Spirituality & Fundamentalism

June 28, 2004 | 18 comments
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Hello all, and thanks for Jim’s warm introduction and Lyle’s and Gordon’s welcomes.

To get started, let me summarize some recent research I’ve done on current trends in the sociology of religion, and then pose some questions.

(The complete write-up is part of an essay, “Religious Experience in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” a link to which appears at my BYU faculty profile page at http://www.law2.byu.edu/Law_School/faculty_profiles/fp_frameset.htm.)

One trend in the character of religious belief in the United States is a move from transcendence to immanence, a search for spirituality and religious meaning that is much more focused on one’s own personal needs than it is on whether religion reveals “reality.” This trend has manifested itself in (at least) three ways. First, a significant number of people now describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”–that is, they care about God and spiritual matters but are a- and sometimes anti-denominational. A second manifestation, closely related to the first, is the growing phenomenon of “grocery cart religion”–that is, people who construct their own, idiosyncratic faith by assembling diverse and even inconsistent doctrines by which they live their lives. “Christian Buddhists” might be an example

A third manifestation is “cafeteria” religion–that is, believers who consider themselves active members in good standing of a denomination, but who reject one or more central doctrines or tenets of the denominations. Many Roman Catholics, for example, consider their affiliation with the Church important in their lives, and are active in their parish, but reject the Church’s teachings on birth control and abortion, or on the ordination of women to the priesthood.

A reaction to the trend towards spirituality, a-denominationalism, grocery cart and cafeteria religion, and immanence generally–or perhaps better, an opposition to them, since it predates them–is fundamentalism, understood as a religion guided by scriptural literalism and unchanging, uncompromising doctrines that reveal truth and reality, understood as “objective” in the Cartesian sense.

Some questions:

1. Is the trend towards spirituality evident among the membership of the LDS church? Can one discern a growing tendency among members to evaluate the church and its teachings and practices according to how they serve one’s perception of his or her personal needs, rather than whether those teachings and practices are true in the classical Cartesian sense? Or, instead, do members relate to the church pretty much as they have for the last half century?

2. Is the LDS church spiritual or fundamentalist? Does an answer depend on whether one focuses on culture, theology, membership, or leadership?

3. Can a fundamentalist church, one that insists on unchanging and uncompromising truths, and scriptural literalism, retain mass appeal in contemporary US society? Is belonging to a spiritual church worth the trouble? To what extent is the truth of the LDS church linked with what was, until recently, remarkable growth in the US and internationally?

Thanks, Fred

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18 Responses to Spirituality & Fundamentalism

  1. Nate Oman on June 28, 2004 at 7:59 pm

    I think that the issue of growth is interesting, if tangentially related to your question. Because the Church saw a huge growth spurt from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, I think that there is a generation of Mormons who assume that this is the normal state of affairs for Moromonism. However, historically this has not been true. What you see are periods of very rapid growth and periods of very slow growth. For example, the first couple of years saw a huge spike in Church growth fueled largely by the conversion of Campbellites in Ohio. This spurt of conversions tappered off. It was followed by a huge spurt of conversions in Britain and later Scandanavia. This tappered off by the last half of the 19th century. They you see a post war spurt of growth, and a huge spike beginning in the 1970s. I suspect that this may be tappering off. My point is that the Church has shown that it is quite good at patiently biding its time and gathering its strength between periods of rapid growth. We be transitioning into such a period.

  2. danithew on June 28, 2004 at 8:09 pm

    I have a response or thought to question one, as to whether there is a growing tendency to evaluate the church and its teachings and practices according to one’s perception of personal needs, etc.

    My first thought is of women, their role in the family and their role in the church. I think women are getting into medical school and law school and other types of graduate programs more often than ever before. My mother’s generation was often content to get married and start having children pretty quickly. For example, my mother was a credit or two away from getting a master’s degree but stopped abruptly when she got married to my father. Only years later did she go back and re-do the whole process to get her masters.

    I think today there is a reality that women are seeking advanced degrees and professional credentials and are either finding a way to have children during that process or are delaying the conception of children until they feel they are at a stage of their studies where they can handle twin responsibilities.

    I don’t necessarily see this as a problem at all. It’s just a change I’m noticing. This is a little bit challenging because not all women in Relief Society are in agreement that this is ok… but I think it’s become more and more an accepted option.

    So how does this answer the first question? Well, I think women are thinking about their personal needs as well as their personal responsibilities. My wife is a medical student and her reaction to critics or perceived criticisms was that most women have to work at some point, why not work in a field she chose — a field that challenged and excited her? She didn’t feel she should have to be relegated to a more traditinally acceptable job (nurse, elementary school teacher, etc.) that didn’t particularly interest her.

    I know that critics of this approach would say that this is the “cafeteria” approach to Mormonism … where a devout LDS person picks and chooses a bit according to what they want or need. But others (myself included) do not see it that way. After all, the prophet today is encouraging men and women to get all the education they can. At least that’s the way I’m understanding what he’s saying.

  3. Dan Burk on June 28, 2004 at 8:12 pm

    “Is the LDS church spiritual or fundamentalist?”

    On your given definitions, neither. This is a false dichotomy, although admittedly it appears to me that many members of the Church have been sucked into it, taking one wrong position or the other.

  4. Kingsley on June 28, 2004 at 8:54 pm

    “Can a fundamentalist church, one that insists on unchanging and uncompromising truths, and scriptural literalism, retain mass appeal in contemporary US society?”

    Perhaps this depends on how stable or unstable US society is. The idea of “unchanging and uncompromising truths” seems to be more popular in a violently changing, compromising world, while the laid-back “whatever works for you” approach works better in a laid-back, working world.

  5. blaine on June 28, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    I think we need to distinguish between the LDS Church and LDS Churchmembers in the same way as was noted with the Catholic church. The LDS Church and the Roman Catholic Church are both very “fundamentalist” in the sense that they do not (at least admittedly) adjust their principles to comport with the changing morays of society.

    As to LDS Churchmembers, I think that we are generally far more fundamentalist than other (at least Christian) religions. Even my most liberal friends accept the scriptures and most of what the prophet says “wholesale.” They may take a more “a la carte” approach to things that their bishops, stake presidents, even other apostles say, but they have testimonies of the scriptures.

  6. Gordon Smith on June 28, 2004 at 9:45 pm

    Fred: “Can one discern a growing tendency among members to evaluate the church and its teachings and practices according to how they serve one’s perception of his or her personal needs, rather than whether those teachings and practices are true in the classical Cartesian sense?”

    What are the timelines on these trends? I have been a member for 23 years, and I can’t claim to have noticed anything like this. This seems like something that would happen over multiple generations.

  7. Adam Greenwood on June 28, 2004 at 11:49 pm

    I am inclined to believe that Church members are more ‘spiritualist’ today, but only compared to themselves earlier. An outsider no doubt sees the fundamentalism: the solidity of the trunk and not the sway of the tree. Your question number 3 partly explains this change. As we attempt to proselyte we find that we sometimes have to meet the world halfway. ‘Spiritualism’ in the Church seems to grow out of our attempts to appeal to the spiritualism of the masses.

    Are the trends you describe global or Western or national? Phillip Jenkins argues that attempts to accomodate Christianity to the wealth and pride and spiritualism and nuance of the first world ruins the message for the third world.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on June 29, 2004 at 12:03 am

    Fred, this is a tangential concern, but I’m curious about your use of “transcendence” and “immanence” in describing the trend you’re studying. Do you employ them in your paper because they connect your argument to some larger theological point? I ask because, while I can understand how those terms apply to what you’re getting at (“immanence” = everything around us; “transcendence” = that which is beyond us), I think it’s rather superficial to describe an “immanent” religion as one that is, for example, “much more focused on one’s own personal needs than it is on whether religion reveals ‘reality.'” Why can’t a fundamentalist belief turn on a conception of immanence? Surely one can imagine an ontology where ultimate reality, the source of revelation and eternal truths about being and morality is concomitant to our own embodiment and immanent experience as moral beings.

    Your set-up suggests that “scriptural literalism and unchanging, uncompromising doctrines that reveal truth and reality” necessarily take a Cartesian form (that is, they are “transcendent” in the sense of being separate from ourselves; they are static postulates which we can only observe and conform to, not principles which partake of our own nature). I agree that this describes fairly well the sort of modernism so many fundamentalist Christians perhaps unintentionally subscribe to (at least on a theological level), and I guess that to the extent you’re talking about Christianity in America, then that presumption works. But I’m reluctant to see those terms used in the way you seem to nonetheless, because I think it has the unfortunate consequence of assuming that immanent revelations cannot involve fundamentals, and transcendent revelations must be objective. Neither is, I think, once you look outside the particular narrow history of American Christianity, necessarily true.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on June 29, 2004 at 12:07 am

    Incidentally, have you taken a look at Charles Taylor’s latest book, “Modern Social Imaginaries”? He makes some interesting observations on the nature of modern secularism and “spirituality,” and how it is in some ways a product of the historical development of Christianity itself.

  10. john fowles on June 29, 2004 at 12:24 am

    I don’t think that LDS church members, or the Church itself, for that matter, can be described as “fundamentalist” at all–especially in the way it is commonly used today. That term seems to be reserved for dead religions that have no continuing revelation so that any changes that have entered into them since their conception are merely the will of individuals throughout history, many of them with ulterior motives. So “fundamentalists” in that context try to get back at what the religion originally was, before the meddling of people who were trying to further their own agendas. This is particularly so with the Catholic Church and the hundreds of Protestant denominations.

    But “fundamentalism” is entirely the wrong way to describe the LDS Church. It is true that the Church “do[es] not (at least admittedly) adjust [its] principles to comport with the changing morays of society” (thanks Blaine). (Although undoubtedly many in the Sunstone croud would dispute this particular observation about the Church and its course.) But that does not imply fundamentalism; rather, it implies moral certainty, righteousness, and a desire to serve God over the world. It doesn’t have to be turned into some kind of sociological aberration.

    If the LDS Church or its members were “fundamentalist,” they would be bigamous, isolationist, and drinking coffee and tea and using tobacco (Brigham Young had little success in getting the members of his day to give them up and it only became such a strict prohibition around the turn of the century). But that is not the case, except for in some small “fundamentalist” communities, because the Church does change as the times change. That is the beauty of having continuing revelation, etc. The moral imperatives do not change but if some of the trappings change, so what? What is the point of having a living prophet and apostles–i.e. an inspired Church leadership–if the Church is “fundamentalist” in nature?

    But having rejected that the Church is fundamentalist in nature does not require accepting the “spiritualist” categories, either the shopping cart or cafeteria varieties. I’m not sure that the Church falls into those categories either. Perhaps, as in so many other respects, the Church is here again “peculiar” and we must create a new, separate category into which only it can fall (because it is true and truly lead by God’s prophet).

  11. XON on June 29, 2004 at 12:41 am

    Fred, (It’s going to take a while to get used to that after your Torts class and that Gadamer seminar that, the older I get, the more I realize that I had no idea what Gadamer was talking about. . .)

    My from-the-hip observations from my sheltered station in Northern Virginia (but not too Northern. . .):

    1. – I don’t really see a great deal of profound change on this one over time. I think we see about the same proportion of people who continue on in the gospel beyond baptism, and those who drop out that there has always been. The hallmark seems to continue to be the ability to repent, sacrifice, learn, and grow. Which leads to observations about 3, to whit:

    I really bought into the propaganda (good or otherwise) that one of the main reasons for the 70’s growth spurt was that, in the face of the cafeteria morality, and therefore, religion of the era that the Gospel’s clear cut demands on objective reqirements (tithing, Word of Wisdom, Chastity, etc.) provided an outlet for those not comfortable with ‘anything goes’. I have to admit that I’m not sure of the reasons for the growth stagnation of the past three years, but from my observation, it isn’t due to an internal cultural shift towards ‘immanence’.

    X

  12. lyle on June 29, 2004 at 12:50 am

    I’m with Dan (for once? twice, three times… ;). False dichotomy. Although it sets up an interesting thesis/antithesis…where is the synthesis argument (kinda like the, “is the LDS Church a traditional or modern church, society? THe answer would seem to be clearly both ‘fundamental’ & immanemt/practical.

    Perhaps it would be better cast shorn of the philosophical baggage Russell mentions & fused instead with the “legalist” & “pragmatist” labels recently applied to some odd SCOTUS majority opinions?

  13. Mike on June 29, 2004 at 5:02 am

    Well, if XON (or the propaganda he bought into) is right in that the Church’s growth was spurred partiahlly by a regection of the cafateria mentality then I think a very good reason for a slowing in the growth of the Church could be that we seem to be a bit less on our own in that respect. There are a lot of fundamentalist options that seem to be growing in popularity, or at least becoming more vocal- that reject the cafateria mindset more than we do. Southern Baptists reject the Baptist ideal of no central authority and priesthood of the believers more and more as the rest of the Baptists become more liberal.

    If people are finding the rejection of pick what you want leave what you don’t want type of religion where they already are maybe they see less need to look somewhere else for objective truth.

    I however have no idea if this is the case. I don’t know what statistical trends show about growth of fundamentalism, or the shift to greater fundamentalism inside of mainstream churches. Maybe I just didn’t pay attention before, but it seems as if things are different.

  14. Thom on June 29, 2004 at 10:44 am

    Having grown up in the “my truth is what’s right for me” and the “do what feels good” culture of the arts community in Southern California, I have long had the impression that people who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” are simply trying to avoid both the behavioral restrictions of real religion and being perceived as “non” or “anti-spiritual.”

    This has always struck me as a cop-out. Such people want to be seen as spiritually in-tune with their own inner being and the cosmic forces of good in the universe, without having to adhere to something that would require actual sacrifice. A sort of eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too approach, which only masks an outright rejection of religion and spirituality by trying to redefine what it means and what its for, for themselves.

  15. Ryan Bell on June 29, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    To question 1:

    LDS are in an interesting position when it comes to the cafeteria mindset. That is, I believe the cafeteria approach is condemned in the church, mostly implicitly but often explicitly. Thus, if you to pick and choose between all the tenets of the church, you’ll have to do it subtly, without saying that’s what you’re doing.

    For example, I knew many Catholics on my mission in Portugal who were quite blunt about what they did and did not accept from their church. At the time *everyone* would say “Yes, I’m Catholic, but I don’t believe in Priests, and I don’t believe in the Pope.” For some reason, there was some normative freedom provided in their world view that allowed them to make such declarations while still claiming orthodoxy.

    LDS do not have that option. To state explicitly that one does not accept this or that core teaching would necessarily deny them the ability to appear mainstream/faithful/orthodox/whatever. Thus, the LDS option, rather than *reject* a principle, is to construct one’s own defensible model of what the church actually teaches. So, if I enjoy going out to eat on Sunday, I will rarely say “I don’t believe it is true doctrine when the prophet says don’t go out to eat on Sunday.” Instead, I’ll say “Well, remember that talk by so-and-so about how when he was a mission president they took the visiting general authority out to dinner on a Sunday? It’s obvious from some church teachings that this practice is acceptable in certain circumstances.”
    We make the argument from within orthodoxy.

    To summarize, the cafeteria approach in Mormondom is moved inside the structure, where we pick and choose our doctrines by arguing that the church does or does not teach this, rather than by deciding what of the church’s teachings we will or won’t accept. It helps us all do what we want while still feeling holy. What is the appropriate food-related name for this Mormon version of cafeteria religion? Re-writing the menu?

  16. DaveB on June 29, 2004 at 4:36 pm

    Ryan’s observation also reflects my experience. Members who deviate from a (perceived or majority-held) norm will often say “Oh, I like everything on the menu — it’s just that the menu I’m looking at somehow differs a little from the one you’re holding.”

    Interestingly, I’ve noticed a similar rhetorical strategy among faithful Muslims, both those that I’ve known personally and those who speak in the media. When they want to condemn something done by another Muslim in the name of Islam, they’ll often say “That action was un-Islamic” or (more strongly) “So-and-so is not a Muslim.”

    In both cases, it is of paramount importance for community members that their actions or beliefs be “within the pale” — so the boundary of the pale is what is up for dispute. Catholics, among others, do things differently, perhaps not insisting on the same degree of purity of action or belief.

  17. DaveB on June 29, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    To answer Fred’s three questions:

    1. Yes, it seems that to some extent Mormons are moving toward the spiritual/immanent and away from the institutional/transcendent. This seems to me to be a fairly recent trend, and not very widespread. Because for the most part,

    2. Mormons are fundamentalist, not spiritual (in Fred’s sense of a sort of free-floating, non-institutionalized spirituality). But they’re fundamentalist in a certain way. Fred mentions hierarchical religions in his longer paper as something apart from fundamentalist religions. It seems to me that Mormonism has spent the past few decades moving towards a fundamentalism about its hierarchy. This is not surprising if you accept the usual basic observations about how life in our “postmodern world” problematizes metanarratives and the possibility of univocal readings of foundational texts. (One teeny example: The unresolved question of how to read Book of Mormon geography (ranging all over North America or just a little tiny bit of Guatemala or wherever) in light of the DNA studies, etc.) If you can’t support your beliefs with a single, self-verifying reading of a text (which is what Protestant fundamentalists insist on with their biblical inerrantism), perhaps entrusting that reading to a hierarchy will solve the problem. It’s great for institutional cohesion, too, because unlike written texts, living prophets and such can answer back when someone outside the hierarchy gives their remarks an interpretation they don’t approve of.

    Mormonism’s move of transferring the authority of the text to a hierarchy of living guardians who alone are authorized to produce authoritative interpretations is something that, as Fred mentions in his article, is something that Mike mentions the Southern Baptist Convention is in the midst of, ever since the conservative takeover of the early ’80s. It has its appeal, but it doesn’t seem like a satisfactory response to the “age of digital reproduction” and the postmodern condition — if indeed the problem is properly posed. As Fred points out in the longer article, a hierarchichal religion works the same as a fundamentalist one in offering controlled access to a unified truth. In fact, I have a hard time seeing the difference between a really hard-core hierarchy and a non-hierarchichal fundamentalism in terms of their lack of response to the concerns raised by our postmodern age of digital reproduction. That’s why I’d classify Mormonism (by which I mean the church leadership and most of the active membership) as fundamentalists about hierarchy.

    Which leads to

    3. Fred’s article, unlike his post, is not agnostic about this question. He says that “the consumerization of religion and religious experience by digitization and postmodernism suggests that most Americans are unlikely to see fundamentalist religion as a plausible guide to living their lives. Fundamentalism will in no doubt survive, but as a niche product appealing to a narrow segment of the market for religious experience — perhaps dominant in its category, but lacking mass appeal.”

    This makes sense to me, but it also sounds suspiciously like the now-discredited “secularization hypothesis” that increasing levels of scientific discovery, mass education, and affluence would lead to a significantly less religious population. As we know, that didn’t happen in America in the 20th century, even though it kinda makes sense as a hypothesis.

    I could go one of two ways on Fred’s “spiritualization hypothesis”:

    (a) It’s a more nuanced restatement of the secularization hypothesis, and a better description of what’s happening in the late-capitalist American religious landscape. In fact, it explains why the sensible-sounding secularization hypothesis has turned out to be wrong: religious interest, even religious participation, are not decreasing in the face of modernist and postmodernist challenges. Instead, the *nature* of individual religious involvement is changing — away from the fixedly institutional and transcendent, towards the flexibly personal and immanent.

    (b) On the contrary, the spiritualization hypothesis is like the secularization hypothesis in being a theory that sounds plausible to academics but fails to account for a real need in many Americans’ (people’s?) lives: in this case, a need for clear rules, a clear metaphysics, the stability that fundamentalist religions provide in our age of uncertainty. Thus the demand in the religious marketplace for fundamentalism will stay strong, perhaps even increase, and fundamentalist faiths will be happy to supply the firm foundation or fundament that many people need.

  18. Mark Butler on June 30, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    But not for long, Nate, not for long. The Lord will hasten his work in his time. He will proceed to bring to pass his act, his strange act, and perform his work, his strange work, that men may discern between the righteous and the wicked.

    For the preparation wherewith I design to prepare mine apostles to prune my vineyard for the last time, that I may bring to pass my strange act, that I may pour out my Spirit upon all flesh— But behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many who have been ordained among you, whom I have called but few of them are chosen. They who are not chosen have sinned a very grievous sin, in that they are walking in darkness at noon-day.

    For the LORD shall rise up as in mount Perazim, he shall be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon, that he may do his work, his strange work; and bring to pass his act, his strange act. Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong: for I have heard from the Lord GOD of hosts a consumption, even determined upon the whole earth.

    Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him.

    For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen. This also cometh forth from the LORD of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working.

    See Isaiah 28, D&C 95, and D&C 101. We live in exciting times – the act is nearly accomplished and the strange act is waiting in the wings. D&C 77 seems to say as much.