Last week, many of us here at Wheat & Tares began a dialogue about “Middle Way Mormonism” that spread over to a discussion from Sam Brunson at By Common Consent. I love that everyone has had such different perspectives; it has certainly forced me to re-evaluate my own thoughts about the middle way.

For example, when I wrote my own post “Outsider Thoughts,” I wrote two things in particular that I have now had to think more deeply about since then. The first thing was about the definition of the middle way.

The definition of the Middle Way

In my post, I said:

But the group in between them — called various names but which I’ll refer to as “Middle Way Mormonism” — challenges the working definitions, challenges the very dichotomy that traditional Mormons and exMos adhere to.

Andrew S, “Outsider Thoughts on Middle Way Mormonism”

What I didn’t state (because I didn’t want to derail the conversation) were the various names that I had provisionally associated with the Middle Way — in my mind, I had at the time other terms like “Cafeteria Mormonism” or “nuanced Mormonism” or “progressive Mormonism.”

I didn’t dive into these terms because most of these terms have obvious connotative defects that make them unsuitable for productive dialogue. (Notwithstanding that “nuance” sometimes is regarded negatively as overwrought “mental gymnastics,” quite frankly, the insinuation that that orthodox Mormonism may not be nuanced is not an assertion I feel entirely comfortable with doubling down on. Hawkgrrrl indirectly addresses this in her “Finding Nuance at Church“)

Of these three alternatives, I thought at the time that perhaps Cafeteria Mormonism might be closest to a neutral synonym.

…so I was very surprised to find myself reacting quite viscerally to certain things in Sam’s post and the ensuing discussion. Firstly: Sam’s overall thesis of a more universalist Middle Way:

But here’s the thing: we’re all Middle Way Mormons.[fn4] Or, at least, the vast majority of us are.

Sam Brunson, “My Middle Way Mormonism”

In my sense that the cafeteria is similar or synonymous with the Middle Way, I actually like this sort of statement. But at the same time, I also empathized with the pushback against this sentiment. Christian Kimball captured this well in his comment:

But but . . . as a proudly middle way person (with public creds, no less!) I think there’s something missing when we go to the “we’re all” formulation, something missing about the lived experience of people who are writing and talking and claiming “middle way” as an out group label. One way to say it is to pick up the idea of trauma but maybe expand the edges. It seems to me that there is always (there’s that word—but I’m going to use it) some kind of trauma:

christiankimball, “My Middle Way Mormonism” comment excerpt

Several commenters (including christian and our very own Kristine A) recognized in Sam’s post a description of cafeteria Mormonism, but I was surprised when I read Sam’s rejection of the term.

At the same time, I don’t like “cafeteria Mormon” as a descriptor. Partly it’s aesthetic—while there are some hipster high-end cafeterias, its connotation is (in my mind) elementary school school lunch. But also, it implies choosing, and only choosing those things that appeal to you. And that doesn’t strike me as the way participating Mormons act. We might prefer the chicken nuggets of religion, but we also try the bitter greens if they’re served to us. And the things we accept or not are based partly on taste, true, but also on feeling and compatibility and personal revelation and inspiration and familial obligation and sense of duty and sense of mystery and so many other things that pointing to our decisions as picking and choosing purely based on personal taste strikes me as so simplistic and wrong as to be useless. (In fact, if we want to limit Middle Way Mormonism to those who have suffered some sort of trauma, they’re kind of in the opposite position as a cafeteria customer, unless the cafeteria we envision them in is, in fact, an elementary school cafeteria where all of the food is disgusting.)

Sam Brunson, “My Middle Way Mormonism” comment excerpt

So, my first minor conclusion was that I do think that cafeteria Mormonism is different than Middle Way. (My co-bloggers are probably rolling their eyes at me for taking so long to agree with them on this.)

But, my next issue was in wondering at how to differentiate the two, and how to differentiate whatever I think the Middle Way is from whatever Sam thinks it is (acknowledging that he doesn’t see his approach as being Cafeteria).

And that got me thinking about trauma.

The role of trauma in the Middle Way

Again, in my original post, I had written that I recognized some people that I would certainly label as Middle Way who didn’t seem to have gotten there through religious trauma.

I think that there are many ways people can get to this point, and different ways have different odds for continued church involvement. For example, one slight disagreement I’d have with Kristine’s model is that it implies that becoming a less literal believer only happens after a catalyst “traumatizes” a “true believer.” Yet I have met several folks who grew up reading Sunstone and Dialogue and so their belief was already informed by the warts and messiness of history and theology — they didn’t have a “traumatized believer” stage because there was no surprise. This, I think, is the fundamental argument behind “inoculation” concepts within church apologetics.

Andrew S, “Outsider Thoughts…”

And even after thinking about this more, I would still consider folks in this category as being Middle Way folks.

And, even further, Cody’s follow-up post Community Vulnerability and the Middle Way went one step further: it gave me a glimpse of a religious community in which the Middle Way is not simply a reluctant side effect of religious trauma, but a way of engaging that can be institutionally cultivated. As Cody wrote:

The tradition of Anglicanism is more caught than taught, so we provide a great deal of leeway for people to just breathe it in and let the Spirit do the work. In order to do so, there has to be a great deal of humility and vulnerability within the community. Does the Presence at Eucharist mean transubstantiation as the Romans believe, or is it less literal? We Episcopalians are happy to let things remain a mystery, so leave it for the believer to discern for themselves. We must have the humility to admit we don’t know with precision how this stuff works, and the vulnerability to be wrong or let others come to their own conclusions (which may be different than mine).

Cody Hatch, “Community Vulnerability…”

So, the second thing I had to grapple with was reconciling my own perception that the Middle Way (at least in Mormonism) is a struggle or a setting apart, while for others, the Middle Way is normative and institutionally supported.

I don’t have a clean answer to this, except to point out that to me, it still seems that there is a difference between how traditional believers carry themselves in Mormonism from how those I would describe as Middle Way Mormons carry themselves. Sam described something in his article that struck me, even though he caveated later that it was said tongue-in-cheek:

And while I agree that most who choose to believe that they’re not picking and choosing don’t recognize that they are, in fact, picking and choosing, I don’t know what to do about that except to open up the acceptability of picking and choosing. Sure, there will always be people who claim that their net is in fact gross, or that their net is the best net there is. In fact, I’d put myself squarely in that camp. I know I’m a smart and moral person, so the things I choose to do must clearly be the best, smartest, and most moral things. The trick, I think, is to somehow convince myself that, even if my choices are the best, smartest, and most moral choices, others’ choices are not inherently worse, dumber, and more immoral. (That’s not to say that some of their choices aren’t one or more of those things, but it’s critical that I don’t label them as worse, dumber, and more immoral just because they’re not the choices I made.)

Sam Brunson, “My Middle Way Mormonism” comment excerpt

The thing that struck me is this: such a self-assured confidence seems profoundly antithetical to the Middle Way. In my observations, middle wayers don’t have to “convince [them]selves” of these sorts of things.

In fact, I’d probably go so far as to say, whether one is a political liberal or political conservative, whether one is religiously traditionalist or religious progressive, that if one’s basic stance is a self-confidence in one’s smartness, rightness, morality, what-have-you, then that is probably contrary to the Middle Way.

I’d probably say that it’s not trauma itself that is constitutive of the Middle Way, but rather the way that trauma appears to be one of the best ways for a person who has never confronted the contingency of their beliefs to finally have that confrontation. And that instead, what constitutes the Middle Way is that recognition of contingency. We cannot simply take our beliefs for granted as being certain and unassailable.

To me, it seems that it’s easier to see this as often occurring in the more progressive direction within Mormonism because the institutional center does seem more conservative — and so most progressive Mormons will confront the sense that their own intuitions are regarded with deep suspicion and distrust by friends, family, and religious leaders — but this isn’t an inherently conservative or progressive thing (and the suspicion that triggers further introspection doesn’t have to be with one’s co-religionists), and it’s also easy to imagine communities with a progressive institutional center that don’t have this.

And again, this says nothing on whether the Middle Way is a path people should pursue. After all, maybe it’s important for people to take an absolute stand and insist that certain other viewpoints are not worthy of serious consideration and engagement.

But, if one is going to pursue the Middle Way, then to sustain the Middle Way, I think that a person must independently regain some form of this confidence (that’s probably a better way to reframe “spiritual independence”), but in so doing, this newfound confidence shouldn’t look like replacing one unyielding truth with another, but rather of replacing an unyielding truth with a deeply more personalized one.