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The role of parsing in Mormonism

December 17, 2009

If you’ve read through the Mormon Bloggernacle long enough, then you’ve probably come across Ray (aka Papa D of Things of My Soul.) Ray is noteworthy for a great many things (for one, I have never seen Ray lose his cool. I have seen him express strong sentiments against Calvinism at rare times, but he seems to be one of the most level-headed people I know), but one of the things I find most striking is his affinity for parsing. Here’s an example from his site with Alma 56.

Ray goes through scriptures, line by line…part by part…teasing the explicit meanings from the faulty inferences that people may make. By pointing out these faulty inferences, he frees himself from questionable and undesirable viewpoints. You can see more here and here. Others have written about the vagueness that allows this possibly being a gospel principle.

Lots of places have talked about “Middle Way Mormonism” recently. If we can call call “Middle Way Mormonism” an emerging, yet somewhat loosely organized school of thought, then I think that one common aspect of it is parsing. And although Ray is the resident parser, I find many people in the “John Dehlinistic” school of thought use it in some way or fashion. OK, so now I’ll have to explain…

As Ray said in a comment to a post “Freedom and Honesty,” one can still express heterodox opinions within the church…if one is not a threat, then one will not be seen as a threat, then one will not be treated as a threat. (And there are other posts from others about how to go about not being a threat.)

This comment seems minor…but I think it’s important to Middle Way Mormonism.vIt forms a major part of John Dehlin’s philosophy in “staying LDS” after a major crisis of faith, and I see that people who have coalesced around Dehlin (wow, this sounds so much more…epic…than real life actually is) in ventures such as Mormon Matters, even if they have not faced major crises of faith, exhibit this kind of thinking. So often do I read blogs from faithful members — who regard themselves as such, true believers — who seem to have quite heterodox views.

I think it’s because they have found a way to be authentic within their heterodoxy. I mean heterodoxy in a greater sense than “well, everyone picks and chooses.” Even while I look at John Dehlin’s “How to Stay” essay and wonder about his section on answer the temple recommend interview (which I covered here, but read Dehlin’s thoughts here and ctrl+f for “Temple Recommend”), I can’t help but feel that this approach is a meta-game…a game about the Mormon language that “takes advantage of” the system by parsing out expectations about particular words and answers and then ceasing to live by those expectations and assumptions. I feel uneasy about this…how could I answer in such a way when I still wholeheartedly believe that the “assumptions” and “expectations” I’ve just parsed out are what other members think about when I assent to certain statements?

I made some comments on a Mormon Matters topic in this vein. This “creative honesty,” if caught, could lead one to be seen as a threat. John Dehlin, after all, doesn’t lack ideological enemies or people within the church who view him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” So, I had a nagging suspicion that “creative honesty,” “parsing,” “the Middle Way,” and so on, were somewhat illegitimate. Somewhat sneaky. Somewhat underhanded.

But recently, I have come to realize that it’s not sneaky to use a tool of the trade…and in fact, perhaps the other side isn’t so innocent. I came across it from reading a blog post at The Post-Mormon Perspective responding to Daniel Peterson.

See, William, the post-Mormon in question, is reacting to apologist Daniel Peterson’s open and copious parsing with respect to the church and information about its history. Peterson’s contention (and a contention that some other apologists have shared) is that ex-Mormons harbor faulty, if popular inferences about the nature of inspiration, prophets, church history…and when these inferences are falsified, they become wrongly disaffected. The apologists would argue that proper parsing would show that Mormon prophets should not be held as infallible (despite what any popular interpretations of quotes, scriptures, doctrines, or rumors are), and in fact, one can see fallibility and defect from times of old to times today. The disaffection that so often strikes people when members learn “how history actually went” is unwarranted, because these members should’ve never believed in faulty inferences and unjustified conclusions about history, doctrine, no matter how plausible these seem or seemed. (So, apologetics often becomes something like, “Oh, yeah, so that seemingly negative claim about the prophet is…true. But it shouldn’t harm your faith; it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker because the prophet is still human.)

And then a thought struck me. If apologists or the church use this same system of parsing, cutting away what is believed to be “false expectations” or “faulty inferences,” (perhaps even “ignorance” and “sloth”) when it is convenient, then why should I have disdain for members who use this same crucial tool to take Mormonism back on their own terms? If everyone is playing the meta-game, then isn’t that meta-game fit and proper?

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7 Comments
  1. Mormonism on my own terms.

    I do this all the time. And I make no apologies about it.

    My feeling is that the LDS faith is about community forged by covenant first and foremost.

    If you are supportive and loyal to that community and don’t do things to undermine or upset it, then you can actually get away with an awful lot of other stuff.

  2. The issue really is what is necessary to be “loyal to the community.”

    I think that can be most painful to many.

  3. “Loneliness is the price we pay for being free in the world.”

    Natsume Soseki

  4. No quotes from me in response, but I can only hope that Mr. Natsume spoke in ignorance of the greater conundrum. I certainly hope that the reason he fails to mention it is because he has never experienced the worse situation when you are lonely even in a community — or lonely *because* of the community. Because in this unique and terrible situation, your loneliness is alienation, and you don’t even get the consolation prize of freedom in the world.

  5. He’s a Japanese author.

    My experience was that most Japanese people are aware of this conundrum quite painfully. They have a cultural community that is so all encompassing that it can be rather oppressive.

  6. I guess that would make sense.

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  1. What good is an alien community? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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