Thursday, March 31, 2011

Theory without Practice: Faith without Works?

The following is a thought I have been mulling over for some time.  I expressed it as follows on a message board for unorthodox Mormons.

I think modern LDS Mormonism has an unhealthy obsession with theoretical abstractions. We are so caught up with (static) images and words that we have no time for (dynamic, evolving) reality. We approach other human beings as simple stereotypes--interchangeable, cookie-cutter widgets with slots and tabs for assembling endless iterations of the one true family (which is presided over by a man, fed and served hand and foot by a woman, and burdened with as many submissive kids as possible). When we meet someone without a slot (or with two tabs), we deny their reality: "You aren't really homosexual; you're just a sinner who won't get on board with the one true family. Pin on a fake smile and join us for another Family Home Evening on the evil of straying outside rigid stereotypes! It'll cure your gayness (eww!)." Because we tend to see people as abstractions (collections of slots and tabs), it is really no wonder that we have problems with things like honesty, integrity, and even (gasp!) pornography.

What do Mitt Romney and a hopeless porn addict have in common? They both are obsessed with heavily stereotyped images, images empty of unique personal content. Mitt tells the voters want they want to hear, keeping his own counsel about what he really believes. I have no idea what he really thinks about anything (and I admit I have not tried really hard to break the shells of conservative and Mormon armor that he wears). The porn addict relates to images rather than to people: he wants sex devoid of content. Morality without quirky personal content! That is what we are selling in LDS Mormonism (and much of the religious right in the USA). This is why our spokesmen come off as duplicitous, boring, and (ultimately) destructive. They are working to maintain a vision of humanity that is too simple to contain (let alone control) complex reality. They hate pornography because it provides a visceral, graphic indication of what is wrong with their approach to reality: some of their most faithful followers take their abstract approach to human relationships into the bedroom, with predictably awful results. (People get offended when you treat them like objects. Not just in bed. This isn't really rocket science, folks.)

The more we focus on theoretical abstractions to the exclusion of reality, the less thoughtful and introspective our religion becomes. Instead of examining our morality, criticizing it, improving it, tinkering with it, we do whatever we happen to do and then justify it with the right word. The word is more important to us than the reality. Witness our eagerness to defend "marriage," as though there were something monolithic out there going under that name. What do we mean when we say "marriage"? I think many LDS have this idea that most folks (at least most "good" folks, most "Christian" folks) have virtually identical relationships coming under this moniker: one man, one woman, several kids; no mistresses, no affairs, no fighting, no spousal abuse, no sibling rivalry, no inherent evil. (Is anyone pushing for a defense from marriage? Some people have good reason to get on that bandwagon.) Reality is messy: the word "marriage" covers a wide range of relationships between very different people. Some marriages are (always) going to be great, and some are (always) going to be terrible. I love my wife and make an effort to respect her and treat her as an equal. My neighbor is an angry drunk who beats his wife and treats her like a doormat. My other neighbor is happily married to someone of the same sex. How does breaking up the homosexual couple do anything at all to the other two? How does opposing no-fault divorce improve anything for the heterosexual couples? (The battered spouse does not always want to make a charge stick, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has ever been battered or disappointed in love.) Defending "marriage" in the conservative vein is essentially opposing any measure that would upset the illusions (1) that every problem will be OK if we just ignore it long enough and (2) that all people are the same (in ethical terms). This is ridiculous. Ignoring problems does not make them go away, and my marriage is in no way, shape, or form any kind of absolute blueprint for yours: you have to make your own bed, live your own life, be your own person. I can't tell you how to be; all I can do is offer my own experience as something for you to consider, on your own terms, as you find it relevant.

In the church, we obsess so much over doing something wrong. And we go and do things wrong anyway! We get married too soon, have sex too early in a relationship, get caught pretending to be someone or something we're not. A good religion would help us figure out how these mistakes actually happen. It would point us to resources that helped us actually change our behavior, rather than pressuring us to cover our guilty asses with pious psychobabble after the fact and then browbeating the few who are caught red-handed or are too honest with themselves and others to "play the game." To do the LDS General Authorities justice, I think they sincerely believe in the power of their words: they think that the Family Proclamation is really defending families (instead of tearing them to shreds to save a lifeless, oversimplified definition). Packer means it when he says that (and I paraphrase), "a study of doctrine will do more to improve behavior than a study of behavior will do." His sincerity is irrelevant to the fact that he happens to be dead wrong. We need theory, of course. We need rules. But if theory is going to useful, it has to be responsible for the results it helps to generate. It has to be grounded in some kind of reality. As a people, we LDS have spent a good part of our history (particularly our recent, post-correlation history) drifting away from reality, turning the gospel into an empty shell of an ethic whose real-world applicability is nowhere near as good as most of us suppose. (I understand the Book of Mormon musical points this out with humor.) If we are going to offer a real city on the hill, a lighthouse that points people toward real improvement in their lives (as opposed to our vocabularies), then we have to snap out of this blue funk and call a spade a spade, even if it hurts our rapport with members short-term. At the end of the day, there is no viable corporate substitute for individual integrity. There is nothing faith-promoting about wrecking people's lives to save a bad definition, an ungrounded abstraction.