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Grace, Works, and Algorithms

I have a strange fascination with the religious concept of grace, mainly because it is so central to Christian denominations, yet so opaque to me. I understand it is a core of the disagreement between the various Christian traditions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and even less well regarded traditions like Mormonism.) I don’t think my inability to understand is solely due to a Mormon upbringing, because, to be fair, I don’t even fully grok the Mormon understanding. When I ponder it, it all evaporates in a stupor of thought.

This fascination has led me to try to explore it in irreverent analogies and metaphors to things that I understand slightly better. At Sunstone, I will talk about grace, works, and devotion from the perspective of video games.

Will I get it? Will I have any insight? Hah. Probably not. These presentations are gratuitous.

Today, I was thinking about grace, works, and social media success driven by algorithms.

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The subjective perception of atheism

Over the past few days, people have asked me why I still pay attention to all this religious stuff if I’m an atheist. I think that some of them believe that maybe it’s just that God-shaped hole in my heart and really, deep down, I’m a believer.

I don’t see it that way. I don’t experience it that way. It doesn’t feel that way. I think they are likely to be disappointed.

But I have come to a certain position that, I dunno, doesn’t seem like the typical atheist position?

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The Middle Way vs New Order Mormon

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.

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Thoughts on (not) making middle way Mormonism work

In over a decade of on-and-off online Mormon discussions, I’ve met a lot of people undergoing faith crises who want to try to rebuild some sort of faith in between traditional belief and outright unbelief. But, although I’ve observed a lot of people attempting a “middle way” path, most have not been able to pull it off — even though they really wanted to make it work.

Late last week, several of my co-bloggers at Wheat & Tares had a series of discussions about Middle Way Mormonism. We got the idea that it would be really cool to have different writers write their takes on the Middle Way…what do we think about it, how does it work, why are some people able to live it and others not? So, over the weekend, I finally got around to writing a new blog post.

As someone who has for all practical purpose left Mormonism and religion entirely, I have spent a lot of my time trying to figure out why the people who can make it work do. I’ve started to get a feeling just from talking to a person briefly about whether it seems they will be able to make the middle way work, or whether they will struggle and chafe against it. And so, in my post, I wrote about what I’ve observed from people who have been able to live a middle way.

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I was duped into buying rental car insurance, so I quit church.

You may have noticed that I finally wrote a new post after months of inactivity on being a Squib in a magical world. This is not mere coincidence — rather, this is the time of year that I get most engaged with religion and Mormonism in an offline sense through involvement with the Sunstone Symposium. Through hearing so many presentations and having so many conversations with people across the map of belief in a variety of religious traditions (not only Mormon ones, even!), I have a lot of things churning through my mind. The bad news that I fail to write most of these things down in blog posts. The good news is that I succeed at writing a few of these down in blog posts.

So, Sunstone is the closest thing to a liturgical calendar for me. (I went to a session by Maxine Hanks and Gina Colvin about discovering sacred spaces in mundane places, and they challenged us to think about divine calendars in our lives, and at the time, I felt totally alien — I don’t really conceive of any sort of special time apart from the ordinary, much less sacred or divine times. Even personally, I forget my own birthday, so not even that day is marked apart from ordinary “chronos” time.)

This year, Sunstone moved to a new venue. After being at the University of Utah for so long, it is now at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy Utah. This brings a lot of opportunities for the Symposium — most of all the opportunity to consecrate this otherwise secular place as a sacred space — but also a lot of (first world) challenges: I used to rely upon getting a hotel at the University Guest House within walking distance from the University Student Center. The University was close enough to the airport that getting an Uber or Lyft to the campus and then walking through the duration of the conference was affordable and convenient.

This year, I waited a bit too long to get a hotel close to the venue, but fortunately and graciously, I was able to stay with friends in nearby Park City.

This next sentence will sound like ingratitude, and I want to say I am not complaining, but…”nearby” Park City means a 1 hour drive each way to Sandy.

No big deal. But it meant that for the first time, I was advised to consider renting a car.

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Being a Squib in a Magical World

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk a bit about one of my favorite subjects: what it’s like growing up in a religion that prioritizes spiritual experiences when you yourself have never experienced anything of the sort.

To put it simply, Mormonism has a form of belief voluntarism built in — if you work hard enough and have real enough intent, you should be able to get your own prayer as to the truth of Mormonism. This sort of thing assumes that anyone who is serious about praying, fasting, etc., will inevitably have a spiritual experience, and that this spiritual experience will confirm Mormonism to them.

The best thing about this system is that it builds its own out right into it. If you don’t get a confirmatory message, does that mean Mormonism is false? No! It means you didn’t try hard enough, or you didn’t have real enough intent!

So, yeah, that totally messed with me when I was growing up.

In dealing online with communities of people coming to grips with the historical and theological issues of Mormonism (but who still want to make Mormonism work), I still often find myself having a fundamentally different experience than many of them. For many of the others, these are people who had what they felt to be profound spiritual experiences but who are now unsure of how to interpret these experiences in light of newfound facts that seem to call their previous interpretation into question. (That is, if someone can have a spiritual experience confirming something that is factually or historically inaccurate, then what does that say about spiritual experiences?)

Usually, in groups where people are trying to continue to make Mormonism (or religion in general) work after a faith crisis, there will therefore be a lot of conversation about recontextualizing those experiences — to point out that the experiences could still point to something real even if one’s interpretation, or to point out that one can learn greater spiritual truths in the struggle. For example, if God is ineffable, then of course trying to pin down spiritual experiences into words would be bound to miss the mark.

But the problem is these conversations still presume spiritual experiences in the first place.

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Incommensurable Worldviews

These days I don’t really think too much about philosophy, but the concept that I am still intrigued with is phenomenology — the study of that which appears, of subjective experience. Whatever the outside world is, I have to live with myself, after all. I am a big fan of subjectivity, as a lot of posts of this blog doubtlessly reveal.

So, when it comes to discussing things with others, I place objectivity on the window sill — I’m looking more at intersubjectivity, where my subjective experience agrees (or does not) with yours. I think we can hope for intersubjective agreement to the extent that we are, objectively, built similarly, and I think we generally hope that we are objectively built similarly because we are members of the same species.

But what happens if we are not? When we are not?

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Self-inflicted theological wounds

Earlier this summer, Loyd Ericson and Blair G. Van Dyke released the second volume in the Perspectives on Mormon Theology series…this one was about apologetics. The volume features essays by authors all over the map in terms of positions on apologetics; Loyd and Blair let the authors speak for themselves, but if you are familiar with the existing dynamics, you can definitely understand that some essays are “responding” to other essays.

The typical meta-arguments about apologetics have been hashed out too many times already, but what I wanted to focus on was Loyd’s own contribution to the volume: an essay entitled “Conceptual Confusion and Building of Stumbling Blocks of Faith.”

Loyd went on a joint Mormon Matters/Mormon Stories podcast episode with Dan Wotherspoon, John Dehlin, and Bert Fuller to discuss his concept, and I have written more extensively about his notion at Wheat & Tares, so I won’t dive too deeply into his argument. However, to summarize, Loyd believes that attempts to utilize secular scholarship to defend religious claims actually opens up those religious claims to defeat by secular scholarship. That is to say, faith crises spurred by doubt in the historicity of the Book of Mormon could only happen because apologists and critics were both confused that the truth of the Book of Mormon were tied to the historicity or ancient nature of the book.

I was intrigued by Loyd’s thesis, but also somewhat doubtful. As I wrote in several comment on Facebook and on the Mormon Matters podcast page, I thought the main issue Loyd would run into is that he’s already too late. Many believers do believe that secular scholarly claims are tied to the religious claims, and even worse, it’s not just apologists who caused this. Rather, the church hierarchy itself teaches members to believe that its truth claims extend to claims regarding secular facts.

It’s clear in Moroni 10 that Moroni isn’t asking people to pray about the historicity of the book. That’s where Loyd’s argument has grand merit. Moroni explicitly states in verse 6:

And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is.

Please note that this says: “whatsoever thing is good” is “just and true” — one looks to goodness first as the criteria of truth. (And furthermore, there’s nothing in this line to suggest that “true” implies our modern understanding of historical facts, but rather about acceptance of theological claims. As Loyd summarizes DZ Phillips in his essay, to proclaim that “Jesus is the Christ” is a categorically different thing than saying “Jesus is a carpenter.”

And yet, notwithstanding these concepts in the Book of Mormon (or the Alma 32 concept that you verify the goodness of the word by experimenting upon it, not by validating its historicity), there is at the same time an emphasis from the church itself that historicity matters.

I posted my Wheat & Tares post on the exmormon reddit to see what people would think, and most people adamantly protested the idea that Mormonism could be true if it were not historical. To avoid the potential of having a biased audience (perhaps exmormons tended to have more literalistic faith than typical?), I also asked the more believing latterdaysaints reddit, and although there were some who responded that their testimony did not depend on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, others expressed that it did. As the top upvoted comment wrote:

Joseph didn’t leave the “inspired fiction” option open to us. He spoke of an actual visit from Moroni. He claimed to have dug up a real, tangible set of ancient plates. He said that they had actual Reformed Egyptian characters on them. He claimed to have translated them with an actual seer stone that the Church still possesses to this day.

I know that for more nuanced Mormons, it will be easy to say that Joseph may not have fully understood his own experiences, and could have misreported what was happening. However, at that point — and as I remarked about Loyd’s argument in the first place — one has to essentially argue against members’ understanding of how the church itself presents its own nature, to try to preserve faith in said church. The church’s emphasis on literal historicity is therefore a self-inflicted theological wound.

Inoculation and Echo Chambers


Within online Mormonism, there is frequently a discussion about “spiritual inoculation” — this concept that if the church or informed faithful members could prime other members with enough context about unsavory or surprising elements of history or theology, then those members would be better equipped to handle those elements. Put a bit differently, the idea is that the real issue of faith crisis isn’t necessarily learning unsavory history or theology, but a crisis of trust that one didn’t hear it first from one’s own community (or, perhaps, in fact, the community may have strenuously rejected.)

I was thinking recently about an exercise that I sometimes do online. Sometimes, I will intentionally wade into spaces — blogs, social media accounts, websites, whatever — of people whom I disagree with. It’s good when they present their positions kindly and cautiously, but generally, I will go knowing that it’ll be hostile — perhaps even definitely hostile against me or something about me.

I try to sit in those spaces, feeling the hairs on my neck raise. Feeling the tension in my gut. Feeling my blood pressure rising. And I sit with that and try to get used to it.

I try to understand where the other person is coming from. Not necessarily to agree with it, or even to see if I can disprove it, but just to see that I can understand. Maybe to see if I can come to understand their position enough to restate it in a way they would accept.

But what I really want to do is see if I can distance myself from that gut reaction, just a little bit. So that the next time I encounter that position, maybe the hairs won’t raise quite as high. Maybe my blood pressure won’t rise so much.

I was thinking about being raised in the LDS church. A religion I don’t believe in, with values too white, too heteronormative, too theistic, and too conservative, for me to find a whole lot of common ground. I understand that each of those things has caused profound grief for various people — and I understand and regret that some people crumble under the weight.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that not only have I survived it, but I’ve come through at least a little better of a person. Not in the ways that Mormonism would want me to be, but in a way that I personally feel somewhat bettered by it. I feel that there are some scars that those who have undergone religious or faith crisis will bear, but there’s also a perverse sort of strength that will also be born from the struggle.

I was listening to an episode of Gina Colvin’s A Thoughtful Faith podcast discussing her and other Kiwi Mormon reactions to the ex-Mormon Jacinda Ardern becoming Prime Minister of New Zealand. At some point, the women on the panel lamented the fact that they could see a strong, powerful, role model in Jacinda, but that Mormonism institutionally didn’t support the development of this kind of strength or power.

And I thought about that. I’ve often heard people discuss (and I’ve probably written about this too) the wish that they had a church that really understood them, that got them and that supported them in their spiritual, personal, or interpersonal endeavors. I understand this is why some folks ultimately convert to other religions or denominations in the first place. (And, if I had to admit the posts that have most inspired me to write this, I must acknowledge blog posts by Lynnette at Zelophehad’s Daughters, such as Stepping out of the Big Tent, because of the sheer cautiousness of her crush with Episcopalianism. She too grapples with the question of intentionality in the decision to stay in a religion that doesn’t fit well vs move to one that does.)

And thinking about all of that and more, I thought about this idea that even though my politics are progressive, my upbringing in a conservative religion and in conservative states has forced me to be very intentional about that. Conservatism was the background expectation and everything else was hard-won. For most feminists in Mormonism, I understand too that feminism was hard-won rather than just given.

I read the stories of LGBT folks who had to go through a personal or interpersonal hell inside the church before they could come to a knowledge of their value and worth and goodness.

I can’t say this is how things should be — after all, as I noted before, unfortunately, some people crumble under the weight.

But is there something to having that? To having that counterweight? To having that hard-won intentionality of that struggle?


Sunstone 2017 Aftermath 1: Community & Excommunication

It’s been a few weeks since Sunstone 2017 (which was fantastic), and I’ve been meaning to write some posts about things I heard and discussed there. (Every time I go, I meet with several avid readers of my blogs who wonder when the next post will go up. Busted!)

So, here goes nothing. First, I’ll point out that I wrote a post about one of the speakers at the annual “Why We Stay” session: John Gustav-Wrathall presented why he, as an excommunicated, married gay man, still attends. I won’t entirely rehash the post, but what I was thinking is: if you have this man who fearlessly attends church even when excommunicated and shows that it can be done, then what is there to fear from excommunication?

Like a lot of my posts, though, it quickly became evident that I had missed a few basic things in the analysis. On the blog itself and also on Facebook, people shared stories of staying engaged in the church only because they didn’t want their families broken apart…and even John commented that his own excommunication process was not without loss of social relationships — and in fact, he went through the process of losing friends several times! There’s simply no way I can so cavalierly recommend people jeopardize their familial relationships.

This actually led to a discussion in response to a comment from Bruce Nielson about why people might enter a posture of “half-belief” in the church. In a comment that I suspect was really more about putting in a jab at John Dehlin (who only received one glancing mention in the blog post), Bruce said:

If John Dehlin wanted to save marriages and help people in the church ‘stay involved’, why not take his 3000 or so followers (at the time) and teach them the big (NON) secret to saving their marriage — not acting in faith threatening ways towards their spouse in the first place. (Worked for me without the slightest hitch!) A fix so incredibly simple and so incredibly effective (most of the time) that the truly shocking thing is how often people don’t use it. Or rather it may seem shocking until you realize what is really going on. Then it makes perfect sense why former or part believers feel such a strong need to correct the whole church and why simply respecting the faith of their spouse isn’t going to work for many of them and they’d rather choose divorce than go that route. Emphasis on the word ‘choose’ here.

What I pointed out was that things are a little more complicated — firstly, for many folks, simple expression of disbelief is a faith threatening act, so Bruce’s comment really implies that people should not express disbelief at all to their family members.

But…isn’t that the entire issue at stake with a “half-belief” or “New Order Mormon” stance — people find ways of couching disbelief in terms that would avoid the faith threatening blunt expression of disbelief. And isn’t the entire issue that for many, this posture is fearful, anxiety-inducing, and profoundly uncomfortable?

So, people end up deciding for themselves that authenticity is more important, and they unfortunately must deal with the social fallout as the result.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence, but today, Loyd posted on his Project Mayhem about a very similar concept.

…I also had a close group of friends that I could share varying degrees of authenticity with (though I’m not sure if partial authenticity is actually a thing). But even with them, the hat was always in my back pocket, something that was either ready to be equipped (backwards) for emergencies or something that had to be annoyingly explained (or explained away). What people rarely ever saw was /me/.
As you could expect, this lack of authenticity and public disguising has created a lot of tension in my soul. Putting on, taking off, turning around, sitting on, packing, displaying, pocketing, and quickly slipping on the hat has tired my arms, neck, and head…

But what I’ll end with — and something I was ultimately trying to communicate in my original post — is that I think there’s a difference between groups. When I read John Gustav-Wrathall’s posts or hear him at events like Sunstone, or when I listen to folks like Dan Wotherspoon on Mormon Matters, I don’t hear complaints of lacking authenticity or of public disguising. Dan continually emphasizes in particular that his journey has moved him past the “head concerns” that others discuss as requiring public disguising. While it seems natural to want to loop all unorthodox folks in the same boat (whether that boat is to say that they are apostates in disguise or to gasp in exasperation at the mental gymnastics they presumably are engaged in to justify staying), it seems to me that these reductions are too simplistic. Perhaps a true spiritual experience that grounds their testimony is enough to make the difference.