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Personal Authenticity vs. Social Roleplaying in Religion

July 3, 2012

In the online Mormon world, there are now huge shakeups (and discussions ad nauseum surrounding said shakeups) within the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (also known as the Maxwell Institute, and probably more famously known for the major LDS apologetic group  Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS). I’ve tried my best to stay far away from this, as there are tremendous ego and personality struggles associated with it, but for a timeline, you can check Jack’s at Clobberblog. And if you want to read about John Dehlin’s role in the debacle at the Maxwell Institute, Jack also has this little Q&A.

The latest reaction post to the dustup comes from Rosalynde Welch: The Odd Couple — Story and Community. Rosalynde’s post is a critique of John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories project. Without getting too much into her criticism of John or Mormon Stories itself (ego/personality issues, after all), I would like to touch upon idea she had:

Mormon Stories thus defines itself on two axes: both as a supportive social ecosystem, and as a purveyor of what it calls “authentic self-expression.” These two goals are, of course, in direct conflict with one another. It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “authentic self-expression,” and in any case I am one who doubts that anything like authentic self-expression—or even anything like an “authentic self”—actually exists. But conceding for the sake of argument that some kind of personal communication can spring directly from the soul, unmediated by environment or exigency, surely a vibrant social community is the last place one would expect to find such authentic expression. A social community is nothing more than a source of mediating narratives, names, and norms that exist precisely to shape the substrate of basic human perception into meaningful experience. If “authentic” expression is language that arises directly from an unadulterated private conscience, then expression from within a community can only be seen as artificially mediated—it’s simply the nature of the thing.

I have talked about authenticity at this blog often, so how could I not grapple with her point here?

I can see what Rosalynde means when she asserts that authentic self-expression is in direct conflict with social ecosystems. At the extreme, we as individuals may harbor desires, preferences, likes, and dislikes that are utterly at odds with what society prefers. (The most extreme examples I could offer would probably turn most people off of the discussion, in fact, because of this dynamic: how does a pedophile authentically express him or herself?) However, the point isn’t just something that is apparent on the extremes — even in more mundane senses, sociality is a game of impression management. We shift between roles naturally and fluidly in different social situations — so we wouldn’t talk to Grandma the same way we’d talk to our boss, and we wouldn’t talk to either the same way we’d talk to our close friends.

I guess one could say that our ability to shift roles (and the roles we consciously choose to take in situations) makes those roles a part of our authentic selves…to play off an example I hear often, if you have an aunt who has given you a really ugly sweater for Christmas, some people would say that if she asks you how you feel about it, an authentic response must be to tell her that you hate it. However, others would challenge that since you like your aunt (let’s assume this is the case), then saying something that you know would upset her is a violation of your authentic like and appreciation for her.

…so that’s one place where authenticity has problems. I think that Rosalynde alludes to some deeper issues. When she doubts whether anything like an “authentic self” actually exists — and describes such authentic self-expression as being “some kind of personal communication [that] spring[s] directly from the soul, unmediated by environment or exigency,” then I think I can understand her critique. The underlying question is: what makes us us if not for our circumstances, our environment, and so on? If you changed my race, or my sexuality, or any number of intersectional qualities I have, then I would quite simply be a different person.

But for this post, I’ll set aside those possible reservations and criticisms of the idea of authenticity…instead, I’ll try to address what I feel about the dichotomy between authenticity and sociality.

What is Religion Good For?

In my last post, I wrote that one element of my disaffection (albeit a far less glamorous one that I’ve only recently begun to truly consider) is the fact that I don’t think that Mormonism really concretely helps me to become a better person.

But to be honest, I feel that there is a way it could be helping me to become a better person — I just may not have seen it appropriately. So, to simplify things, let’s say that my goal is to be kinder, more patient, more long-suffering, and so on. There are two ways the church could help me do this.

1) The positive way.

The positive way to help me be kinder, more patient, and so on is by providing positive, proactive techniques and tools to develop these traits. It may not even be techniques or tools in a direct sense — in a non-LDS Christian context, it might just be as simple as the fact that realizing that I’m a sinner, yet I’m saved changes my perspective enough that I develop these “fruits.”

That’s one way. I think the church advertises this way, and so I assume that’s what I’ll find. I assume that prayer, scripture study, fasting, attending meetings, and so forth are positive things to help me develop these traits.

When I say “I don’t think that Mormonism really concretely helps me to become a better person,” it’s because I find this “positive” way lacking…but there is another way it could be helping to teach me…

2) The negative way.

Perhaps, instead of providing me proactive techniques to develop these traits, the point of a religion is to throw me into uncomfortable situations where I must learn this techniques through reaction. In this way, I learn to be patient only because there are really trying situations that I face specifically because of that religion. I learn to be kind because there will be cruelty from my fellow travelers.

…Believe it our not, this kind of “hard knocks” approach does have its defenders. It is basically the underlying idea behind Eugene England’s Why the Church is as true as the Gospel, for just one famous example. However, it permeates some of the discourse down at a member level: if we had a list of testimony tropes, there’d certainly be the trope of asking God for help with something…only to find not help, but more struggles. If I, to use a frivolous example, ask to get better at math, then God won’t make math easier for me…rather, I’ll find harder math problems, but as I face these (painfully), then I will come out stronger in the end.

…Or so the trope goes.

If I knew which method religions were supposed to operate under, then I could act accordingly far better. One major point of disaffection is that no one wants to admit one way or another…

Back to Authenticity and Sociality

That last section might have seemed completely unrelated to the topic, but let me try to bring things back together.

My goal is to improve myself: so I think that doing things that improve me are part of my authentic self-expression. However, I need to know the method by which the church would improve me to act appropriately…what keeps me away is that I suspect that faith is predicated on belief in the former. It is belief in positive techniques and tools to proactively improve — a spiritual experience or something like that.

But if that’s the case, then I can’t authentically say I’ve experienced anything like that, and without it,, I feel like a sham trying to “pretend” to fit in with the community norms.

However…what about that sociality aspect? In some ways sociality is the reactive side of things — one must always react to one another.

I started thinking about this in the comments to my last post. Phanty had said:

And I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything really wrong with those statements, especially since there’s only three of them. But they sound so reminiscent of all the other stuff you hear in Mormonism: Oh, you’re not as happy as you thought you were supposed to be? Let me explain why it’s not working how you expected, but it’s all still true. A few of these rationalizations at a time may be fine and totally accurate, but I’ve heard way too many of them. The reaction is too often “you’re looking at this the wrong way” and too rarely “maybe the church isn’t true.”

It seems to me that the church is full of offense. It is full of injustice. It is full of falsity. But the question is…how will we deal with these things? Will we deal with it by looking outward (at what Mormonism is) or by looking inward (at what we are)?

The authentic answer seems to be: check what Mormonism is, and make your decision based on that. If you think the church is false, then pursue truth and leave it. Is you see injustice, the authentic answer is to renounce it…to seek to minimize or solve injustice and not to perpetuate it. If you are offended, neutralize the offense.

This seems to be a viable answer with respect to the church. Yes, you may lose friends and contact with family members as a result of disaffecting from the church, but the church isn’t an obligatory part of anyone’s life.

…what struck me, though, was the fact that these aren’t church-specific issues. You will face offense everywhere. You will face injustice everywhere. You will face falsity everywhere. With the church, it seems liberating enough to move away from the position “You’re looking at this the wrong way” to “Maybe the church isn’t true [and I’ll leave it]” — but with life, this isn’t a liberating solution. The only way you can liberate yourself is if you somehow change the way you look at any given situation, no matter how horrible.

What if the church is supposed to be annoying, or boring, or offensive, or untrue, or whatever else…because that’s the way you are tested on your ability to react to these ills with grace and graciousness? What if authenticity isn’t being in or out, but being grounded despite everything going on around you, wherever you are?

Concluding thoughts

This is a rough way to look at religion or life, I think. I think that many people view religions as sanctuaries…whereas you have to hide yourself in the World, people view church as a place where you can be vulnerable, you can be open, you can be authentic. [I really wanted to link to a post or a comment that explicitly stated this, because I have seen it around…but it escapes me…] They think that if you cannot be these things in church, then you are in the wrong church (at least, the wrong church for you.)

If that is true, then my thoughts hardly fit that. My experience is that church is not a place where I can be vulnerable (because I know that vulnerability will be attached); it is not a place where I can be open (because my openness will be shut); it is not a place where I can be authentic. But maybe, since I want to learn how to deal with a world that is exactly like that, the authentic response precisely is to endure those things in the church?

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8 Comments
  1. There is a lot to chew on here, and as always, you bring up interesting fodder.

    I run into a rift with one of your foundational premises, i.e. that the Church is *supposed to be*… anything.

    “What if the church is supposed to be annoying, or boring, or offensive, or untrue, or whatever else…because that’s the way you are tested on your ability to react to these ills with grace and graciousness?”

    The idea that the Church is “supposed to be” gives me a sense of finding a board game where we don’t have the rules, and try to infer them as we play. I suppose this is the way people frequently look at life. That there is the “right” way to go about it, and the “wrong” way.

    Who decides this? Obviously, within the context of the Church, it’s God. Since I can find no evidence for God (or at least the typically defined *involved* God), it appears to me to be either persons or social structures motivated to try to get me to behave in a way that may or may not be to the furtherance of my own objectives. I used to see those objectives as aligned, now, I mostly don’t.

    In your more derivative version (or Eugene England’s version) of the “supposed to be” dilemma, who is deciding now?

    Parenthetically, the derivative (and deceptive) way England imagines God to be, means that, true to the Edenic mythology, God makes a regular habit of lying (i.e. of the players in the Eden narrative, God *really is* the only one who lies). Problematically, at a personal level, he then made me into a person who doesn’t play those games well (ask my wife), and so I refuse to play.

    Moving away from the “supposed to be” game begs the question whether there *is* a “supposed to be” and I suppose the answer to be, no. I am comfortable with some form of nihilism.

    The other glaring problem I have here is related to this thought:

    “You will face offense everywhere. You will face injustice everywhere. You will face falsity everywhere.”

    I find this to be a false assertion. I *may* face offense, falsity, and injustice. But I may not. And when I do, I may be able to remove myself, I may not. I may be able to change it, I may not. Certainly I will not find these *everywhere*. Certainly I don’t see a meta purpose in accepting any of them.

    I have heard variants of the “you will find imperfection everywhere, so accept it here” argument MANY times now since leaving the fold. I cannot validate it. There is no reason that I should suppose that all things share the same corrupt characteristics. The world is obviously diverse and varied. Not all things are of a like. Not all churches are corrupt. Not all institutions hurt people. The attempt at the truism does not make it so and it is so broad as to certainly be false.

    I am categorically of the opinion that THIS institution harms people. Upon wandering into the lone and dreary world, I will almost certainly find some others that do as well. But I find it irrational to not leave the known harm because of the possibility of finding other harm elsewhere.

  2. Greg,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I guess the “supposed to be” critique is fair. I shouldn’t try to derive an “ought” from an “is.”

    With respect to what you say here:

    Who decides this? Obviously, within the context of the Church, it’s God. Since I can find no evidence for God (or at least the typically defined *involved* God), it appears to me to be either persons or social structures motivated to try to get me to behave in a way that may or may not be to the furtherance of my own objectives. I used to see those objectives as aligned, now, I mostly don’t.

    In your more derivative version (or Eugene England’s version) of the “supposed to be” dilemma, who is deciding now?

    I would say that even if you find no evidence of God (me neither), then it is persons and social structure that decides — hence, my framing of personal authenticity counter to sociality…one is either with the group or with one’s “self” (for whatever value of “self”).

    Moving away from the “supposed to be” game begs the question whether there *is* a “supposed to be” and I suppose the answer to be, no. I am comfortable with some form of nihilism.

    OK, I’ve got no problem with this. But I think there still is a question…so if instead of “ought” we have “is,” we still have a question of what we will do…so, if the question is NOT “Is the church *supposed to be x*,” but it is simply, “Is the church x?” then the question is, “OK, so the church is x…what will I do about that?”

    This touches your next section.

    Good call on the loose use I had on the term “everywhere.” That’s hyperbole (or perhaps more cynicism that I want to convey at this point), but my point was more that offense, falsity, and injustice are general things in life, not specific things to Mormonism or religion. (I’m not saying there aren’t *specific* things that mormonism does that you generally won’t find elsewhere in society, but a lot of times, people are getting caught up with human problems, rather than Mormon problems.)

    Perhaps you’ll say that I’m creating a variation of the same “you will find imperfection everywhere, so accept it here” you’ve heard, but I’ll try to explain myself.

    1) I don’t think I’m saying “accept” it — firstly, because I haven’t even made a conclusion to go back to church or anything. But secondly, because I’m not sure what going to church would entail. Instead of “accepting,” it could entail “fight it from within” or something like that.

    2) I guess what I’m suggesting is not so much, “you will find imperfection everywhere, so accept it in the church,” but rather, “you will find imperfection as a feature of life in many settings, so for some settings at least, you should do something *other* than try to escape or flee those imperfections.” My hypothesis might be something more like, “The church might be one imperfect setting that you may try not to escape, but may try to cultivate your ability to respond in different ways — whether it is through practicing internal patience or practicing your ability to change institutions.”

    I guess, to try to summarize a long comment, I’ll try to address your last line:

    But I find it irrational to not leave the known harm because of the possibility of finding other harm elsewhere.

    This seems to take for granted that the only rational response to known harm is to escape or flee that harm. And I certainly will concede that of “fight or flight,” flight certainly is one reaction. But “fighting” is also a valid reaction. What I would assert is that there can be other valid reactions as well: turning the other cheek (if you buy that philosophically), and so on.

    Hope that makes some sense…

  3. Totally makes sense. Great response. And I fundamentally agree with the idea that “staying” (or returning) should be among the options people feel empowered to make.

    I think my concern was with the metaphysics of the argument, not so much the pragmatics of what choices are available. Once we acknowledge what the Church is, and leave what it is supposed to be, or what I am supposed to do about it, off the table, then I think the question of what to do about it has a completely different flavor. Does that make sense?

    I DO question the decision to allow self-harm, not because I think there can’t be legit reasons to allow it, but because I presume it is reasonable for me to expect people to have a reason that they are aware of.

    In this… I often expect too much.

  4. jewelfox permalink

    That’s not a very comforting thing to suggest to someone who nearly died, for want of a safe space to be herself in.

    Maybe you didn’t mean to address it to me, but there are a lot of people like me out there, if Utah’s youth suicide statistics are any indication.

  5. jewelfox,

    I see what you’re saying. That definitely gives me pause when writing posts like these…

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Fight or Flight in Toxic Religious Environments « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. John Dehlin as the Malcolm Gladwell of Mormon studies…at Wheat and Tares « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
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