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Learning to understand middle way Mormons

December 3, 2009

I’ve been commenting back and forth at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry about Middle Way Mormons, because he wrote a comment in response to Madam Curie’s post “Is the Middle Way Actually Possible in Mormonism?

Dave came to a rather short and simple conclusion. Of course it is possible. Because all Mormons are middle way Mormons. I felt that his curt conclusion failed to give weight to the true tensions involved that give us (at least, some of us) reason to even describe “Middle Way Mormon” or “New Order Mormon” as a distinct term. It seemed a hint dismissive, but it would take so many posts to try to dive into it.

In my comments, I guess I was pretty terrible and ineffective at articulating in on the distinction. Yet I feel that this distinction, despite my disservice to explaining it, truly exists.

Dave wrote in one of his latter-most comments (please try to read the entire dialogue though):

…I think that if you enthrone autonomy and authenticity to the exclusion of any other consideration or virtue, yes, such a person will have difficulty participating in (feeling fellowship with) any congregation or denomination. Such a person will likely perceive their quest for full autonomy as a deal-breaker.

Being part of a religious community, like being part of any community, requires some denial of self in the interest of fostering a community around a set of shared beliefs and values…

I guess in a roundabout way I am agreeing with you — personal autonomy and authenticity, taken to an extreme, can become subjective deal-breakers for those approaching life that way, and objective deal-breakers if they become too obnoxious while putting into practice their self-centered view of how the world works. But I don’t see that as a praiseworthy outcome for the individual, whatever label you put on it.

I’m guessing you are just pursuing this position for the sake of argument. If you have held a job for more than three months (i.e., you can get along with a supervisor and coworkers) or been on a team for a full season (i.e., you can get along with a coach and teammates), you have what it takes to be a happy and fulfilled member of a congregation, hopefully an LDS congregation.

I feel like I should give up now, since whatever I say next…I have the sneaking suspicion will be immediately discounted. The world according to Dave is that I’m “just pursuing this position for the sake of argument.”

Ah, such is classic Dave. I’ll disregard for now. But how do I begin? As I wrote in my last comment on his site…autonomy is treated to the exclusion of any other virtue. Rather, all virtues are weighed against each other. This is why there is tension to begin with! There is tension because people do value autonomy, people do value community, but they recognize that the demands of one may not necessarily agree with the other. When they do not, this is what produces a crisis of inauthenticity.

Dave points out that being part of a community requires some self-denial for the sake of fostering that community around shared values. So he notes that too much autonomy then, could become a deal-breaker. But what he concludes is that this excess autonomy is a “self-centered view of how the world works,” and “that is not a praiseworthy outcome for the individual.”

I have a few disagreements. I don’t know where to begin.

I guess the first is to address this self-centered view of how the world works. I sense (but maybe this is going too far) that Dave view this in a negative light…as if we should be willing not to be self-centered and instead we should be self-denying for the sake of the group. So, someone who does not deny the self is following a path that leads to an outcome that is “not praiseworthy.”

I disagree here. I think that self-centeredness is at the heart of what we want to do. The issue is sometimes, we find self-denial in our long-term self-interest.

Let’s take autonomy, community, and authenticity. As I wrote before, the demands of autonomy may or may not align with the demands of community. If they do align, does that mean we are being self-denialist and we are eschewing self-centeredness? Absolutely not…what it means is that our autonomy and community demands align, so self-denial is our self-centered conclusion. Mormonism (or any other community) brings something to us (a sense of peace, fulfillment, joy, salvation, exaltation) and so we want to sacrifice for that. We want to be obedient for that.

However…what if autonomy and community demands don’t match? Let’s say we still want peace, fulfillment, joy, etc., but Mormonism isn’t quite completely giving us that. There are beliefs and practices which detract from us. However, community demands still require some sacrifices (we can quibble on what those sacrifices are…but in the conversation at the Mormon inquiry, we seemed to settle that even if one believes in heterodox teachings, he should not speak publicly about these…or else be “obnoxious” about these.) In this case, we must weigh autonomy and community. We want to be autonomous and true to our beliefs…but what about the community? For people who also value the community (and the community can include people like family that are truly valuable to us), any compromise is a miserable and unenviable state.

I think Dave’s final analogy is quite conducive to what I am saying. We know that working a job for an extended period of time actually is not evidence, as Dave presumes, that we “have what it takes to be a happy and fulfilled member of a congregation.” We can most certainly work for a job over an extended period of time while being miserable in it. Such a lamentable conclusion, yes, but all our continued work for the job shows is that we can get along with supervisors and coworkers enough not to be officially or unofficially expelled from the group.

How could things roll out?

Well, it could be that we enjoy our job. In that case, getting along with coworkers and supervisors is what we do, and there is no conflict between community demands and our autonomy. So, in this case, we would be happy and fulfilled members of a community.

BUT is this what every employee experiences?

Couldn’t we imagine someone who hates his job, his supervisors, and his coworkers? (I would imagine that not only can we imagine this, but we’ve experienced it). But he knows that he has to earn money for family and children. (Again, isn’t this familiar?) He knows that he has status and role expectations to play. So he knows that fulfilling his autonomy would crucially disturb his duties to his family, so he denies himself for the sake of his family. As a result, he does get along with his coworkers and his supervisors…for if he did not…if he even even HINTED that he didn’t like his coworkers and employers, he would risk being expelled (whether officially or unofficially).

This person lives a miserable and inauthentic existence. We wouldn’t say this situation or outcome is praiseworthy. We would say it is a lamentable evil and the individual is “making the best of a bad situation.”

But you know what? If that person knew he could find a different job…if he knew he could find fulfillment, a sufficient salary, and joy elsewhere, most people would not hold it against him if he left the old job. Most people would not say this was a “self-centered view of how the world works” with a sneer. They would say that even if this view is self-centered, it is reasonable. It is admirable.

…Why, then, do we come to drastically different conclusions when we are discussing religion?


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  1. madamcurie permalink

    I agree with you, Andrew. And I think it comes down heavily to the idea of the cost:benefit ratio. Like all things in life, when the cost:benefit ratio of staying in a community gets to be very small, then the benefits of leaving the community outweigh staying in it.

    I’m going to be quickly personal here (all of my comments, rally, come down to personal narrative). Even more than a job, I view my interaction with the Mormon Church as a relationship that went sour. When I first joined the church, the community was positive and uplifting. Over time, a combination of my personality and learning more about the church made attending the LDS Church very toxic for me. Its like I had a boyfriend for 10 years – he was great and wonderful when we first met, and met all of my needs. But then my needs changed as I grew, and I learned less savory things about him, and the relationship started to cost more than I was gaining from it.

    There is nothing praiseworthy in staying in a toxic marriage or relationship. Likewise, there is nothing praiseworthy in staying in a (personally) toxic community.

  2. While I agree with the meaning behind your point, I don’t know if I like the comparison to an intimate relationship. In that case there is (usually) an emotional bond or attachment that exists between two people, something that DOES NOT work the same between a person and an organization or community. Just sayin’. πŸ˜‰

  3. The thing is, Adam, that although the church isn’t a living thing, there is the expectation that the church, gospel, and people in the church are looking out for one’s best interest. Consider so many Christians who describe their spirituality as a “relationship with Jesus”…these are the terma that people use to describe things…terms like a relationship where the other side cares

    To ignore this dynamic is either to be coy or to cheapen the idea of religion

  4. FireTag permalink

    Pretty standard Christian theology is “we love God because He first loved us.”

    The core idea in that is that the system is stabilized only when the whole sustains the part. We are talking here about individual self-interest, but the community’s self interest is in sustaining the individual, as well. In fact, communities only arise in the first place when they provide something of value to their elements.

    A church which throws too many of its members under the bus by not allowing them to be authentic within the community soon won’t be a church.

  5. Gorgeous whistler permalink

    Even though I realize that many people do speak of a relationship with Jesus, we have to acknowledge that if the Mormon church is what it claims to be, then being a member of it is different than having a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend. That would imply that a membership should strive to be in conformance with the manner in which the church suggested a member should live his or her life.

    Of course, if one doesn’t believe the truth claims of the church, this point is moot, and even if one does, I suppose there is still room to question or debate whether the leaders of the church are at all times and in all ways leading the church in accordance with Jesus’s will. I just think it is important to make a distinction between earthly relationships and those with the Divine.

    • The thing is, even in this…we could argue that it is the “Mormon church” that has relationship-like status with the individual, that cares for the individual’s well-being and wishes for the best. I don’t think you want to argue that the church cold and unfeeling.

  6. The thing is, Andrew, is that a “relationship” is not the same thing as a “relatonship with a romantic partner.” To claim otherwise is to be coy or not understand romantic relationships. πŸ˜‰

    Perhaps rather than the boyfriend relationship gone sour analogy, we should use a relationship with a parent instead… If a parent was no longer doing his or her duty, naturally the child will have unmet needs or problems. When that child gets old enough, they will jet… Maybe I’m taking this too far now, but I was just being picky with the comparison to a “romantic” relationship, as I don’t think that’s a good one.

  7. madamcurie permalink

    I’m surprised that my analogy has caused so much controversy, since I am certainly not the first to make it. In fact, I took the analogy from a disaffected Mormon friend of mine, who described her process of disaffection as “falling out of love” with the church.

    There are so many ways in which one’s (particularly a convert’s) relationship with the Mormon church can be seen as a romantic relationship. For instance, how many converts are the result of romantic relationships? How often do converts fall in love with their missionaries? How often do you hear “flirt to convert”? Or the idea that feelings of romantic love and those of the Spirit are similar?

    The Church puts its best face forward in the missionary program, the same way a that a person who is early on in a relationship tries to impress the person they are dating. Converts are loaded with attention and love, and treated very specially. However, as they stay members, that attention dies away, much the same way one can get “lazy” in a marriage after they have “won over” their spouse – no longer going out of their way to flirt, to compliment, and to do special things for, etc.

    The decision to join the Church is largely based on feelings and emotions, similar to one’s decision to enter into a romantic relationship. Similarly, it is often very, very difficult to leave a romantic relationship you are invested in, as it is similarly hard to leave the Church once you have been committed to it for a long time. The “spouse” in the form of Bishoprics, well-meaning church members, etc., try their hardest to point out all of their positive attributes again, and to sweep under the rug anything that happened “in the past”.

    Later in their relationship with the church, individuals find out the “less savory” aspects of church history. Likewise, later in one’s relationship with a boy/girlfriend, they learn more information about them, their background, their childhood, etc.

    The Christian Church has been compared by Paul to a bride, and Christ as the bridegroom.

    In Catholicism, when nuns take their vows, they often wear rings in symbolism of their being “brides of Christ” or married to Christ.

    I think its a pretty common comparison, actually. Like all analogies, of course, it eventually falls apart, but I think for the purposes of describing someone’s disaffection with the church, it is very appropriate.

  8. Lol don’t get too excited. No controversy, only interest. I have not been clear I suppose. By “romantic relationship” I did not mean limerence but rather the attachment bond between two partners. It is reciprocal, or at least should be. Each partner turns to the other when they are in need, and the other responds with emotional accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement. Both partners take on this “caregivng” role. THIS kind of relationship, is IMHO in not really like one’s relationship with a religion, or “with Jesus.”

    Please forgive me for my bias though, as all I study (pretty much) nowadays is adult attachment, I tend to view everything through that lens, and when someone else throws out an analogy, even if it’s St. Paul, I tend to speak up. πŸ™‚ Relationship, yes. limerence, maybe. Attachment (I.e. What I think, and evolution thinks, is “love”), not it at all really. πŸ™‚

    • madamcurie permalink

      Lol don’t get too excited. No controversy, only interest.


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