I am Orthodoxy

July 9, 2004 | 22 comments
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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.

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22 Responses to I am Orthodoxy

  1. D. Fletcher on July 9, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    You would be right about me, Nate. I am the heretic. I am not orthodoxy. I’m considering setting up an alternative, LDS-model same-sex Church, where “Praise to the Man” will have a special poignancy.

  2. Nate Oman on July 9, 2004 at 3:24 pm

    Ah! But perhaps you are wrong D. Perhaps you think you are heretical only because your idiosyncratic experience leads you to an erroneous belief about where “true” orthodoxy lies…

  3. D. Fletcher on July 9, 2004 at 3:35 pm

    But your thesis is too liberating. If orthodoxy can only be viewed through the lens of idiosyncratic experience, isn’t it possible that all Mormonism is heresy? We should all be Roman Catholic, or perhaps Coptics in Egypt…

    I guess I think there should be some standard, some consistency that everyone can agree upon.

    When listing the 10 greatest composers who ever lived, many people will have different variations, but it’s pretty clear that Bach will appear on every list (as well as Beethoven and Mozart). These standards aren’t debatable…that’s what makes them standards.

  4. Davis Bell on July 9, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    I attended Church in Nicaragua this Sunday, and given that they don’t have a piano or organ accompanying them, I’m not at all sure “We all sing more or less the same hymns.” I recognized the name of the hymn, but have never heard the tune before in my life.

  5. Thom on July 9, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Nate,

    Did Hellmutt and I prompt this post during our little exchange on the other thread? I am curious for two reasons:

    1) I would overflow with joy and pride if something I said prompted Nate Oman to post something in response.

    But more importantly,

    2) My exchange with Hellmutt did cause me to wonder if I simply don’t see much evidence of shunning, social coercion, and fear of excommunication in the church because I consider myself a very doctrinally aminstream guy who tends to make friends with members of a similar stripe. Conversely, perhaps Hellmutt (or people he knows) believes that shunning and excommunication play a big role in the church because he/they regularly experience cold shoulders and live in constant fear of excommunication based on their beliefs or behaviors.

    Now, please understand. I’m not trying to cast aspersions, call anybody an apostate, or trying to hurt Hellmutt’s feelings. I’m simply theorizing on Nate’s premise.

    Perhaps because we each see our experience in the church as typical, we each belive that certain things do or don’t play a big role the church. Those things that we bump up against the hardest, for whatever reason, are likely to stand out the most in our view of the church and its teachings.

  6. D. Fletcher on July 9, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    Ok, I get it now. You’re suggesting that everyone thinks their view is the only view.

    New Yorkers believe that New York is the best place to live, speaking out against LA. Angelenos believe the contrary…

    Mormons in SLC have the quintessential LDS experience, but then, so do Mormons in NYC, though these might be contrary in many respects.

    I may consider myself heretical, but I am merely twisted compared to Mark Hoffman; in fact, I might be considered orthodox.

    All depending on one’s idiosyncratic experience.

    This came up recently at Church, when we were given the following instruction from our Area President: no more standing up during the rest hymn. According to the AP, no one in the Church stands during the hymns. Then when Elder Eyring came to speak in our building, he insisted we stand for the rest hymn!

    One of the things I love(d) about our Church is how…unslick…it can be.

  7. john fowles on July 9, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    You mentioned that those on the right are uncomfortable about this because of a slippery slope to Unitarianism, but I think it is more accurate to say that they are apprehensive about giving a green light to cultural relativism. From my perspective, those on the right hold to a stricter notion that there are definable absolutes–an objective morality, if you will. So if “orthodoxy” is only in the mind of the beholder, then that is a standard of relativism with respect to the beliefs of the Church. In other words, it is a way of looking at LDS beliefs like everything else in culture and politics; it casts the immutable doctrines (if they exist outside of individuals’ subjective experience, which I believe they do) in a postmodern mold that threatens the destruction of any objective truth.

    Although I think that you are right that individual experience plays an important role in the way that people view their belief system and their world generally, I think we need to concentrate on whether your suggestion goes too far. In short, we need to be willing to accept that there is an objective orthodoxy that inheres in the Church–I should say in the Gospel–and that our subjective experience can inform our interpretation of it but cannot change it in its fundamentals.

  8. Aaron Brown on July 9, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    “New Yorkers believe that New York is the best place to live, speaking out against LA. Angelenos believe the contrary…”

    Yes, D., but the New Yorkers are simply mistaken. Angelenos don’t “believe” the contrary; we “know” the contrary.

    Don’t fall for the nihilistic relativism of the New Yorkers. Embrace absolute truth.

    Aaron B

  9. Aaron Brown on July 9, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    “Ok, I get it now. You’re suggesting that everyone thinks their view is the only view.”

    I don’t think this is what Nate was saying at all. What he’s saying is that we all tend to think our own experiences in the Church typify what your average orthodox Mormon believes about subjects X, Y and Z. We are unlikely to see ourselves or our own environments as unusual, or as an exception to the Mormon norm. This fact (assuming it’s true) seriously limits the usefulness or accuracy of our claims and generalizations about what is representative of Mormon belief. It probably also prohibits many of us from objectively categorizing ourselves along some spectrum of LDS belief as well as we’d like to do.

    I largely agree with this. I think I’ve accused Nate of failing to see this in the past. In a prior thread, I also have identified my one irritation with FARMS as being the failure of some of the writers there to acknowledge how unrepresentative their views are among the common membership. And I myself certainly have had a historical tendency to believe that certain pet peeves of mine that I observed in certain LDS members growing up are some sort of “universal” problem among Church members, when that is arguable.

    That said, I really do know everything, so please don’t anyone dare question my infallibility.

    Aaron B

  10. Dave on July 9, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    Nate, I think the problem comes when a local Church leader takes their own idiosyncratic experience as defining orthodoxy for everyone under their domain. And it is local leaders who conduct Mormon heresy trials, without any input at all (wink, wink) from the COB. So what really constitutes Mormon orthodoxy in the operational or applied sense [i.e., as measuring what opinions, statements, or conduct is heterodox enough to legitimately threaten a person’s membership] is a function of what stake or ward you live in. That’s not really a novel concept–we all have a feeling that what passes for common knowledge in some places might count as an apostate belief in a small Utah town.

  11. Renee on July 9, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    Nate, fascinating post and you are absolutely correct. But don’t take my word for it because I might be a heretic. :) We all have our prism which we peer through. I’m not sure there’s any other way to do it except to take inventory once in awhile of ourselves and our beliefs.

    D. Fletcher, I think someone beat you to forming that church. I’ve seen their website. ;)

  12. Silus Grok on July 9, 2004 at 9:12 pm

    Aaron B: you’ve got it all wrong… I live in Provo. I know NYC is a better place to live than LA… but everyone knows that Boston is the place to be.

    Definitely.

    D: You’re too late, mate: there’s already a “ward” in SLC that fits that description.

  13. Silus Grok on July 9, 2004 at 9:19 pm

    (Joking aside, my comment to D was serious: there is a congregation of gay latter-day saints that acts apart from the Church.)

  14. john fowles on July 9, 2004 at 10:48 pm

    Dave,

    I don’t think I agree with your take on the role of wards and stakes in the construction or in the case of your view imposition of this orthodoxy. I agree with Nate’s take that it stems primarily from the home–the orthodoxy subscribed to by your parents that is then reflected in your worldview.

    Aaron B. is accurate in saying that Nate meant that we then take this orthodoxy and then project it onto the rest of the Church and carry it around within us believing that it is what the mainstream of the Church believes. My contention with that is just that I am recalcitrant enough to believe there really is a mainstream of the Church, and it is our obligation to stick with it (i.e. follow the Church leaders who represent where the mainstream of the Church is) in order to avoid catastrophe in our testimonies and perhaps even temporally in the last days.

  15. Susan on July 9, 2004 at 11:30 pm

    Does this mean that I am orthodoxy after all. I like the sound of that, Nate.

  16. Mike on July 10, 2004 at 3:50 am

    This thread has made me smile. Maybe Susan’s comment- maybe remembering Nate’s “My Problem With Liberal Mormons” thread, or any number of things- I’m just not sure.

    I think that we do tend to get a flawed interpretation of what Orthodoxy is- but first, how do we define orthodoxy? What the Church as an organization actually believes and advocates? If there are few things completely spelled out by leadership this may mean there is very little Orthodoxy.
    But I think of course orthodoxy goes beyond this and Nate assumes so as well- and it is really impossible to look at things independent from our own perception.

    That is one thing that could be rather intereseting in the field of Mormon studies. Some studies on orthodoxy that function using questionaires, surveys or interviews and statistical models- basically the same thing some one in social sciences would do to determine the overall views of some subculture (I don’t really like the term subculture- but it works here) thinks.

  17. Dave on July 10, 2004 at 5:28 am

    John, the problem is that “personal orthodoxy” or “family orthodoxy” is something of a contradiction, and I’m guessing from Nate’s title he’s quite aware of that tension. If everyone is allowed to define their own orthodoxy (= correct opinions, roughly), then there isn’t really any “right opinion” for that doctrine or concept. If it is actually the case that every person who grows up in the Church ends up with a different conception of “orthodoxy,” that’s a confession of sorts that the Church has failed in its appointed task of teaching correct principles or opinions about God and the Gospel.

    For what it’s worth, here’s the first paragraph of the article Orthodoxy from the Catholic Encylopedia, which seems fairly transferable to the Mormon context:

    Orthodoxy (orthodoxeia) signifies right belief or purity of faith. Right belief is not merely subjective, as resting on personal knowledge and convictions, but is in accordance with the teaching and direction of an absolute extrinsic authority. This authority is the Church founded by Christ, and guided by the Holy Ghost. He, therefore, is orthodox, whose faith coincides with the teachings of the Catholic Church. As divine revelation forms the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church for man’s salvation, it also, with the truths clearly deduced from it, forms the object and content of orthodoxy.

  18. Rob Briggs on July 10, 2004 at 8:57 pm

    Interesting post, Nate, with just the right touch of concluding irony.

    For me you raise the point of folk theology or folk religion — how religion/theology are understood among the folk, down where the rubber meets the road. Folk Catholicism in Brazil & Spanish-speaking Latin America is a fascinating example. Seems you’re suggesting that we too have a folk religion, actually many folk religions, and that a contributing factor is our loose, as you see it, theology. Interesting thought.

  19. Kaimi on July 10, 2004 at 9:08 pm

    Nate,

    Are you saying “I am orthodoxy”?

    Or are you saying that “I AM” is orthodoxy?

    :)

  20. Glurm Faltermeyer on July 12, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    Is orthodoxy your first or last name? And what does all this have to do with Battlestar Galactica?

  21. Glurm Faltermeyer on July 12, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    Is orthodoxy your first or last name? And what does all this have to do with Battlestar Galactica?

  22. Glurm Faltermeyer on July 12, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    Is Orthodoxy your first or last name? And what does all this have to do with Battlestar Galactica?