Who Cares if it Really Happened?

Okay, so another podcast is fueling my post tonight.  This one is entitled “Mixed Feelings for Mormonism” over on Mormon Expression — and much of the discussion centers around whether or not the church “really is” what it says it is.

My response?

Who freakin’ cares?

Sure, scientific accuracy is nice — but let’s face it, when it comes to matters spiritual, you’re never gonna get it.  The modern perspective tells us that this means we need to shed our faith, embrace a more “likely” worldview.  And indeed, this is why religion is losing followers in droves: many people, when confronted with the simple reality that their beliefs are objectively unprovable (even unlikely!), head to the nearest exit and never look back.

But this is where I think the post-modern perspective, the one so often maligned by conservative believers, can go a long way toward preserving faith in ways that other approaches can’t.

Here’s why:

There is an important space in the human experience for myth and magic, for narratives that may or may not be historically accurate but that convey profound truths and create culture and context. Who cares if it really happened, if Moses parted the Red Sea or God flooded the entire earth or Joseph Smith saw Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in the flesh?  From a post-modern perspective, that’s not an interesting question. The interesting question is: what does it mean? How do these stories shape our perception of the world? How do they influence the way we perceive ourselves as individuals, families, communities? How do they change the way we interact with the divine?

I believe there is a beautiful depth of experience that can never be fully accessed until we are willing to move beyond questions of historical accuracy and begin interacting with sacred myth with the heart of a believer — understanding that myth, like art, is never meant to represent mundane physical reality, but exists instead to lead us into deeper levels of empathy, compassion, and wisdom.

When it comes to Mormonism, this is a particularly tough sell.  After all, the church bills its own narrative as True both historically and spiritually.   It emphasizes its unique “authority” in an age when people are less and less interested in questions of authority and more and more skeptical of such claims.  It takes a sense of humor, patience, and a willingness to “play along” a little, even when you doubt the importance of a given practice or teaching, to make it work — but for me, that’s part of the beauty (and challenge!) of being Mormon.

In another post that’s been brewing inside me for some time now, I’ll talk more about the virtue of literalism and why I think having wishy-washy heretics like me alongside die-hard believers is one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths…but for now, let’s discuss:

What do you think about some of the thoughts I’ve shared?  Who cares if it really happened?  Does it even matter?

(Note that some of the content for this post is identical to a comment I originally made over on the Mormon Expression blog.)

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About Katie L

Thirtysomething wife, mother, writer, runner, believer, and lover of good food and bad movies.
This entry was posted in Heresy, Mormonism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Who Cares if it Really Happened?

  1. Kullervo says:

    I agree largely and whole-heartedly with your sentiment, but I take issue with some of your specifics.

    understanding that myth, like art, is never meant to represent mundane physical reality, but exists instead to lead us into deeper levels of empathy, compassion, and wisdom.

    I don’t actually think you can make a slam-dunk case that leading us into “deeper levels of empathy, compassion, and wisdom” is the ultimate function of spirituality. Spirituality and religious myth are simply too multi-functional, and trying to force them into a box wrapped in the Charter for Compassion means doing a lot of cherry-picking and bending.

    I do personally think that the prime function of spirituality is to give meaning to the human experience, which includes things like “empathy, compassion, and wisdom.” I think, no matter what kind of scientific and technical understanding we have of our universe, there is a broad swath of human experience that seems big and important, and begs to be given some kind of meaning. Its the natural human instinct to cry out “why?” I’m not talking about the “god of the gaps” phenomenon, where all of the areas of science that we simply haven’t figured out yet are attributed ot the supernatural until we discover that they are not, because even when we understand something on a physical, mechanical level, there is still a level on our experience has an interrogatory gravitas of significance that demands to be answered.

    I guess you could claim that it’s just the “god of the gaps” as applied to psychology, but I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to get the kind of understanding of the soft sciences that we are of the hard sciences. Even if we understood the brain neurologically, there would still be a level on which our experience emands to be given some kind of meaning.

    This includes kindness and compassion, but it really centers intensely around the “big things” that we face as human biengs: birth, death, sex, love, family. They’re universals that define human experience universally, despite variations. And at the end of the day, they are the center of spirituality. What does this big stuff mean?

    To insist that the questions of spirituality necessarily end in a particular value, is, I think, to beg the question.

    When it comes to Mormonism, this is a particularly tough sell. After all, the church bills its own narrative as True both historically and spiritually. It emphasizes its unique “authority” in an age when people are less and less interested in questions of authority and more and more skeptical of such claims. It takes a sense of humor, patience, and a willingness to “play along” a little, even when you doubt the importance of a given practice or teaching, to make it work — but for me, that’s part of the beauty (and challenge!) of being Mormon.

    To me, the problem with applying this worldview/approach to Mormonism goes beyond the mere fact that it is explicitly counter to what Mormonism teaches (although I do think that is a problem). The problem is that Mormonism not only asserts that its extrordinary claims are objective fact, but it proceeds to make extrordinary demands based on the objective factuality of its extrordinary claims.

    We can talk all day about how good it is for individuals to learn to make sacrifices, but Mormonism’s demands go way beyond that. Mormonism does not invite “personal sacrifice, generally.” Mormonism demands specific, drastic sacrifices. Mormonism as a religion demands massive amounts of time, effort, and money, and the Church largely dictates to the member in specific terms how those are to be spent to the benefit of the Church: you don’t volunteer for callings, you don’t decide how you want your tithing to be spent or what programs you want ot benefit, nothing is optional or at the member’s discretion. Everything is obligatory. Members are expected–they make an explicit covenant, even–to be willing to give everything to the Church. I would argue that a Mormon is even expected to sacrifice his or her personal integrity: there is no tolerance for open, vocal dissent of any kind. A Mormon is expected to submit not only temporally, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually to the Church’s authority. And again, these are obligations: Mormonism teaches that your eternal salvation depends on your personal willingness to utterly submit to the authority of the Church.

    And at the end of the day, the Church’s authority is what this is all about. The Church’s authority derives entirely from its claim on objective truth about God. If Mormonism “really is what it says it is,” then you have no choice. You submit because submission is the will of God.

    But if Mormonism is only a culture’s mythic narrative, then the Church’s authority is severely diminished. The Church can;t make the kinds of demands on its members’ time, means, and personal integrity that it does based on a compelling mythic narrative. If it did, its members would be empowered to just say no.

    Some Mormons do this, I grant you! But fro the Church’s perspective, to reject the Church’s authority means to sacrifice your exaltation. Measures can be taken. And those measures will bite as long as the faith’s mythic narrative is tied so inexorably to the claims of a specific human organization.

  2. Racticas says:

    Kullervo, if your reply is longer than the post, there should be a rule or something that you have to shorten it or make your own post.

    However, I largely agree with Kullervo. I think that many troubled Mormons _do_ take the postmodern approach to their religion, and I applaud them and respect their decision. But they do it despite a huge, well-organized and philosophically dogmatic institutional hierarchy, the church leadership. Since the leadership almost completely overlaps with the laypeople (men, anyway), that means that the culture of Mormon laypeople is also rabidly modernist. For me, I just have a hard time imagining what pew that would leave me sitting in. Especially as a man, since I would have trouble holding callings when they hear the wish-washy postmodern answers I give to the big interview questions, and the men are all expected to have big-guy priesthood callings.

    I summary, if asked whether a Mormon can be postmodern instead of modern, I say “yes, but only if you are okay with major social ostracism or living on the fringe.” But that is also a lot like “no”.

  3. Kullervo says:

    Kullervo, if your reply is longer than the post, there should be a rule or something that you have to shorten it or make your own post.

    VETO.

  4. BrianJ says:

    Jared: “Does it really matter?” I think it does, even from a post-modern perspective. What matters to me about my religion is my personal experience—and then remaining faithful to that experience later on when the going gets rough. In a moment of crisis, I might receive what I 100% believe to be an answer (or whatever) from God; years down the road, the moment is past and all that remains is my memory that I had an experience that I described at the time as revelatory (or whatever). Will I trust in that memory, or tell myself that “maybe it didn’t really happen”?

    Now, of course it’s different to talk about what “really happened” to me versus someone else, but the question is not all that different. Once I am removed from my own experiences by many years, in some ways I feel as though I may as well be looking back on something that happened 200 years ago to someone else.

    Racticas: I’m a fairly post-modern guy (or so I’ve been told; I really don’t know) and have held and currently hold significant ward callings. I don’t feel “fringey” at all.

  5. Racticas says:

    BrianJ: counter-point granted. I just know that I (personally) didn’t feel comfortable in the church anymore.

  6. Whitney says:

    As I’ve drifted further toward the liberal side of Christianity, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that most of it doesn’t matter. I’ve gotten a lot out of reading Marcus Borg’s perspective on this subject, but I do diverge from him in that I believe in the divinity of Christ and that the resurrection really happened. Either way, my faith has been so much better served by looking for the lessons these myths are meant to teach rather than worrying about historical fact. Not to mention, I feel very little angst about the whole evolution thing. Sorry Kirk Cameron.

    I do second (third?) Kullervo that this is really about figuring out important aspects of the human experience. I would also add that it’s about trying to better understand and experience the role of the Divine in that human experience.

    And finally, I will add that as lenient as I am about biblical history, the history question has been one of the biggest reasons I’ve never been able to seriously consider converting to the Mormon church. I’d be willing to take the same lenient approach within the Mormon church, except that the message I’ve heard over and over (outside you friendly internet Mos) is that the Mormon scriptures represent historical fact. If the leadership of the church is going to operate explicitly on that assumption, there are only so many mental gymnastics I would be able to do before I’d start wondering what the point of abandoning Protestantism was in the first place.

  7. Kullervo says:

    I do second (third?) Kullervo that this is really about figuring out important aspects of the human experience. I would also add that it’s about trying to better understand and experience the role of the Divine in that human experience.

    I think that the latter is contained within the former, but that’s semantics.

    Also, I realize that by saying “religion is really about making sense of the human experience” I am making a statement that is just as normative as Katie L.’s statement that religion is really about leading us “into deeper levels of empathy, compassion, and wisdom”; I just think that mine is more consistent with the whole picture of human religious expression.

  8. Katie L says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful feedback! I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to get back to this discussion…a little thing called “Christmas” happened that sort of stole my focus for a few days. 🙂

    Anyway, to respond to several of your excellent points…

    Kullervo, I actually agree with you that the purpose of the myths and spirituality in general goes beyond merely developing empathy, charity, and compassion and extends to providing meaning across the entire scope of human experience. Thanks for broadening the applicability and perspective of my larger point.

    To me, the problem with applying this worldview/approach to Mormonism goes beyond the mere fact that it is explicitly counter to what Mormonism teaches (although I do think that is a problem). The problem is that Mormonism not only asserts that its extrordinary claims are objective fact, but it proceeds to make extrordinary demands based on the objective factuality of its extrordinary claims. …I would argue that a Mormon is even expected to sacrifice his or her personal integrity: there is no tolerance for open, vocal dissent of any kind. A Mormon is expected to submit not only temporally, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually to the Church’s authority. And again, these are obligations: Mormonism teaches that your eternal salvation depends on your personal willingness to utterly submit to the authority of the Church.

    I believe this is problematic as well, but not insurmountably so. In the end, it boils down to this simple question: do I choose to relinquish my authority to the church? Do I believe that my salvation hinges on my personal willingness to submit to the authority of the church?

    My answer is NO, I don’t believe it does.

    And that frees me up to give myself ultimate authority in my life in spiritual matters, regardless of what the church says. So, where 5 years ago I didn’t watch R-rated movies because the church says not to watch R-rated movies, today I watch R-rated films that I believe will enrich my life. Same with drinking chai tea. Same with shopping on Sunday. Same with having tattoos. I don’t do these things to flip the bird to the church — I don’t flaunt my differences or brag about them in Sunday School (I don’t hide them, either; many people in my ward know I’m unorthodox) — but while it’s nice and interesting and good that the church demands what it demands, if I don’t believe that God is behind a given demand or rule, I feel at liberty to do it my way.

    I should add here that I think there is tremendous value in the majority of the things the church asks us to do, that the areas of conflict are relatively few, and that I love my Mormon heritage and beliefs. But when there is a conflict, what I say goes, not what they say. I freely admit that if there were more areas of conflict, this would be much more difficult.

    I also recognize that if the rest of the membership approached things the way I do there would be utter chaos, but that’s one reason why I am GLAD the more orthodox corner of the church remains, and why I don’t try to “get them” to see things my way, despite how personally frustrating I find their perspective at times (again, I’ll have another post in the next couple weeks expounding on this point).

  9. Katie L says:

    I’d be willing to take the same lenient approach within the Mormon church, except that the message I’ve heard over and over (outside you friendly internet Mos) is that the Mormon scriptures represent historical fact. If the leadership of the church is going to operate explicitly on that assumption, there are only so many mental gymnastics I would be able to do before I’d start wondering what the point of abandoning Protestantism was in the first place.

    Whitney, this is why I am the worst member missionary on earth, and why I would turn down a ward mission calling: I have NO IDEA why anyone would want to be a Mormon who wasn’t born and raised a Mormon, because for me, a huge part of the appeal is the cultural and almost ethnic heritage / identity.

  10. Katie L says:

    I’ve got more to respond to, but my family just got back from church (I skipped!) and now they want to go drive to Zion’s National Park…

    More later!

  11. BrianJ says:

    Zion’s National Park >> anything else one could do

    /jealousy

  12. BrianJ says:

    Katie: I think there’s a lot of good, solid “doctrine” (if that’s the right word) in your response to Kullervo. There are some points I would quibble over, or hesitate to accept fully, but in large part I think you present the right approach. (I’m saying this as someone who views himself as a mainstream, missionary-minded, full-on, all-the-way-across-the-sky member of the LDS Church.)

    But, since where people disagree is what is usually most interesting in these discussions…. Well, just don’t take my minor points below as some sort of rebuttal 🙂

    “…to give myself ultimate authority in my life in spiritual matters, regardless of what the church says.” From the way you structured the sentence, I think you meant to focus on the contrast between you vs. the Church as the ultimate authority. But just to be clear, where do place God in this? Is he a greater or equal authority than you? I suspect that the phrase, “if I don’t believe that God is behind a given demand,” answers my question….

    The reason I say this is well within core LDS teaching is that it’s at the heart of our canonized version of the First Vision: Joseph went directly to God for direction in religious matters. The Church that comes out of that can be as “true and living” as a ninja cat in search of cheeseburger, but it can never grow beyond the hard fact that the Church was established as a tool to aid in the ultimate goal of getting us in direct contact with God. This idea is further supported by talks from Elder Oaks and others that point out that a) the Church is not the organizational structure in heaven; the family is; and b) we must seek confirmation from God that what the prophets tell us is true. (I’ll find references if properly compensated.) Thus, when you say that you “feel at liberty to do it my way,” I think as long as your way is something you’ve worked out with God, no Mormon can legitimately challenge you. In fact, if you didn’t do things your+God’s way, then I’d say you were being a lazy.

    “I also recognize that if the rest of the membership approached things the way I do there would be utter chaos….” I used to think the same thing; i.e., that most of the people regularly at church did whatever Church leaders told them. After serving in Church leadership positions for several years, however, I was shocked that far more members than I had thought exercise selection in what mandates they follow. I had grown up with the impression that members followed leaders like young Ammonites followed Helaman; then I found that being a leader was more like herding cats. I was surprised at first, then came to appreciate that all this anarchy still works because nearly all “autonomously minded” members act as you do: “I don’t try to “get them” to see things my way.”

    Where I hesitate to accept this fully is that I think there must be some willingness to not merely “put up with” programs we disagree with, but to actually get in and help even if we think something is a waste of time. In other words, I think there is some merit to the idea that “It’s better to be united than to be right.”

  13. Katie L says:

    Brian, thanks as always for your thoughtful response.

    But just to be clear, where do place God in this? Is he a greater or equal authority than you?

    To be clear, I always hold God as the ultimate authority (assuming, of course, He is truly an all-good God — see our recent discussion on Tim’s blog — which I take on faith that He is, because I don’t see much use in any other kind of God). When there is a conflict between my beliefs and the church’s stand, then, it is really a question of who has ultimate authority to “interpret” the will of God. When it comes to my life, I say that I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t get it wrong sometimes, because I’m sure I do — but I’m equally sure that the church gets it wrong sometimes, too. And I believe that God is okay with that. From what I can gather from your response, you feel the same way…and that it is very Mormon of me to approach it this way. I’ve never thought of it from that perspective before, but I like it. 🙂

    I used to think the same thing; i.e., that most of the people regularly at church did whatever Church leaders told them. After serving in Church leadership positions for several years, however, I was shocked that far more members than I had thought exercise selection in what mandates they follow.

    You know, after I wrote that sentence, I wondered if I hadn’t overstated my case. I was raised in a very die-hard, follow-every-mandate-from-the-Brethren-as-if-it-were-breathed-from-Mount-Sinai kind of home, but it’s occurred to me in recent years that most Mormons probably aren’t like my parents in this regard. I think there’s a small, but influential majority who function this way — the rest of us are all “cafeteria Mormons,” just in varying stages of awareness about that fact.

    Where I hesitate to accept this fully is that I think there must be some willingness to not merely “put up with” programs we disagree with, but to actually get in and help even if we think something is a waste of time. In other words, I think there is some merit to the idea that “It’s better to be united than to be right.”

    Finally, I agree wholeheartedly and generally pitch in with a smile, even when there’s a small part of me that would be rolling its eyes if I let it win. The only exception is if we’re talking about programs and policies that one believes can be damaging and destructive. There are only one or two of those in the church for me, but I will be putting my foot down if and when I’m placed in a position where I have to interact with them.

  14. Katie L says:

    Raticas, I completely understand your response about social ostracism and living on the fringe. And this is a big reason why I never “advocate” or recommend my post-modern Mormonism to anyone else. I think I have a unique personality and temperament that can walk this very delicate line. I’m pretty good at being diplomatic and never pick a fight. (This is not meant to be boastful, by the way — like anything, my temperament has definite drawbacks as well.)

    Even still, I know I rub some people in my ward the wrong way…and even many of the people I consider to be great friends aren’t quite sure what to do with me from time to time. The majority of people I know, including my husband and many of my closest friends, would go crazy if they tried to balance the beliefs I have within the framework and culture of the institutional church. I am completely sympathetic to that and make no pretense that mine is the “best” or even a necessarily ideal path. It is simply what I believe I’ve been called to do, so I’m walking it to the best of my ability. 🙂

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