Reforming the Church – A Response to Nate

July 23, 2010 | 20 comments
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Nate has written a very articulate and worthwhile post that I think cuts to the heart of a common problem in how we emotionally respond to issues we have with the church. It goes together well with this other post of his which is similarly worth (re-)reading.

I’m responding not because I particularly disagree with the things he has said (though I think he has mis-framed the issue a bit), but because there’s so much more to say on the subject that I fear Nate’s characterization may threaten to cover up rather than shed light on the issue.

A few quick disclaimers: 1. I’ve not had the time to read through the comments, so much of what I have to say might have already been said and said better there; and 2. Nate’s and my own truncated treatment of this issue are unfortunately subject to the constraints of the format in which we’ve chosen to discuss it – a blog – clearly not a format conducive to a substantive exploration of the issue. 3. In addition to writing a very thoughtful and perspicacious post, Nate writes in a very generous and non-confrontational tone. I don’t think I have the same talent. But I’m undeniably responding to an ally and hope that what I say is able to be read in a friendly spirit. At any rate, here’s the response:

1. The framing: We’ve got too many exclusive binaries floating around: reform-minded vs. passive fatalists; practical/active response vs. emotional response; democratic liberalists vs. liberalism-resistant Mormonites (“communitarians” is probably the appropriate term, though Nate doesn’t give one). The difficulty is not simply that issue is not susceptible to a binary reduction (with each of these there are a multiplicity of possible positions on both sides of Nate’s specifically named points on the spectrum; ironically I think one of Nate’s overall goals is to point this out: it’s not simply a matter of living up to or failing to live up to our individual, sovereign responsibilities – such a claim would be an exclusive binary of modern “liberal” perspectives). Nor is the problem that setting up the framework in this binary fashion implicitly denigrates the legitimacy or relevance of positions that don’t squarely fit into one or the other sides of the binaries. Rather the problem is that as is, Nate’s framework only allows him to give us a purely negative treatment. In other words, while I certainly don’t think he’s in danger of giving us a “glib” dismissal (“the church is not a democracy”), I think he has in fact given us a more sophisticated dismissal (“the perspectives of democratic liberalists are inadequate to the phenomenon of living faithfully in the church – because it’s not a liberal democracy”). In the end, it’s still merely a dismissal. What’s needed (and what I ought to be doing here rather than copping out and merely responding to Nate like I am) is first giving a much more positive account of what it is to live in Zion and what sort of a creature the church is as an institution. This would then help us to weigh the appropriateness of various attempts at reforming the church.

2. Democratic liberalism: I think this term picks out too broad a political philosophy for what Nate’s discussing. Various forms of communitarianism (which is what I think Nate is gesturing toward with his description of lived experience in the church), the politics of difference, agonistic political approaches, and the host of Habermasian/critical theory approaches are all going fit under the umbrella of Nate’s democratic liberalism. Maybe Nate meant to cast a wide net; either way, I think the net is too wide to be very helpful. What’s more, Nate’s discussion sounds not just like a pointing out of various limits to what he calls democratic liberalism, but as though there were significant failings to this political philosophy generally that we ought to eschew or at least be skeptical of. What I think Nate wants to do is not to eschew democratic liberalism and the obvious host of goods and improvements on other historical experiments that go with it, but to avoid certain pernicious tendencies which modern democratic liberalism is prone to. Specifically, I think Nate is opposed to pernicious strains of individualism, soft relativism, and the undermining of any legitimate source of authority (beyond self-authority) that often thrives in modern liberal democratic societies.

3. The Church & democratic liberalism – Unfortunately, in his sophisticated claim that the church is not a democracy, I think Nate steamrolls over some significant facts. I certainly agree that the church is not merely a liberal democracy, nor friendly to the pernicious forms of individualism that I think he eschews. But there are numerous strains of democratic liberalism and post-enlightenment individualism in the cosmology, doctrine, tradition, and policies of the church. I am personally quite communitarian, and convinced that the church is institutionally more closely aligned with certain communitarian ideologies than with more bland or general forms of liberalism. Consequently, I agree that certain of the liberal approaches to reform are inappropriate to the sort of institution that the church is. But even if Nate and I are right, more needs to be said than for horses to claim that we don’t belong to the genus Equus simply because we’re not jack-asses.

4. Liberal DNA – What’s more, the church was born and has grown up in what is arguably the most successful experiment of liberal democracy in history, and even more importantly almost all of us, particularly as a largely convert church, have grown up in a climate where liberal values are ubiquitous (not even the most conservative among us reject them!). We DO have “democratic liberalism” firmly implanted in our intellectual, emotional, and practical DNA. If all Nate and I can do is vaguely gesture at the unique institutional nature of the church, without helping others understand what it or its values are, then all we end up doing is covering over the defects of the institution when we say that certain lines of criticism are inadequate or illegitimate. This is why no mere dismissal – even a sophisticated one – is adequate.

5. Appropriate idioms for expression – I too would like to filter my own complaints/attempts at improvement through a more native (and faithful) idiom. Given the sui generis nature of the church as an institution, however, I’m not sure how to do this. The reality is, we’ve never been explicit enough with ourselves or what we are institutionally, and as far as I know we’ve yet to have a competent sociologist or political scientist (or better yet, prophet) give an adequate analysis of what we are and hence what sort of vocabulary would be more adequate. Growing up in the church, we do gain a sort of native dialect, but again, I don’t think it’s one with a vocabulary adequate to meta-criticisms of our institutional make-up. Consequently, I echo Nate’s sentiments about wanting at the end of the day to just build the Kingdom of God. I don’t see how this blanket claim, however, helps move the dialogue forward on how properly to work toward reform.

6. Sovereignty – this is perhaps, I think, the biggest gap in Nate’s discussion. Obviously we are self-sovereign, with a theology and narrative of eternity that strongly reinforces this notion. Nonetheless, Nate is certainly right that we are likewise bought with a price and owe proper humility an other Sovereign. Once again, however, merely stating this threatens to obscure both the picture that the gospel gives us and our own responsibilities therein. Having already waxed too long-winded, I’ll leave this point with the pregnant metaphor given by Joseph Smith: we are subject to God, but not in the sense that a peasant was subject to a king in medieval times. Rather, we’re subject in the sense of a princess or prince – as daughter or son – are subject to their mother and father the Queen and King. Subject in the sense of needing to adequately prepare and improve oneself for the day when one will be called up and anointed Queen or King. The atonement and its legitimate ransom is perhaps reduced to mere empty suffering without the subsequent exaltation of God’s children.

In the end, I genuinely appreciate Nate’s post and think he is getting at some very important ideas. Nonetheless, I think it’s too narrowly negative (i.e., dismissive), inadequately framed, and in need of a positive account of the church as an institution and what therefore an adequate response to its shortcomings would be. This said, one might fairly accuse my response of the exact same thing.

20 Responses to Reforming the Church – A Response to Nate

  1. Russell Arben Fox on July 23, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Obviously we are self-sovereign, with a theology and narrative of eternity that strongly reinforces this notion.

    Or so say some people (including, at times, some prophets). Other people (including, at times, other prophets) say otherwise.

    A very fine post, fleshing out some important and, to a degree, unaddressed themes in Nate’s post. Good work, James.

  2. ECS on July 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    This and Nate’s post offer interesting insight into how we mediate our secular values through the institutional church. In the abstract, it’s a fascinating discussion. In concrete reality, however, the Church and its leaders should be held accountable for its perpetuation of harmful discriminatory practices and wrongful teachings (thinking specifically of the curse of Cain and the priesthood ban here). Whether it’s democratic liberalism, communitarianism or any other “-ism” facilitating change in the institutional Church, I would hope that good people in the Church will speak up and act against abuse, regardless of their political persuasion or philosophical perspective.

  3. Adam Greenwood on July 23, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    “Obviously we are self-sovereign, with a theology and narrative of eternity that strongly reinforces this notion”

    Not obvious to me.

    ” we are subject to God, but not in the sense that a peasant was subject to a king in medieval times. Rather, we’re subject in the sense of a princess or prince – as daughter or son – are subject to their mother and father the Queen and King. ”

    To a great extent, the power of the king was simply the power of the father extended to the whole country. I don’t see a clear distinction. Also, the average princely son was probably more likely to experience extreme sovereignty at the end of an axe blade than the average peasant.

  4. James Olsen on July 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Russell: thanks; point taken.

    ECS: I’m all for us being candid and working to improve things at all levels. Nevertheless, I agree with Nate that it’s not simply a matter of pointing out the failings and demanding change – what Nate’s calling the spirituality of democratic liberalism. Likewise, as Nate points out, it’s an important question to ask what we can individually do as a member of the church, and important to recognize (as we both stated repeatedly) that the sorts of actions available to us as individuals will be constrained (at least in terms of their appropriateness) by the sort of institution that the church is. Likewise, there’s a large difference b/w analytically evaluating the effectiveness or liberal-flourishing-potential of an institution and then instrumentally working to improve it (i.e., using any manipulative means at ones disposal, naughty or nice, to implement change), and to sincerely believe in the truth of a religion and its mythology (or the truth imbedded in that mythology), and yet to also believe that we have gotten off track or that ultimately we would be more true to our beliefs and tradition if we were to do X, Y, and Z. Ironically, the latter is likely to be more instrumentally effective, but part of what we’re claiming is that certain forms of working toward reform in the church are substantively more and more legitimate than mere instrumental manipulation.

  5. James Olsen on July 23, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Adam: At the least, I think an easy and intuitive case can be made for the theological/narrative sovereignty we accord to each individual. As you and Russell point out, there are other interpretations one can give.

    Most discussions of the issue I’ve read of medieval kingship are such that one can call kingship a matter of the fatherhood stewardship extended to the country, so long as one recognizes that medieval notions of fatherhood were quite different than contemporary ones. The analyses I’ve read range from the King possessing the land and consequently left with the burden of responsibility for those on the land to a sort of chattel stewardship to the divinely instituted mandate to maintain order among the peasantry (not to raise them up as heirs). This said, I like your comment about the greater likelihood of the heir being axed than the peasant. Fits well with our doctrine of where much is given much is required, and with at least with some of our historical rituals.

  6. ECS on July 23, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    “Likewise, there’s a large difference b/w analytically evaluating the effectiveness or liberal-flourishing-potential of an institution and then instrumentally working to improve it (i.e., using any manipulative means at ones disposal, naughty or nice, to implement change), and to sincerely believe in the truth of a religion and its mythology (or the truth imbedded in that mythology), and yet to also believe that we have gotten off track or that ultimately we would be more true to our beliefs and tradition if we were to do X, Y, and Z.”

    James, thanks for your measured response. I like what you wrote here above, and I think it gets straight to the point (or “a” point). That is, how much harm can our “imperfect” (but only true) Church inflict on His children before God decides to do something about it? Or, alternatively do we ourselves have an obligation to help God (or our Church leaders – or both) to see and understand the ill-effects that our fallible Church institution and leaders have on His Children to hasten the implementation of His corrective measures?

    I appreciate the nuances of the argument/proposition you and Nate are discussing, but you seem to be characterizing the Church as a nameless, faceless institutional bureaucracy, that may or may not be acting on direct orders from on High, and in which the men actually running the show here on Earth are absolved from accountability. Instead, the individual rank and file Church member seems to bear the brunt of the burden of improving the institution (or not). Taking Nate’s analogy of the Chinese student standing in front of the tank, I think you’re overlooking the point that individual members are not all students, some of the members are actually driving the tank.

    Perhaps this is beyond the scope of your argument, but I’m interested in hearing whether the individual member may have more or less responsibility for effecting change in the Church depending on his (or her) status within it.

  7. ECS on July 23, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I should pipe up and explain that, as an active female member of the LDS Church, I have literally and figuratively no institutional power to effect change. Which may explain the disconnect I find between the analogy of the Chinese student and the tank. I, as a woman and without the power of the priesthood, will never have the opportunity to drive that tank. You, and Nate, on the other hand, may someday be sitting in that driver’s seat. Don’t run over me, please :)

  8. James Olsen on July 23, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    ECS: Yes, we certainly have responsibilities. That’s part of why I wrote my response to Nate, in part because I think it needs to be said more forcefully. While Nate explicitly says: “I am entirely sympathetic to creating more and better modes of dialogue between members and leaders and the like, as I suspect that such things could prove useful to the kingdom,” I respond by saying “without helping others understand what it [the church] or its values are, then all we end up doing is covering over the defects of the institution when we say that certain lines of criticism are inadequate or illegitimate. This is why no mere dismissal – even a sophisticated one – is adequate.” I think (Nate can correct me) that we both want to claim the need to work for reform. Nate’s primarily concerned with how that responsibility and the emotions that go along with it get filtered through the lens of modern political liberalism, and I’m primarily concerned that we not be merely dismissive in stating that the modern politically liberal lens is inadequate.

    And as to your being a woman, I personally think that the ability of women to in fact help drive the tank may be the most pressing institutional change we need to have more serious dialogue on today.

  9. ECS on July 23, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    “And as to your being a woman, I personally think that the ability of women to in fact help drive the tank may be the most pressing institutional change we need to have more serious dialogue on today.”

    Thanks, James. I hope you and Nate will be reminded of this whenever you’re in the position to facilitate such a dialogue. Nice post.

  10. jkimballcook on July 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Your point 6 sums up nicely what I was getting at with my comment on Nate’s post.

    I used the term “self-ownership” rather than “self-sovereignty” because I think the term sovereignty is too tied up in notions of self-sufficiency that are neither applicable nor helpful in this context.

    So whether we call it co-sovereignty or co-ownership, I think that more accurately describes the relationship that we and God have together over our selves individually and over our collective self (the Church).

  11. Manuel on July 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I like both posts, this one much better than the other of course. I do have a problem with the sovereignty issue, and I would agree more to the definition posted here.

    Nonetheless, I think it is a bit confusing to me since when people state their angst about certain aspect of the Church and thus implies some sort of reform is needed, this is done I believe, with the clear intent to present the issue to the governing body of the Church, not to the one that paid a price for us.

    It is a bit disturbing to me that Nate’s post seems to imply the sense of sovereignty would be misplaced due to the price paid when members call for reform, since clearly they are calling it from the Governing Body of the Church and not the one who paid the price: noting these two are very mutually exclusive, and speaking as one who seeks reforms in the Church, nothing to do with each other on the issues at hand.

    With all due respect, the governing body of this Church has paid absolutely nothing that I may owe any sovereignty to them.

  12. jkimballcook on July 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Maybe rather than medieval notions of sovereignty, a more apt analogy is American federalism. The states are sovereigns, but their sovereignty depends on a complex relationship with a greater sovereign that often requires cooperation and co-ownership.

    Of course, the analogy breaks down when we consider that in this case, it was the lesser sovereigns that created the greater. And there are other points of departure as well. But I think it is still a better model than the medieval king-prince or king-vassal analogy.

  13. James Olsen on July 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    jkimballcook & Manuel: thanks for your comments.

    One thing I think you’re trying to get at when your point about co-ownership is the reality of our identities and agency arising out of a relationship – one which affects all parties, even if there is an inherent asymmetry. This is one of the reasons I think we align more closely with certain communitarian models which demand a recognition of the relational aspect of human identity and flourishing, and which points out that certain sorts of identities get lost if we insist upon various radical notions of individualism.

    Manuel, I think the triangular relationship between us and our prophets/ruling councils and God is a bit more tricky. In addition to our notions of a divine investiture of authority and stewardship, we have (at least as Joseph Smith and others have articulated it) a similar relationship & structure at play between us and our leaders and our leaders and God (or us and God), a structural hierarchy here on earth that reflects the one there in heaven and which is meant to help train/raise up individuals no matter what level they’re on. Likewise, while I also maintain a distinction between my relationship within the institution and my relationship to God and Christ, I think that in fact there are various unavoidable debts we owe to our prophets, including those which demand a sort of humility and deference (e.g., the scripture and religious concepts, rituals, and other practices that we possess and with which we individually approach God).

  14. jkimballcook on July 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    ” . . .the reality of our identities and agency arising out of a relationship – one which affects all parties, even if there is an inherent asymmetry.”

    Nicely put. For me, the interesting twist is that self-ownership is a gift from God, one that depends entirely on him. But it is a real gift, and to me, it would be a shame to reject or deny it. I can recognize the fact that I owe my self-ownership to God without abdicating that the fact that I own myself, including my actions.

    The fact that I am able, through the atonement, to give myself, including my sins, to Jesus, and that he is willing to own me and my sins does not mean that I did not own myself to begin with.

    I suppose we sort of run into a chicken and egg problem here. And I guess that’s why I think co-ownership (which is, of course, asymmetrical) is the kind of relationship we have here.

  15. Nate Oman on July 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Manuel: Two quick points and then I have to keep my daughter from running buck naked through the neighborhood.

    First, the fact that you are bought with a price does effect your relationship with the governing councils of the church because you cannot claim sovereignty vis-a-vis those councils in the same way in which democratic liberalism allows one to claim sovereignty vis-a-vis government councils.

    Second, while it is beyond the scope of this discussion I think that the fact that one is bought with a price, does not own oneself, and is not sovereign probably also has implications for how we relate to government and other institutions. Cashing all of this out is difficult and probably has more spiritual than practical implications. Just sayin’…

  16. Nate Oman on July 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    ECS: I am not sure what it means to hold the church or its leaders accountable. I understand that in a democracy this means something like electoral and legal sanctions. To the extent that you are talking about publicly affirming one’s belief in the falsity of the Mark of Cain nonsense and condemning bits and pieces of Bruce R. McConkie’s theology I am totally on board. On the other hand, your language carries a whole host of assumptions that I am going to have to work out before I can figure out what your are saying and whether I agree with it. Also, my talents run more to the dry and analytic than to the passionate and morally outraged, so perhaps it’s best for me to stick to my irrelevant philosophical meanderings…

  17. Nate Oman on July 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    James: I agree with the basic thrust of your post that we need to do more than simply provide a more polysyllabic dismissal of certain kinds of angst. I do think that providing such a dismissal is useful, however. I agree with you that there is a lot going on in the “democratic liberalism” that I invoke. I am less quick to adopt the communitarian label. This is because so much of contemporary communitarian political thought is defined in opposition to liberalism that I think it has a tendency to continue to privilege liberal categories in ways that can be problematic. Finally, I acknowledge the way in which liberalism works its way into Mormon theology. I think, however, that often liberal Mormonism — and here I am thinking John A. Widsoe and B.H. Roberts not Sunstone — gives us a rather flacid and misleading picture of the human condition. On this I tend to side with Adam: The Book of Mormon’s rather darker, more intricate vision of human nature strikes me as more profound that late-Victorian optimism and liberalism of A Rational Theology.

    Your post deserves a better response than this comment, but my daughter is now buck naked and running toward the door…

  18. Adam Greenwood on July 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Hello, uhm, police? Yeah, uhm, there’s this naked little girl running down the street. And there’s kinda this crazy guy running after her? And he’s shouting something about how she needs to problematize her expressive democratic liberal flouting of community norms right now, young lady! or something like that?

  19. Manuel on July 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    James,

    …we have … a similar relationship & structure at play between us and our leaders and our leaders and God (or us and God), a structural hierarchy here on earth that reflects the one there in heaven and which is meant to help train/raise up individuals no matter what level they’re on. Likewise … I think that in fact there are various unavoidable debts we owe to our prophets, including those which demand a sort of humility and deference…

    I see what you are saying. I don’t really live religion within those parameters (nor do I believe it is correct to do so) and in that context I completely reject any notion that there are any “debts” between me and my leaders.

    I can only see them as oracles to perform the functions necessary for the rest to obtain those things that will allow them to go back to the presence of God. Within that function, they may be worthy to act as said oracles or they may not. Thus the need for discernment and a witness of all things. The humility or deference owed to them is no differet than the humility or deference owed to the ward greeter, or to the stranger that asked me for a coin on my way to work, or to any other child of God for that matter.

    I do not recognize any hierarchy in the coming life that can possibly put them between me and God; in other words, they are my brothers and my equals, we have been given different functions about which we will respond to God only. Even when some of those functions represent stewardships over groups of people, these functions do not entitle them to any particle of the sovereignty of individuals.

    I guess I am a religious anarchist of sorts.

    Nate,

    First, the fact that you are bought with a price does effect your relationship with the governing councils of the church because you cannot claim sovereignty vis-a-vis those councils in the same way in which democratic liberalism allows one to claim sovereignty vis-a-vis government councils.

    I disagree. The one who paid the price is entitled to my sovereignty, but my equals serving the functions that will help others reach their potential are most definitely not. I don’t think this is a disagreement about sovereignty and government and liberalism, I think it is a disagreement in our notions of what we consider true doctrine, which I respect (or in other words, I do not expect us to be in tune about this matter).

    Especially in the context of desiring reforms in the Church. I would assume these reforms are seen by the ones pushing them as an effort to increase the affinity between the oracles that serve as guides and the actual will of God or the owner of that sovereignty. Whether those pushing for reforms are right or wrong is a totally different beast, but I would assume that that’s the implication: in the perception of the ones wanting reform, the oracles have failed to communicate the will of God; thus the governing body is a completly distinct and separate entity from God (and contradictory to God if you may) in that very context, and unity with God is what’s being seeked by the “reformer.”

  20. Russell Arben Fox on July 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    This is because so much of contemporary communitarian political thought is defined in opposition to liberalism that I think it has a tendency to continue to privilege liberal categories in ways that can be problematic.

    I’d agree that much of it does, in fact, unintentionally provide such privileging. But there is plenty which doesn’t as well (Taylor, Pettit, Wolin, etc.).

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