In a recent interview, Greg Prince uses the term “New Mormonism” to describe how faith and belief need to be understood in the church in order for the church to survive in our internet age. Adam Miller makes a similar diagnosis in his book Future Mormon. Both conclude that the days of black-and-white dogmatic Mormonism are numbered if the church is to remain relevant.
What they are describing is not the same as “New Order Mormonism” which seems to mean simply leaving the church or participating as a non-believer. Conversely, they are arguing for a more universalist approach, one that respects faith as the fundamental reason to engage with religion, but that suborns religion and church to one’s experience with the divine. Let’s explore what this discussion is about.
This was an article highlighting several of the key snippets from the interview with Greg Prince. Here are a few of the snippets:
The difference between faith and a belief system:
“If you want to see what faith really is look East, he says. The Eastern religions imbue intense faith in their community of believers, but they don’t have a belief system. You don’t have to sign off on articles of faith or a catechism, if you’re Buddhist. And yet Buddhists often have enormous faith. So he says, what is faith? And he said it has nothing to do with a belief system, it has to do with, one synonym would be surrender. Your willingness to acknowledge the existence of a higher power and willingness to surrender your life course to whatever that power is.”
“Separate faith and belief. Because you just confused the two of them again. Faith is not adherence to a script of statements. It’s acknowledgment of a higher power to which you can relate and in essence, a willingness to surrender your life to that higher power to whatever extent that means.”
On the problem with literal belief:
“Even those who stay in but stay in at the cost of trying to convince everybody else that there’s only one way to understand all of this and it’s extreme orthodoxy. That to me is as damaging as people who leave.”
“The class average among Mormons is it’s all literal and that’s only going to get you into a mess, that you never get out of. It’s time to grow up.”
On exclusivity claims:
“I have interacted with enough other churches at a fairly sophisticated level… I’m not about to point fingers at them and say there is not truth there. Who’s got the most truth? I don’t know. It becomes a question of: show me the walk.”
On the necessity of moving away from the black and white viewpoint that prevails at church today:
“The problem is that people get hung up on this model, and when it caves in, they don’t have anything left. What you have to realize is that scientists make their living by constructing paradigms and then moving to new paradigms when the old ones don’t work. It doesn’t mean that there was deceit in the old paradigm and maybe, usually, it means that it’s the best we could do given the data that we had. But it’s time to move on to a new paradigm.”
The real reason people leave over historicity issues:
“The history is not damaging the church. It’s the realization that there was a betrayal of confidence that is causing the…You saw. This is the bottom line message of the survey. It wasn’t a single statement here that took them out. It was a realization that one led to another and then my Church has not trusted me with the truth. That’s what took them out. It wasn’t a simple statement of ‘the Book of Mormon is fill in the blank,’ it was the betrayal of trust. And where that betrayal has happened, yeah, it has damaged the Church and it’s a self inflicted wound.”
I really enjoyed the write up, and Greg Prince is one of my personal favorites. I tend to agree that this is the future of Mormonism, although that’s not the same as saying that the church will necessarily embrace this type of believer or foster this type of faith. To me, it’s really about shifting our dogma to allow for individuals to experience meaning. But that shouldn’t be “new,” right?
Let’s take a quick look at what is meant in these discussions by what I’ll short-hand to “Old Mormonism.” Traditionally, there are a few hallmarks of this traditional approach to belief that have a short shelf life according to proponents of “New Mormonism”:
- Polemics. In life, there are shades of gray. Not everything is either “right” or “wrong.” Similarly, not everything church leaders talk about is “the gospel.” Literal black-and-white belief systems have usually seemed to me like seeking for a sign or relying on others’ words rather than experiencing something spiritual directly. It’s too tied up in “I’m right; you’re wrong.” Telling people who ever make a complaint that they should just leave the church if they don’t like something is not very Christian and also not smart if we want to grow both individually and collectively. Polemics prevail when people fear that the alternative is “moral relativity.” Just because some things are more complex than binary doesn’t mean that there’s no moral center, just that solutions are a mixed bag.
- Loyalt-arians. The “all in or all out” approach casts doubt as evidence of disloyalty. This might work for those who strongly rely on authority, but it doesn’t work for those who don’t find authority sufficiently compelling on its own merits or who downright distrust authority because of a belief that power corrupts. For those who believe faith is akin to trust in leadership, this one hits too close to home to abandon.
- Elitism. Trashing other religions as inferior, either morally or authoritatively, is a time-honored tradition, but it relies on two things: 1) lack of exposure to believers of other faiths, and 2) a quantity of mean-spiritedness. The first may be tenable because a lot of people aren’t that curious about other faiths if they get what they need from their own, but the second isn’t something we should cultivate. Provincialism flourishes when you don’t travel outside your comfort zone, and for many, religion is there to comfort.
- Simplistic History. While Prince refers to an oversimplification of history in our manuals and teachings as a betrayal of trust, at least to those who feel the rug was pulled out from under them, it seems to me that it is usually the result of a combination of lazy scholarship (as well as some information not being readily accessible until recent decades) and moralizing. That’s how you get simplistic tales about the past that don’t bear scrutiny. It’s not just bad history, but also bad moralizing, since it starts with the moral and then fits the history to tell the story that bolsters whatever message it wants to prop up. That’s propaganda, not history. But all history has bias, and any version of it can be propaganda. Not everyone has the time or inclination to dig deeper, and history is largely unknowable. We always apply our modern filters to understanding it.
- The Bubble. Correlation as a starting point is perhaps a necessary step. Our manuals should probably bear some commonality from ward to ward throughout the church. The real issue is when outside sources are seen as an innate threat that must be suppressed, and when those who are aware of “outside” information are seen as heretics. How can we experience the divine without curiosity? You simply cannot build a testimony without first asking questions. And if we raise a generation of people who feel they can’t ask questions that aren’t on the approved list or that their answers can only be whatever they are told they can be or that their questions alone make them suspect – they will (and do) leave this church in droves. Any doctrine that relies on keeping people in a bubble is destined to fail. This is the internet age. There is no sustainable bubble anymore. And yet, we want to create a safe haven for our families and ourselves. To some extent, we like being surrounded by people who share, not challenge, our values and beliefs.
- Scriptural Literalism. Every religion has this issue, and maybe there’s room for both literalists and allegorists to flourish side-by-side in the same congregation, but I don’t think so today. Our sticking point seems to be the Book of Mormon which adds a pre-Christ Christology by which to reinterpret the Bible. It leads to a lack of respect for the evolution of religion by casting everything as if it has always been exactly the same in the church: temple worship, garments, the priesthood, etc. This is not remotely supported by either the text of the Bible or by the historical record. And yet that doesn’t mean that these things aren’t divine or inspired just because forms change over time.
- Leader Worship. This one’s bolstered by our calling leaders “prophets, seers, revelators,” but at the same time we claim they are not infallible (and yet nobody is willing to point to a single time they’ve been significantly wrong). Pride goeth before a fall, and so does relying on the arm of flesh. We have to quit mistaking the finger that points to the moon for the moon itself. Sometimes it seems we are more comfortable quoting church leaders than quoting Jesus. Richard Bushman had this to say:
I don’t think you can ever abandon your conscience. Ultimately you have to be responsible for your own lives, you have to decide for yourself what is right. President Uchtdorf has told us the brethren make mistakes, so we can’t expect perfect, unmitigated, exact truths of every kind come from the brethren. It’s coming from their minds, we have to decide how it applies to us, there’s no escaping that responsibility. But what I’m pleading for is respect for those opinions. Recognize that they come from very strong, good, very experienced men. And take what they say very, very seriously. In the end you may come down slightly different, but if your spirit is right and you really are trying to do what’s right, you’ll be ok.
- Family-olatry. Elevating the culture wars to the level of revelation or doctrine is confusing bathwater for the baby. Jesus didn’t harp on endlessly about gender roles despite the most recent Visiting Teaching message’s claims. The gospel doesn’t only exist in the nuclear family. But of course, family is often at the heart of our religious views and can make it easier to transfer religion from one generation to another.
I’m not sure how we go from “Old” to “New,” though, if that is even possible. The “Old Mormonism” is not sustainable for people like me–I never embraced most of that version in the first place–but it works as is for plenty of other people. What I think is a bug, they think is a feature. I suppose that’s why Jesus said you can’t put new wine in old bottles. We’ve got a lot of old bottles in this church. Telling them to ditch what they like or what works for them, particularly when they have history and precedent on their side, seems destined to fail. Dan Wotherspoon made this comment against labeling it “New Mormonism” that really resonates for me:
The church has been evolving since Day 1, and it’s evolving now. Why try to place some who . . . are standing up for good values and calling attention to places where the tradition isn’t living up to its highest ideals yet doing it as insiders, as lovers of the tradition and community foremost–and whose critiques ARE actually having a chance to be “heard,” and are changing the culture person by person, ward by ward, online community by online community? . . . What is gained by calling these people something other than Mormons?
And as Maxine Hanks adds about Mormonism in general:
We may agree on some points but we diverge on others. You can’t lump people together, as if we have a hive mind.
And as I’ve been known to say here and there:
They can correlate the manuals, but they can’t correlate the contents of my mind.
It doesn’t bother me for others to embrace their version of Mormonism, even if I don’t find it compelling or even find it repulsive, so long as there is freedom for me to believe according to the dictates of my own conscience. This is what Paul was talking about when he said we are all the body of Christ. There’s plenty of commonality between all types of believers; the most important one is not that we share the same worldview or politics or even on some level our values, but that we use our Mormonism to experience the divine. We pray to the same God. We seek and find personal revelation. We serve side by side in our Mormon wards. We find what we need in our Mormon scriptures. We live according to the dictates of our own conscience. Maybe that’s a least common denominator viewpoint. Maybe that’s not enough commonality to some. As Joseph Smith put it:
It feels so good not to be trammeled.
That’s a feeling that it would be nice to feel more often at church.