Postmodernism and Mormonism: Parallels and Departures
In recent years, postmodernism has been a curious and some would add uncomfortable bedfellow with Mormonism. This paper will explore postmodernism’s implications for and relevance to the LDS Church and Mormon intellectuals.
For most Mormons, postmodernism’s relationship to their faith is either incidental or unobvious. So note that whatever parallels between postmodernism and Mormonism I discuss in this paper are parallels found by people like myself—that is, people interested in finding such parallels. Were Mormons to casually read postmodernist works, I doubt they would see their religious beliefs present in those philosophies.
Whatever points of intersection exist just go unnoticed by the majority of Mormons. This is partly because, as James Faulconer, a philosopher professor at Brigham Young University, argues, Mormons are "atheological." They do not busy themselves with theologizing. They do not understand their beliefs and actions within the context of any rational or coherent theology. Professor Faulconer gives several reasons for this.
First, this disinterest in theology has its origins in the early LDS Church. Catholicism inherited the classical, holistic philosophies of ancient Greece—philosophies that extol reason and truth. Consequently, Catholicism is a religion with a rational theology. But Mormonism and its beliefs took root in a very different socio-philosophical soil. As was typical of many in the Jacksonian Era of American history, Joseph Smith disdained intellectualism, of which theologians are often indicted. Smith hailed from a poor farming community, where a formal education was a privilege few could enjoy, and that fact may have bred resentment.
Smith’s anti-creedal views may have also contributed to a “continuing LDS suspicion of theology.” Smith taught that God’s true gospel had been shackled by “cast-iron creeds” that didn’t allow for revelation. From this, one can see how Mormons find rational theology too restrictive for the same reason.
This leads me to the second reason why Mormons are “atheological”: revelation. With revelation, any theology runs the risk of being rendered irrelevant. Consider polygamy. Early church leaders theologized about the centrality of polygamy to Mormonism, but these theologies had to be abandoned as polygamy was discontinued by the mainstream LDS Church in 1890.
The third, and final, reason is that Mormons are more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) than orthodoxy (right belief). Faulconer explains: “The gospel is a divine activity, the saving activity of God…To be a believer is to accept the gospel: it is to believe that God can save, but not merely to believe…To be a believer is to respond to God’s saving activity with repentance and in rebirth and with tokens that testify of God’s saving power."
Mormons identify as a people—as a distinct ethnic group, even. They revel in their peculiarity, but without fully understanding those beliefs that make them peculiar. The lived Mormon experience, then, is less about assenting to any given doctrine and more about the community and culture of Mormonism.
Faulconer personally shares in his church’s suspicion of theology. “Rational theology,” he writes, “presumes that the theologian can intellectually dominate the religion of which he or she speaks. However, if to be religious means to be mastered, awed, by something, then neither religion nor that to which religion is a response can be something over which one has mastery. The conflict between religion and rational theology is the conflict between the willingness to submit and the desire to master."
Ironically, it’s this atheological sentiment—the very sentiment that inhibits Mormons from drawing parallels between their faith and postmodernism—that is itself a parallel between the two! Mormons are in good company among postmodernist thinkers when it comes to theology.
Soren Kierkegaard, who some contend is the father of postmodernism, felt that rational theology was a fundamentally unchristian enterprise. He wrote:
"Woe to the person who could make the miracles reasonable…Woe to the person who betrayed and broke the mystery of the faith [and] distorted it into public wisdom…Woe to all those unfaithful stewards who sat down and wrote false proofs…O, the learning and acumen tragically wasted…in this enormous work of defending Christianity!"
Kierkegaard believed that the power of Christianity was in its power to offend. To defend Christianity, then, was to rob it of its radical nature. Jesus said, “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Rational theology, or any attempt to make sense of Christianity, dulls that sword.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion went so far as to call theology “dangerous.” “Theology,” Marion said, “always writes starting from an other than itself. It diverts the author from himself…It causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.” In other words, theologians speak in the stead of the sacred, when they are wholly unworthy to do so. Thus theology makes hypocrites of its practitioners. “One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology,” Marion wrote.
Jacques Derrida, another French postmodern thinker, argued that most theology is weighed down with metaphysical baggage. The only good theology, on Derrida’s view, is a weak or negative theology—a theology that describes the divine by what it’s not. Positive theology, in contrast, is inherently violent. It attempts to define the divine, which is to limit it. In fact, the Latin etymology of the word “define” literally means “to bind or limit completely.” Derrida wants religion without religion—divorced from all “tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine."
All these concerns notwithstanding, some Mormons still succumb to the temptation of theology. One prominent Mormon theologian is Daniel Wotherspoon. In his doctoral dissertation Awakening Joseph Smith: Mormon Resources for a Post-Modern Worldview, Wotherspoon suggests that Mormonism offers unique answers to the difficulties raised by both modernism and its unraveling. And insofar as Wotherspoon’s work is a response to modernism, his theology may be considered postmodern.
Arguably the most readily apparent parallel between postmodernism and Mormonism is the LDS emphasis on personal, spiritual experiences as a source of knowledge. Wotherspoon thinks that a major failing of modernism has been its inability to provide an epistemology that guarantees the existence of the real world outside of the mind. Most modern epistemologies rely on sense-perceptions, which are faulty and cannot sidestep our minds as they are received through them.
The Mormon response that Wotherspoon offers is a rejection of empiricism. He instead affirms what constructive postmodern theologians like David Ray Griffin call “direct, non-sensory perception.” This is where God circumvents the five senses to communicate—via personal revelation and spiritual experiences—with people at a deeper level.
Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler similarly advocates personal revelation and spiritual experiences as the basis for an LDS epistemology. The validity of this epistemology has to be dogmatically asserted—it is something that neither can nor should be defended rationally. Ostler explained this before an audience of Mormon intellectuals and apologists at the 2007 FAIR Conference:
"I will not give some argument or evidence to try to persuade you or anybody else that your spiritual experiences are valid and trustworthy. If I were to attempt to argue with you to prove that to you, I would only show and prove (quite conclusively) that I believe that in reality there is something more basic and trustworthy than spiritual experiences; that is, the arguments I would give you."
Here, with this anti-modern, irrational epistemology, is where postmodernism most resonates with lay Mormons. In my conversations with Mormons, these personal, spiritual experiences are what they most often cite as the anchor of their testimony. Even, if not especially, when confronted with evidence against their faith, most Mormons fall back on their spiritual experiences.
Wotherspoon also includes in his dissertation a discussion about the nature of God. He believes that the traditional notions of God are untenable, especially in light of the problem of evil. Wotherspoon agrees with skeptics that a perfectly good and all-powerful deity would not permit the evil that we witness in the world. His solution to the problem of evil is to deny God’s omnipotence. So while God sincerely wants to eradicate every evil, he is unable to. In this understanding of Mormonism, God’s power is limited in two ways. First, God must be able to progress, which is an important activity in the Mormon afterlife. Were God perfect in his power, there would be no room for growth. And second, God is limited by the freedom and autonomy that inhere not in him, but the universe at large. This concept is best explained by the Mormon account of creation.
Genesis 1:1 reads: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The word “created” in this verse comes from the Hebrew word “baurau,” which Joseph Smith translated as “organized.” This new (albeit suspect) translation is of profound theological import to Mormonism. It means that God did not create the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), but instead organized the universe from eternally pre-existent matter—or what Smith termed “intelligences.”
Here, I think the philosophy of Martin Heidegger holds some insights by which we can appreciate the Mormon account of creation. In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger writes that man’s relationship with technology has yielded our understanding of everything as a potential resource to be exploited. Heidegger calls this “technological thinking.” One way in which “technological thinking” manifests itself is in our making unreasonable demands of and claims to nature—a sort of “challenging-forth.” Heidegger gives the example of a hydroelectric plant imposing on a river. But in my opinion, the traditional Christian account of creation provides a more egregious example of a challenging-forth.
The Christian God creates ex nihilo. In other words, he demands somethingness from nothingness. Could there be any less reasonable a demand than that? On the classical view, something cannot come from nothing. So to create ex nihilo is to challenge-forth from nothing that which is most against its nature.
The Mormon creation, however, better resembles the harmony between God and the universe that Heidegger sought. Again, the Mormon God is not a creator, but an organizer; he existed alongside intelligences. Wotherspoon postulates that these intelligences were refined spiritual matter that made up the universe and were the precursors to human existence.
In organizing these intelligences into the universe, God did not simply dictate that this intelligence become a planet and that intelligence a person. No, each intelligence possessed an inviolable autonomy and had to be persuaded by God. Just as Mormons believe we elected to follow God’s Plan of Salvation in the pre-existence, some Mormons like Wotherspoon believe that each particle freely participated in the organization of the universe. This persuasive power of the Mormon God ought to be preferable over the coercive, creative power of the Christian God to those with Heideggarean sympathies.
Wotherspoon also believes that Mormonism can better ward of the postmodern threats of nihilism and relativism than can either Christian or secular humanism. Mormonism affirms the intrinsic value of all things by asserting that all things—in some form—are “enduring entities” that always existed alongside God, and differ from God in only degree, not kind. All things exist on a continuum, along which they can progress (some even to godhood!). “Such a view,” Wotherspoon wrote, “is capable of inspiring many more people, because of the way it lends momentum to the idea that each moment in an element’s life makes a concrete difference in its capacity for experiencing joy or growth."
I read shades of Kierkegaard in the Mormon doctrine of eternal growth and exaltation. For Kierkegaard, an important criterion for love is equality. One way in which Kierkegaard believes that Christianity embodies this idea of equal love is in God descending to man, incarnate in Jesus. Mormonism, by the same reasoning, also embodies an equal love. Because in Mormonism, not only did God (well, a God: Jehovah) descend to man, but he also provided a way for man to be elevated to godhood. This is the truest kind of love, one could argue from Kierkegaard, because it’s a love that shares.
I’m going to depart from Wotherspoon’s work to propose that this same doctrine of exaltation is a proto-Nietzschean vehicle for the will to power. Consider German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche’s critique of Christianity. In Beyond Good and Evil and elsewhere, Nietzsche bemoans what he calls the “slave morality” of Christianity. The Christian ethic makes a virtue out of vices like charity, humility, and meekness. And Nietzsche’s view of the Christian heaven as a pitiable existence, where adherents spend an eternity groveling before their Creator, only further offends Nietzsche. “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time,” Nietzsche once wrote.
But Mormonism is, I’d argue, an anthropocentric religion as opposed to a theocentric one. Put more simply, Mormonism is more concerned with man than God. This fact may mitigate some of the aforementioned criticisms that Nietzsche had of Christianity. That Mormonism is primarily for man will likely be heard as heresy to Mormons, but I think LDS scripture is squarely on my side. 2 Nephi 2:25 reads: “…men are, that they might have joy.” And in the Pearl of Great Price, it explicitly says that God’s work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Mormons subscribe to the same “slave morality” that Nietzsche derided in Christianity, but the payoff for Mormons is potential godhood. Instead of worshiping God in the afterlife, you can become one! To be clear, Nietzche’s idea of the übermensch (the ideal man) is not supposed to be distracted from this world with promises of other worlds, but I have to imagine that Nietzsche would nonetheless find the LDS afterlife rather enticing.
Now admittedly, some of the above parallels between postmodernism and Mormonism are a bit strained and contrived. Indeed, there are more dissimilarities than similarities between the two ideologies.
The totality of Nietzsche’s philosophy, for instance, is diametrically opposed to Mormonism in particular and religion in general. That hardly needs explaining.
And while there may be something Kierkegaardian about God wanting to exalt man to godhood, Kierkegaard could still accuse the Mormon God of “self-love.” We are, after all, made in the literal, physical image of God according to Mormonism. God extends his likeness and (potentially) godliness to us only in order that he may be reflected in the object of his own love. Moreover, the equality of which Kierkegaard spoke as a requisite for love is not the blurring of distinctions. Christian love, pure love, acknowledges distinctions and loves despite them.
Derrida and Marion, too, would be extraordinarily critical of many Mormon doctrines. Again, Derrida sought to have religion without “tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine." What is Mormonism, though, without these things? And Marion would find the nature of the Mormon God objectionable. Marion seems to believe that existence itself is an unfair limitation on God—God must be “beyond being.” He would doubtless cringe, then, at the corporeality of the Mormon God.
More generally, Mormons place a high premium on free will—it’s essential to their doctrine. Free will, though, is widely considered an illusion by postmodern thinkers. The self is simply a social construction—a mere reification of the first-person pronoun “I.”
So why, if these parallels are neither that striking nor recognized by most Mormons as parallels, do they merit mentioning in this paper? It’s not the parallels between postmodernism and Mormonism that I find so compelling; it’s that a sizable minority of Mormons have been drawing such parallels and appropriating (often misappropriating) postmodernism in the service of their faith. Nowhere is this more evident than with Mormon apologists.
Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a dramatic rise in the volume and sophistication of Mormon apologetics. This rise has been especially pronounced in just the last decade or so. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), the foremost Mormon apologetic outfit, became an official entity of Brigham Young University and now enjoys church funding. Websites like FAIRLDS, SHIELDS, Mormon Fortress, and others have also helped to popularize and make accessible LDS apologetics.
John-Charles Duffy, a young religious studies scholar at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, argues in a recent Dialogue article that postmodernism has been incredibly influential in Mormon apologetics and helps account for its ascendancy. To see why, one must know the history of Mormon scholarship.
Duffy identifies two dominant schools of thought in Mormon scholarship today: the “new Mormon history” and “faithful history.” The new Mormon history began in the late 1960s, and purports to be a more objective, less sectarian reporting of the LDS Church’s history. This new approach to church history broke with the traditional approaches in that it neither shied away from sensitive topics nor suppressed controversial conclusions.
The second school of thought in Mormon scholarship is “faithful history.” This “faithful history” was a response to and rejection of “the new Mormon history.” Scholars in this camp are orthodox Mormons, who believe all histories of Mormonism should be sympathetic and faith-promoting. In other words, Mormons should be engaged in apologetics, not academically rigorous histories.
The tensions between postmodern and modern thought exist in many religions. In Christianity, there is a debate between Protestant fundamentalists and liberals over Biblical inerrancy. Protestant fundamentalists are often considered anti-science, but where it concerns the Bible, they are wedded to the modern concepts of “objective knowledge” and “truth.” Liberal Protestants, however, have a more postmodern, metaphorical reading of the Bible. Mormonism is having a similar dialogue about the Book of Mormon historicity and other issues, but the roles are reversed. As Duffy notes, it’s the conservative, orthodox scholars that advance postmodernism against the more liberal scholars of the new Mormon history, who want a dispassionate approach to the LDS Church.
The success of the faithful history came with the demise of the new Mormon history during the 1980s and ‘90s. Louis Midgley and David E. Bohn, retired BYU political science professors and contributors to FARMS, were among the earliest and most dogged detractors of the New Mormon history. Midgley and Bohn employed a postmodern critique against the approach. In particular, they argued that any attempt at an objective Mormon history is futile, because all claims originate in an ideology and are “inescapably mediated by language and culture." And since there is no objective or a priori means by which determine the truth or falsity of an ideology, all perspectives are valid. This philosophy resembles Nietzsche’s perspectivism, which says that we can only know things from our individual perspectives. Midgley and Bohn therefore urged all Mormon scholars to study from their religious perspectives and give up their pretenses of neutrality.
Bohn accused reputable Mormon scholars like Leonard Arrington and Lawrence Foster of excluding “non-scientific testimony of the role of God” in Mormon history. Midgley was less diplomatic and boldly indicted such historians of treason against the faith for not actively affirming Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. These attacks proved devastating to the new Mormon history.
So-called “faithful historians” like Midgley and Bohn gained an audience with LDS church leaders. Church leaders were concerned that the new Mormon history scholars were flirting with apostasy by publishing what was at times unflattering research about Mormonism. Apostle Boyd K. Packer conveyed these concerns to BYU educators in an address he gave in 1981 titled “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect.” “There is a temptation,” Packer said, “for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” He also warned that some scholars’ “posture of detachment” was “giving equal time to the adversary."
Later, in 1991, the First Presidency released an official statement cautioning members from reading histories or attending research symposia that were not approved by the LDS Church. And throughout the ‘90s, the church was quick to discipline scholars who challenged the traditional LDS narrative. These actions had a chilling effect on all research into Mormonism that wasn’t expressly apologetic. Mormon scholarship is only now beginning to rebound.
So postmodernism was the bludgeon with which Mormon apologists beat down the new Mormon history. And apologists continue to use postmodern perspectivism to deflect criticisms of the LDS Church.
There is another way that Mormon apologists employ postmodernism. Duffy writes that apologists use perspectivist language “as the primary rhetorical resource for those who hope to win credibility for faithful scholarship within the academic mainstream." They play on academia’s postmodern sympathies in order that their faithful perspective will get offered at or respected by universities other than, say, Brigham Young University. Again, their argument is that all perspectives are valid given postmodernism, so on what grounds can a faithful LDS perspective be excluded? LDS literary critic Michael Austin wants to see Mormonism counted among other minority histories. Austin believes that Mormons are hyphenated Americans, like African-Americans or Italian-Americans. He even coined the term “Mormo-American."
Such appeals to academia’s tolerance of differing perspectives haven’t been successful. And noted Mormon historian Richard Bushman is somewhat relieved that they haven’t. “Wouldn’t we prefer,” Bushman asked, “to be taken seriously enough to be directly opposed rather than condescended to?"
As it was for Mormon teachings, postmodernism is a double-edged sword for Mormon apologetics. Many professors at the very conservative BYU do not want to see their school become a bastion of postmodern thought. English professor Richard Cracroft fears that postmodernism will invariably bring with it “the creeds of secularism,” which include “immoralism, atheism, nihilism, negativism, perversity, rebelliousness, doubt, disbelief, and disorder."
What’s more, it seems that orthodox Mormon apologists have yet to internalize the very postmodern philosophies that they use against their critics. On the one hand, the Mormon apologist dismisses truth as a fiction as per postmodernism. But on the other, they affirm that the LDS Church is “the one and only true Church.” These two sentiments cannot easily be reconciled. If the apologists were to fully adopt the philosophies they exploit, then postmodern Mormon apologetics would be a self-cannibalizing project. The orthodox scholars would have to surrender their claims to knowledge and objective, religious truth.
It will be interesting to see, then, whether postmodernism will keep its privileged role among Mormon intellectuals for much longer. I suspect it won’t. Postmodernism was not a philosophical commitment for apologists, but a novel convenience.
Already, Mormon scholarship seems to be trending back toward a new “new Mormon history.” In Duffy’s words: “…faithful scholars must capitulate to secular ground rules more than they might prefer as the price for participating in the academic mainstream, postmodern challenges to the Enlightenment notwithstanding."