Beyond Belief and Unbelief: The Abundant Life
In his latest episode at Mormon Matters, Dan Wotherspoon seeks to discuss faith crises from a perspective beyond belief and unbelief. I wanted to share/summarize the comment I had written about certain things discussed in that podcast here:
I loved the recentering of the discussion that we need to move away from abstractions about what eternal life/godly life entails, and I loved the concept that this involves life and living…the “short list” per Carlisle — things like autonomy, personal dignity, a sense of self-direction, etc., etc., (In other words, the abundant life is when one is living a life with a sense of personal dignity, a sense of autonomy, and things like this…and ideally, religions and churches help one with these sorts of things.) I like the idea that faith crises can be connected to these ideas, and that concerns about “beliefs” may actually be a few steps removed from more basic concerns about “short list” items.
But I don’t think the problem is that the church or people in the church or whatever fail to move away from abstractions into the specifics. Rather, I think the issue is that Mormonism is *very* specific about lived experience concerns, asserting a checklist or list of rules or specific prescriptions. This is stifling to anyone who doesn’t fit it in any reason. This is visible in lived concerns like sexuality, gender roles, etc., etc., but I think it also works for belief: because Mormonism makes belief a lived concern (e.g., public expressions of testimony, testimony tied to worthiness to participate in rituals like the temple), it makes uncertainty and doubt not just a head issue, but a heart issue. In other words, doubting that the Book of Mormon is historical is not just a head concern…rather the fact that you are limited in what you can publicly say, can experience disciplinary action, etc., makes it a concern about autonomy, personal dignity, etc.,
Carlisle asks at some point in part 2, “I want to do better, but what does better look like?” He answers his own question: “I want them to have life, more fulfilling and abundant.”
I don’t think any Mormon would disagree with this. But the problem is that even here, different people have different ideas about what makes a life more fulfilling and more abundant.
For example, Phil talked in this section (around 12 minutes of part 2) about community, growing relations, etc., etc., etc., But it’s important to note that the church doesn’t disagree that community, relations, etc., are important. To the contrary, it really really really emphasizes community, relations, family, etc., So what’s the problem? It’s that the church defines which kinds of relationships are good and which are bad in a way that stifles people — e.g., defined gender roles, heteronormativity, patriarchy, etc., etc., etc.,
I think that Dan’s shift in part 2 (around 16 minutes) about looking beyond the mind/belief/head space to moving into more spirit/living/heart space is probably what he wanted the discussion to be from the beginning. I’ve sensed this as a theme in many episodes, so I was able to track with this a little better. I understand conceptually Dan’s point about how having his spirit warmed kinda changed his sort of attitude on those things: the idea that it didn’t really “resolve” the problems, but it cast it into a different light that allowed those problems not to overshadow the good has always been interesting to me (especially the thought around 20 minutes of part 2 where he says that it doesn’t feel like he is “selling out is intellect”…which is a common criticism he probably gets from many people. It just doesn’t *feel* right to set aside the intellectual issues or the lived issues), but I have a couple of problems with this shifting:
1) It seems to me that Dan wants to pin faith crisis issues in the head space (so the solution: move outside of one’s head, and learn to appreciate the heart space stuff, and rebalance the two. As Dan says, “Where else other than religion can you seriously engage matters of spirit?”)
I don’t think that this works, because I actually would probably agree with Carlisle that faith crisis issues discussed in a “head/belief” way actually have deeper roots with heart/lived experience issues. In other words, we could probably go into how every issue that shows up as a reason for faith crisis drills down to perceived decreased autonomy, lack of fulfillment, decreased personal dignity, etc., And if that is true, then that’s a different challenge for Dan. People are resistant to the concept of spirit because religion has soured them on “the religious life.” So it doesn’t feel like throwing baby with bath water in a move to secularism, scientism, atheism, etc., because it doesn’t feel like there was a baby.
2) I understand that somehow, by re-engaging in matters of the “spirit,” Dan has moved away from a place of being head-focused, but I don’t know how you get people to that place. In other words, for someone who doesn’t feel there is a baby, who doesn’t feel the spirit, who doesn’t perceive that thing, then it seems that having those sorts of spiritual experiences that recontextualize things is entirely situational and arbitrary. (I thought a question that was asked about love/grace/gratefulness was great…is love something one can do after one has a solid base? Or does love fuel the solid base? In this example…can one more gently live and appreciate Mormonism once one has certain needs in their life met? If so, I think there is going to be a problem, because Mormonism *doesn’t meet those needs*. But if that is not a prerequisite, then the challenge is different — convincing people that sticking with it comes first, and that having needs met follows. P.S. I LOVE that Carlisle brought this back up in part 2 around 22 minutes. Dan arguably only got to the place where is now within Mormonism because he built a secure base with spiritual practices from *outside of Mormonism* and then started seeing those things within Mormon ideas, scriptures, concepts.)
I listen to a lot of Mo Matters episodes (especially the ones where Dan is talking a lot), and I still really believe that Dan’s viewpoint is not very generalizable. It still seems a little opaque. There’s still a piece that has not really been explained sufficiently IMO. Something there where Dan’s operating on one wavelength, a lot of other people are operating on another, and the dial to change wavelengths is not known. I mean, sometimes Dan puts it as a matter of engaging in spiritual practices, but those don’t really do much for a lot of people. Other times, Dan puts it as a function of living into life, getting more experience with life, something that comes with age and maturity (e.g., noting that moving stages in Fowler is supposed to take *decades*), but this isn’t very satisfying — that suggests that there’s not really much we can do about it (que sera sera), and more troubling, since not everyone moves past certain stages in a Fowler system, it suggests that that awareness might just not be for some folks.
At 30 minutes (and more at 32 minutes): Carlisle talks about how conventional religion has the seeds to look outward, but that it can also be the most inward-focused. I think this can relate to the theme of the earlier podcast episode with Adam Miller on “Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan” on the idea that being an insider and having the law — but not having the right relationship to it — can be the biggest stumbling block.
i think I could make a comparison between that episode and this one. Basically, let’s say that we have a lot of people who are burnt out with Mormonism basically because we are the “insiders” whom the law sold into sin. You are saying something like, “But guys, this law really is pointing to grace first!” whereas we are saying, “You know, I’m burnt out on trying to keep up the rat race of the law, keep of the rat race of appearances, the judgmentalism of the law, etc., etc.,” And you’re saying, “Yes, and that is the cusp of a great transformation! Just a bit further — this should point towards grace…that rat race, the judgmentalism, etc., are sin, which is in rebellion to grace.”
There is a shift in perspective and awareness that has to be taken, but how that happens is uncertain and unknown, since we are raised and steeped in the law as insiders…we have to find grace by turning things upside down, somehow. But if we are turning things upside down, then it’s easy to say, “why not just throw this away?”