Samuel Brown Mormon Scholar on Cross Pressure
Earlier this month, Bill Reel did an interview with Samuel Brown, Mormon Scholar, where Sam gave some fascinating insight into the cross pressure many of us feel between religion like Mormonism and intellectualism or the secular. The interview was for the purpose of introducing the day long seminar on Book of Mormon translation held March 16 at USU, which I’m excited to watch as soon as the video comes out.
Bill is asking Sam about the anachronisms and 19th century content in the Book of Mormon that LDS scholars are beginning to accept and not deny as an “anti-Mormon lie”. Sam is talking about the new understanding we have of what Joseph was doing when he was “translating”, which may be more of a translation of a world or an idea or an understanding of God than a translation of an ancient text. Sam agrees with Bill that faithful LDS can take on an Expansion Model (ancient text with significant expansion by Joseph) or pure non-historical model of viewing the Book of Mormon. Then Bill asks the question we all have. The question that I had after spending several years flailing around in faith crisis and reconstruction. Paraphrasing Bill here:
That’s great that you have come to this understanding. And I have too. But why doesn’t anyone know about this??!! Why aren’t these theories more accessible in the church? Why don’t we talk about them? Why doesn’t the church address them? Why are so many people hurting and struggling with all this information and not know how to process it? So many people think this is all or nothing? How do we get to a place where this awareness is not on the fringe of Mormon academia?
This is a big question I have. And the main reason I am banging loudly to get this message out. Sam Brown spends most of the rest of the interview answering this question. It’s a brilliant answer. A lot of people are asking this question, myself included, and he handles it masterfully.
1. Not everyone needs it. For many people, the literal, simple view of the gospel works best. He uses the example of salt in the medical world. A study came out salt was bad for health, and it caused a massive overreaction. But it turns out it’s only a minority of people that are negatively affected. For most people, salt is just fine. Salt enhances flavor and increases our pleasure, and many people unnecessarily cut it out because of this study.
I don’t totally buy this part, but I do think there’s something important here. I think it’s most obvious for children. And maybe some adults. This correlates to the Fowler Stages of Faith. People naturally move from one stage to another. Moving from a literal to a nuanced view of religion is a natural phase of human development for most humans, but it’s best when it happens naturally and organically.
2. Cross pressure of modern and non-modern. Oh I loved this part. Quote from Sam:
I would resist just a little bit the notion that the best path forward for the LDS church as a whole or for the large majority of members is to embrace an academic gently postmodern intellectual approach to the experience of their religion…If we did have a church that continuously over the pulpit was encouraging us to take a basically secular view and I’m using secular in a more formal, precise term I don’t mean by secular as nonreligious I mean by secular the way Charles Taylor intended. A world in which religious faith and belief is seen as one option in many in which the complexities of earthly life are seen as the highest priority for engagement and acknowledgment in which a faith that is spontaneous or automatic or part of the environment is fundamentally untrustworthy. If for example under this counterfactual we had a church community in which every week over the pulpit we heard Mormon inspired or Mormon relevant secularist rhetoric, would that ultimately lead to even under its own terms greater human flourishing among the people who are in the pews or lead to a greater retention of people who are present. My sense is that Mormonism in its natural expression as a not particularly modern faith full of angels and demons and miracles and deep loyalty in an essentially ethnic identification is really a beautiful thing and it’s a beautiful thing on average for the people for whom it is natural as breathing and is a beautiful thing for people like me who have never been able to make that work. I was an atheist agnostic until I was 18 and although I am a devout theist since age 18, I am always intensely cross pressured. And I find that having Mormonism, speaking now about both the LDS church institutionally and about the majority of my coreligionists, be non-modern allows the kind of balance in my life even as someone who does not remotely fit the stereotype of the believing practicing Mormon. I feel like I’m better off for the institution being non-modern and letting me be cross pressured.
I want to do more study on Charles Taylor’s work here that Sam is riffing on. And especially the commentary James K. A. Smith has done on that. I highly recommend the interview Blair Hodges did with Jamie Smith. The idea here is that secularism is not bad. Through it, we are extending life, solving many of the world’s mysteries, and increasing quality of life. But it doesn’t answer everything. Humans still have a God itch. We seek for higher meaning. We understand intellectually the traditional, literal narratives of world religions don’t make sense. But we also feel secularism is inadequate in addressing our spiritual needs. That conflict is a cross pressure. We need to find new religious narratives that can balance the two.
I like the term cross pressure better than cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance implies to me that there’s a right and a wrong, I’m doing the “wrong” and I’m feeling the underlying dissonance of the “right”. Exmormons use this to describe the uncomfortable feeling of disbelief before testimony is shattered, sometimes only seeing two options belief or disbelief in a literal narrative. I love the term cross pressure which seems more agnostic on the morality or priority of the two competing ideas. There’s something important about the modern message of secularism. And there’s something important about the non-modern message I’m getting each week in church. From a review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age:
Taylor’s landmark work, A Secular Age, tells a complex story about the fate of religion in the West over the past 500 years. Taking issue with an overly-simplistic secularization theory, Taylor portrays a cultural landscape that, rather than speeding the withering of religion, has instead proliferated a dizzying array of spiritual options. This pluralistic reality places “cross-pressure” on those who inhabit these spiritual positions, fragilizing them through exposure to other lived possibilities. The widely adopted modern value of authenticity increases this pressure, encouraging people to carve out their own unique spiritual path and to eschew traditional, ‘spoon-fed’ answers to life’s existential questions. Yet what remains throughout these modern challenges to religion, says Taylor, is the quintessentially human quest for meaning, and the struggle against a modern nihilism that threatens to deny it. In this contested space, he suggests, humanity’s religious past is being called into an as yet unimagined future.
Adam Miller expresses this in LDS voculary:
Given my careful, decades-long cultivation for doubt and skepticism, still even in that context it would be dishonest and in bad faith to say that regardless of how unlikely some of these beliefs are something very real and powerful and real is happening to me in the pew on Sunday when I bring myself back again. When I come back, again. When I kneel down, again. When I read the Book of Mormon, again. Regardless of all my skepticism of all the different kinds of questions we could raise, something is happening to me in a substantial, first person way that I can’t deny regardless of what doubts I have of these peripheral, historical third person questions. The pull for that is sufficiently strong that there’s no place else for me to go.
3. We are doing something. A lot of this information caught everyone off guard, all the way to the top. The church is working through this. First step is to get clean on the history. They’re doing that with the Gospel Topics Essays. This doesn’t happen over night, but it’s happening. As the new information is distributed, we will work on the nuanced narrative as we go.
4. It’s better to work for the new paradigm than have it handed to you. Brown quoted Alexander Pope.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”
He talked about how you used to have to work hard to learn all this information that you can now get in one click by googling CES Letter. Because you had to work hard to get all the information, you took it in naturally along with other material that helped you build a more mature understanding of history and nuance. So that by the time you sorted it all out, you also had more of an intellectual view of the world. A caterpillar that has to fight through the cocoon develops the strength to fly as a butterfly. Do the work for the caterpillar and watch it die, too weak to do the work required in its new life.
So there are four pretty good reasons that push back at the entire purpose of my ministry. I spent several years in turmoil going through faith crisis before it leading to faith reconstruction. Mormon voices like Adam Miller and Terryl Givens responding to my questions gave me more hope than the traditional old FARMS type answers. But I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t spelled out clearly for me. I’m too literal minded, I guess. Even though I intuitively felt the answers were with them, the nuanced Mormon scholar view was just making me frustrated, even angry, because I couldn’t piece it all together. But along with the the secular/intellectual world destroying my view of the dominant LDS narrative, I was intensely cross pressured by the abundance that the LDS Christ-centered life offered me and my family. That fueled me to power through until I reached a nuanced intellectual perspective of things that was sustainable.
So I said, I’m going to make a difference. I’m going to show people this view is possible. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on this project, and I’m proud of the results so far. But Sam Brown does make me pause to think. Maybe it was best for me to suffer through those years. Maybe this paradigm doesn’t need to be popularized.
In conclusion, a few comments as we get ready for General Conference. We will hear non-modern messages that will cross pressure our secular sensibilities. Messages ranging the gamut, some we will like some we won’t like. Messages on Christian discipleship, sacrifice, sexuality, service, gender roles, deference to authority. We might hear Adam and Eve referenced to as real people. We probably won’t get nuanced messages like BOM non-historicity. Some messages will cross pressure us intensely. But I think that’s OK. We’re immersed in the secular world nearly 24-7, it’s OK to check out of that and into a non-modern world and let the cross pressure do its job.