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Modal, Model, Mormonism

November 12, 2014

In the wake of all of the essays being released concerning Joseph Smith’s polygamy, Kristine Haglund has offered a confession and an apology over at By Common Consent.

From the post, it seems there is backstory that I am missing (since I don’t find Kristine to be a particularly offensive or dismissive person), but the basic gist of the apology is this: in the past, she has dismissed certain others who felt betrayed by the church when they found out certain facts about church history. As she puts it:

I have been one of the people who has thought and said that it’s unreasonable for members of the Church to feel betrayed when they discover facts about Church history that they hadn’t encountered in the official curriculum. I’ve thought that such ignorance reflected intellectual laziness for not having done a little bit of homework to learn about our history, and/or emotional immaturity for “flying off the handle” in the face of the belated discovery.

I was wrong and I am sorry.

Having (for once) been smart enough to sit back and watch the reactions to the new essays on polygamy rather than diving into the discussion right away, I think I may have finally understood something that I had managed to miss for a few decades. Despite the Church’s monumental effort and achievement of Correlation, lived Mormonism is largely undomesticated. It changes in both temporal and geographical iteration.

(I think it’s worth pointing out that the response for which Kristine now apologizes — thinking that ignorance reflects intellectual laziness — is alive and well at conservative blogs like Millennial Star. But that is not the point of my post.)

This post is instead about a sentiment that I have been hearing hints of from several liberal or progressive Mormons. I don’t think Kristine carries this sentiment (in fact, a followup comment suggests she doesn’t), but still, here was the part that gave me pause:

We all assume that our experience is normal, and since we so often hear “the Church is the same everywhere you go,” we are quick to generalize from our experience of “normal” to a prescription for what should be normative for everyone. When we are wounded by a policy or its ham-handed implementation, we extrapolate the certain wrongness of the policy for all times and all places. When, on the other hand, the Church has helped us to flourish, we readily believe that all good-hearted and right-thinking Saints will flourish similarly.

First, I want to say that I really do appreciate Kristine’s post. I appreciate her willingness to apologize, to listen to the concerns of others and consider that her behavior in the past was wrong.

I also appreciate the message. I appreciate the message that if we generalize our experience with Mormonism, we are at risk to (whether consciously or unconsciously) diminish or dismiss differing Mormon experiences. I appreciate the message that when we become comfortable that people can have multiple experiences within Mormonism, we are more able to hear out their concerns and not have our own experiences be threatened by being so empathetic.

But, there is nevertheless something about the statement I’ve quoted above that sets off warning sirens in my head. I think I’m triggered thusly because of a comment that Dan Wotherspoon made to me in the discussion to my earlier article, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtains~!” He began one comment with the following:

More than anything, I’m not overly stressed when anyone decides to leave Mormonism if they still are open to spiritual journeying and exploring themselves beyond just the sorts of things that our senses and rational minds can work with. I also don’t like to let stand outright rejections of Mormonism when they originate from totalizing of one’s own experiences with a narrow brand/band of it and saying that small slice is the whole pizza. (I know in some ways I “totalize” from my positive experiences with what I see are rich Mormon resources, so call me a hypocrite there if you’d like. Know, however, that I do appreciate many great paths that are non-theistic and even fully secular.)

Additionally, in a separate recent discussion with Seth Payne on his post “An LDS Exit Narrative Without the Exit“, he had made comments that similarly set off warning sirens:

I certainly see where you are coming from and you are right that we do disagree on a couple of fundamental issues. I believe that Mormonism/Christianity is not defined by institutional action. As much as SLC would like to control all-things Mormon I don’t believe they can, or do. The LDS Church is not Mormonism. So I don’t have any concern for whether or not there is institutional support for any of my ideas or not. The LDS Church can’t control how individuals choose to behave — as much as it would like to think it can (in some cases). And as I say, if a person chooses loyalty to an institution over loyalty to the ideas of compassion and kindness, then I would say that is an indication of a moral flaw with the person themselves.

I reject the argument that the Mormonism Miller, and the Givens’ discuss isn’t the “real” Mormonism. There is no objective definition of what Mormonism is so on what basis can one make that claim? Mormonism, like all religions and sub-cultures, is a living phenomenon. Mormonism is what the Mormon people make it. There is no sole or final arbiter of what constitutes Mormonism. The LDS Church? Sure. Mormonism? No.

What is it that is setting off the sirens in my head? I think it is a combination of a few implicit claims between these posters.

  1. Given that there are different experiences within the church, one cannot make a blanket statement about Mormonism is or should be from one’s own experience.
  2. Either the LDS institution does not or should not have a meaningful impact on one’s Mormon experience or one should not extrapolate one’s Mormon experience as being a representation of institutional concerns.

Both of these claims bother me.

Although I don’t necessarily think Kristine thinks (or thought) this way, what bothered me about her statement was this idea that she might actually think that the wounds some face from certain policies and the flourishing others might achieve from other policies might be comparable — that one can’t really tell whether one or the other would prevail if the two were weighed against each other. This came through in Dan’s message — it’s this idea that the things that might lead someone to reject Mormonism outright are a small slice of the pizza, or a narrow brand or band of Mormonism. From Seth, the idea that there is no objective definition of Mormonism is one thing, but this populist/democratic idea that Mormonism is what the Mormon people make of it and there is no sole or final arbiter of what is Mormonism? That’s something else.

When Kristine says (from my earlier quote of hers) that “despite the Church’s monumental effort and achievement of Correlation, lived Mormonism is largely undomesticated“, it seems like she is using the incompleteness of correlation, the lack of correlation, to explain why everyone didn’t have access to the same information, the same ward experience, and so on.

But what if it’s the case that correlation, though it undoubtedly is incomplete and not all-encompassing, serves to create much of the problem?

What bothers me about quotes like these (and I don’t think either Seth, Dan, or Kristine are necessarily doing it, or even intending to do it) is that it seems like it’s easy to use these quotes to say that because there are different experiences, then we can’t speak about what is normative, or modal (if not also “model”) Mormon experience.

But what if there is a normative/modal/model Mormon experience, and that sort of thing is precisely what is driving people away from Mormonism? The wounds from policies aren’t just random things that happen, but are systemic. It’s not just a “small pizza slice,” but a part of the entire crust.

And as far as the idea that correlation is just too anemic…Even if Correlation hasn’t (and probably never will, for a variety of reasons) reached down into every stake and ward, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a correlation ideal. And though we may disagree on what that ideal looks like, we can at least attempt to speak out how various experiences line up to that ideal.

I think when many disaffected folks speak about “priesthood roulette,” it’s not simply a matter of there being ‘good’ ward experiences and ‘bad’ ward experiences. It’s also about a perception that the stakes (pun fully intended) are biased toward ‘bad’ ward experiences because institutionally, correlation supports the more conservative/orthodox/literal/rigid approaches that the disaffected chafe against. (And of course, the conservative/orthodox response is that this is simply the divine order.)

I mean, I and many others have said that we would love a BCC ward, a Bloggernacle stake.

But the issue is not simply that our actual ward experiences, what things we are exposed to growing up, etc., are much different…but the sense that those ward experiences we dislike — and not the ward experiences of bloggernaclers that we envy and desire — are normative and modal for Mormonism.

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