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Faith as loyalty, commitment, attitudinal stance

May 22, 2014

One of my favorite vantage points to read about in online Mormon discourse is a stream of thought that distinguishes belief from faith. It might just be because this approach is strange, foreign, and a little novel to me, but I have to say that I am bored with the contrasting approach — the approach that bases the validity or invalidity of Mormonism (or any other religion, for that matter), solely or primarily on the factual claims it makes about history, science, or whatever else.

You can see the latter approach in something like, say, Letter to a CES Director. This darling of the disaffected Mormon community presents a series of “issues” that the author faced that were why, as he subtitles, he lost his testimony.

But as you look through the PDF book, you will note that it’s just a laundry list of areas where the factual claims of the LDS church can be cast into doubt by some other fact claim or another.

This is all well and good, but the other thing to note is that, with very few exceptions, these fact claims are utterly irrelevant to day-to-day lived experience. John Dehlin of Mormon Stories is planning to host an interview with author Jeremy Runnells of the Letter to a CES Director, and I think one of the questions an audience member raised is telling:

Why did you ignore LGBT issues?

Why do the Kinderhook Plates even matter? And why do they matter more than what is happening today? 

I suspect that many disaffected folks prioritize these historical/factual claims issues for a number of reasons (which I might go into detail in a different post), but I just summarize this to say that I’m not that interested in those sorts of things. (And, to that extent, I’m not interested in apologists who want to go that route either.)

Instead, I want to go back to the approach from the beginning of this article. I think there are several people who have jumped on board of this, and there are several podcast episodes that go into this (especially on Mormon Matters, which is why I really like that podcast.) One recent podcast was a Mormon Matters podcast with Adam Miller and Stephen Carter on stories.

As some background information, I think Dan’s podcast was meant to salvage from the wreckage that was John Dehlin’s earlier podcast with Adam. That latter podcast is probably a good picture of the tension between the two perspectives of which I speak — Adam is consistently trying to describe faith in terms of an attitudinal stance or a particular commitment in terms of loyalties, but John is consistently trying to make faith and religion about belief, and particularly, belief in fantastic claims (such as the supernatural.) The comments are even worse, with most of the commenters railing into Adam not only for being an apologist (a cardinal sin by itself…), but for being a disingenuous one at that.

I was glad that Dan followed up with the Mormon Matters interview. I think Dan is definitely more suited to Adam’s style of thinking, and bringing Stephen Carter was an extra treat.

I don’t want to summarize a two-hour interview, although I know you probably aren’t going to go out of your way to listen to a two-hour podcast either (but still, I say: consider doing that), but here’s what I will say I was thinking…

When I hear folks talking about faith as a commitment, or faith as loyalty, I want to think that this is a cool concept to try. To “live into,” as it were.

But then I ask myself: why should I be loyal? I can buy a Givensian approach that someone will always have to believe in something (and be loyal to something), BUT I don’t see why it should be Mormonism, or the institution of the LDS church.

Just like I have suspicions on why many disaffected folks stick on points of history, past doctrine, etc., I have suspicions on why those thoughtful Mormons who stay can do so — in both cases, the day-to-day lived experience of absolute rejection is utterly foreign to them. I haven’t done any surveys, but I would imagine that of those who can make the loyalty paradigm continue to work, they demographically would tend to be overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, and in wards that give them the room to think differently. So even if they might conceptually propose that, say, LGBT folks might have such a rough time that they might be justified in leaving, this option is probably not vivid in their minds. (One thing that some of the commenters pounced on in John’s Mormon Stories interview with Adam was that he never says it would be OK for someone to permanently separate from Mormonism…at best, he concedes that in some cases, it might be appropriate for someone to separate for a time.)

By Common Consent has a post, Our Sisters Are Leaving, regarding recent events with Ordain Women being snubbed as church PR officials conferenced with opposing group Mormon Women Stand. One commenter had the absolute saddest lines I have ever read:

I felt very disillusioned when I heard how vociferously the church opposed what I saw as worthy goals, even as a child on the verge of womanhood. I understood our church’s opposition to abortion, but there was far more to ERA than that, and the church seemed to oppose it viscerally without noting the points of agreement. I am no longer surprised when the church opposes feminism. I now expect that the church will consistently, at least on an organizational level, do the wrong thing by women. 

Emphasis added.

But…in a way, isn’t that a reasonable position for someone to take? I am also no longer surprised when the church opposes not only feminism, but LGBT issues, etc., I also expect that the church will consistently, at least on an organizational level, do the wrong thing by women, LGBT folks, and so on.

I am totally aware that there is more than one side. There are conservatives who fully believe that the church is doing right on these issues, defending morality from a world that is teetering towards anarchy. (I am also aware that there are those who think that Ordain Women is nefarious because it would give false hopes to its supporters, thus creating the inevitable disillusionment when the church didn’t change.)

I buy the idea that people have to become the change they want to see, that sometimes people have to participate in organizations that they don’t completely agree with, that it can be valuable to be in spaces where people don’t agree with you.

…but loyalty? If I expect an organization to do the wrong thing consistently, why should I be loyal? If faith is a trust, then wouldn’t my expectation that wrong will occur be a failure of trust?

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9 Comments
  1. Excellent post, Andrew. Thanks for the ping to the Mormon Matters episode. Glad you enjoyed it and are finding it interesting to think a bit out of stances that don’t primarily focus on the content of beliefs, etc.

    My main replies to your questions about “why be loyal?” are centered on your choice to focus mostly on loyalty to the church as organization rather than the church as community of members, that includes, so often, family members. I tend to always focus on the latter when I think of “church.” It matches Book of Mormon usage, D&C 10, and (I claim) even the problematic usage in D&C 1 about only church with whom the Lord is well pleased speaking collectively. Plus, it’s really hard to feel warm toward an abstract thing like an organization. It’s much easier when I focus on people–imperfect people but generally wanting the best for themselves and others.

    I’d also toss the term loyalty and move toward fidelity (has a faithfulness feel to it rather than a “stick with them cuz they are my team” kind of thing), and I prioritize fidelity to our key religious experiences and the sense of a deep river of Spirit and rich resources within the gospel no matter what the organization in its current incarnation is doing, far more than loyalty to church/organization. Since my experiences, and Kevin and Stephen in the podcast also expressed similar things, have occurred within Mormonism, and we see soul-making going on even amidst the chaos and frustrating things, I stay and learn, as well as try to offer it my gifts. And if our experiences lead us to sense that there is one, I’d also far prioritize fidelity to God far ahead of loyalty/fidelity to church. If we can sort through and center in these orientations, interactions with a flawed organization and culture, while still frustrating, are not paralyzing. That’s what I have found to be true in my case, at least.

    Cheers!

  2. Thanks for coming by and commenting, Dan!

    When I focus on loyalty to the church as an organization, though, I am thinking about things like tithing. At some level, your participation in the church as a community of members is hindered if you can’t, say, pay a full tithe and attend the temple, etc., And yet, that’s the one area where I would think and say, “if I am paying tithing, then that is voluntarily giving money to the institutional organization, and the causes they support that I think are profoundly harmful.”

    I like your switch to fidelity, but here, I guess where I get lost is that in order to, as you say, prioritize fidelity to our key religious experiences and the sense of a deep river of Spirit, then one would have to have key religious experiences or a sense of a deep river of Spirit. I am definitely intrigued by your and Adam and Stephen’s testimonies of that ever-running river, but I think I am intrigued because it too is strange, foreign, and a little novel to me.

    Maybe that’s what makes the entire rest of the discussion moot, haha.

  3. Thanks for the exchange! Like you suggest at the end, if the stuff the second paragraph talks about isn’t happening, it does affect the former and makes it harder to decide to pay tithing, etc., and I see why it would swing momentum to the voluntarily paying to a group that supports causes we find harmful part and away from the “be the change,” serve to open eyes and hearts of those around us side of the algorithm.

    It’s hard to think that talking a lot about “Hey, these experiences, this depth is there!” can do a lot to be persuasive, so I won’t really try that. As I see it, that what Adam and Stephen and I are “intriguing” to you is really great. I love people who aren’t afraid to stay in the question/wrestle or what Stephen talked so much about “the second act” (much broader in his usage but applicable on a smaller scale to weighing about how much to still engage Mormonism). More power to you. I, of course, hope you will stay intrigued and see if it swells (Alma 32) and leads to a deliciousness that fits you in your particularity.

  4. Excellent post. I think you hit the nail on the head with the observation that those who can make the loyalty paradigm work are typically white, male, heterosexual, and middle-class.

    From a psychological/sociological perspective, I suspect that a sense of belonging and identity within a community fosters more loyalty (and fidelity) to that community than even belief — although I recognize this is not always the case. Still, from that perspective I can see how an organization might seek to preserve conformity as a means to maintain loyalty.

    Too often, even among sympathetic listeners, unless someone is confronted with the day-to-day reality of being “the other” in his/her community, that experience remains too distant, too removed to be truly considered. And so there is no need to question loyalty.

    • JL, I think your thought about belonging/identity has a lot of merit. In a lot of the “uncorrelated” testimonies I see where people stay, there are lots of comments that they stay because they are Mormon, it’s in their blood, etc.,

      However, I also note it’s not always the case. I know many others who stay even though they actively feel they do not belong, because they think the beliefs matter most.

      Your last paragraph seems (unfortunately) to be true in too many instances, I have also found.

  5. Interesting post. A friend and I often comment that we left the church because of “the lived experience.” For me, historical issues, many of which I was already aware of as a believer, were like the icing on the cake…AFTER deconversion.

  6. Brian permalink

    Andrew this is an excellent and refreshing post. I too felt like John and Adam were talking different languages and overall that interview didn’t go well. The Mormon Matters podcast was a good avenue to flesh out the ideas and approaches Adam describes in his book. I agree that most of the people that can make it work using the “second act” metaphor and taking a fidelity approach to the local church are withing the demographic you describe. I doubt we’ll ever get to that data but I have no reason to think your assessment is incorrect.

    I have a hard time when people interpret other folks experiences. I see that all the time in fringe Mormon groups. Things like “you are just angry,” or “you are ignoring the facts” fly around all the time without a second thought for what that person has actually experienced and internalized within the church or broader Mormon community. It would be nice if we could express ourselves and our experiences without having the label apologist or apostate (or any other label) thrown at us.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Faith separate from Belief; Faith as Choice | Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. But can apologetics of care override the facts? | Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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