The Future of Mormon Thinking – Part 3, “The Subjective”

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

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.


  1. It seems to me that this perspective cuts both ways. I don’t know exactly what you mean when you talk about “Mormonism” because from a subjective/phenomenological standpoint your definition of that word is unique only to you, and the ability of “Mormonism” to “breathe the air” down in the phenomenological realm is basically a description of how your own version of Mormonism tends to operate within your own functional context. I suppose this could be helpful to someone else if they judge that their own experience resonates in some way with yours, but it seems to me that your approach gives just as much reason to leave Mormonism as to stay. It all depends on a person’s unique functional analysis of “Mormonism” (however they define that term) and how it tends to operate subjectively in their lives. Maybe that’s what you’re going for, though.

  2. Martin James says:

    :”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?”


  3. It seems like we are headed towards a Mormon Reformation. Will that be followed by a Mormon Counter Reformation?

  4. charlene says:

    What I read is that communication is not possible until you find some common ground. And, since ‘the world’ is not involved with the supernatural elements of Mormonism, we must acknowledge that Mormons are at least in the physical world. Find, live, and learn to love that common space. It’s an application of Alma’s injunction to ‘try it, see if it grows.’

  5. Martin James says:

    Just one of the many difficulties involved in this approach is what “honesty” means in an ordinary mormon life with respect to discussions of the supernatural. From either a non-supernatural perspective or a supernatural perspective this seems problematic under your approach to the point of changing ordinary mormon lives beyond recognition as ordinary mormon lives.

    To me, the excommunication of Denver Snuffer, Kate Kelley and John Dehlin show that people who thought they were ordinary mormons with an ordinary understanding of mormonism of found out that they were not. I take them at their word that they were surprised that ordinary mormonism was not what they thought. I believe that felt that the ordinary mormon practice of acting according to conscience and witnessing the light of Christ in an honest way, came into conflict with the ordinary mormon practice of submitting to ecclesiastical authority.

    It seems an impossible task because ordinary mormonism routinely requires speech acts related to the supernatural and honesty with one’s fellow man that require a non-supernatural method of evidence for honesty claims.

    Your call to love the enemies position cannot leave ordinary mormonism ordinary. Ordinary mormonism can’t be naturalized because it requires and inconsistency of thinking that ordinary mormonism can’t sustain. The pressure to avoid the supernatural has drained mormon services of mormon spirituality.

    One could claim that mormonism is just whatever remains after this transformation. That works for me other than I think you need to drop the word “ordinary”. Your project is one of an extraordinary mormonism.

  6. Martin James says:

    I’m still trying to get my head around what this means for some very ordinary Mormon practices. What is “fundamental” about the sacrament prayer being done word by word precise unless it’s some kind of supernatural incantation. What is that really about?

    Or youth temple trips to so baptisms for the dead with witnesses that they went all the way underwater. How does one explain to a teenager why that is done without invoking the supernatural?

    Ordinary Mormonism just has way too many speech acts that one has to do if they aren’t fundamental. Why do ordinary Mormons learn how to tell good angels from bad angels by a handshake if they can go generations without encountering one?

    I can’t make any sense of it.

  7. Scott Roskelley says:

    Martin, I think the sacrament prayer and associated liturgy is still evolutionary rube goldberg as the exact prayer we use in practice is written on a card under the table, or a page somewhere in a “handbook of instructions” section 20.4.3 “substituting the word water for wine” rather than a freshly revealed section 139:4 for example. Jesus produced wonderful fermented wine as his first miracle, and the saints in St. George made full use of the 89:5 exception for using wine. Also there used to be the sign of the aaronic priesthood used at the sacrament table, and older men served as deacons. As single cup was used, and kids were not invited to sacrament meeting, then there were small glass cups, then paper, now plastic. Serving the sacrament first to the presiding authority was added in the 1920’s and without the approval of the president of the church Heber j. grant.

  8. Martin James says:


    Agreed, but where does “evolutionary rube Goldberg” fall on the supernatural scale? My point is that an ordinary life in Rube Goldberg organization works much better if it sees the supernatural as fundamental. Otherwise, its about as meaningful as OCD.

  9. Martin, the answer to your first couple of questions is “that there may be no disputations among you.” That’s pretty elementary scripture, with no hocus pocus required.

    And as for Dehlin, Snuffer, and Kelly just thinking they were following “ordinary Mormonism,” I think that seriously strains credulity. Snuffer especially is like an apostate straight out of the D&C, Dehlin had concluded the foundations of the Gospel were false, and Kelly disobeyed a direct order from church headquarters when she ran her second protest. Nothing ordinary about any of them, and if they claim ignorance they really are selling something, as, apparently, are you.

  10. Christopher says:

    I think Martin has actually hit on something worth exploring here. This is a question I’ve asked myself many times, if in slightly different forms. As my own personal view of Mormonism has transformed (I’d like to think matured) over the years, the role of the kinds of supernatural phenomena Martin mentions has become less and less important to me. In general, I’ve been rather unalarmed by this, as the transformation has generally deepened my appreciation for Mormonism (including all its phenomenological specificity), but it has left me perplexed at times.

    From the framework laid out in this post, what are we to make of things like requiring the sacramental prayers to be recited word for word (even when it might come at the embarrassment of the young priest saying the prayer)? Or requiring that every last inch of a person and their baptismal clothing be submerged? Is there a way that this framework can help us make sense of these kinds of things?

  11. Is it at all likely, the more we rely on a primarily modern intellectual examination of faith, that we end up fulfilling Moronis prophecy about faith and miracles? I know from experience when I partake of the fruits of the modernist rationale approach to faith, that I’m critically thinking, but spiritually starved. When I take the approach of putting my heart into discipleship, looking to the apostles and actively studying and pondering on their teachings as though they were Gods will, AND (most importantly) concurrently serving or preaching the gospel, I receive many revelatory experiences.

    We can’t honestly say we’re putting our religion to the test by showing up on Sunday, performing perfunctorrily, and then taking a critical theorist approach to faith, history, doctrine, etc. during the week and claim to be practicing the same faith that the scriptures promise will bring the fruits of the spirit.

  12. Michael Murdock says:

    “… Mormonism is a subjective pastiche of wishful thinking, soggy reasoning, willful self-deception, DIY clichés, middle management kitsch, and rose-tinted history …”

    “… fearless Mormon thinking … ”

    ” … we’ve clarified the nature of the work to be done … ”

    Really? I have no idea what to make of this meandering mish-mash of big words masquerading as thoughtful discourse.

    Seriously. What the hell are you talking about? Am I taking crazy pills?

    Allow me to suggest why you needn’t occupy that position: If you can sit in church for three hours each Sunday for decades, if you can read and pray everyday for a lifetime and never see or feel the living waters, then shame on you.

    Move on, friend. there really is nothing here for you to see. But please, step aside and make room for those who enjoy deeply meaningful “supernatural” experiences in their lives. Some of us drink deeply from the living waters and frequently witness the tender mercies of the Lord touching our lives in sacred and deeply sustaining ways.

  13. Michael — It’s difficult to believe that you actually are someone who “drinks deeply from the living waters” when not two sentences before this declaration you told someone who’s spent decades trying to live the gospel to “move on.” You might be drinking something, but I don’t think it’s from the source you think it is.

  14. Martin James says:

    Anyone who attends a sacrament meeting will see both spiritual experiences and a lot of boredom.

  15. Michael Murdock, you are both very right and very wrong.

  16. It seems to me that living in objective reality should be the way to go. There certainly is good that can come from believing in myth, but at a certain point, the child needs to grow into an adult and belief in non-reality seems to retard this growth.

  17. Martin James says:

    Somebody please explain what is “really” going on when people use words like “living waters” and “tender mercies” and “supernatural” and “sacred” and “trancendental”.

    How could we ever know what if we agree on what these words mean? In Adam’s ordinary mormon experience what is up with all these words?

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Got to admit you lost me on this one Adam.

    I get the problem of divine hiddenness. (Why God does do everything so people can easily recognize him as doing it) From a Mormon perspective of the plan of salvation it makes tons of sense whereas it makes less sense IMO without that notion of testing. But the divine hiddenness definitely allow the judgment of Mormons as deluded.

    The question then becomes what one finds when taking seriously this hermeneutics of suspicion (to use Ricouer’s term). One can take the Voltair like position that religion is wrong but useful for the masses. (Some atheist contemporary conservatives have taken similar stances along Straussian lines) It’s definitely possible to look at Mormonism from this view as socially useful. Again I’m actually heard quite a few atheists make that point. The question is what this means for Mormons since fundamentally we don’t view our religion as fundamentally about social utility.

  19. Carey Foushee says:

    I’m not sure if this really addresses anybody’s concerns, but I’ve found that its the ordinary stuff that has the real potential of revealing the transcendent — which turns out to be simply more ordinary stuff just experienced differently. In other words what I had been experiencing as common and boring suddenly is transformed from my perspective into the sacred — what I would describe as feeling the Spirit or being made acutely aware of my connection to others and to the world right before me.

    Some of that ordinary stuff comes from first person stories of people who have no idea what a cognitive bias even is, yet there they are in that space that Mormonism has carved out for them to share their experiences of their life with me — and if I can get out of my head just long enough to stop correcting and minimizing them sometimes I can hear what their saying in way that not only makes sense to me it even teaches me something about my own humanity. To be honest it doesn’t always happen, but when it does I know its God working his magic in my life. Yes, I realize this too is purely subjective, but in those moments I really don’t processes it that way because in those moments I am simply experiencing what I’ve come to recognize what is truly divine.

  20. Martin James says:

    “The question is what this means for Mormons since fundamentally we don’t view our religion as fundamentally about social utility”

    Well, not typically publicly anyway.

    Yes, I’m obsessed with this issue, but it’s because I experience “the divine is social” as “peer pressure” and therefore, fundamentally as non-mormon.

  21. Clark Goble says:

    Sorry, shouldn’t write while tired. That should say, “Why God does do everything so people can’t easily recognize him as doing it.” Probably you all figured it was a typo. But in case there were any confused.

    Carey, I think for those whose eyes are able the transcendent is all around us. I know many read Alma 30:44 in terms of Paley’s watchmaker but I think he’s really saying that if you look at things right, you see God all around you in everything. It’s not complexity that is evidence for God but rather seeing with spiritual eyes you see God’s grace everywhere.

    Personally it’s often in the mundane things of ordinary life where I see God the strongest.

  22. To Christopher and Martin:

    The question here is one of ritual, and why any ritual is important. The anthropologist Talal Asad has things to say about this, and so does BCC’s own Kristine. But in short: ritual is valuable because it acknowledges that we are not simply disembodied minds, and that the things we do with our bodies are important because they shape who we are (Aristotle’s habit, here), and disciplining our bodies through ritual is a way of focusing our identifies, our wants, and our desires.

  23. Martin James says:

    Matt b,

    What I am trying to highlight is the interaction between types of behavior, types of linguistic practices and types of worldviews or minds.

    Much of mormonism’s uniqueness has been the use of particular vocabularies and worldviews. My hypothesis is that many of the common practices of Mormonism are in conflict and so various people are trying to redefine Mormonism by giving certain practices and speech forms priority over others and saying that is what Mormon is “really” about.

    One version of this is to de-emphasize the ways Mormonism is distinct from other beliefs and practices. There seems to be a desire to “depeculiarize” Mormonism. On the left this is more about conforming Mormonism with equality based rights and less emphasis on identifying other traditions as evil. These people don’t talk about Gog and Magog and the whore of Babylon much. To me, they are a new religion. The discontinuity is so great that a new term is needed for the religion.

    On the right, the departiculatization occurs with the retreat from economically socialist parts of Mormonism and the identification with American conservatism and patriotism in ways that lessen the distinction of Mormons from other Christians and conservatives. They are conflicted about worldly success both wanting to use it as evidence for Mormonism being beneficial while retaining the option to say that economic success is a symptom of pride and a sign of decadence. These people are in pretty serious denial about the church as a corporation. A good example of this is the Utah legislator who left the church and became an evangelical and described the odd feeling of political pressure to support reconciliatory legislation towards homosexuals.

    I contest the idea of “ordinary” Mormonism because it really has become impossible for parents to bring up one’s children in religious practices of one’s upbringing. The world has changed and the church has changed. History is being rewritten both literally and figuratively.

    I’m not unsupportive if Adam’s recommendations or project, I just think everyone needs to realize that “Mormonism” isn’t a thing anymore. You see this in how people add adjectives in front of Mormon in an attempt to define Mormonism as what they want it to be. That can be exclusionary in terms of say adding “active” in front of Mormon or “fundamentalist” or “cultural”.

    The real heart of this tension is family dynamics. The church emphasizes family but you can’t count on most of your family being Mormon the way you are or even at all. This puts enormous strains on the ordinary. Yes, this is nothing new but the stakes are getting higher and higher with social media and other forces if globalization and politicalization.

    It’s harder and harder for the term “we” to be used in a meaningful way.

    You can argue that simple rituals like the sacrament are protection against this splintering of shared meaning, that is that we all hear the same prayer and common words. But I’m doubtful it is embodying us very much. Rather than being significant glue because it doesn’t really address any of our real differences it seems less meaningful rather than more.

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