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Beyond Belief and Unbelief: The Abundant Life

April 2, 2015

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?”

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2 Comments
  1. Interesting post. There’s so much to unpack that I can’t even begin to share my thoughts on all of your points. Also, I haven’t listened to this podcast yet, although I think I will.

    But the part of the post I wanted to comment on is the question of positive lived experience of Mormonism following met needs or sticking with it despite challenges and then it meets needs.

    In my post-disaffection, I’ve thought about this. As a 29-year-old single, Mormonism was not meeting my needs. Anything but. Still, I held on for quite a while, believing that eventually those needs would be met in some way. It took therapy to help me realize maybe those needs couldn’t be met within the Mormon paradigm. So I left.

    Contrast this with my 21-year-old sister, just returned from a mission six months ago. Now she is going to school, she has a boyfriend (it will likely lead to marriage), she has a rich social network of friends and family, and she has a sense of purpose and meaning. She would credit her happiness to the gospel, but I think the credit should actually go to the fact that her psychological and physical needs are being met. Her lived experience of Mormonism is chiefly positive because those needs are being met satisfactorily (for now at least). Certainly Mormonism offered a convenient avenue to meet many of those needs, but I do not think Mormonism itself is meeting those needs. But, like most religions (and other organizations), Mormonism markets itself to its members as the thing that does meet those needs.

    Maybe some find peace eventually through sticking it out. But I think it happens most often the other way. And I, personally, can’t recommend sticking it out with hope that those needs will be met. I think a far better strategy may be to assess those needs (Community? Intimacy? Purpose?) and then seek ways to meet them wherever possible (in healthy ways of course)– even if that is outside of religion.

  2. JL,

    This episode of the podcast is in two parts, and it’s a little slow to get going, but I would definitely say that listening to the podcast is a must to get all the references that I’m making.

    I do think that you raise a good point that is relevant to the subject — if Mormonism appears to be “working” for someone (like your sister), then how much of that is because of Mormonism, and how much of that is because of other factors that Mormonism just happened to “offer a convenient avenue” for those factors.

    However, I think I would push back like this: I don’t think that people are saying you find peace eventually through sticking it out. To the contrary, I think that people are saying that you can still take breaks, take a bit of distance, try to look at things from a different perspective, and therefore try to create the better situation that you may have been missing.

    That being said, I think that an argument Dan Wotherspoon makes occasionally on these podcasts (and it came out in these episodes just a little bit) is that he would say there is a class of needs that could best be described as “spiritual”. So, his argument for religion seems to ultimately drill down to, “Where else is the spiritual taken seriously as an area for introspection, cultivation, etc., etc.,”

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