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.


  1. I can find very little to agree with in this post. For those of us who believe the doctrine, it factually and demonstrably changes our behavior, and eventually our thoughts, too, and in ways that we consider to be good and desirable. For those who do not believe, of course, there is no such effect, and such effects in others are not even regarded as improvements at all because they do not reflect their own reality. Some people find the Book of Mormon inspirational, while others prefer the musical. The Scriptures seem to reflect and predict this quite accurately to me. The parable of the sower comes to mind.

  2. I hear you, Hoosier. It might go over better if I used a medical analogy. Each of us needs some water to avoid dehydration and death. But too much water will kill us. Each of us in in a different position metabolically. The prescription for water that saves someone on the brink of dehydration might kill the person on the brink of water poisoning. So there is no "one prescription" for how much water every person must have.

    Ethics are the same way. Some people need (and respond well to) the kind of stereotypical family structure that the church preaches. Some people emphatically do not need (and respond terribly) to that same stereotype. People have to be sensitive to their individual selves, have to take charge of their own ethics. They have to own their own integrity, rather than assuming that someone else can give them a commandment to follow that is guaranteed to make them happy.

    Life is not simple or universal. It is complex and individual (particular). The simpler and more generic any solution to an ethical problem is, the less practically useful it becomes. (Eventually, the preacher of one right way is like the coach who stands on the sidelines of a basketball game with his eyes closed and tells his team to "win the game" but fails to come up with realistic game-plans, plans which would account for the fact that his team has unique physical and emotional characteristics.)

  3. Hermes, I understand why Hoosier has difficulty agreeing with some of -- most of -- your post. As your header declares, this post was copied from a response given on a message board for "unorthodox" Mormons, and the resulting rhetorical bias is quite clear.

    Although there is a reasonable, rational argument within your comments (if you dig!), it is hidden under a very thinly veiled "stupid, evil church leaders and their malicious doctrines that would willfully create automatons to increase their power! Mwahahaha!" stance. What resonates with one group of people ("unorthodox Mormons") can be harmful to another ("True-Blue Mormons") -- perhaps a medical analogy involving different prescriptions of water being appropriate in different situations might drive home my point, but I'll let you imagine the finer details of the metaphor for yourself.

    That being said, I do agree that there is a tendency among any group of people to create its own stereotypes to inform how they interact with society at large. (Take, for instance, the rather sterotypical charicature of Mormonism and its doctrines that you vividly paint in the post above...) I don't think it's unique to Mormons to hide behind such stereotypes -- I doubt you are likely to find more or fewer bigots in a random sampling of members or non-members, when it comes down to it.

    Using stereotypes can be a useful coping mechanism (hypothetically? I'd have to think this one out), but I agree that it is dangerous to use them as a prescriptive tool: assuming that heterosexual marriage is superior and morally right just because my own marriage, quite frankly, rocks, is a little silly. Is my marriage strong because I'm a woman married to a man? Maybe because my hair is long and my husband works out? Personally, I think our marriage is strong because we correct each others' [rare, but occasional] grammatical errors. Clearly, people -- heterosexual or otherwise -- without strong linguistic backgrounds are doomed for divorce.

    Where I am going with this rather rambling comment, I think, is that I agree with your point about avoiding stereotypes and "rules" as a means of dictating happiness, but I simultaneously roll my eyes at the stereotyped rule for general Mormonism/Mormons that you project to make that point.

  4. Yes, it is obvious Hoosier has problems agreeing with the post because he believes that those people for whom the Mormon prescriptions don't work carry the full blame, because their ground for the good word of God is stony and shallow, or filled with thorns. This is an example of the problem that Hermes is getting at.

    So Kirsti, apparently the idea that is "harmful" to True-Blue Mormons seems to be the idea that people who have heard the LDS doctrine and disagree with it can come from a position of integrity. You'll forgive me if I don't spare them from this idea despite the harm it causes.

    You say that "assuming that heterosexual marriage is superior and morally right just because my own marriage, quite frankly, rocks, is a little silly." Frankly, you're right, it is a little silly, but it's orthodox Mormonism. Mormons of course do not have a monopoly on bigots, but the key difference is that much of the bigotry that is there is institutionally supported.

  5. (I cannot call you "Hermes", though you clearly are a thieving, polytropian cattle-driver, since Georgia seems Arcadian enough in its backwardness but not sufficiently so in its linguistic conservatism. So how about General Sherman?)

    General Sherman, what can the limits of an individualized system of ethics be? As a product (more rightly: a symptom) of late twentieth century Mormonism (i.e. corporate Mormonism) I share your skepticism of ethical templates, but I cannot escape the problem of competing and eventually colliding ethical systems: how far can we say, "yes, do what it is right for you" to one and to another before "what is right" for one turns out being what is not for another. We pseudo-liberals tend to evade the problem with a footnote (WARNING: Do not hurt others) and think the problem solved, but who do determines what is hurtful for another? This is a particularly difficult problem, in my view, because if we idealize an individualized ethics in which each particular individual determines what is right and good for that individual, then that means that each individual also can and does determine what is wrong and harmful. Isn't this the problem, then, that e.g. the pleisto-orthodoxy of Provo Mormonism *thinks* that same-sex marriage is or will cause some damage, some hurt? Can we fault them for determining what they think will be harmful, on the one hand, while praising a self-determined ethics on the other hand? Of course, since I too tend to take the self-determined ethics line (if that is in fact what you are you doing, if I understand you correctly), I tell myself that the difference is that conservative fears are either irrational (contradicting ratio) or a-rational (totally indifferent to it). But that appeal to reason as a basis for determining an ethical standard, however ad hoc it must necessarily be in a world where each determines what is best for ourselves, is in itself a re-legitimization of a universal standard of ethics in the first place (since it uses the notion of reason as a basis). So, we're back to square one. Or am I totally not getting it?

    I am just a bit confused by what seemed to be a rejection of an *idea-l* template for ethics, but then quasi-Platonic arguments; e.g. that pornography is image removed from if it were merely a *reflection* of the Real. By the way, in the spirit of spade-calling, I submit that pornography is not a substitute for sex anymore than grapefruit juice is a substitute for wine. It is very possible for one to enjoy both when one does not get trapped in this Real vs. Reflection dichotomy, they are both "real", just different, and the appeal to real vs. image only comes about when one tries to establish priority and insist that they are competing rather than either complimentary or totally exclusive.


  6. Sean, you make great points, as always. I have only inadequate answers.

    The limits of individual ethics end up being whatever one's associates allow: when you pick on people too much, push their boundaries too far, they react adversely (sometimes by flying planes into your big buildings or starting violent popular movements with lots of music, angry speeches, fascist hand signals).

    I confess you are more liberal than I am, but in some ways I am less conservative: I think individual people are really too unique to be defined by any ideology (even if it comes from their own mouth, but especially when it comes from the wooden talking heads that run modern American politics on either side). I think some conservatives are rational (as some liberals), but that conservatism and liberalism are fundamentally irrational (like all ideologies that real people use). I have a problem with ideology, I guess. It exists in people's heads, which are part of the real world without being able to see as much of the real world as they think they can (by virtue of that subtle poison, ideology). Ideology is only good when we know its limitations, I guess. I would flip the theory of the forms on its head: the reality is not the image (something existing outside of time and space in the mind of deity), but whatever it is that the image represents (which may not have existed yesterday and may be gone tomorrow: eternity is a rather meaningless concept to me these days; I am not sure what it would look like, assuming it exists). I think you and I agree that images don't really compete with reality (or that they should not). Not everyone agrees with us, though.

    Well, I must go back to slaving away over a hopeless dissertation. Tyche!