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Mormonism, modernism and postmodernism

August 1, 2009

I was reading a blog article “Postmodernism and Mormonism: Parallels and Departures“…and I’ll be honest. I thought it was interesting; I read through it all; but throughout my reading I had this nagging feeling that the post was just incredibly too long. Like a mountain that has to be surpassed more than hiked or climbed.

So, I thought I wasn’t going to comment on this article…at least, until I saw Dave’s article Modernism and the Mormon Intellectual at T&S. While I get the sense that Dave has been really really dying to talk to someone about Richard Bushman’s “Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction“, I am sad to say that, sorry Dave, I haven’t read it! I whine about the lengths of online articles…a “very short” introduction might knock me out for good.

Anyway, I don’t know about Dave’s answer, what with “irreverence” as a way to “cope” with modernism, but I was intrigued by Jonathan’s answer about the tenuous love-hate relationship with postmodernism.

For example:

As Duffy notes, it’s the conservative, orthodox scholars that advance postmodernism against the more liberal scholars of the new Mormon history, who want a dispassionate approach to the LDS Church.

The success of the faithful history came with the demise of the new Mormon history during the 1980s and ‘90s. Louis Midgley and David E. Bohn, retired BYU political science professors and contributors to FARMS, were among the earliest and most dogged detractors of the New Mormon history. Midgley and Bohn employed a postmodern critique against the approach. In particular, they argued that any attempt at an objective Mormon history is futile, because all claims originate in an ideology and are “inescapably mediated by language and culture.” And since there is no objective or a priori means by which determine the truth or falsity of an ideology, all perspectives are valid. This philosophy resembles Nietzsche’s perspectivism, which says that we can only know things from our individual perspectives. Midgley and Bohn therefore urged all Mormon scholars to study from their religious perspectives and give up their pretenses of neutrality.

This actually reminds me of a post about history as narrative fallacy. (Also, as an aside, Dave’s post on the role inspiration and revelation play for members translates well with Jonathan’s “most readily apparent parallel between postmodernism and Mormonism” as well as his second reason for Mormon “atheologicalness” [and in fact, even Dave notes BYU’s lack of a theology department]).

But, getting back on track, what bad could come from a perspectivist kind of postmodernism? As Jonathan continues:

As it was for Mormon teachings, postmodernism is a double-edged sword for Mormon apologetics. Many professors at the very conservative BYU do not want to see their school become a bastion of postmodern thought. English professor Richard Cracroft fears that postmodernism will invariably bring with it “the creeds of secularism,” which include “immoralism, atheism, nihilism, negativism, perversity, rebelliousness, doubt, disbelief, and disorder.”

What’s more, it seems that orthodox Mormon apologists have yet to internalize the very postmodern philosophies that they use against their critics. On the one hand, the Mormon apologist dismisses truth as a fiction as per postmodernism. But on the other, they affirm that the LDS Church is “the one and only true Church.” These two sentiments cannot easily be reconciled. If the apologists were to fully adopt the philosophies they exploit, then postmodern Mormon apologetics would be a self-cannibalizing project. The orthodox scholars would have to surrender their claims to knowledge and objective, religious truth.

Oops! On the other hand, I have seen enough Bloggernaclers say that this whole deal with the “one and only true Church” may just be part of the narrative as well…and one should just go with it. In the billions upon billions of blog posts and comments that sprung up over the idea of ex-Mormons being those who took Mormonism “too seriously” when they should not have, some faithful members asserted, “So what if the church has a pervasive rhetoric or perfectionism? This perfectionism should be recognized as rhetoric, not reality.”

You know, like that Titanic. Reasonable people should’ve known that the claim the ship was unsinkable was just puffery. (Actually, I have used that in a mock court case for law merit badge and won with it.)

So perhaps there’s something there to what Dave had said about the Bloggernaclers’ “irreverence.” Would such comments come out in regular Sunday class? And yet, it could be this is precisely why modernism doesn’t break Mormonism’s stride.

(Also see: Mormon Organon’s take)

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  1. Did you see this study?

    I’ll just give you the conclusion as a teaser:

    “[O]ur results suggest that postmodernism, rather than science, is the bête noir — the strongest antagonist — of religiosity.”

    Look out, postmodernist Mormon apologists!

  2. Yes, I had seen that, chanson.

    I think it is something that the GAs recognize (see quote on “the creeds of secularism” which probably would include postmodernism somewhere in that list), even if apologists often use such methodologies. And I agree with Jonathan that postmodernism could end up “cannibalizing” apologetics

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