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Mormonism: Black, White and Gray

July 7, 2013

In some of my last few posts, I have alluded to the new Mormon Facebook group, Mormon Hub. While I have been an admin at a group blog, Mormon Hub has been my first opportunity to moderating a Facebook group. In some ways, the experience is similar (working with very different personalities, trying to negotiate between heavy, overt moderation and soft, covert moderation)…but in other ways, there are clear differences (Facebook groups are media where the admins/moderators aren’t the primary content providers, where as on a group blog, the bloggers start every discussion assuming there aren’t any guest posts.)

The challenge for the Mormon Hub, as is the challenge with basically all Facebook groups and all blogs about Mormonism, is that of maintaining tone and atmosphere. In particularly, the challenge for groups and blogs like the Mormon Hub is that 1) different moderators have different ideas of what they would like to see the group become, but 2) even when moderators agree on what they would like to see from the group, they disagree on how to carry out those goals.

The “Big Tent,” as I wrote about before, is at the center of many of these idealized communities. But the Big Tent is notoriously difficult to define…More problematic is that it’s tough to decide how to create and support a big tent.

The worst difficulty, however, is what to do with folks who, for whatever reason, don’t seem to be meshing in with the ideal of the big tent.

I think the starting place at many conceptions of Big Tent Mormonism is in the idea that it doesn’t really matter whether one is an active believing member in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or resigned/excommunicated/inactive with respect to that institution.

And I do think that this is a good starting place. The first step is in realizing that there’s something to Mormonism (and other cultural/religious phenomena) that is beyond assent to mental propositions, or even obedience to certain institutional mandates or expectations. (And I am also intrigued by those in general who say that faith in general or religion in general is beyond assent to mental propositions, or even obedience to certain institutional mandates or expectations…perhaps because it is such a foreign position that I don’t understand yet.)

However, not everyone is at that realization. And not everyone recognizes the value of that realization.

For example, I am aware that those who have extensive experience with the LDS church may be very well versed in a church that does emphasize certain beliefs, or that does emphasize certain activities. It wouldn’t be strange to most of us that there is a big emphasis on being worthy of having a temple recommend, and of actually having a temple recommend. And to do that, one has to believe certain things, and follow certain rules.

In this way (but certainly others), it seems that even institutionally, Mormonism is defined by certain beliefs and/or practices, so that we can look at people and grade them on “how Mormon” they are based on how they fit our concept of the beliefs and practices requisite to Mormonism.

With this grading rubric, it seems that we can come up with some relatively black and white criteria. So, those who are fully active, fully invested, fully literal believers are “true believing Mormons.” Even for those people who recognize the problems in such stereotypes and labels, most people can still recognize that the “TBM” idea still actually refers to something that can be talked about. (That’s why, even though I often caveat my usage, or put it in quotation marks…I still use the term because people will understand what I mean.) And then, “apostates” or “disaffected Mormons” or “exMormons” or whatever else can be defined with the same rubric…just being on the opposite “side” of “TBM”s.

In fact, I’ll point out that this black/white schema is at least partly workable…to the extent that some people can see that many “TBM”s and many “exmormons” seem to really be just two ends of the same coin. To put it in another way, both the “TBM” and the “ex-Mormon” view the basics similarly: the church claims to be x, the church teaches y, and z are the beliefs and practices that define Mormons.

But the “TBM” as one side of the coin says, “The church claims to be x…and I believe that’s right,” where as the “ex-Mormon” says, “The church claims to be x…and they are wrong.” And so on with beliefs and practices.

This black/white dichotomy doesn’t really make a really fruitful conversation usually, because it’s basically the two sides completely disagreeing with each other on the same basic premises.

But of course, the dichotomy is an incomplete one. There is grey…And I think that the issue is that even the “black and white” side recognizes that gray exists, but they may not appreciate it or understand it.

For example, the TBM and the ex-Mormon may agree on what the church claims, but there are other folks who can point out that the idea of “the church” as a monolithic, united entity (even with correlation) is problematic. So, talking about what “the church” claims is problematic. (And what about over time? Across space? And so on…)

Or maybe, the gray comes out in recognizing that answers to some of the questions aren’t simply “yes” or “no.” Maybe it’s: “Yes, the church has some issues on historical points…but no, it’s not completely lying, deceiving scum.” Or even: “yes, the church “lies,” but because of several factors [e.g., maintenance of organizational health, etc,.] it’s understandable why they do this.”

The problem, of course, is that for someone who sees black-and-white, these complications seem evasive or cowardly.

For example, the black/white approach might agree that the church claims to be the “one true church,” with implications (or overt statements) of moral superiority. So, if the gray side admits that the church really is imperfect, then how could it justify or excuse its claims? For the “TBM,” such a concession is apostasy. For the “ex-Mormon,” such a concession demands disaffiliation.

And you know what…to a certain extent…I understand this. I understand that with certain polarizing subjects/institutions/etc., it seems more reasonable to reject gray…or maybe, to say that if it is “reasonable” to accept the gray, then we specifically want to be unreasonable. I hear many disaffected Mormons analogize to organizations like the KKK — saying that once you disagree with that organization, it’s not enough to just say, “Well, there are some problems here or there…but there is also some good that they do.”

(However, I resist that comparison. It kinda feels like Godwin’s Law — once you make comparisons to Nazis, all bets are off.)

Or, from the other side…if the Church truly is the one body that has authority to act in the name of God, the one body with saving ordinances, and so forth, then it seems that someone who legitimately believes that would want to stress that and not back down for the sake of friendliness or maintaining comfortable relationships. So I understand that if one believes in the direness of the situation, then it’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t really

Still…I feel that there are certainly spaces for the black and the white. But I struggle to find spaces for the gray, even though I really want to hear those perspectives. And I want to be there.

I understand people who don’t want to go there. I understand people who whom gray is dangerous/the road to apostasy. I understand people for whom gray is absurd/mental gymnastics. But I feel as if I’m kinda bored with “TBM” Mormonism, but I am also “past” the initial shock, anger, or sense of betrayal within the disaffection process. Both of these seem limited…and even more, both of these don’t appear to exhaustively cover the gamut. so, I want a place where I can see the gray that is in, and around, and in the crevasses, and the cracks and corners of the black and white.

(And you know, I understand that some people move on completely. Once past shock, anger, and betrayal, they move on. They feel no need or desire or value in continuing to engage Mormonism, no matter how idiosyncratically. I think that’s also a good, healthy, end point, but at this point, I still feel as if doing that would be some form of erasure. Rather than start fresh or start new, I want to keep adding. Add one thing to another to another.)

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  1. I have struggled to find that grey space in the Mormon Hub. I agree that most Permas I have personal experience with, want to make it a place for grey space discussions. Unfortunately, I find that most of the discussions, and comments, that I read, leads me to believe that sharing my personal grey spots of belief, would be met with cynicism and most likely ridicule. I wouldn’t mind sharing my thoughts about current events or even church history, but I would not share my feelings and beliefs about my own spiritual experiences.

    I do hope that over time, there will be more places where those at both ends of the “black and white” start seeing value in *the experiences behind the reasons* that those who spiritually inhabit the grey area have had.

    I recognize that those who no longer believe in the church, (or who have left over doctrinal issues that led to a clash that separated them from the church, whether it was their choice to leave or not) think that those who claim to have spiritual experiences or spiritual gifts, are deluded. (I use the phrasing that most black and white thinkers reframe any spiritual experience that goes beyond either a “confirming the words of our leaders” or a clear statement that any unexplained experiences are simply confirmation bias, without any individual spirituality beyond personal desires, gullibility and/or an unwillingness to be truthful.

    Honestly, I am not sure that The Mormon Hub will become a space that can be “safe” enough to understand those who live in the grey spaces, to attempt to share the experiences that make it a safe place to share our experiences.

  2. I haven’t been to the hub, but from my experience as a former Mormon who remains somewhat vocal, no matter how truly sincere and kind I try to be when discussing issues, I always seem to get a lot of attacks, harassment and name-calling and TBM’s don’t even consider that the issues even exist, instead they label me as a under “Satan’s Spell”. So, I even though I try and be as sympathetic as possible when “approaching” the gray area, the majority of Mormons I have come across are so ready to launch into attack mode and act as if it does not exist.

  3. As always, you have sparked a few new thoughts is this old bring. Thanks.

  4. Julia,

    This is definitely the biggest challenge that we face. Basically…how to persuade people to be more respectful? To strive to see something different, to be with someone in their stories?

    I don’t want to claim to be like god, but sometimes I can understand why a god would flood the earth and try to start all over again.

    What do you think the criteria to maintain such a space would be? Must it simply involve a lot of heavy moderation and banning, in your view?


    Yeah, the group that we have been trying to create isn’t a big fan of the TBM types either, because the issues are going to be raised up, and I mean, if that’s not something people can deal with, then they aren’t going to really make it.

    Nevertheless…I just wonder if people always have to discuss the issues, discuss criticism, and so far, rather than trying to see beyond those things sometimes.



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  1. Why I Stay (in Fringe Internet Mormonism) | Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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