Ashley Sanders continues her guest posting at BCC. Her most recent previous post is here.
1546 1517 [Editor's note: let's hope this correction satisfies you nitpickers], Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Now it’s 2008, but theses—posted or unposted—are still a good thing to have. In conversations about Mormonism, I have encountered certain platitudes repeatedly. After hearing some of them for the last bearable time, I decided to write a couple of my own theses against ideas that threaten what I see as my religion.
Here is the first, posted in a doorless manner that Luther could only have dreamed about.
Church is for the Simple:
By now, many who read my blog are familiar with my opinions on a host of religious topics, particularly the sanctity of conscience and the intellect. If you are like me, you have also probably heard the inevitable comebacks: that the Church is for the weak and simple and that intellectualizing endangers it. Most likely someone has countered your requests for an intellectually robust gospel (de-baggage the word, please) with the classic image of a penniless, illiterate widow in the slums of Manila. The conclusion is obvious: the gospel is for her. And how could we ask this poor, penniless woman for a sharp-toothed mind? How could we ask her to cut through conceptual meat when she doesn’t have meat to eat? She is barely surviving! She needs the milk of the gospel, and she needs it fast.
Maybe so. Maybe this woman’s life is so tragic and perverse that she needs to simply know that God lives and loves her. Before that, even, she needs a full stomach and something in her wallet. I believe these things. I believe them because I believe that bearers of good news should recognize the bearing capacity of their listeners; we do and should tailor the gospel message (and any other message) to the immediate needs and limitations of our audience.
But the way that people invoke the widow counter-argument frightens me because it privileges one narrative over another; it reduces the bearing capacity of one type of member to cater to the bearing capacity of another type. In essence, I believe that the way we invoke the ‘new members/penniless widow’ argument reveals more than we wish about how we value and conceive of our religion.Presumably, when we make the widow argument, we are emphasizing that each member of the Church is different and deserves unique treatment. We are also suggesting that there is a category of members—i.e. poorer, new, or less educated members—who require a different gospel message than other categories of members. Both these arguments suggest that the gospel works for everyone and that the different approaches to it will eventually merge into the same religious experience.
I disagree with both the assumptions and the likelihood of the expected outcome. I will start by explaining the latter opinion and end by explaining the former.
When we say that different kinds of religious strains will merge into a common experience, we are basically suggesting that—one fine day—a new convert will finish her glass of gospel milk and suddenly reach for the meat. Years of milk drinking, in other words, will have prepared her to stomach the heavy stuff. It also suggests that mature or experienced Church members will never eat their meat without their milk—that they will supplement their hard thinking and philosophical digestion with the basic principles of love and repentance. Sounds good in theory. The reality, however, is that we emphasize the milk so much that we effectively prohibit any movement toward the meat. To misuse an old standby, we create a milk ceiling between one level of the gospel and another—an opaque barrier that keeps us housed in horizontal rooms. Repeatedly invoking the penniless widow, we have given her no place to go when she overcomes her adjectives. We have made the gospel into a point rather than a vector with speed and direction, a dot to balance on in tiptoe rather than a moving line that takes us toward God.
The problem is that we have sacralized our limitations and made those limitations into a gospel, the good news of it being that we never have to struggle with big ideas. By doing so, we have not only insulted huge swaths of people—suggesting, condescendingly, that their poverty makes their minds impossible things—we have invented a gospel that will fail its basic principles. We have invented a gospel that is artificially self-limiting, a gospel that has come to prize self-limitation as one of its core virtues.
The obvious criticism is that this hurts the members who want more from the gospel, who are trying to live it to its fullest intellectual, ethical and theological extent. This is true; asserting an over-simplistic gospel not only decimates the argument that the gospel is for everyone (since it really caters to one type of convert); it also actively discourages thoughtful inquiry by making the thoughtful member’s virtues into vices. And so it is that it suddenly becomes proud to want more from the gospel, elitist to ask good questions, faithless to criticize, and extreme to interpret radical precepts radically. Compensating for the decline of these maligned virtues is a host of manufactured virtues geared toward survival and normalcy. And thus, bad reading becomes faith, convention becomes obedience, and preemptive certitude is humility
That provincialism hurts the non-provincial is, like I said, the obvious criticism. But this criticism itself is too narrow. To criticize naivety by invoking the rights of the sophisticated not only builds a false hierarchy of religious classism, it also assumes that intellectualism is a hobby like any other. It suggests, in others words, that some Church members like soccer, jigsaw puzzles and petty truths while other members prefer crossword puzzles, golf and thinking. The great success of any religious crusade against intellectualism is to make intellectualism into a hobby or a consequence of wealth. This crusade is especially ironic, since it is most frequently waged by people whose middle class interests require them to antagonize intellectuals to defend their hobbies and wealth. The success of this crusade is very important to vested interests, for it only after the crusade succeeds that the vested can argue away the intellectuals. Only after intellectualism is turned into an elitist hobby can people lecture intellectuals against imposing their thinking on others, as if the intellectual were asking that every new member play croquet or win at Scrabble. When thinking is seen as a hobby, a thinking gospel will seem a dangerous pastime.
But because thinking is not a hobby—because real religious life requires a tremendous amount of thought and thoughtfulness—the milk ceiling hurts more than thinkers: it hurts the whole Church and religion itself. To pretend that religion is simply a lifestyle or a regimen—to say that the signs of conversion would be a white shirt or an edited movie or the simple absence of alcohol—is to grossly misunderstand the agony, conflict and trepidation of a real religious quest. Religion as a regime won’t save anyone, and only thoughtfulness can save religion from regimen. The heart is important, yes, but the heart without the mind is a dangerous thing.
You might disagree, say: the heart is the instrument of religion! I will not argue using facile invectives against irrationality. I will say, instead, that the heart is often only as big as the ideas that house it, and it can easily keep the wrong things alive. The heart can do profound work, it’s true—it can grow straight out of a rotten ideology—but it is more often confined by the interpretive frameworks that tell it when and where and how to do its job. In the Church, we often speak as if charity were the same as love or long-suffering when it is routinely separated from those words in scriptural lists. Charity does not mean having thoughts as wide as love; charity means expanding our thoughts until they require everything from our hearts. Love is not the antidote to regimen. Only charity, seeking for truth in all places, can avoid the dangers of a preferential heart. Seeking real truth, rather than seeking allegiance, requires the mind and a most brutal consciousness.
Our missionary program tells us more about what kind of religion we value than almost any of our other institutions. And it is clear that the missionary program overwhelmingly prefers regime over mind. If the discussions are coins in the most valuable currency we have to exchange, then we are suffering from the worst kind of inflation; we can buy almost nothing with our ideas. We have decided, arbitrarily, to trade mainly in platitudes and behavior change. Dealing in sales, we produce converts that look like market products: remarkable similar, unambiguous icons of a certain belief set. There is no room in this process for the unfinished—for what cannot readily appear—and so we constrict our discussions to regimens and exclude the kind charity that overflows regimens and bounds. It is in this way that we can tell the Manila widow that we need her abstinence but not her mind, presumably because we include abstinence in what we call the core of the gospel while relegating intelligence to a waiting room. But there is a question here that is begging to get out: why is thinking not included in the core of our religion? Why is it less important than a regimen marker? Why is it something that can wait, as if it is a final embellishment or a curtsy rather than the point itself?
I believe that religion needs our minds: all of all of our minds. Without this, the religion becomes a lifestyle rather than a probing question, and charity falls to allegiance. The meat–which was never a side dish in the first place–will be perpetually deferred in the name of a new milk religion that, by deferring meat, becomes as small as the cup holding it. My next post will continue this theme, getting more specific about the consequences of deferring the mind. In the meantime, I will end this, the first of several Lutheran theses.