Greetings, Times and Seasons bloggers!
I have been enjoying the discussion on T&S for months, reading here and there in between my own coursework, looking on from behind the glass as many of the visitors to T&S inevitably do. When Gordon invited me to guest blog, I was delighted with the prospect of sharing the same forum with the many rangy thinkers in this group.
(As a side bar, my own contribution to the “Six Degrees of Times and Seasons” thread is minimal but may be worth noting here: Nate and I were enrolled in the same history of philosophy sequence, taught by Jim Seibach and Jim F., at BYU, in 1993 or so. Kristine, Melissa, and I met in Provo in 2003 while they were studying in the Smith Institute summer fellowship program with Claudia Bushman. I worked for Jack Welch, Rosalynde’s father-in-law, for a few years. And, of course, Gordon is my Elders’ Quorum President here in Madison.)
My post takes its cue from a program broadcast on NPR the other night. The program was interviewing Karen Armstrong, the author of numerous books on the history of religion. Armstrong, you may recall, is a former Catholic nun who left the convent to study English literature at Oxford. She later returned to religion in authoring biographies of Buddha, Mohammad, and the best-selling A History of God. The program was a platform for Armstrong’s latest book, a personal memoir called The Spiral Staircase.
As Armstrong described her spiritual odyssey, I became increasingly attuned to the language of this very gifted scholar. Her words made me conscious of the divide separating Latter-day Saints from other faiths. Armstrong left the convent, she said, because she came to see Catholicism as a limitation. The daily routine, the restricting movement within the city, was confining enough, but she was talking about much more than the nun’s daily life. She came to see denominationalism itself as a limitation. The sacraments of the Catholic church could not possibility contain all the truth there was in the universe. There could not be one way back to God. After a bout with agnosticism, Armstrong found her truth in the more open and airy fields of literature and world religions. She now calls herself a “freelance monotheist,” worshipping God but adhering to no one tradition.
I see Armstrong’s choice to leave organized religion as symptomatic of a larger movement in Western and perhaps even world history. The issue is not new, of course, but it is does seem to be accelerating. Intellectual people are not just disenchanted with authority; they are disenchanted with the totalizing claims of authority. They have come to treat as suspect any organization (and especially corporations) who claims special access to truth. They do not want a religion with seven sacraments; they want a religion with no sacraments, or a religion where anyone can define what a sacrament is or can be. People do not want to be confined. They want to be “freelancers.”
Mormon intellectuals, in my view, are especially vulnerable to becoming freelancers. The faith claims of Mormonism push aside other claims to authority. And the church demands many hours of our time, sometimes to the exclusion of the intellectual activities we crave–activities like reading English literature and studying world religions. The question is, how do we keep from becoming embittered? how do we resist the intellectual impulse of our time that sees organized religion as a burdensome yoke to be thrown off?