While I was running errands with my children one morning last week, I glanced up at the rearview mirror to see my four-year-old daughter’s finger probing her nostril. I reprimanded her, gently, and asked if she needed a tissue. “No thank you, Mom,” she answered cheerfully, “This kind comes out only by a fingernail, right?” Just then we passed a large Catholic church, a windowed stone gothic, and she added, “Some people go to this church, but we don’t. We go to the real church, don’t we?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to her questions, either nasal or ecclesiastical. Or rather, I knew how I wanted to respond—no, we shouldn’t pick our noses, no matter what; yes, we’re grateful to be members of our church, but people who go to other churches love Jesus and keep the commandments, too—but I wasn’t sure if or why those responses were correct.
The last question was probably the easier to handle: I was uncomfortable with my daughter’s unhedged exclusivist claim for the unique authority of Mormonism, even though I embrace a slightly qualified version of those claims myself, because that sort of claim has become increasingly unacceptable in polite public conversation. It’s just bad manners to tell someone, even nicely and even if you believe it, that their church isn’t the real one—at least during circle time at pre-school or at a playdate. (I was suprised to hear my daughter make the remark in the first place: that ours is the one true church is not something I’ve emphasized thus far in FHE or other contexts, but she probably picked it up in Primary.) My discomfort can be seen as a symptom of the pervasive secularization of Western society, the latter centuries of which have witnessed an incremental dissolution of the social significance of religious creeds, practices and institutions. The secularization thesis, advanced by sociologists from Weber to Marx to Durkheim, contends that modernization prompts a decline in levels of religiosity—or, alternately, an erosion of the epistemological authority of religious claims—with the joint ascendance of the secular nation-state and the regime of rationality, twin progeny of the Enlightenment. The hypothesis is not without its chinks, particularly if pressed tight on the US or taken wide to the global: Rodney Stark, for example, with special reference to Mormonism, argues strongly that America, at least, is not secularizing. Still, though, the basic insight that secularization and democratization are mutually reinforcing processes elegantly accounts for a lot of modern history and current events—including, perhaps, my own resistance to my daughter’s remark.
The nose-picking is a tougher nut to crack. Germ theory has taught us that it’s unsanitary, sure, but certainly no more so than shaking somebody’s hand or opening the door for him, hands and doorknobs being, as they are, teeming habitats of ill-intentioned microbes—yet the one is unquestionably rude and the others impeccably polite. Another sociologist, Norbert Elias, might have the answer to this one. In his book The Civilizing Process, sometimes subtitled “The History of Manners,” Elias argues that the evolution of Western manners since the Middle Ages can be described as a steady advance in the threshold of shame, and that this psychogenetic regime of social control laid the psychological groundwork for the sociogenetic rise of the nation-state. The socialization of children, their personal “civilizing process”, involves a similar advance in the shame threshold—a four-year-old is not yet embarrassed to pick her nose in public, but a thirty-one-year-old definitely is—and thus Elias, hitching the social to the psychic, sees the history of the modern West as a process of maturation from the uncivilized to the civilized. He sets out to work inductively, and amasses a rather staggering amount of source material that he arranges into chapters like “On Behavior in the Bedroom” and “On Blowing One’s Nose, ” in which he explains that “in medieval society people generally blew their noses into their hands.” The argument is certainly susceptible to critique, particularly in its word-choice—”civilization” is such an historically-fraught concept that it’s nearly impossible to use without invoking fatal outrage—and its propensity to generalize. But Elias’ hypothesis is an instructive supplement to the grand Marxist narrative of the rise of the nation-state, which (in its cruder versions) famously privileges the economic base of the relations of the production and ignores social history as irrelevant superstructure, and it provides a useful (if controversial) explanation for why the democratic nation-state has fared so poorly outside the West.
I’ve been wondering whether Elias might have something to say about my daughter’s second question, too. That is, perhaps the tempering of exclusivist religious claims is not so much a capitulation to an external process of relentless secularization, but rather a process of maturation intrinsic to religious organizations and claims themselves. I’ve heard a few arguments that frame church history as a sort of psychic maturation, along the lines of Elias. A relative of mine, for example, suggests that ten years of church history is roughly equivalent to one year of human life: thus at 175 years after its founding, the church is roughly 17 years old—past its major growth spurt, but still suffering a few pangs of adolescence and not yet fully mature. Bruce Hafen uses a similar psychogenetic model in this talk, suggesting that the miraculous manifestations at the Kirtland temple dedication were equivalent to youthful religious enthusiasm, and the more sober affair of the Nauvoo temple dedication equivalent to the disenchantment of adulthood. So if the organizational maturation of the church follows the trajectory of psychic maturation from childhood to adulthood, will a softening of our truth claims naturally follow? I don’t see any sign of a wholesale abandonment of those claims—nor, certainly, am I advocating such!—but certainly church history has been traced by a gradual opening to ecumenical effort and language. I really don’t know, and I make no prediction. But I think it’s useful to consider “secularization”—in whichever direction it turns out to be moving— as a dynamic process in which both secular society and religious bodies are active participants, responding both to external pressure and internal maturation.