Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why We Should -- All of Us -- Reject "Cultural Mormonism" as a Valid Concept

Kiley recently posted, discussing her wrestling with a desire to believe and her wish for cultural Mormonism as an emotional / spiritual / intellectual space within which she could sort out her relationship to the Church while also honestly wrestling with belief.

Andrew, around the same time, posted on Wheat and Tares about whether cultural Mormonism is even possible. I thought Andrew's essay was interesting and thoughtful, and I absolutely agree with his conclusion that "Cultural Mormonism always exists as an unintended and undesired byproduct of a real religion predicated upon belief." Andrew comes to his conclusions by arguing that evolution of Mormon beliefs and practices makes it impossible for us to really define what Mormon culture is. (And, by the way, Andrew, I would argue that this was a problem long before the existence of "correlation." Rapid evolution of Mormon belief and practice even in the first 80 years of Mormonism is what accounts for the existence of the Community of Christ and Mormon fundamentalists -- two developments of Mormonism that have completely different cultures from the LDS Church.) I agree with Andrew's conclusions, but for reasons that have nothing to do with modern day correlation.

Steven Fehr, in his discussion of why he, as an excommunicated, gay Mormon, attends Church gives an account of an experience he had with the Spirit prompting him to read James 1:5 (and verses following). This was a breakthrough moment for Steven. He doesn't much discuss the exact content of the revelation he received upon following this prompting (though he mentions that it was the verses following James 1:5 that really had an impact on him... I recommend you read them!) I found myself deeply moved by Steven's account of this part of his story, because this same text has played a central role in my own coming to terms with faith. And it is -- as every Mormon knows, be they "cultural" or "true believing" -- a foundational text for Mormon faith.

I would add that my coming to faith has been a painful process. When the Spirit tapped me on the shoulder in August 2005, I did not want to believe in Mormonism. I was still profoundly angry at the Church. And I felt that belief threatened to disrupt and maybe even destroy everything I really valued at that time. I was angry, I wept, and I resisted for several months the prompting to start going to Church. My conversion was a painful one. I still wrestle with both faith and doubt. But believe you me, I am converted. And I wouldn't have it any other way. I would rather have a real faith that is painful than the empty, cultural shell of a faith that is comforting and easy.

To hunger for cultural Mormonism is to hunger for a faith that is eviscerated of its heart and soul. "Mormonism" (if there is such a thing!) is predicated upon a living, breathing, heart-thumping, blood-churning relationship with a true and living God who speaks to us in the here and now. Take away belief in that God and what you have left is not much worth having.

To be honest, I'm not sure if "Mormonism" is a valid concept. I even wonder if "Methodism" or "Catholicism" or "Lutheranism" or "Presbyterianism" or "Evangelicalism" or "Fundamentalism" or any Christian "ism" is or can be a valid concept. Because the heart of any Christian faith should be this relationship with a living God. And when you extract that from the cultural accretions of that faith, all you have left is "the traditions of men," something that in Joseph's first encounter with the Living God was execrated as an "abomination." Justly so.

I hate Mormon "culture." It is the part of Mormonism that least appeals to me. It is the part of Mormonism that, more than anything else, drove me away from the Church. It is the part of Mormonism that, more than anything else, undermines and eats away at real, living faith today.

You doubting, cultural Mormons who are heterosexual and blessed with Church membership, do you know how I envy you? Do you have any idea what I would give, just to be able to have the lowliest calling as a home teacher or a Sunday School chorister?

If going to Church makes you feel good, then my recommendation is that you simply go. If you don't want a calling, if you don't want to be bothered by worthiness interviews, if you wrestle with belief, there is still a place for you. True belief, true faith ought to make a warm, welcoming place for you, it ought to put its arms of love around you and fully embrace you with no strings attached.

Come to Church with me. I promise you, I will give you a welcome like you've never received in any church anywhere!

11 comments:

Holly said...

I hate Mormon "culture." It is the part of Mormonism that least appeals to me. It is the part of Mormonism that, more than anything else, drove me away from the Church. It is the part of Mormonism that, more than anything else, undermines and eats away at real, living faith today.

Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine are not separate entities, any more than sexuality and personhood are separate. Mormon doctrine is no more a theoretically pure entity that will someday be purified from all its cultural ickiness and restored to complete, unsullied 'truth" any more than a gay person's soul will someday be purified of gay ickiness and restored to its proper heterosexuality.

Mormon culture is inextricably intertwined with Mormon doctrine. Mormon culture is hateful and hate-able because Mormon doctrine is hateful and hate-able. There never would have been cultural rejection of blacks and gays and oppression of women if doctrine had not provided support for the cultural beliefs and acts.

When it comes to Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine, if you condemn one, you condemn the other, and if you embrace one, you of necessity embrace the other, no matter how much you hate it.

So yes, we should all reject cultural Mormonism--provided we also reject the idea that it's somehow separate from the rest of Mormonism.

J G-W said...

Holly - My understanding of the Restoration is that it is "line upon line, precept upon precept." When we receive a revelation from God, it is to be assumed that revelation is necessary because we are in darkness.

The fact of revelation doesn't automatically cure us of homophobia or sexism or racism. It's an established piece of LDS history that it doesn't enable us to live the doctrines of Zion and live in a consecrated manner with all things in common. An LDS understanding of revelation teaches us we have to work for revelation. God doesn't just whack us over the head and make us perfect people by fiat... That was Satan's plan.

I think it's a naive view of LDS history -- one that is naively embraced by many (most?) true-believing Mormons -- that the Church and its leaders are supposed to be perfect, and that everything in the Church is a direct product of divine revelation. But a more mature understanding of the faith, I think, will understand this to be not only a harmful but a heterodox understanding of the Restoration.

Revelations can be misunderstood and misapplied. And there are plenty of areas where we lack light -- where Mormon culture hasn't had a chance to be redeemed from human sin.

For me, the take away from this is that no faith-project can be engaged in without humility:

...men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children... For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love... (Mosiah 3: 18-19)

Andrew S said...

For completely full disclosure, I will point out that my conclusion is heavily inspired by things that Seth R and Bruce N have said in the past.

Within the past couple of days, I have also realized that nearly everything I said about the slipperiness of defining Mormon culture comes from a slipperiness in defining Mormon doctrine.

But I don't know how far I feel comfortable going with that.

J G-W said...

Andrew - I've been thinking about Holly's response... And I'm not sure that "doctrine" is any more of a valid concept than culture is.

I think true religion is about a relationship with God. We learn about that relationship through real-life interaction with God, in the rough and tumble of life. God gives us commandments, and we either resist or submit. Our choices are complicated by the challenges of life, by our own desire and weakness. We have freedom and can be co-creators with God. God grants us insight and inspiration, makes covenants with us, and invites us into ever more meaningful partnership with him in a grand work whose goal is, after all, only that he might share his happiness in all its fullness with us.

Doctrine, dogma, creed, whatever you want to call it is a shallow substitute for that living relationship that God offers all of us. It's not that there aren't true teachings about God, but rarely if ever do we discover those truths in creedal statements. Doctrines are usually things used by mortals to win leverage in some contentious political or social debate. Their main use is for building a political movement. (Think Swift's "big enders" vs. "small enders" in Gulliver's Travels.)

At least, that's where I'm leaning with this.

Quiet Song said...

"Come to Church with me. I promise you, I will give you a welcome like you've never received in any church anywhere!"

My sentiments exactly.

Andrew S said...

J G-W:

I've been thinking about Holly's response... And I'm not sure that "doctrine" is any more of a valid concept than culture is.

Yeah, that's the idea I was playing with too...and yet, it just seems absurd.

Here's where I'm not buying your argument and I'm swinging toward Holly's point.

You say: I think true religion is about a relationship with God. We learn about that relationship through real-life interaction with God, in the rough and tumble of life.

This sounds just like the, "I'm not a Christian; I have a relationship with Christ." The whole, "I'm not religious; I have a relationship."

It allows you to say there is a "theoretically pure entity that will someday be purified from all its cultural ickiness" (as Holly wrote.)

I don't buy that.

Actually, I could buy that, under the assumption that you're not REALLY a Mormon. It would make so much sense. (I say this in a 100% positive sense even if it doesn't sound that way. Maybe "Mormonism" is a parochial limitation that MUST be transcended along with all other prepackagings?)

J G-W said...

But I agree that there's a problem with the notion of a "theoretically pure entity that will someday be purified from all its cultural ickiness."

There's a problem with viewing the Church as anything but a gathering of imperfect saints entering into covenant with God.

There is a problem with me claiming to be a "Mormon." I agree, 100%, absolutely! When I use terminology like that -- and maybe I should be more careful about that, given how problematic it is -- I use it as shorthand for saying I want to be part of that gathering of imperfect saints! I seek a covenant with God!

(By the way, that's my main beef with the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign. I don't care about the cheese factor, or what everyone else has been debating, i.e., Is it misrepresenting the degree of tolerance for diversity in the Mormon Church? I think an identity-based ad campaign makes for terrible, shoddy theology. I remember a time when Church leaders told us, "You are not Mormons. You are members of the Church of Jesus Christ," i.e., members of a community of covenanters with Christ!)

Reuben said...

John, I've been following all the posts about this topic. I don't know that I have a lot to contribute, but here are some of my thoughts:

1. I love Mormons & I love being a Mormon. I love meeting people at church. I love telling people I'm Mormon. I love the unique and relatively young history our church enjoys.

2. There is a wide and deep chasm between what I believe, and what most of the people I meet at church believe - or at least what they say they believe. They all seem to "know" a lot more than I do. And disagreements (with individuals and with the institution) are not uncommon, though I usually just keep my trap shut about it.

3. Many of my favorite Mormon ideas are the ones that the modern church is trying it's hardest to ignore and forget about.

4. Because of items 2 and 3, I often describe myself as a "cultural mormon" in an attempt to be honest with folks (both in and out of the church) about who I am and what my relationship with the church is. Maybe there is a different term I should use instead. That's not to say I don't want to be theologically aligned with the church, but just that as it sits right now - I'm not orthodox, by anyone's definition of the word.

5. I'm sorry if my wishy-washy approach to church involvement causes you pain. I'm sorry if you think I take the church for granted. I'm sorry that the church embraces me, despite my utter lack of belief in just about everything, while it fails to embrace you, despite your near limitless faith. For me, it is yet another reminder of the chasm. Calling myself a "cultural mormon" is how I cope. It's how I signal to myself and others that there are elements within the church that I will not endorse. My continued attendance at church is how I signal to myself and others that I still desire to be united with them despite our differences.

J G-W said...

Hey Reuben - First of all, you know I love you and will always love you regardless of what you call yourself, or how you choose to relate to the Church...

I'm actually pretty mortified at the thought that anything I could have said here would come across as judging you or even implying that I feel pained by you... One of the things that makes me most happy on any given Sunday morning is your smiling face, sitting in the pew next to me. So lets get that out of the way right now...!!!

My point isn't that you can't or shouldn't have doubt. Actually, I think the life of the Church would be so much healthier if we had an environment where people felt like they didn't need to hide their doubts like some kind of shameful secret.

I have doubted or outright rejected almost every teaching of the Church at some point or another in my journey. Like you, I have grown in my appreciation for the Church's history and unique doctrines.

The point of my essay is that regardless of where you are, there is and must be a place for you in the Church. The fact that you are there, that you are living the teachings, even as you wrestle with doubt, and are uncomfortable with policies (that, for instance, exclude me -- God bless you!)... To me that's amazing. And I think that a willingness to, in a sense, risk all, and be honest and wrestle... That's the path to the truest kind of faith there is.

From my perspective you're on that path.

I'm not sure where you are in terms of a relationship with God... And I'm not asking you to discuss that here!!! That's between you and God, really. But the point of my essay is that there is no substitute for that living relationship. All the other trappings of faith are useless if they don't facilitate that fundamental connection.

My concern with "cultural Mormonism" would be if we merely satisfy ourselves with cultural trappings, and are willing to substitute them for a personal quest to enter into covenant with God...

But let nothing, nothing, NOTHING I've said make you feel like your unique journey of faith pains me or upsets me in any way. There's only one way you could pain me -- one way you could break my heart, really -- and that would be to stop coming, to stop participating in our ward.

I need you there! So if the only way you can be there is to call yourself a cultural Mormon, you call yourself whatever you want.

Bravone said...

"I would rather have a real faith that is painful than the empty, cultural shell of a faith that is comforting and easy." I love this. I feel like the man in the New Testament that in tears cried out, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." Often my doubt and faith pain me, but they are real and it keeps me yearning to know more.

Mormon doctrine and culture change. Christ's pure gospel principles never change. I hold to those. I believe the Church helps me to do so.

J G-W said...

Bravone - Thanks... I do agree that "doctrine" is contingent; it's an intellectual construct adapted to our limitations. The only truth, ultimately, is to enter more deeply into a relationship with God. We know God by becoming more like him. To know that truth, we need to transcend our limitations (and transcend the need for doctrine). The Church and the Gospel are designed to help us do that, if we will let them...