A while back I wrote a six-part series on postmodernism and Mormonism:
One of the few people to really engage me in discussion of this topic was Ben McGuire, whom I have known for several years. As I mentioned in my postmodernism series, most Mormons I know who adopt a postmodern stance do so based on a simplistic view of postmodernism because they believe it provides an unassailable defense of their faith; as I believe I have shown in my posts, this adoption of postmodernism is misguided and ultimately fruitless. Ben, however, understands postmodernism and has consistently given as reasonable and reasoned an argument for its compatibility with Mormonism as anyone I know. Plus, Ben is a genuinely nice guy, is extremely intelligent, and has demonstrated to me a great deal of integrity in his discussions of his beliefs.
So, I was pleased to see that he’s written a piece outlining where he finds Mormonism compatible with postmodernism. I should say that Ben’s post hasn’t met with universal approval, with one person linking to his article under the heading “Internet Mormon sneers at Chapel Mormons for not being able to invent their own flavors of Mormonism to suit their individual tastes (Patheos will apparently publish just about anything).” I’ve never known Ben to sneer at anyone, and I’d rather engage his arguments than slam him ahead of time. So, here goes.
Ben wisely sets aside a formal definition of postmodernism: “Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult term to define. So, I am not going to try.” It took me six long posts to define postmodernism, and I’m not sure I succeeded. Instead, Ben describes three postmodern themes and “how they relate to Mormon theology. These postmodern themes often reveal a hidden tension within the Mormon faith, caused by seemingly paradoxical claims and suggestions. These themes are continuing revelation, the theological hierarchy of the church, and its approach to pluralism.”
The first, continuing revelation, Ben sees as a source of constant change: “Revelation can overturn that which we held sacred. It can reverse our views of past discourse from God. It can modify our interpretation of scripture. … With ongoing revelation, the only certainty is that change is inevitable, and that we never know quite as much as we think we do.” Here I agree with Ben. Mormonism views truth as a constant and evolving process, not necessarily a fixed set of doctrines. Christian fundamentalists would be aghast at the idea of modifying or updating “God-breathed” scripture, but Joseph Smith had no qualms about updating and rewriting revealed scripture. For example, he revised the Book of Mormon in 1837 and 1840, often clarifying doctrinal positions and emending scriptures with more information or exposition. Similarly, revelations included in the 1833 Book of Commandments were heavily revised and rewritten for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Clearly, the Mormon view of text is more fluid and open-ended than most religious traditions. I particularly liked this statement in Ben’s piece:
Joseph Natoli describes it: “In the life of a postmodernist, the problem is not that we might wander and that we therefore would be faced with contesting views none of which can validate itself as The Truth. The problem is that we might elevate some narrative to Truth status and stop wandering. We might invest some observation . . . with full determinate status.” Just as personal revelation can alter our individual perceptions of our faith and the world around us, so too revelation alters the perception of the LDS Church as a whole. The risk isn’t that the Church or its members continue searching and asking for more truth, it is that at some point the Church stops searching, believing that it has found all there is to find, and concludes that God has said all that He is going to say.
The notion that there is always more to learn is, in my view, one of the great strengths of Mormonism. In the last forty years, however, the push for Correlation and a fixed definition of orthodoxy has undermined this traditional strength. Thus, on a philosophical level, I agree with Ben, as I find LDS notions of truth to be uplifting and exhilarating; on a practical level, I’m not sure this approach holds. One might, for example, find new truths through personal revelation, but one would get in trouble for sharing such things publicly.
The second theme he discusses is that of authority in the church, which is directly manifested through the hierarchy of church leadership. He says:
The LDS faith has what has been called a “rigid hierarchy”—a top-down authoritative structure, and yet, paradoxically, from a theological perspective, the authority lies with its members at the bottom instead of with the leaders at the top. In 1884, James Barclay (the British member of Parliament) wrote: “At the same time, every individual has full freedom of action. There is no compulsion on any Mormon beyond the public opinion of his fellows, and none is possible. All are equal. There is no special or privileged class or caste. The people in the fullest sense govern themselves.”
Here I have to disagree with Ben. Authority most certainly does not lie with members “at the bottom.” I doubt very much that such was the case in 1884, but it definitely is not true today. He’s right that members are supposed to have their own persona revelation, and that is indeed the most important religious experience one is supposed to have, but always such notions run up against the reality of a rigid hierarchy and an ever-shrinking notion of orthodoxy. Here’s Ben again:
The corollary in postmodernism is the notion of removing privilege. What constitutes authority in postmodernism is always deconstructed. What makes Mormonism a strong movement is not its adherence to a fixed set of beliefs, to creeds and statements of faith, but to a vibrant diversity in perspectives, beliefs, and interpretation coming together in a common faith.
I just don’t see this diversity as much as I used to. Once upon a time, the church accommodated alternative voices among its members, and it was acceptable to participate in intellectual discussions of ideas. But since 1993, the church has made it clear that diversity of perspectives and beliefs is not welcome, and intellectuals are considered a danger to the church to be held up to ridicule. It is impossible to remove privilege when everyone is supposed to “face the right way”; the “channels of revelation” go in one direction in the LDS church, and it’s not from the bottom.
Ben’s third theme is this: “The third trait of Mormonism is that idea that there is no universal standard by which everyone is judged, nor is the LDS Church the only repository of truth.” He continues:
Mormon theology suggests that all are judged by their individual circumstances. There is no list of specific requirements for salvation that holds true in every case (or even in a majority of cases). Everyone is given an equal opportunity for salvation, even if we don’t always understand how that opportunity presents itself. This functions both within the faith, and external to it. Even within the membership of the church, uniformity of belief and understanding is not a requirement for salvation.
But Mormonism isn’t just about belief and understanding. It is about doing; more than any other religion I know, Mormonism puts specific requirements on its members for salvation, regardless of individual circumstances. Ben mentions baptism as a universal requirement for salvation, but it goes way beyond that. To be exalted in the LDS sense is to enter into temple covenants (and live up to them). You might believe (privately, of course) in unorthodox doctrines, but there is no getting around the covenants you must make to be exalted. Ben goes on:
The corollary in postmodernism is the rejection of a meta-narrative, and the introduction of pluralism. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t one of the privileged few who happen to born in the right place at the right time to be baptized into the Mormon church. There is no need to redefine history to conform to a specific understanding of Truth. Mormonism may promote its understanding as a better way, but without suggesting that it is the only way to salvation.
I guess I don’t see it. If anything, the advent of Correlation has led to less pluralism in the church and a greater emphasis on adhering to an orthodox meta-narrative. As I have shown previously, the church constantly redefines its history to conform to its understanding of Truth. And of course the ultimate irony is that to suggest that Mormonism does not present itself as “the only way to salvation” borders on heresy.
Ultimately, what I think Ben is doing is distinguishing between the “gospel” and the “church.” The gospel, meaning the accumulated teachings of the LDS church, does on some levels appear to support a diverse, postmodern approach to truth. The church, on the other hand, does not lean that way at all. Where the gospel demands that we develop a mature faith, the church demands conformity and obedience.
But the church and the gospel are one and the same, except on some purely private level. It is true that a church member can believe or think whatever he or she wishes, but the moment such beliefs become public, diversity of thought and opinion cannot be tolerated. The promise of a rather radical theology always butts up against the hard reality of the institution. And that institution is hardly postmodern.