Most Mormons, especially those who grew up in the Church, labor under the delusion that they know what constitutes Mormon orthodoxy, typical Mormon beliefs, and the like. I am increasingly of the opinion that we are basically wrong about this. Here is why:
I think that we tend to generalized about the Church and what constitutes orthodox Mormonism based on our own experiences. This is a particularly powerful impulse for those of us who have grown-up in the Church. We just know that we know what constitutes orthodox or mainline Mormonism. We tend to be fairly certain about what the major issues and major beliefs are.
My point is not necessarily that we are mistaken about all of these things. Clearly, we are not. Nor do I believe that we necessarily have radically different visions of what constitutes orthodoxy. We all listen to General Conference and read the Ensign. We all struggle through some version of roughly similar Sunday School and CES curriculums. We all sing more or less the same hymns. There is a vast set of shared experiences that create considerable unity and consistency.
However, if one thinks about it, idiosyncratic experiences can have a rather profound impact on what we believe and what we perceive to be mainstream. For example, my mother had a seminary teacher as a teenager who had a huge influence on her. I think that he set up a lot of implicit ideas in her mind about what constituted orthodox or mainline Mormonism. This is hardly surprising. At the level of lived experience, it is quite easy for a single seminary teacher to loom larger as a defining force than distant prophets seen a couple of times a year on television. Yet the seminary teacher – despite his influence – can be idiosyncratic. In my mother’s case, the seminary teacher apostatized and became a polygamist. There is nothing remotely similar in my own teen-age experience of the Church. One result, I think, is that my mother and I have quite different visions about what constitutes mainstream or orthodox Mormonism.
Perhaps the most powerful example of this sort of thing is the Mormon family. If you grow up in the Church in a Mormon family, I think that your family is likely to be the most important definer for you of what constitutes mainstream Mormonism and orthodoxy. Yet ones family is often idiosyncratic. For example, by most measures my father is a pretty conservative guy. Nevertheless, he holds to any number of arguably “liberal” theological positions. Hence, I grew up in a religious atmosphere in which scriptural inerrency, eschatological polygamy, young-earth theories, and anti-Darwinism (to name just a few examples) were not really live options. Now I wouldn’t necessarily argue that all of these positions define orthodoxy or the mainstream, but they no doubt have had a huge impact on where I place those concepts on various ideological scales. One of the interesting things about moving off into the big wide Mormon world is to see the extent to which others have markedly different views about what constitutes orthodoxy and the mainstream. Perhaps they are correct. Perhaps their views simply rest on the idiosyncries of their own experiences. In a more or less non-creedal and largely atheological church it is difficult to figure out what standard one should use. (Of course my view of the Church as non-creedal and largely atheological may simply be another result of my idiosyncratic experience. Or not.)
In some sense, I think that shifting sense of what counts as orthodoxy is threatening for some. On the “right” are those who see this evidence of nihilism and the slippery slope to Unitarianism. On the “left” are those who decry the absence of fixed standards because it lets “right-wing wackos” beat them over the head with the apostate label.
For me, however, I find the idiosyncratic determination of orthodoxy liberating. The reason is that despite all of the cultivated doubt and critical self-reflection that years of post-high school education have inculcated, I can’t help but thinking that I am right. Even though I realize that my perceptions are largely a result of idiosyncratic experience, deep down I still think that I pretty much know where the mainstream of Mormonism is and I am fairly certain that I am quite close to it. (The inverse of this is that many people who I think are pretty orthodox are quite certain about their own iconoclasm and heterodoxy.) Hence, I am almost totally unphased by the occasional accusation of apostasy or “liberalism” thrown my way.
At the end of the day, I can’t help believing that it’s all of you who are the heretics. I am orthodoxy.