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The Middle Way vs New Order Mormon

April 27, 2019

Over at Wheat & Tares, co-blogger churchistrue had an article written about the latest “high” profile excommunication of the day: Cody and Leah Young. I put high in quotations because, from my subjective viewpoint, it doesn’t seem very high profile. As far as I’m aware, there were no news articles written about the Youngs.

Yet, since they had associations with John Dehlin, I saw many posts from him through the disaffected Mormon universe, whether on the exmormon subreddit, various Facebook groups, etc.,

In his post, churchistrue compared and contrasted his approach (as he sees himself as someone who is sticking it out in the church, someone who probably wouldn’t be excommunicated but certainly doesn’t believe conventionally in the typical Mormon beliefs) from the Youngs (whose approach obviously didn’t end up working, as they were excommunicated). In his analysis, he discusses that he takes a nuanced approach that he finds lacking in the hours of discussion regarding the Youngs. As he writes:

The biggest difference between me and the Youngs is that I see the potential for nuance and gray when it comes to these historical issues. Where the Youngs appear to only see black and white. It’s either ALL true historically, factually, religiously, and spiritually. Or it’s completely false. At one point, Leah said, referring to another person’s faith loss, that they tried their best to make it work but “the information is such that it just can’t work”. I understand that mentality, because I used to see it that way. And the Church seems to reinforce this binary thinking a lot of the time. But I disagree completely. Every religion’s origination stories are sketchy, historically. Every single one. But that doesn’t invalidate the goodness and value and truth and beauty a religion can have in the lived experience of its adherents.

The Youngs never once in the 8+ hours mentioned any attempt at a nuanced way of thinking. They never mentioned nuanced Mormon thinkers like Patrick Mason, Adam Miller, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Dan Wotherspoon, churchistrue blog, etc. I’m very curious to know if they tried that and why it didn’t work for them. I know it may not work for everyone, but it’s sad to me it didn’t even come up in the conversation. This tells me the Middle Wayers are not doing a very good job making these perspectives more widely known. I’m motivated to work harder on this. Who’s with me?

churchistrue, “Excommunication of Cody and Leah Young,” Wheat & Tares.

This “nuanced” perspective gets corralled in a lot of different terms, and what bugs me is that even though I think there is something there, i don’t think everyone is in agreement on what this thing is.

How to begin with this?

Well, the first thing I would note is that churchistrue puts in a list of various “nuanced Mormon thinkers.” I think there’s something to be said that Patrick Mason, Adam Miller, Richard Bushman, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Dan Wotherspoon, and even churchistrue are all in various ways different from other archetypes of Mormons — what we might call the “TBM” or “true blue Mormon” or “true believing Mormon.”

But even here we run into problems.

Like, if you talk to Richard Bushman, he probably will say he is a true believing Mormon. He probably will not acknowledge is beliefs as distinctive or in any way in need of qualification. Notwithstanding the fact that the church wants to get away from the term Mormon, he would probably say he is Mormon, not a “nuanced Mormon” or some other prefixed Mormon.

And yet…there is something that people can acknowledge that is somewhat different about many of these folks, that differentiates them from, say, the General Authorities. Mason and Miller and the Givens may be brought in as pastoral apologists, but they aren’t authoritative. (Adam Miller has even discussed this as the “gratuitousness” of theology.) Certainly, they would each say that what they are doing is coherent and consistent with Mormonism — it doesn’t challenge or oppose the institution — but it is not institutional.

This is perhaps why it makes some sense to differentiate these thinkers from, say, CES, or the institution. The CES Letter doesn’t necessarily challenge whatever it is that Richard Bushman can present…but it doesn’t have to, because most people aren’t taught Richard Bushman’s presentation of Mormonism, and the CES Letter is a good foil against CES Mormonism.


the problem is that even if we put a middle between CES Mormonism (traditional belief, let’s shortcut) and CES Letter Exmormonism (traditional rejection of belief), there’s just a lot that could fit in here…and I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of it all as the same thing.

I love thinking and speaking and writing and reading about a substantive form of the Middle Way…it seems clear to me that folks like Dan Wotherspoon and Patrick Mason and Adam Miller and so on do find a vibrance in Mormonism that is deeper and more complex than the CES presentation. As I learn about traditional Christian theology and how very different it is from Mormonism, I understand why my non-LDS Christian friends find Mormonism to be so bizarre…and yet I appreciate folks like the Dan Wotherspoons and the Terryl and Fiona Givens for pushing back and saying, “Hey, Mormonism’s radically different theology has its own point! We don’t want to be just the same as you!”


I don’t think this is what everyone internalizes about the middle way.

I think that there are several kinds of middle ways that do not get elucidated frequently.

  1. I think there is a middle way that essentially doesn’t experience much conflict with traditional Mormonism. I don’t think Richard Bushman or Terryl and Fiona Givens experience much conflict with traditional Mormonism, even if they have a nuanced approach on it. That’s why I don’t think they would want to prefix their involvement. This is tough for many folks to “see” because they don’t experience this themselves.
  2. I think there is a middle way that experiences conflict, but is not exhausted by it due to spiritual fulfilment and spiritual independence. I’ve written about this before at Wheat & Tares and my previous article here is also about it. This is the sense I get from folks like Dan Wotherspoon — he’s experienced enough to have gone through times in his life when he chafed against traditional expressions of Mormonism, and I still think there are some ideas he is not fully OK with, but he’s developed the discernment and diplomacy to live through this into a new comfort.
  3. I think there is a third middle that is not as stable, that represents a fundamental conflict with Mormonism, a lack of spiritual calling, and/or a lack of spiritual independence. For this third middle, staying is about other factors, like maintaining family/friendship, maintaining community relationships, perhaps a desire for advocacy and change, and so on.

I think these are all very different. I’m not saying that people can’t have a blending of these, but I see these going very differently. To gloss over, I think these describe in order the stability or ability of someone to be able to “make Mormonism work,” with (1)s obviously being able to perform well, (2)s being generally very successful, but (3)s being in a really poor shape.

In my mind, I see that (3) is what I would describe as New Order Mormonism. When I think about the origins of that term, to the New Order Mormonism forums (I have no idea if that still exists, or if it has dwindled down in obscurity or fallen to the ravages of time on the internet), I distinctly think of people who are for all intents and purposes exmormons, but they want to try to make it work.

I think that the challenge is that people can’t voluntarily choose to be in (1) or (2) even if they want to. Either you have it or you don’t (but that could just be my doxastic involuntarism poking through.) My experience is that most New Order Mormons didn’t have it. So, I think that even today, many people confusing this (3)rd category with (1) and (2), elide or are ignorant of the fact that these are different categories.

I don’t want to have a “no true middle way Mormon” sort of argument. I mean, it’s possible that anyone who thought themselves as being in (1) or (2) could still leave the church. So when people say that the middle way is unsustainable, maybe that’s true for (1) and (2) as it almost always is for (3). But, I dunno, I feel like folks like Dan Wotherspoon and so on have been at it for so long that I would…I dunno, feel disappointed if these folks left?

Isn’t that strange for an exmormon to say?

I sense there is something in folks like Dan Wotherspoon’s way of engaging with Mormonism (or of John Gustav-Wrathall’s…I can keep adding more names and many of those names would be shared in churchistrue’s list) and the world that is qualitatively different. It’s not traditional. It’s certainly not the typical disaffected ex-member’s. I don’t want that to be extinguished even if I don’t have it for myself and I find it ultimately incomprehensible. Even if I find the recommendation that I should just be more like them to be frustrating.

My issue is that I don’t think people recognize this. In the ensuing discussions in Wheat & Tares or on Reddit, so many of the counterarguments against churchistrue seemed to miss the point. I mean, as an exmormon, I get the point they were making, but it missed the point that the Middle Way Mormon in (1) or (2) would be making.

Talking about how the institution itself reinforces black-and-white, all-or-nothing is not untrue, but it is irrelevant if you have your own independent calling to Mormonism and sense of independence (or if your own experiencing of your nuanced Mormonism feels normative and in no need of differentiation). And yet, if you don’t have these things, then you can’t evaluate what you don’t have. You will only see Mormonism dragging you down every day, demanding your silence and conformity and offering nothing of value.

I know. That’s what I see. That’s what I experience. Even though I feel like I’m getting better at talking about this in a way that folks like churchistrue will look at and still nod along with (I think even Dan once liked a comment of mine on Facebook!), when churchistrue comments that he can’t wait to see me back in church, it strikes me how this is all truly academic for me, rather than something lived. the concept of a philosophical zombie, who looks identical to a subjectively experiencing person, but who has no interior life of his own, comes to mind…

Maybe things will change. Not ruling out going back to the LDS church or any other. Just I wouldn’t recommend anyone hold their breath for it, either.

I can only implicitly acknowledge that there is something more for other people based on constantly finding the folks like the Givens or Wotherspoon or Miller or Mason zig when I would zag.


From → Uncategorized

  1. If curious, there is still a current iteration of the New Order Mormon forums:

    The group includes those who would like to try to make things work, those who simply maintain an intellectual interest (but who perhaps find ex-Mormon discussion groups too caustic), and those who feel that they cannot stray too far without destroying valued relationships. Or some combination of these and other factors.

  2. GC, thanks for that link! I will need to check out that forum to see if the sorts of discussions represent what I remember from it. the descriptions you mention sound on point to what I remember.

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