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Are Liberal Mormons even grappling with Mormonism?

July 9, 2012

This is a question that I’ve asked myself implicitly for a long time, but I never figured out that this is what I was asking explicitly until I connected three dots.

I think the first dot is summarized by my post on Mormon Stories ability to “popularize” Mormon studies. In comments to that discussion, I summarized how I view things thusly:

PREMISE 1) There are many issues that seem to be problem points for many Mormons.

PREMISE 2) There are many ways to address these issues in a way that can “resolve” them satisfactorily, but…

PREMISE 3) Insiders to the church (or, as to analogize to your model…insiders to faith) aren’t really doing a good job of providing these answers in a general way.

The first dot, the first thing that has driven a lot of my blogging, is the awareness that even if there are issues with Mormon history, theology, and practice, there are faithful folks who seem to be aware of these issues and who seem to have faith in light of or in spite of these issues. It’s not true that if you know about these issues, then the only way to resolve the conflict is to leave the church. “Cog dis” isn’t the only way.

The second dot came from a response to Bonnie on that same post. She had written:

This is available to every member and nothing in correlation interferes with one’s ability to do this. If you look at the work of the church, it is putting all kinds of primary sources at the fingertips of everyday members (how much more populist can you get than put the unedited primaries in people’s hands, like the explosion that occurred when people began to own bibles). The church says, “please, study this, have an experience with this.” I’m not seeing any hide and seek. I’m seeing a genuine resurgence in democratic revelation encouraged from the highest levels.

I think the “if you get a different answer from the prophet then you’re wrong” comes from local, not general leadership.

From another comment…

And I just don’t think the institution limits me in any way, so I’m not worried about what speed it’s moving.

But I’m not so sure about this. One, I don’t think that we can dismiss the “If you get a different message from the prophet…” trope just to local leadership — it’s something that definitely has some institutional wings, depending on the speaker. As I had responded to her:

I think the major distinguishing factor in how people will react to various issues is whether they think they are limited in certain senses…in other words, it seems to me that the people who don’t really come through faith crises with faith felt more limited in what would count as a faithful response…so their limited faithful options don’t really satisfy them, and they think they must leave instead…

For people who remain with faith, I’ve just seen a trend that they often have a more expansive view point of what can be believed, stated, etc., in a faithful platform.

FWIW, I feel quite limited. So dialogue like this with folks like you is really helpful — and I think it’s only possible because you and others are willing speak somewhat publicly.

In other words, my sense then — and my sense now — is that there is too much of an institutional push against certain modes of thinking for these modes of thinking to be legitimate acceptable options to dealing with issues in Mormonism. It’s great that John Dehlin or Joanna Brooks or whoever can do his or her thing with the church, but they will never be seen as a representative Mormon.

The third dot has been several posts and comments I’ve read that have suggested that these folks — even though they seem to be making media splashes — fail to make any tangible public changes. From Chino Blanco:

Have we helped improve the manuals rank-and-file Mormons read from every Sunday? Do members get a copy of the annual budget as part of tithing settlement? Have any letters been read over the pulpit letting Mormon parents know it’s illegal to threaten their minor children with abandonment for refusing to toe the line? Has there been a single Bloggernacle post critical of Meridian magazine’s for-profit FUD campaign? Can my wife join me in blessing our next baby? Can her (Buddhist) family join us at our temple wedding? Has anything we’ve done served to reassure a substantial portion of active Mormons that they’re *not* nuts to pause and wonder at it all?

Same as it ever was.

From an earlier comment:

But, then again, my job/hobby doesn’t depend on pretending that something called “Mormon Studies” actually exists (or that my aspirational fantasy Mormonism actually maps to reality).

I was at a baby blessing in Parowan, Utah last week and the fast and testimony meeting that followed reminded me just how detached from Mormon reality some of its brightest defenders and observers can be.

That’s just a perspective on the nonbelieving, secular side of things. But Tim McMahan (evangelical Christian) has similar thoughts when analyzing Dan Wotherspoon’s commitment to Fowler’s Stages of Faith:

I have a problem with Wotherspoon’s statement in that I think he’s misapplying the Fowler Stages of Faith. I think he’s using the Stages of Faith as a prescriptive tool rather than a descriptive one. What I mean is that he’s setting Stage 6 as a goal for religious believers, as a benchmark of spiritual maturity rather than using Stage 6 as a means of describing a certain type of religious believer.

The problem with viewing Fowler’s theory this way is that it sets progression up Fowler’s Stages as superior over any religious activity or belief strategy. Stage 6 becomes the ultimate goal of religious belief rather than whatever goals or ambitions a religion may prescribe. Mormonism might only produce faith in a way that can be explained by Fowler’s Stage 2. To stretch a religion’s epistemology past Stage 2 might actually violate and do damage to it’s intended practice.

For this reason I don’t think Wotherspoon is at heart a Mormon. Rather he’s a Fowlerist who happens to be practicing his faith within Mormonism. He pursues a religious M&M; where Fowlerism is the center of his faith and Mormonism is the thin candy shell around it. Mormonism is just a tool he is using but the goals and objectives of Fowler Stage 6 are his ultimate aims. Where Mormonism conflicts with Fowler Stage 4 (or 5 or 6) he chooses Fowler over the authority of any Mormon scriptures or Mormon leadership. Wotherspoon isn’t calling people into Mormonism but rather into Fowlerism.

This is indeed something I have seen almost universally when I see people mention Fowler…Stage 6 isn’t just one kind of believer and Stage 5, 4, 3 aren’t others…Stage 6 is the end goal, and Stage 3, 4, and 5 are meant to be transcended.

…well, well, stage 6 sounds nice. So why not follow a religion that has as its goal Stage 6ers? Well, that’s the thing…it just seems you have to move past the day-to-day Mormonism and follow something more selective and aspirational to make it into something that is about stage 6.

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  1. I don’t understand much of this post because it boggles my mind that people can know and be aware of the history of any religion and then think that the idea that are contained in the religion are legitimate.

    is is because most people don’t bother to learn about the history and times the religion arose, to focus solely on the religion’s ideas?

    it’s not just mormons, christians ignore all the history of how the various texts that were written by the many christian sects of the few couple centuries were complied from earlier and other religion and compiled into an anthology now referred to as the bible, knowing that there were a lot more texts than got included

    and then the whole collection was revamped by the King James committee to incorporate the then modern agenda and which introduced the idea of the roman census, which was a complete fabrication to make the 17th century folks accept the census which was then starting to take place because the math of statistics had been developed

  2. Nina,

    The way I’ve most often seen it expressed it like this: they didn’t gain a testimony in the history of their religion, so history doesn’t affect that testimony.

    In other words, as long as they have a spiritual experience that anchors them, everything else is not essential.

  3. I really like the Tim McMahan post that you linked. I too paused a bit when I heard Dan reference Fowler that way, I’d never really thought of it as a progression but more of a descriptions of ways people express their faith (probably because I was introduced to Fowler completely outside of Mormonism). But I also understand how the “typical” mormon mindset would see Fowler as a series of goal to progress through.

  4. Paul L,

    If anything’s for certain, this different look has probably pushed me into reading Fowler’s stuff for myself…since from all the summaries I’ve read, it does seem like a progression…

  5. Eldoon Feeb permalink

    I think all religion is personal—even highly structured, orthodoxy-obsessed religions. It’s how the human brain works. A group of people can see, hear, touch and taste the same thing, but they will each have a different impression of it, a different memory of it, a different opinion of it. So each Mormon has a personalized version of The Church and The Gospel in his/her head, and that picture is like Swiss cheese.

    So, no, I don’t think liberal Mormons are grappling with Mormonism, because their individualized Swiss cheese version of it is just fine with them.

  6. Well said, and you’ve caught the import of Fowler in his application to religions (vs. what he may or may not have actually said). It is used as a prescriptive tool, and a ranking hierarchy, rather than a description. Almost as if one were to take psych axis and treat them as a progression …

    I have to admit I do not see “progressing” along the Fowler categories as a superior state …

    Enjoyed this essay, thanks!

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