Say we grant that Mormonism is profoundly threatened by the claim that our religion is just in our heads.
Say we grant that Mormonism is threatened by the claim that, at best, Mormonism is a subjective pastiche of wishful thinking, soggy reasoning, willful self-deception, DIY clichés, middle management kitsch, and rose-tinted history that, as a whole, not only lacks objective reality but actively suppresses it.
What follows? What follows is that fearless Mormon thinking ought to occupy this position. It ought to adopt this critique as God’s own truth and find out how much water it can actually hold.
This enemy is too big a threat for fearless Mormon thinking to do anything other than love it with a whole heart.
If hiding in the clouds used to be an option, it isn’t any more. Fearless Mormon thinking needs to invest in a massively sensitive and systematic investigation of religious subjectivity. It needs to investigate Mormon head-space and see what that head is made of—what thoughts compose it, what affects drive it, what languages articulate it, what neuroses compromise it, what stories organize it.
If you take seriously the possibility that Mormonism boils down to fuzzy feelings and wishful thinking, what will you find?
You will discover, first and foremost, something surprising about the nature of the mind, something that you might not have seen at all if you hadn’t dared to love this enemy. If you take as a starting point the claim that Mormonism is just in people’s heads and then actually investigate—rather than dismiss—what’s in those heads, you will find, overwhelmingly, that those heads are full of body. You will find that the head is stuffed full not just with thoughts but with light and color and smells and sounds and tastes and sensations.
And if, then, you investigate what’s in that body, you will find that the body is itself full of the world. You will find that the world is constantly flooding both the body and the head with ideas and sensations that rush in with sufficient force and impose themselves with sufficient insistence that everything in the head is always, though in complicated ways, woven into the fabric of the world.
You will find that mind and world aren’t autonomous and that, despite their differences, they have always already bled into each other in a thousand tangled and inseparable ways. You will find that mind and world are composed of common ground. In short, you will find that there is no such thing as “just” the head. That position, once occupied, is transfigured.
This is a basic phenomenological point. It shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Though, too, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in itself, this point is no defense against the claim that Mormonism may, like Scientology, have woven itself into the fabric of the world in harmful, misleading, and unjustifiable ways.
But still, granting this point is important because, at the very least, it shows how a willingness to love this enemy has already reframed the basic question at hand. The real issue isn’t whether the contents of Mormon heads are woven, irrevocably, into the fabric of the world itself. They are. The real question has to do with the strength, character, and value of this weaving.
By reframing the question, we’ve clarified the nature of the work to be done. Occupying this subjective position, the aim of fearless Mormon thinking must be to investigate with great care and precision the nature of this weaving.
Rather than being, fundamentally, in the business of fending off enemies of its otherworldly claims about angels and mummies and miracles, Mormon thinking, steered by its love for this vital enemy, will turn back to the more basic business of investigating the primal ground that head and world share. This primal site where head and world bleed into each other is ground zero for the manifestation of both life and grace. This primal site is the place where religion is lived rather than talked about.
To this end, Mormon thinking is called to patiently and fearlessly investigate (1) what our religious claims look like when, shorn for the moment of their transcendence, they occupy just this robustly immediate, available, and often empirical ground, and (2) what happens to this shared ground when it is itself transfigured by that occupation.
Brought so low to the ordinary ground of everyday things, what does Mormonism look like?
Can Mormonism breathe the air down there? Can it live? Some things will doubtless look different from this low angle, but I’m confident that Mormonism can breathe the air just fine. You don’t need a spacesuit if you’re not in outer space.
In fact, it seems to me that a fearless investigation of this subjective position, driven as it is by a love for its enemy, may simply coax into the open something that should have already been obvious to those whose hearts and minds are woven into the the world by way of Mormonism: the truth that religion is not, fundamentally, about supernatural stuff.
This is not to say that supernatural things aren’t real or that your neighbor down the street may not be entertaining angels. But I think it’s fair to say that, even if granted, such things are pretty rare and peripheral. I think it’s fair to say that they are clearly not what a Sunday service is aiming at.
Church isn’t magic and prayers aren’t incantations. You can sit in church for three hours each Sunday for decades and never see anything supernatural. You can read and pray everyday for a lifetime and never see anything supernatural. You can birth and bless and bury whole generations and never see anything supernatural.
Does this mean religion is a sham? That it’s broken? That it doesn’t work? Or does it mean that something else, in plain sight, is going on instead? God seems to pretty intentionally keep supernatural stuff—including his own supernatural self—off the table for most people most of the time. Why be so coy if supernatural stuff is the point? Why spirit all the direct evidence away? Why so many complications and detours? Why have sermon after apostolic sermon about loving your ordinary neighbor if such ordinary things were a diversion from the real supernatural deal?
In itself, I don’t take credulity to be a spiritual virtue. And I take God’s palpable reticence on supernatural things to be more a blessing than a curse. His reticence is a gift that saves us from distraction. It brings us back, as God seems to intend, to the earth and the sun and the trees at hand. It keeps our eyes clear and our priorities straight. It keeps life’s grip tight.
For my part, I suspect that it may be only from this heretical perspective—from the enemy’s perspective, occupied and loved—that the real richness and power and beauty of an ordinary Mormon life can come into sharp focus.
I suspect that we may only be able to see what Jesus wants to show us if we manage to love our enemies as Jesus asked.
And, more, I suspect that if, in the end, Mormonism can justify its way of weaving together hearts and heads and worlds, it will only be able to do so by digging deep into the already available ground of ordinary Mormon life.
Magic rocks and golden plates and stars beyond Kolob—even granted the full force of their objective reality—are far too small and weak to bear a burden of proof that only life itself, in the fullness of its banality and beauty, could ever hope to meet.
Helping us to fearlessly acknowledge this may be the enemy’s most enduring gift.