Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Re-thoughts on Cultural Mormonism and Cultural Mormons

OK, first of all thanks to everyone who commented on my post Why We Should -- All of Us -- Reject Cultural Mormonism.

I've always had strong feelings on this subject. When I crashed and burned in my junior year at BYU and ended up leaving the Church, I did not see any middle ground between being a full-on true-believing Mormon and being an ex-Mormon. I remember when -- years later -- a former BYU professor described himself to me as a "DNA" or a "cultural" Mormon, I remember being slightly perplexed. My feeling was, Why bother? Why, if the Church isn't true, would you want to have anything to do with it?

I guess thinking things through, of course, it became more obvious to me. Yes, there might certainly be individuals who for cultural or social or familial reasons might want to stay connected to the LDS Church, but who no longer believed in some or any of its tenets.

I've never been one of those people, trust me. I am one of those rare Mormons, I guess, who managed to be quite comfortable in high church liturgical churches as well as low church revival-style churches or intellectually oriented liberal churches. I guess you could describe me as spiritually multi-lingual -- and as comfortable in my acquired languages as I am in my native tongue. So, like many immigrants I know who are well adjusted to life in America, I saw no reason to go back to my native land just for cultural reasons.

When I did come back to the LDS Church, it was actually painful. I really actually didn't want anything to do with Mormonism; I was quite comfortable without it. And the only thing that ultimately did persuade me to come back was a clear and undeniable prompting of the Spirit. Even then, I had a long argument with the Spirit, pleading among other things that Mormons simply didn't want me, a gay man. The Spirit didn't let me off the hook.

It's just to say, I've never really occupied the middle ground of cultural Mormonism. What I do occupy is a kind of no-man's-land as a believer who is perpetually excluded from my home Church. I've become, I guess somewhat to my chagrin, the religious equivalent of the man without a country.

So maybe my country-less status has made me a bit crotchety. Or maybe I come across as crotchety.

I was mortified that one of my best friends in the Church would take my statement on cultural Mormonism as a sort of a condemnation of his own wrestling with doubt. For him, cultural Mormonism is a space that allows him to stay connected to the Church even as he struggles to understand what he believes in or what his belief means to him. And if you all knew this guy -- what a great big heart he has, how totally compassionate and passionate he is -- you would feel like I do. I just love him unconditionally, and whatever Church I belong to (or don't belong to, as the case may be) I can't imagine life in my Church without him.

And I realized that my statement could easily be misunderstood as saying, "If you're not a true believer you don't belong in the Church." And that is so totally not where I'm coming from. That, actually, would so totally be the opposite of what I feel with every fiber of my being. I so totally want a "big tent" Mormonism, with enough room in the pews for everyone who wants to be there, with all their faith and doubt, all their conformity and non-conformity and everything in between.

I called my friend immediately on the phone to let him know in terms that are absolutely unconditional and impossible to be misunderstood that I would be heartbroken if he ever left the Church for any reason. I told him on the other hand I'm not trying to guilt him into staying either! But he should know that I want and need him there.

There's an irony in that one of the things he struggles with is the fact that I can't be a member of the Church. I don't know what to do with that, except to say that if I can still have a testimony, I don't want others abandoning their testimonies for my sake. I don't want that on my conscience.

I still can't say I'm comfortable with "cultural Mormonism" as an end-point or final-resting-place of faith. But I want a Mormonism that allows its members to struggle more openly with doubt. I want Sunday Schools and Priesthoods and Relief Societies and Sacrament Meetings where individuals can share doubt and wrestle with doubt and still be embraced by a community that embraces faith. Actually the fact that we often are so uncomfortable with doubt that we just can't deal with it or talk about it in Church settings is one of the things I hate about "Mormon culture."

Doubt is so often the result of good things. It most often is the result of efforts to reconcile different forms of knowledge, but it also often flows from compassion. Doubt is the natural result of trying to apply deceptively simple gospel principles in a complex and terrifying world. Doubt can be a refiner's fire that helps purify faith, that enables it to mature and gives it depth and nuance. Without doubt, I believe, it is impossible for us to acquire a faith that can provide any sort of meaningful guidance through the storms of life. Doubt can play such an important role in the proper development of faith, I sometimes almost wonder if it shouldn't be elevated to the status of a Christian virtue proper.

I've always been a fan of Doubting Thomas. I always felt like Thomas had every right to demand proof. And the Savior, after all, obliged him; so perhaps Jesus agreed. After all, Thomas only demanded what every other disciple had already received: the opportunity to see the Savior with his eyes and feel the prints in his hands.

In the end, I agree that doubt is not a virtue in and of itself. I see it as valuable only in how it allows us to come to a place of deeper faith. But we certainly shouldn't recoil from doubt as if it were the black plague of faith. It's not. And neither are doubters.

And there's the rub for me. If I am uncomfortable with "cultural Mormonism" -- if it's not something I personally relate to -- I am not uncomfortable with "cultural Mormons." Actually, I like cultural Mormons, if only because they so often wrestle, like I do. They so often have to fight for a sense of who they are and what they believe, like I do. So for me there will always be plenty of room on the back pew next to me for folks who find themselves -- voluntarily or not -- in this category of Mormon.


Kiley said...

I like this post. I could not get on board with your post about rejecting cultural Mormonism because I believe so many of the things that you stated in this post. It should be ok to be part of the group and be struggling, doubting and maybe even not a believer... I mourn for the doubter who feels like they have to hide. Doubt should not cause guilt in my opinion.

I also think that it is a strange community that rejects people who desire to contribute and help build it just because they don't fit...

I should clarify though that I do not love Mormon culture. I don't really have a soft spot for jello salad, or Saturday's Warrior. When I talk about being a cultural Mormon it is really more about just not wanting to leave "home" behind if that makes sense.

The church itself and its structure does not really allow for cultural Mormonism to exist even though I really wish it did. Andrew's post hit it on head...

alan said...

The conundrum as I see it is that when Mormonism is thought about as an inside/outside situation, or belief/doubt, or God/Satan ...or whatever duality you want to use, then you lose the complexity of what is happening on the ground. Raymond Williams (a cultural theorist) talks about cultures in terms of having "residual," "dominant," and "emergent" discourses. Mormons in the 19th century believed in different things than those in the 21st century, some of which is now residual, some of which remains dominant. You and your friend have a belief in a potentially emergent idea, that is, a church that would allow you to have membership. This is something that many, many other Mormons would say puts you on the "outside," or makes you a "doubter" rather than a "believer." So, you might see how belief/doubt is perhaps not as useful a framing as residual/dominant/emergent, because the former doesn't really take into account the specificity of what is believed, in terms of the individual or the community.

I think the problem Mormons (including you) have with "cultural Mormonism" (a big-tent that would make use of this residual/dominant/emergent paradigm) is that it maintains a kind of "outside-looking-in" perspective that by its nature delegitimizes Mormonism. "Cultural Mormonism" historicizes Mormon belief and community ("Mormons believed X yesterday, so why not today?") rather than granting the Church 100% ahistorical certainty ("the truth is always true"). I don't really have an answer to resolving this, other than the fact that the "outside-looking-in" perspective can itself be historicized, and that Mormonism has a built-in historiographical buffer called "continuing revelation." But, as I'm sure you know, from the outside-looking in, continuing revelation tends to look like contrivance and convenience.

Andrew S said...

Well now that Kiley and Alan have commented, there's really not that much for me to say.

J G-W said...

Kiley - I pray for a Church where you feel welcome as you are.

Alan - Well, from the perpsective you've presented that is sort of a problem, isn't it? If cultural Mormons demand a delegitimization of faith, if they view revelation as nothing but "contrivance and convenience," why should believers want to make room for that?

But here's the thing... My present path is the result of an unexpected, undesired, undeniable encounter with God. Early in my journey, the Spirit prompted me to expect friends and allies in unexpected places, and, Lo, I have discovered the Spirit to be right. So I have learned to see possibility and value where most folks see none.

I remain hopeful, and I expect to see God at work -- both in and through believers and in and through non-believers. I remain committed to the Church, because it is where the Spirit teaches me the most important sacred transformations will take place...

And my feeling is... If you want to belong, you should belong. Come on in. Enter a space of possibility. If you're will to wrestle and to be open, God will be able to use you to build the kingdom...