On the Blowing of Noses and the Bearing of Testimonies

October 18, 2005 | 16 comments
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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.

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16 Responses to On the Blowing of Noses and the Bearing of Testimonies

  1. Melanie on October 18, 2005 at 1:40 am

    Nice post. I think in the American context, from the very beginning, Americans have had to reconcile pluralism with absolutism– that different denominations claimed doctrinal correctness (and had been doing so for 200 years in America) drove the young boy Joseph into the woods. I don’t think this tension has as much to do with the maturation of the church as it does the context in which it exists. I think as political correctness takes greater hold in society and as those of us who grew up with p.c. as “a way of life” move into leadership in the church, and as the church emphasizes working together with other churches and silencing the “peculiar” aspects of its history for postitive p.r., the claims of truth could grow quieter… which I find interesting considering that in our stake/state broadcast to Washington on Sunday, Quentin L. Cook told us to be outspoken in our faith for the sake of missionary work. So maybe the future isn’t now.

  2. Soyde River on October 18, 2005 at 8:06 am

    Certainly organizations tend to lose their elan as they age. That is why the leaders of the Church constantly refer back to our spiritual and pioneer traditions; to seek to keep alive the freshness of the Restoration, and encourage us to seek the witness of the Spirit, which can renew not only our bodies but our spirit also. That is why a temple was built again at Nauvoo, when it did not seem there were enough members to support it. But there were, though they come from far away.

    But we live in a different age; and the “in your face” delivery of the gospel, practiced by hundreds of missionaries in the 19th century in Hyde Park and other places, has given way to a more measured approach. But when it comes down to the core, the First Vision is still central, and the Three Witnesses still testify to the reality of The Book of Mormon. And so they will remain, however some of our more “intellectual” members would like us to turn the protein to carbohydrate.

  3. Wilfried on October 18, 2005 at 8:06 am

    Certainly a thoughtful and interesting post, Rosalynde.

    As to your thoughts with the “second question”, I think this is a slippery road. Can the very nature of our fundamental message, as preached to the world by our massive missionary work, be altered or weakened? Would we not lose the essence of the reason for the Restoration? Of course I see this tendency here and there among intellectuals in the Church. I would call it a Catholicization of Mormonism by some. The Catholic aggiornamento of the 1960s included that undermining, apologizing movement, which found acceptance in secularizing circles. In industrialized nations it has debilitated Catholicism, and emptied their churches and seminaries.

    I believe exclusivist claims can go hand in hand with respect for others and cooperation with them. It’s one of the unique features of Mormonism as expressed in our 11th Article of Faith: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

  4. Lamonte on October 18, 2005 at 10:41 am

    In the summer of 1996, PBS produced a program called “Searching for God in America”. The program’s host, Hugh Hewitt, asked Elder Neal A. Mawell this question, “What does it say about my theology, that yours is restored and mine is not?” To which Elder Maxwell answered, “What we hope it would say is ‘Bring all that you have that is good and true – which is much – and let us add to that what we believe to be the fullness of the faith, that you may have more information about Jesus Christ and the plans and purposes of life.'”

    I’ve never heard our position – that we ARE the only true church – spoken with more respect and yet without apology. I miss Elder Maxwell.

  5. Rosalynde on October 18, 2005 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for the comments, all. I agree with the consensus so far that exclusivist claims are central to both our religiosity and our epistemology—and I suspect that they always will be so to the leadership and core membership. The question, perhaps (as Wilfried suggests), is whether the LDS church will ever become “catholic”; that is, whether it will become so large and varied that it’s possible to make meaningful sociological distinctions between what we might call “ethnic” Mormonism—which, like ethnic Judaism, Catholicism and, probably, mainline Protestantism might either abandon exclusivist claims or weaken them to the point of irrelevance—and “identified” Mormonism. If we’ve already seen the top of our growth curve, perhaps we’ll never reach that sociological stage.

    My main point is that it’s difficult but useful to find a model that understands the evolving social position of religious claims not as simple accommodation to secularism, in which the secular world is the actor (as comment #1 does), or as the simple transformation of the world by pure truth, in which the religious organization is the actor (as comments #2 an #4 do)—but rather as the dynamic interplay of both. This seems like it should be a fairly easy conceptual task, but I, at least, find it pretty difficult.

  6. greenfrog on October 18, 2005 at 11:18 am

    This is an interesting post, especially in a context that includes Gordon’s post regarding Gladwell’s observations.

    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.

    Just a note–the message of the First Vision regarding creeds might not be confined to the extant creeds in 1820, but can be understood to apply to creeds in general. If so, then the import of such societal changes in 2005 might be interesting to contrast with the religious changes advented in 1830 with the founding of a such a Church.

  7. annegb on October 18, 2005 at 11:39 am

    Could you say, “that’s a real church” and explain the difference? I guess that’s what I would do. Which left my children a little confused, actually. I just couldn’t let them think those people are any less God’s children.

  8. Nate Oman on October 18, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    “The hypothesis is not without its chinks, particularly if pressed tight on the US or taken wide to the global”

    Which is a way of saying that it holds true for north-western Europe…

  9. Julie in Austin on October 18, 2005 at 1:33 pm

    I think the problem (and I’m working on the 4 year old level here) is that the opposite of “real” is “fake.”

    This is what I might have said: “Honey, that’s a real church, too. They believe in Jesus and try to follow him just like we do.”

    Of course, if pressed on the difference, I would talk about priesthood authority, realizing that an announcement in playgroup that ‘Catholic priests are fake’ won’t go over well. But at a certain point, you either have to give up truth claims or embrace them, even at the cause of social embarrassment.

    And if you solve the nose issue, let me know. That’s a constant struggle here . . .

  10. Randolph Finder on October 20, 2005 at 12:48 am

    Rosalynde:
    Top of the growth curve? Does anyone have any compiled information on the percentage rate of growth per year of the church? I think we could get it from enough May Ensigns (reading the reports on church membership), but I’d like to see if anyone else has done this already.

  11. Rosalynde on October 20, 2005 at 10:44 am

    Hi Randolph: Our own Frank McIntyre put together a nice graph comparing numbers of misionaries and convert baptisms over the past few decades here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=2203 It looks from the graph that, if current trends continue in the coming years, we have indeed seen a clear slowing of our growth rate—-though this is not to suggest what may happen in future decades, of course.

  12. Rosalynde on October 20, 2005 at 10:50 am

    Julie, wise advice from an experienced mother! I basically said what you suggested, and she didn’t press further. I haven’t introduced the idea of priesthood authority to her yet—that seems a little abstract for a four-year-old mind, but she’s surprised me before. From my own observations, it seems to me that the combination of absolute claims with an ethic of tolerance is difficult for pre-8 year olds to hold together in their minds, which are constantly searching for consistence and significance. I’ve decided to wait a little longer before introducing the moral imperatives behind certain of our behavioral choices—modesty, church-going, word of wisdom (on things like tea and coffee), etc—but I’m not at all sure that I’m doing things the right way. Plus she’s getting a lot of it at Primary, anyway—I was a little chagrined when she came home telling me that her preschool teacher, a beloved authority figure in her life, shouldn’t drink the cup of coffee she has every morning.

  13. Bradley Ross on October 21, 2005 at 12:00 am

    I love the Bruce Hafen article cited in the post. Here is a working link to it.

  14. Rosalynde on October 21, 2005 at 12:26 am

    Thank you, Bradley Ross. That’s happened to me before when I’ve tried to link to something from lds.org—what amd I doing wrong?

    In any case, thanks for reading, noticing the error and correcting it.

    So why do you love the talk so much?

  15. Bradley Ross on October 21, 2005 at 2:08 am

    The library.lds.org links don’t show up in your browser’s address bar. The page uses frames which means it is composed of several seperate pages. I use the little “bookmark” link at the top of an article to find the complete URL that will work for others to get to the page.

    As for why I like Elder Hafen’s article, perhaps one reason is that I like Elder Hafen. He reminds me of Elder Holland–another of my favorite speakers. Bruce Hafen used to be the provost at BYU. I heard him comment that if only BYU had been built in Burly, Idaho, he could have been the burliest.

    Hafen addresses the common feeling that God isn’t speaking to us as we’d hoped.

    After leaving our Kirtland, some may feel the waning of their sense of spiritual wonder, as the accumulating pressures and pollutions of life seem to cast doubt on the reality of inspiration or the worth of the institutional Church or the value of giving ourselves unselfishly to others. Especially in that kind of Nauvoo, some of us may turn away bitterly and say that the stories of Kirtland were not really true.

    “How could they be true?” some will ask. “We see no angels here, not now, when we need them most. What happened at Kirtland must have been the foolish imagination of our youth.” We will feel pressure to see things this way, for we may be surrounded by unbelievers who whisper tauntingly in our ears as did the enemy in Nauvoo: “Your Prophet is dead. Wake up—it was all a childhood dream.”

    Our testimony should address this concern. Elder Hafen does do beautifully. Clinging to our previous revelations was also a theme of a talk by Elder Holland.

  16. Naomi Frandsen on October 21, 2005 at 11:15 am

    Rosalynde, what I would like to know is at what point you began connecting nose-blowing and testimony-bearing as arising from the same basic sociological phenomenon :). I am slowly reading David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism right now, and serendipitously enough, I just finished the chapter on his ecumenical relations this morning on the metro. One thing that struck me was his rather vituperative defensiveness toward perceived aggression from the Catholic Church in Utah. Prince describes the Catholic Church’s actions as wholly innocent (particularly on the part of Bishop Hunt) and our leaders’ reactions as wrong-headed (sometimes intentionally). Skirmishes of interpretation and misinterpretation continued until the publication of Mormon Doctrine, in which the Roman Catholic Church was singled out as the great and abominable church. This breach in polite relations was so distressing and shocking to President McKay that, Prince claims, he gave up his animosity toward the Catholic Church for the rest of his life (which lasted another 10 years). I think politeness and a more mature understanding of the rules of fair play can account for President McKay’s actions there. I was also struck by how different the public voice of Mormonism is today than it was just 50 years ago. Even though President Hinckley was an apostle under President McKay, he speaks much, much more circumspectly. Or at least, that’s the way it seems to me. That’s the part I don’t fully understand–our current leadership (including President Hinckley, President Monson, etc.) were members of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles and other leading bodies throughout this change in ecumenical and public relations. Are they the ones bringing it about? If so, why didn’t they happen sooner, since they were leaders back then, too? I am always somewhat amazed to see how much of past generations is still present in the church right now.