Being Orthodox in the Modern World

March 9, 2009 | 9 comments
By

A couple of years ago, Noah Feldman published “Orthodox Paradox,” an essay in which he recounted some of the tensions of being an Orthodox Jew in the modern world (I ran across it reading The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008). Increasingly, being an orthodox anything in the modern world raises some of the same tensions.

Feldman relates the experience of being somewhat marginalized by his Jewish high school, apparently because the girlfriend he brought to the ten-year reunion was not Jewish. Addressing the tension of being in that community but not fully part of it anymore, he writes:

If this is dissonance, it is at least dissonance that the modern Orthodox should be able to understand: the desire to inhabit multiple worlds simulataneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence. After all, the school’s attempt to bring the ideals of Orthodox Judaism into dialogue with a certain slice of late-twentieth-century American life was in many ways fantastically rich and productive. For those of us willing to accept a bit of both worlds, I would say, it almost worked.

Feldman adds that living fully in both worlds, the modern secular world and the world of a traditional religion, “can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.” Where those fault lines lie, of course, varies across traditions.

I have spent much of my own professional life focusing on the predicament of faith communities that strive to be modern while simulataneously cleaving to tradition. Consider the situation of those Christian evangelicals who want to participate actively in mainstream politics yet are committed to a biblical literalism that leads them to oppose stem-cell research and advocate intelligent design in the classroom.

I can’t say that I feel much tension as a Mormon in the modern world right now, but I suspect it varies for individual Mormons depending on what style of religious thinking they employ (conservative or liberal, for lack of better terms) and what slice of modern life they inhabit. For some people there are hidden fault lines; for a few there are deep and open fractures.

Mormons as a people have largely avoided some of the conflicts noted in the essay, such as the intelligent design debate, but there are other issues that arise. You can make your own list. The modern world seems strangely ambivalent about unique Mormon traditions. The media can, in the same article, praise Mormons for eschewing alcohol and drugs, yet reproach us for being clannish because we won’t go out drinking with the crew after work. Despite persistent attempts to redefine LDS heritage and culture, polygamy still looms large in the public mind as a stubbornly enduring piece of Mormon tradition that is utterly out of step with the modern world. Yet one rarely (ever?) hears criticism of biblical polygamy or modern Islamic polygamy, and it is certainly not the idea of hooking up with a variety of partners that so disturbs the average media commentator.

My own impression is that conflict with modernity is a fairly minor issue for most Mormons. At the same time, I sense that this may be changing as the Church expands globally and as society becomes more aggressively secular.

[Note: For a different Feldman essay that addresses Mormonism directly, see Rosalynde’s T&S post “What is it about Mormons?]

9 Responses to Being Orthodox in the Modern World

  1. Kent G. Budge on March 9, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Given the protests at the Los Angeles Temple following the passage of Proposition 8, which forced it to close briefly; and given that HBO’s “Big Love” is preparing to air a reenactment of the Endowment, I find your impression that “conflict with modernity is a fairly minor issue for most Mormons” a bit surprising.

  2. Steve on March 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    One gaping “rupture” between mainstream modern American thought and LDS belief is found in the irreconcileable clash between our official assertion of constituting the “only true and living Church” and the central theological tenet of mainstream culture, best summed up by “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” My own impression is that “modern” thought recognizes no greater sin than an assertion of the superiority of one’s particular religion.

    I once had a Jehovah’s Witness rather unapologetically refer to my religion as “false religion.” It was actually rather refreshing to hear such a plain assertion, however much I may disagree with this man’s conculsion. Because he was willing to transgress society’s unofficial “gag rule” on such bold assertions, I was ironically able to find some comraderie with this guy.

  3. Alison Moore Smith on March 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Dave, enjoyable article.

    We lived for a decade in Boca Raton, Florida and when we moved in 2001 we were “the last bright house” at Christmas. It was interesting to see how Judaism played out in that part of the world. While our first neighborhood did have some Hasidic Jews, the last had mostly Reconstructionist or just cultural Jews.

    I see cultural Mormonism more back in Utah with so many LDS members. Those leaning to that in many other areas tend to simply drop out of sight.

    One of the widening gaps I see between the modern world and Mormonism is gender differentiation. In a world where gender has less and less to do with just about everything (including marriage and parenting) it’s almost startling to see an organization with such defined gender roles.

  4. Sterling Fluharty on March 9, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    If Obama follows through on his promises to restore science to its rightful place in policy- and decision-making, we may witness a greater acceptance of scientific ways of thinking in the general American population. If that happens, it could place some strain on the traditional Mormon worldview.

  5. DKL on March 9, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Back in August of 1997, Rosalynde hosted Episode 8 of the Mormon Matters podcast.

    It featured John Dehlin, Brian Gibson, and I as panelists. We discussed this essay during the second segment. In spite of my participation, Rosalynde did a really terrific job discussing this, and it’s worth listening to.

    The Mormon Matters podcasts are available here. Again, Rosalynde’s podcast is #8.

    (It’s too bad that we don’t do those podcasts anymore, because they were exceptional. Sigh. I miss John.)

  6. lamonte on March 10, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Dave – As I read your post I couldn’t help thinking about my own paradox (not just mine but others in the church as well with similar pointsof view) of juggling my orthodox acceptance of Mormon doctrine and my secular acceptance of what some define as liberal politics. I realize there are conflicts to deal with in this mindset but I find the battles I fight in my own rationaliztions are minimal compared to the ones I encounter in my associations with individuals from both groups.

    At church I have a good natured discussions with fellow church members about our different political beliefs but I hope that they feel as I do – that despite my disagreement with their political viewpoint, that when it comes to things of the spirit, we are of one mind. But I don’t really know if that’s how they percieve me and I sometimes wonder if they think less of me because of my political beliefs. I am insensed by statements such as I saw printed in Meridian Magazine where Robert Bork claimed that conservative Evangelicals, Jews and Mormons had more in common than they did with their more liberal fellow church members.

    On the other hand, when speaking with those whose political beliefs I share (I’m talking about those outside the church now) I accept and understand that there are issues with which we disagree (such as abortion and same sex attraction) but much about which we do agree. At work, two of my best friends are gay. After the Prop 8 vote we had serious conversations about what that means to our relationship. I acknowledge that my association with them has brought new insight into how I feel and what I understand about being gay. I love them as friends. I trust them. But I hold fast to my Mormon teachings about those issues as well, and so we have differences that need to be accepted and dealt with.

    So now I’m rambling a bit but I’m just trying to say that for me ( and I am sure for others as well) there seems to be as many conflicts to deal with in the church as there are outside the church.

  7. Ida Tarbell on March 10, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Maybe the world is becoming relentlessy postmodern, not relentlessly secular. Instead of a master narrative telling everyone how to believe–think Catholicism and a small village in France in, say, 1320–there are lots of localized narratives that are copresent–not in competition. We assemble our identities out of these micronarratives and use the ones that are right for the context. So, a person can sit up on the stand in sacrament meeting and inhabit a Mormon micronarrative and then go to work the next day and inhabit the micronarrative of their profession. The Mormon micronarrative can be the most important one, the one the individual sees as true and not merely rhetorically apropriate, without causing any trouble because pastiche is now the human condition. “Secular” life does not require you to drink wine, to have sex outside of marriage, to think one way or another about Proposition 8, to become an atheist. It merely requires that you act appropriately for the situation–a loan officer helps people find an appropriate loan, a professor teaches and researches in his/her field of interest, a police officer upholds public order, etc. You will only have trouble if you choose to give yourself the master status of Mormon, loudly announcing that you are always already Mormon. This is reasonable–after all, wouldn’t a Mormon get tired of someone who loudly and continually announced their status as a beer drinker at, say, a staff meeting? In these times, we need to be like Daniel, who was a reliable functionary of state power until that power actually threatened his religious identity. Once that crisis was over, Daniel emerged from the lions’ den and said “O king, live forever” and went back to work. This is a lesson for us all.

  8. Kent G. Budge on March 10, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    You know, I think you just hit on a major fault line between modernity Mormonism.

    Modernity teaches us to keep our religion in the closet, to be cool with whatever anyone else’ “values” are, and live and let live. Mormonism teaches us that we are to raise a warning voice to our neighbors. I think it’s a pretty fundamental tension.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 10, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Modernity vs. religion is not just an internal conflict nor one of culture.

    The modern effort to establish same-sex marriage clearly has the goal of establishing a new orthodoxy of thought and expression and behavior that does not tolerate dissent, even when dissent is based on affinity for standards of behavior that are thousands of years old and upheld by millions of people.

    People who choose to follow a variation from heterosexual monogamy (except those who do it for religious reasons) are pretty much left alone now unless they want to be confrontational about it. In general, the law no longer enforces most traditional standards of sexual behavior among adults. The push to give legal status to same sex marriage is not to make people free to enter same-sex relationships, but to coerce and punish other people who decline to endorse those relationships as of equal value to traditional marriage. We have already seen courts in California and Arizona and government agencies in Canada punishing people for merely speaking out against homosexual behavior or declining to facilitate it with optional services that the same-sex couple could readily obtain elsewhere. When same-sex marriage is established as an officially endorsed form of marriage, it will be force-fed to children in public schools and to people who enlist in the armed forces, and military chaplains will be punished for preaching the traditional doctrines of their churches that only heterosexual marriage is a valid form of sexual expression.

    It is clear that the legal regime that is spearheaded by same-sex marriage is intent on making sexual expression a right that is sacrosanct, to the extent that people will have a right to suppress all criticism of their sexual choices, and making the rights of freedom of speech, press and religion subordinate to the new found right of sexual behavior.

    This has been played out in the context of abortion, where Congress actually favored abortion rights over the right of public demonstrators. As the Main Street Plaza case showed, freedom of religion does not get that level of protection against harassing demonstrators.

    I predict that, if the modern polygamists simply emphasized their right to sexual freedom, they would get far more support from modern judges than with arguments based on religious freedom.