More on Mormonism and Postmodernism

A while back I wrote a six-part series on postmodernism and Mormonism:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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.

12 Responses to More on Mormonism and Postmodernism

  1. David Clark says:


    The funny thing about this whole thing is that the more I think about it, the more I have concluded that the LDS church is the most modern church around, and the most vehemently anti-postmodern.

    Just take Mormon epistemology as a simple example. There are basically two ways to know something is true in Mormon thought. The first is by feeling the Holy Ghost witnessing to you personally. This is nothing more than a version of the Cartesian inward turn, using religious concepts and words. This is modernism at its most basic and fundamental. All modern thinkers have accepted, sometimes with modifications, some version of the Cartesian inward turn. The problem of course is how the knowing subject can have knowledge of truth in the outer world, which is a perennial problem for modern philosophy. Mormon epistemology implicitly accepts the modern subject/object distinction and posits that the knowing subject knows internally (with the aid of the Holy Ghost) without regards to the external world.

    The second way to know is by following your leaders, especially the prophet. This means a large hierarchy called “the Priesthood.” But again, hierarchical bureaucracy is a hallmark of modernity. It was invented and perfected in the modern period as a way to (hopefully) deliver rational and consistent results to whoever the bureaucracy is servicing. Of course it never quite turns out that way, but to have a large bureaucracy is quinitessentially modern.

    Further, one of the hallmarks of postmodernity is distrust of metanarratives, such as class struggle or Enlightenment. However, what is LDS dispensationalism but a huge metanarrative? Now, all Christian religions by nature have a metanarrative, that God is working in history for the salvation of humans. The metanarrative is usually pretty vague, and it’s usually a narrative about God, not about people. However, the LDS church is dependent on the metanarrative of actual history, that there was a Great Apostasy and a restoration, and that history is full of such dispensations. Hence, the LDS metanarrative is in principle falsifiable. And, if you have gone looking for actual evidence of apostasy, you will know it’s really hard find evidence for it. But since getting rid of the LDS metanarrative is impossible from a doctrinal standpoint, it becomes hegemonic, the metanarrative must be supported even if evidence contradicts it. And that’s precisely the kind of metanarrative that postmodernists get upset about.

    In any case, I think claims that the LDS church is postmodern are simply wishful thinking done by liberal Mormons who want to make the church easier to defend. Of course when push comes to shove and it’s time to go to the chapel, or go to the temple, or go on a mission, all Mormons revert to what they are, modernists, with no postmodernism in sight.

  2. John,

    The notion that “there is no universal standard by which everyone is judged” is a basic tenet of Anti-Foundationalism, a classic postmodern position. I agree with your critique of Ben’s equation of the LDS and Anti-Foundationalist views. But on the other hand, I’m not sure Anti-Foundationalism has much of a future. On this issue, modernist Mormons may have picked the winning side.

    The basic problem with Anti-Foundationalism is that it’s based on outdated science. It reduces all human behavior to culture and socialization, a position that became the dominant scientific paradigm in the mid-twentieth century, but has fallen out of favor since the Evolutionary Psychology renaissance of the last twenty years or so. Increasingly, scientists are finding that certain human behaviors do have a universal “foundation” in the human genome. Even the discovery of intelligent extra-terrestrial life may not change this, since many behaviors that are adaptive for humans are likely to be adaptive for other intelligent life forms as well.

    There are probably still ways for Anti-Foundationalists to argue their case– I can think of several– but it seems to me that the discovery of human biological universals is a game-changer. I’m not sure that Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism are even useful ways to frame the debate anymore.



  3. MrStakhanovite says:


    While I agree with you 100% on the LDS Church not being postmodern, I would have to say that the Church is hardly the poster child for modernity, even though it’s a product of modernity.

    To begin with, I wouldn’t classify the Mormon testimony as Cartesian inwardness. I’m most certain that the burning of the bosom or any other spiritual experience to be had in a LDS setting could survive a Cartesian demon. Descartes was explicitly skeptical of the senses:

    “[3] Namely, whatever I have admitted up until now as maximally true I have accepted from the senses or through the senses. Yet I have found that these senses sometimes deceive me, and it is a matter of prudence never to confide completely in those who have deceived us even once. (Meditations on First Philosophy: First Meditation.)”

    He goes on to say:

    “ [8] Therefore we will perhaps well conclude from these things that physics, astronomy, medicine and all the other disciplines that depend on the consideration of composite thing are indeed dubious, but that arithmetic, geometry, and the others of this kind…For whether I would be awake or sleeping, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. (Meditations on First Philosophy: First Meditation.)”

    I’ve never met a Mormon to date who equated the certainty of their witness to be above that of physics. If we use Descartes as the starting point for modernity (something I would agree with), it becomes an issue of reason triumphing over issues of faith, mysticism, and spirituality. For evidence of that characterization, I would point to the drama that Cartesian Dualism started about the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, which in 1663 got four of his books placed on the index of banned books by the Holy Office of the Catholic Church (read: the Inquisition) because they felt the works tried to ruin the mystery of the Eucharist.

    It’s important to keep in mind that the Enlightenment was a self named era, and one that Descartes is a patron saint of. To quote Kant here, he said the Enlightenment was,”…man’s exodus from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the in ability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another person…’Dare to know’ (sapere aude)! Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment.”

    Driving my point even farther would be the French Revolution as another expression of the Enlightenment and modernity. When people took to the streets of Paris in 1789, they were not just angry at the Monarchy, but the Catholic Church as well, for attempting to control people’s minds, purses, and how they lived their lives. Also note, that the National Assembly did vote in favor of placing Descartes’ remains in the newly christened Pantheon, to pay him homage for his inspiration.

    I think that the intellectual foes of the Enlightenment would feel far more at home in today’s LDS Church than the Catholic Church represented here in America. I’ll quote Emile Keller’s response to the Encyclical of Dec 8, 1864 to show you the mindset:

    “She [The Church] protests against that political and social naturalism that pretends to organize governments and societies according to reason but outside all positive religion, and which even contests the Church’s right to influence political authority and denies the state’s duty to protect and defend Catholic truth. She declares that this disastrous separation wil necessarily end in the triumph of brute force, the unbridling of material desires, and the loss not only of the Faith, but of all civilization and liberty. To her eyes, socialism and communism, which menace family and property, are but the logical consequences of naturalism in politics and rationalism in theology. (Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary tradition. Page: 268)”

    I would say that the Church is more anti-modern than modern. I confess that the Church’s inner workings smack of modern bureaucracy and that gives the institution a modern feel, but given the Church’s general reaction to hot topics like Human Evolution, Book of Mormon criticism, the past treatment of scholars, and the Prop 8 drama, I don’t see any sort of battle cry of reason or secularism that defines modernity today.

  4. Seth R. says:

    Nice write-up Runtu. I agree that postmodernism is a tricky fit for the LDS Church. Not necessarily with “Mormonism” per se, but certainly with the “LDS Church.”

    And I think that distinction is kind of important.

    David said that postmodernism in a Mormon context is simply “wishful thinking done by liberal Mormons who want to make the church easier to defend.” And there is some of that going on. I’ve been guilty of it, and I imagine a lot of other “liberal” Mormons have been guilty of it at some time or other. I’m also one of those who has been accused of “postmodernism” on more than a couple occasions.

    But I really do think there is more going on here than simple postmodernism and mere apologetics.

    For one thing – I think if you dig a bit, you’ll find a lot of us “liberal” (I really don’t like that label – but it’s probably the best we can do) Mormons are not really all that rabidly committed to defending the hierarchical organized “Church” (capital “C”). We often find ourselves quietly nodding along to descriptions of “LDS Inc.” And when Daymon Smith described the LDS Church as basically one big trademark protection enterprise, I found myself reluctantly thinking – “you know, I think he may be on to something.”

    Take me for example – I have long been under the stance of “wait and see” as far as the corporate LDS Church is concerned. Unlike many LDS, I keep apostasy of the Restored Church as a continual ongoing possibility. And I have openly admitted before that I do not necessarily have a testimony of the corporate Church. I have a testimony of things like The Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith, or the overall notion of the Great Apostasy (however I may tweak these items from the conventional narrative). But I never had the same kind of testimony of the current corporate Church.

    So I’ve never been too gung ho about defending it. It’s part of the reason why after Prop 8 (gay marriage) in California, I kind of took the stance of “you’re on your own guys – don’t expect much help from me” with respect to Salt Lake. This even though I’ve always been a pretty vocal apologetic voice all over the place for Mormonism.

    That’s what it boils down to – I defend Mormonism, but not LDS Inc. I don’t have a great testimony of Correlation, the Gospel Doctrine manuals, the tithing system, and certainly not Deseret Book.

    So when David says we are trying to make the Church easier to defend, I simply reply – I’m not trying to defend the Church per se (though I will speak up when I feel the rhetoric is unbalanced or the Church is not being given proper benefit of the doubt). I’m here to defend Mormonism and it’s theology, not the “Church.”

    Secondly, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with wholehearted adoption of the “postmodernist” label, even though it probably fittingly applies to me as much as to anyone in the LDS membership roles.

    For me, the stance I take is more about trying to stay humble and open to revelation and whatever new messages God may have for me. I’m not really ultimately seeking a world where truth is relative, or unobtainable. I’m seeking for the absolute as much as anyone.

    I just don’t trust human capacity to permanently arrive there, that’s all. And I don’t like the attitude of pride that so often accompanies people who think they have arrived. I see my own stance as a Mormon simply as a good faith attempt to live the command for us to be humble and “lean not to our own understanding.” Things have to be kept open-ended as a practical matter as far as I can see.

    That’s my motive. It’s not that I don’t want to be pinned down, I do. But I just don’t have full confidence of my own rightness.

    I don’t know… is this a distinction without a difference?

    • David Clark says:


      I understand the sentiments, but I don’t know how you defend Mormonism outside of the LDS church in that tradition. It’s different in Christianity and Judaism because the borders between groups inside those traditions are much more porous. If you are an Orthodox Jew and decide to be Reformed, you just show up. If you are a Lutheran and decide you want to be a Methodist, again you just show up.

      But, if you are Community of Christ and decide you want to be LDS you can’t just show up. You have to get the missionary lessons, get baptized, get endowed, etc. You have to agree to the LDS church interpretation of certain things and submit yourself to LDS church authority. There doesn’t seem to be much ability inside the LDS church to defend Mormonism as a movement or as an idea.

      Ironically, if you were CoC you would have a much better case about defending a particular idea or movement. I just checked and their website seems to allow for movement between different Mormon groups.

      My main point is that if several groups make up a movement, then each group has to recognize that each group has a vote or a say in what that movement is. The LDS church does not seem to allow for that, but prefers to see itself as a movement unto itself.

      • Tim says:

        One of the beliefs of “Mormonism” that Seth is shedding is that God’s One True Church has been established and can be found headquartered in Salt Lake City. “Mormonism” without the institutionalized church is not really Mormonism (or perhaps better said Brighamism)

  5. Seth R. says:

    David, I would draw a distinction between my personal beliefs and what I am willing to defend, and who I am willing to defer to in matters of church administration.

    • runtu says:

      I used to distinguish between the institutional church and the “real” church, meaning the doctrines and teachings and practices. Seth, I think you’re doing the same thing, compartmentalizing because the “real” church is easier to defend than the institutional church. But what I found is that you really can’t separate them. They are one and the same. That’s why Ben’s piece doesn’t ring true, at least to me: the vibrant and diverse church he talks about doesn’t really exist.

  6. Seth R. says:

    Well, I would want to know what you mean by “exist” Runtu. What would qualify as “existing” for you? Is it a matter of proportions and percentages? Is it a matter of scripture? Is it a matter of how many cites you can find in the General Conference archives? Is it a matter of Joseph Smith? Manuals?…

  7. Seth R. says:

    I’m not shedding it Tim.

    I’m just saying that it’s not something I spend much time defending. Nor do I have as strong a conviction of it as I do of other aspects of Mormonism.

  8. […] try to defend Mormonism, even if Mormonism proper idealizes a different sense of truth. Runtu had a 6-part series relating postmodernism and Mormonism, but David Clark summarized the incompatibility in a single […]

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