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Middle-Way in Mormonism: Space or Strategy?

June 15, 2013

Over at the Mormon Hub (…which is the new hotness of Mormon interest Facebook groups, if you had not heard), there was a discussion a few days ago about the value and the challenge of creating a “middle-way” space. In the discussion, several people pointed out how problematic “middle-way” is as a term or label. Per one comment:

I love Middle-way Mormon spaces because they do their best to respect and allow for different perspectives. People are generally free to believe and express what they want as long as they’re able to accomplish it in a way that doesn’t attempt to hurt anyone else. This seems healthy to me. 

My. Favorite. Kinds. Of. Communities. (Both inside and outside of Mormonism)

With that said, I’m a little uncomfortable when the idea gets equated with individuals’ identities or a way of engaging with the church. What I mean is that while I think discussion groups that promote this Middle-way kind of thinking are healthy, I’m concerned about promoting the idea that self-identifying as a “Middle-way Mormon” is healthy. I’m also a bit concerned because many people go through a “Middle-way” stage in their interactions with the church when they first begin their crises. Many (if not most) of these people report the experience being unhealthy for them. I have concerns about contributing to the notion that trying to have one foot and one foot out is a “good” choice. 

So, in a nutshell, while I think these spaces are healthy, I’m not sure about the rest of the package. It may also be time to come up with some different terminology. “Middle-way” is pretty loaded at this point.

If you’ve paid attention to the conversation on “middle-way” Mormonism, then thoughts like these should be familiar echoes — similar sentiments were raised in the Mormon Matters podcast episode on middle-way Mormonism, for example. (I wrote about those podcasts episodes here and here). I wanted to make a comment on the Facebook thread, but for a number of reasons, it was not meant to be. (I had a comment typed up, but then went to bed. When I woke up, I discovered that Windows had decided to install updates, restarting in the process.) I’ve known for a while that Facebook as a medium has issues, but the claustrophobia of the comment box is a particularly challenging one. So, here I am instead. (And even with this blog, I’ve had this article sitting as a draft for at least two days. My computer crashed, and while the content was preserved in draft format, all the paragraph spaces were deleted. I have tried to add them back, but if any paragraphs seem funky, it’s because I probably ended some incorrectly.)

The main point I want to express (in far more words than is probably necessary) is that creating “middle-way” spaces is problematic firstly because we don’t even have a consistent image of what the “middle way” is. The middle-way can refer to one of several not necessarily compatible frameworks…the fun part is that when we are talking about the middle way, we don’t necessarily think to clarify which framework out of which we are speaking. We end up not having any idea which framework our conversation partners are using, and likewise, we do not know which framework that they infer from our use of the term. At least two of the frameworks for viewing the middle way are found in the comment I quoted above. (I am unsure about attribution rules, so for now, the comment will be “anonymous,” although if you are a genuine, real person, then you can join the Facebook group and find out who said what.) The key thing to realize is that the commenter is contrasting Middle-way as a space from middle-way as a strategy.

Middle-Way as a space

Middle-way Mormonism as a space describes an environment. Typically, you can find someone who is using the “space” framework by whether they use terms like “big tent” synonymously. In this framework, middle-way Mormonism represents a space between two extremes. One extreme might be “the chapel,” which is seen as being for “TBMs” (pardon the problematic terms used. I just am using language like this for convenience.)

In the space framework, the chapel is a “space” for TBMs, alienating and marginalizing to those who do not believe or who believe differently. With the one extreme being the chapel, the other extreme might be either the “secular non-Mormon world” or the “anti-Mormon world.” These are not the same, of course. In the secular non-Mormon world, Mormonism is strange, weird, and quaint. People aren’t interested in Mormonism and certainly do not defer to its senses and sensibilities. One example of how the secular non-Mormon space “operates” might be in a working environment that has certain non-Mormon social expectations — for example, my brother is on an internship with several networking and social events, where the expectation is that people will drink. Other people in the program are aware enough to understand that some people may not drink, but the industry itself frankly doesn’t care — so he and the other interns have been instructed that if they don’t want to drink, they should at least discreetly order alcoholic-appearing drinks. This is an environment that, although not “anti-Mormon,” is not “for” Mormons.

However, as another possible extreme, there certainly are anti-Mormon spaces. Rather than being unintentionally antagonistic to Mormon sensibilities, the anti-Mormon spaces represent spaces where people are intentionally against Mormonism. (Note that ex-Mormonism is not described as an extreme, nor is it conflated with anti-Mormonism. To the extent that any ex-Mormon is considered “too extreme for inclusion in the big tent,” it’s not merely because of his exmormonism, but because he also is anti-Mormon. [Again, I recognize the problematic nature of these terms, but for convenience sake, I think that there is enough general understanding for you to get the picture.])

With those extremes established, the middle-way is defined in contrast to those extremes. So, it’s not necessarily true-believing Mormon (although it may welcome “TBMs” who respect the big tent), and it is certainly not anti-Mormon (although it may welcome “antis” who respect the big tent.)

Middle-Way as a strategy

The framework of middle-way as a space says nothing about a person. Rather, it says something about the environments that people may be in (which may be supportive to some people and corrosive to other people.) The framework viewing the middle-way as a strategy is about the way that a person approaches things.

Middle-way as a strategy typically is employed by people who are experiencing faith transition — they may have been “TBMs” at some time, but for whatever reason, it’s not working out. The “middle-way strategy” is to figure out how they can maintain connection with the church despite their inability to do so as “TBMs”. Perhaps they want to keep up familial or friend relationships, or perhaps they are trying to avoid ecclesiastical action. The middle-way strategy can also be described in contrast to “extreme” strategies. The TBM strategy might be to avoid certain “anti-Mormon” literature as well as what we know as the standard seminary answers (pray, read scriptures, fast, attend meetings.)

When discussing strategies, I think that ex-Mormonism is more often described as a strategy (to the extent that leaving the church, and not simply fighting against the church, is seen as a strategic extreme) here, unlike with middle-way as a space, which is typically more accepting. In this sense, the ex-Mormon strategy includes concepts such as “following the evidence where it leads,” “recognizing and eliminating cognitive dissonance,” and so on. (As an aside, I’ll point out that looking at the way that the groups define and label their own strategies from the outside will probably paint each side optimistically.) In the middle-way strategy, then, we might recognize things like putting issues on a shelf, engaging at church and deprogramming later (especially when considering children raised by those in the middle-way strategy), careful parsing, contextualization and recontextualization. Note that the middle-way as strategy also does not say anything about a person. But rather than referring to the environments that a person may be in, it says something about what people should do.

Inadequacies of Space and Strategy

As I mentioned before, the frameworks do not necessarily agree with one another, so the confusion between them can inadvertently send a conversation off its rails. However, even if people can “agree” to use one framework or another, there are problems with each. When middle-way is framed as a space, then the space is static, though the people may not be. While people might like to consider middle-way spaces as a big tent or a lounge or some other wide and broad space where people can comfortably coexist, if the middle-way is defined as a space between extremes — such as the chapel and the non-Mormon secular world, for instance — then a better image to describe the middle way space is simply a revolving door. revolving door Inside the revolving door is the chapel, and outside the revolving door is the outside world. The foyer/lobby/whatever you would like to define it is not a “middle-way”, but clearly a space inside the building. On the other hand, outside of the revolving door, the outside world is wide and expansive, but there is not a buffer “middle-way” zone outside. And if you look at the boundary…what really exists between the two extremes of inside and outside, you get a small space that people typically do not stay in (and in fact, the flux of traffic demands that no one stay inside.) From a community perspective, this is asking for trouble. If you want to have a space where those in the middle are welcome but those at the extremes (who don’t play by the rules) are not, but people are continuously transitioning to one extreme or the other, then you need a robust policy to push people out or in (keep the revolving door spinning, as it were.)

The middle-way as a strategy has different issues. As I mentioned before, it also doesn’t speak about people, so much as it speaks to what people should be doing or how they should be approaching issues. The problem is that it can be very dissonant to follow a strategy without respect for one’s beliefs, values, and so on. To people on the extreme ends, the middle way looks to be an inauthentic and duplicitous strategy. For TBMs, the middle-way Mormon appears as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For ex-Mormons, the middle-way Mormon appears to be hypocritical or in deep cognitive dissonance. So, if these permutations of the middle-way concept both have problems, is there any value to the middle way?

Middle-Way as Identity

A possibility that I’ve seen outside of middle-way as a space and middle-way as a strategy is middle-way as an identity. I think this must be parsed out from the framework of the middle-way as a strategy, though, so bear with me.

The issue with middle-way as a strategy is that it’s a prescribed course of action or a training regimen. The problem is that the training regimen doesn’t actually convert people to a different way of thinking or being. Prescribing that people see more nuance sounds nice, but it’s not something that can just be done on a whim. However, for those with the middle-way as an identity, they don’t need to practice strategies because the types of traits associated with the middle-way strategy are simply part of their personality. They don’t “practice” seeing nuance…that’s just something they’ve lived into through experience. They don’t strain to see the value along  with the pain…they are gifted with that sight. Acknowledging this separate identity (which is not something someone can “practice” for necessarily) opens up new possibilities for the Middle-way space concept. Instead of a space for “everyone in between” (as it is so often described), the middle-way space may be the space that is “for” these middle-way folks.

Unfortunately, if there is disagreement about the frameworks for the middle way, then proposing the middle as a space not just for people who happen to be traveling in the middle (i.e., through the revolving door), but instead for people of a particular mindset or attitude, will be a rough sell.

For someone who wants a big tent, this framework will seem to be frustratingly restrictive. Because this space is perhaps one of the most fragile and niche spaces. Quite simply, not a lot of people are in this category. There may be plenty of people who are “TBM”, and there may be plenty of people who are on their way out with a critical eye toward Mormon, or plenty of people out who now have no interest in Mormonism…but for the people who are not TBM, but who still have a constructive relationship that values Mormonism? These are fewer.

The most tragic thing is that people simply don’t seem to get together. And, when everything is left to settle, things tend to settle at a critical resting point (although I would suspect that a critical resting point isn’t the settling point. Things settle at a final resting point of uninterest. It’s just…uninterested people simply don’t go on FB groups, so we see the critical ones. The “middle-way” folks might stick around in a space that was designed for them, but there is no incentive for them to stick around in a constantly revolving door that is actually for people who (typically) are on their way out of the building.

At this point, I’ve written ~2200 words on this, and I’m pretty sure that even though I’ve tried to use subheadings and some form of organization, I’m either not being clear or not expressing my point. So, I’ll stop this here, and maybe try this again in a future post if I find some better way of explaining…

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