept secret. Juvenile, I know, but that’s how I felt initially. One of the key things to keep in mind however, is that I didn’t feel upset in the slightest. I was more historically interested than anything. And I was too busy congratulating myself on discovering a fascinating bit of history to feel resentful or betrayed. It didn’t even occur to me to feel upset at any point.

            2. Of course, the novelty of the information wasn’t going to last forever, and I got over the initial rush and had to start thinking seriously about it. I didn’t feel upset, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have to reconcile this and use the information in how I regarded the church I’d grown up with. So phase two – I went through a period of puzzlement about how something like this could fit the narrative, or if the narrative itself were just wrong and needed to be discarded.

            3. Eventually, after thinking about it long enough however, I came to a conclusion. And it came through studying the rest of what Joseph Smith was trying to do with the saints and placing the marital mess in that context.

            Joseph Smith’s driving life’s work was always the establishment of Zion on earth. What is Zion? It was the city of Enoch where all were of “one heart and one mind, and there were no poor among them.” Unity among believers has always been the overwhelming theme of Joseph Smith’s Restoration. He wanted all saints to be utterly and completely united in their hearts with each other. You see this in his city-planning projects (the word “ward” is an urban planning term) as reaching for the creation of Enoch’s city of Zion. You see it in the appearance of Elijah in Kirtland in a mission to “turn the hearts of the children to the fathers” – genealogy work and temple work. You see it laced throughout his teachings. And of course his work with the United Order.

            At the same time I was learning this, I was also studying the concept of theosis and Trinitarianism (through my work debating with Evangelicals). I was trying to sort out the nature of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. In what ways were they one God, and in what ways were they three? I was reading a good deal of Blake Ostler’s work on the nature of God and exploring Social Trinitarianism (any unfamiliar terms, I’ll just leave to Google). I was reaching the conclusion that the primary defining attribute of the Trinity was the profound and utterly unifying love experienced by God and the Son and Spirit. A unity that we were invited to PARTICIPATE in. To become gods ourselves through unity with the Father.

            At the same time, I realized that the marriage covenant was meant to model the unity of God. To be a symbol of two becoming one flesh. Without this unity, we could not become one with God – for his defining attribute was ultimate and unifying love (not ultimate power – as John Calvin erroneously thought).

            With this in mind – the pieces fell together, and I realized that Joseph’s marital projects were simply an extension of his overwhelming drive to unify people in Zion. To bind the entire human family together in covenant bonds. Through the marriage covenant, he saw another opportunity to bind people together in Zion.

            This explains the curious lack of romantic motive from accounts such as that of Helen Mar Kimball – where the prime motivator seems to have been to bind the Smith and Kimball families together in covenant. And why so little evidence of sexual lust as a motive can be found (it’s always inferred by people, but never really supported).

            It felt like an epiphany. And it vastly expanded my concept of human love and unity beyond the strictures of Puritan monogamy. I saw polygamy not as something conceptually ugly, but as an exciting expansion of the scope of human relationships. A bold and beautiful declaration that there is room in the ultimate reaches of the human heart for more than one person. It was even more exciting to realize that Joseph Smith probably meant the paradigm of covenant bonds of love to expand even more radically than he had already done in his life.

            Yes, Joseph’s implementation was a real mess and probably involved abuses. But the CONCEPT was exhilarating. Which is why exploring polygamy made me MORE excited about the mission of Joseph Smith rather than less.

            Just an example.

          • I really appreciate your in-depth answer and your willingness to share your thoughts. If you hadn’t told me how you felt, I would never have believed those thoughts as an option.
            The biggest problem I have with your statements on polygamy and the curious lack of motive on J.S.;s part–but, wait! Maybe you don’t want to hear. Let me know. Thanks again.

          • Seth R. permalink

            Well, I’m aware I’m going to get pushback on the whole “lust” thing. For instance, the testimony of SOME of Joseph’s plural wives that the marriages were consumated (although even those statements are a bit confusing). We also just have such a knee-jerk inclination in our modern society to not just equate marriage with sex, but to reduce it to basically nothing but sex, that it’s impossible for someone to say “marriage” today without everyone immediately thinking “sex!”

            But DNA testing on Joseph has never revealed children other than through Emma. I personally think there is good reason to infer consummation in at least SOME of his plural marriages. I think it’s rather unbelievable to assert consummation of ALL of them. And I find the evidence of consummation in his most controversial marriages (i.e. the ones to very young women, or women with existing husbands) to be the most sketchy of all.

            I don’t really mind if you disagree. I’ve been disagreed with before. One charming ex-Mormon female blogger called me a “rape apologist” and banned me from her blog over this debate. If I survived that, I’m sure I’ll survive the polite disagreement you seem to be indicating.

            The only worry I have is that an in-depth polygamy debate would kind of distract from the topic of Andrew’s post.

          • I didn’t want an in-depth debate on polygamy, but I guess that is what happens in these kinds of conversations.
            As far as Andrews thoughts–which were that even when you know the history you can redefine your faith and still find magic in it—wasn’t that it, more or less. We find magic where we want. I learned a new terminology this past week: cherry pickin’. That’s when you go about in your faith accepting what you like, being blind to what you don’t etc. I think you do some of that, then so do I.
            I still say, we know too much about Joseph Smith in this day and age to go on believing he was a prophet. I guess I just look at different facts.
            Still, I believe a person should believe what he believes. Usually we cling to beliefs that give us comfort. I would not want upset your applecart.
            Re: the Trinity: That is a hard one for me. I was raised to believe in the Trinity and when I converted to Mormonism, I don’t think I ever entirely gave up that belief. That’s why the three in purpose caused such a turmoil within me. It can’t be the same God.
            But, since then, I have left Mormonism and I understand that it took three hundred years to decide upon the Trinity and another two meetings–one per century–to continue to formalize the thought; all the while, there were others who did not hold to those beliefs.
            Isn’t religion great fun?

  2. Seth,

    Yeah, I think the point is he’s not more intellectually OK with many of those issues than before. I guess one of the big themes I get from a lot of people who “stay” is that they don’t really become intellectually OK with it, because a lot of these issues don’t have intellectually OK answers. But the question is really whether or not they are at a place emotionally to deal with whatever issues. If they are, then either the intellectual aspects don’t matter as much, or they will develop answers to follow how they feel emotionally.

    I guess dealing with ex-Mormonism can seem incredibly emotionally and spiritually toxic or depressing when you’re coming at it from a basic position of antagonism at every vantage point.

    Interesting points on the Pauline quote…I wonder if you really can claim the magic of childish things. True, you can reinterpret and find different magic…but you never have the same giddy (childlike) appreciation of Christmas when you’re over that.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, there are hostile and bitter things being said in the community that are toxic no matter what vantage point you are coming from.

    But that aside – no… I don’t think you can reclaim the same old magic. But you can have something fresh and new in its place.

    For instance, I have a more enthusiastic view of Joseph Smith now than I ever did as a wide-eyed eight year old, or a bored teenager. That all happened post-deconstruction. I’m more excited about Mormonism and being in the LDS Church now than I ever was at any time other than my mission, where I think my own deconstruction started in earnest. Remember that story I mentioned about my mission being visited by the Area Authority Seventy, and how he completely messed up the visit and displayed his disregard and hostility for what we missionaries and my Mission President were doing? How I realized at that moment that the Church was not always run properly, and how GAs sometimes SCREW UP. Everything clicked for me at that moment.

    I could never have my old childish view of the faith again after that point. And I went through periods of ups and downs, doubt, cynicism, reflection, reconciliation, apologetics, protest, and the whole thing. But what I wound up with was something much better.

    I would not return to my pre-mission years, or my pre-mission views if given the chance. I consider it inferior to what I have now in most respects. But the magic is alive and well. I’ve never been so excited about Mormonism and what it is about.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    And incidentally, my adult Christmases have been my best ever.

  5. Seth, Just Judy,

    No need to apologize…I find the exchange fascinating.

    Just apologize for using threaded comments. MY KINGDOM FOR COMMENT NUMBERING.

    • Sorry! I have no idea what ‘threaded comments’ is about and ‘my kingdom for comment numbering’ is nothing I ever would have typed. Anyway, I have errands to do. I think of Br. Dehlin and his talk a lot. You guys have at it.

      • it’s not you, I promise!

        It’s wordpress.

        Notice how when you reply to someone (like you just did, or when I do it), the message is indented underneath the original comment?

        That’s threaded commenting.

        It is functional to keep a discussion together, *but* it makes it really tough to see when the latest comment was written.

        With comment numbering (which I prefer), all comments are sequentially ordered (so the latest comment is always at the bottom), and to reply to people, you just mention their comment number in your comment. WordPress.com does not offer comment numbering as far as I know, so we have threaded comments instead.

        • I’m not the least offended. Thanks for info re: ‘threaded comment’.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    But, but… Judy started iiiit!

    Just kidding, sorry for enabling the problem Andrew.

  7. I think you two want to discuss things by yourself. Okay.

  8. on the joseph smith thing…

    I think there have been quite a few things that have come out recently that have come out from the perspective of recognizing that Joseph Smith was a pretty human/flawed character, but still finding something captivating about him anyway (and a lot of this comes from non-members too). I am thinking of that “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” book.

    And, for people who oppose the hagiography of church leaders, information that makes them more complex is going to be seen positively as opposed to negatively.

    additionally, in terms of some of the issues that people tend to find really distasteful (polygamy)…I think there’s a lot of variation on opinions here too…I mean, there is definitely disagreement on what actually happened when polygamy was implemented…so I suspect that Seth is probably going to think that there wasn’t as much “bad stuff” going on as the average ex-mormon who shudders at polygamy thinks.

    …but I think that something that happens for many members is that, regardless of their feelings on the actual practice of polygamy, they see that this was a big and radical undertaking. It was the creation of a new way of socializing, a new way of binding and creating families. We don’t really see the possibilities of that vision today because 1) we are too busy seeing how the implementation didn’t really work out so well (think implementations of communism vs. the ideal theory) and 2) the church in these days has moved so far away from it. While the church currently promotes a comfortable nuclear family monogamy albeit with probably more than 2.5 kids…it’s tough to see that there was a time when this bourgeouis ideal was not only not viewed so highly, but seen as the thing that brought Rome down, etc.,

    like, if you think about it, a whole lot of movements begin with radical conceptions of sexuality. They often fall apart because of them, or become more conventional over time to survive. Today, we have polyamory. A few decades ago, free love. What is polygamy in this chain of reconceptions?

    …As for me personally…I’m not too too caught up on any of the past leaders, and I definitely don’t claim to be super well read so I’m not the one to go into such a discussion…but it is my awareness that just from looking in 2013…traits like being captivating, persuasive, charismatic, etc., tend to go along *extremely well* with traits like being a jackass. So, I mean, I don’t know if I should follow someone who is flawed just because they are captivating and charismatic.

    well, look at me…I basically just wrote another post here. And I have some more thoughts from other discussions too…

    • This is mostly to Seth and also to Andrew: Seth: Helen Mar Kimball married Joseph Smith ‘with all the rights pertaining to that institution.” We have every reason to believe that marriage was consumated.
      Also, at one point Joseph married the entire Relief Society. That put the tongues of some to rest. I imagine many of those marriages were never expected to be consumated.
      But, move forward to Brigham Young’s time. At that time, polygamy was in the open so people could say how they felt. A few believed it was the word of God, therefore they practiced it. Many more felt it was a cruel command to have to share one’s husband. According to Fanny Stenhouse, a second marriage diluted the first, and a third diluted things even more. People practiced polygamy because they were told it was of God. Some women went to their graves early because they could not stand the thought of sharing. For the men, there was always another to take her place. But, again according to Fanny Stenhouse, the men weren’t all that eager to take on plural wives. There was a lot of pressure to conform.

  9. Just Judy,

    I will say that I haven’t seen a book of a similar vein to “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” for Brigham Young. That guys seems to have been even rougher around the edges.

    but yeah, I totally agree that the implementation of polygamy was rife with problems, and a lot of people really struggled and suffered because of it.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    I personally don’t see any more problems in polygamy historically than I’ve seen in monogamy historically.

    And no – I don’t have any particular reason to believe the marriage to Helen Mar Kimball was consummated. It’s pure inference.

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