To illuminate what I have characterized as a distinctive anti-postmodern stance in the church, let me quickly cite a couple of short pieces from Elder Jeffery R. Holland. In a 2013 published address to the J. Reuben Clark Law Society conference, he commented on
a diminution of professed faith in the United States; quoting several authors, he observed that that increased secularization has been “given other labels—post-Christian and postmodern to name two” (Holland, 2013b, p. 22). In this section of his commentary, he lamented the decrease of active participation in religion and a concomitant rise of atheism, agnosticism, and in the number of people “who profess some kind of devotion to things spiritual but ‘say they have no particular religious affiliation’ with an institutional church,” a position claimed by an estimated 30% of Americans under the age of 30, according to a Pew Research finding at the time (Holland, 2013b, p. 23). To a leader of a large institutional church, this would naturally be a point of concern. Thankfully, he also acknowledged that there may be something to this position when he noted that approximately 70% of persons who classified themselves as non-institutionally religious said they believe churches “are too concerned with money…and too deeply entangled in politics,” calling this a “word to the wise for all churches” (Holland, 2013b, p. 23). In this observation, I cannot help but hear echoes of Mormon’s observation in Alma 4:10 that “the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church,” which hindered the institution’s “progress.” On the whole, however, Elder Holland’s remarks cast a grim eye on postmodernism without actually engaging specific aspects of the position.
A year earlier, Elder Holland (2013a) voiced a similar kind of dismissal of the postmodern perspective at a BYU devotional when he made the case that sometimes we have to render judgments in our lives and noted that an “unacceptable alternative [from the perspective of the Gospel] is to surrender to postmodern moral relativism, which, pushed far enough, declares that ultimately nothing is eternally true or especially sacred and, therefore, no one position on any given issue matters more than any other.” In both of these situations, very emblematic of other pronouncements by general authorities and members of the church, postmodernism is set up in a dialectical relationship with the faith; it is cast as a kind of hopeless or sinful inaction or refusal to take right action. It seems to offer nothing positive. These statements are representative of other statements I have heard from Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics alike, so it is not unique to our faith community.
I think it is important to ask, however, whether such characterizations are sufficient or even accurate. I believe they are not. In fact, because such characterizations seem to vilify “questioning,” they may actually advocate blind obedience, which has also been condemned by general authorities. Certainly, that was the tenor of the priesthood meeting that I alluded to in part 1 and that meeting was by no means unique. I would like to propose a different question:
How can postmodernism and Mormonism work together?
As I address this question, I will not even try to be exhaustive in considering postmodernism and the literature that considers the question of how postmodernism and Mormonism are/can be related (and there are a number of Mormons writing on this). I am not a scholar of postmodernist philosophy or theology. I am a student of postmodernism and claim only a working knowledge of it, but I find it can be a helpful set of tools that can help our faith from becoming rote and empty (which the Savior himself warned against).
I will offer some “philosophical” considerations and some personal examples. As I do so, however, let me be clear that I do understand that adopting a postmodern perspective can have negative spiritual effects. It can lend itself to paralyzing moral relativism that holds all perspectives as equal, leading to the belief that no choice is more valid than any other. The problem is, however, that any worldly perspective taken to an extreme can
be spiritually damaging. Overweening trust in capitalism, for example, can lead to a pursuit of profit and gain that can nullify the voice of the Spirit and turn mammon into a person’s god. Have some of us not met Mormons who were more wedded to their business ventures than to their brothers and sisters in their communities, their wards, or even to their own families? Many of us have encountered Mormons who justify wearing “two different hats, one on Sunday and the other during the week,” as did a counselor of the bishopric in a ward I belonged to. This particular brother was an interesting case; he was a attorney who had a reputation around town of being shady and unethical and who actively avoided other members of the church when he was at work, including not taking cases from members if he judged that they would not approve of his methods. I personally overheard him tell another ward member at church that he could help them beat a deserved traffic ticket, but then told them to call him at work because he could not talk about it in the building…wink, wink. I would argue that his drive for temporal success may have been out of balance. Again, any worldly perspective can effectively become a “stumbling-block” to the Spirit.
Before going on to specific points in future columns, I would like to make a few general points about postmodernism. To do this, I would like to consider a column by Mark C. Taylor (2004), a professor or religious philosophy, who became friends with Jacques Derrida, the philosopher who coined the term “postmodernism.” The column, entitled What Derrida Really Meant, was about his relationship with the French philosopher and an appraisal of his work that addressed some aspects of postmodernism that many, including other postmodernists, misunderstand about Derrida’s work.
Taylor admitted that Derrida’s writing is notoriously difficult to understand and “cannot be easily summarized or reduced to one-liners.” Taylor spent most of the column writing about how many have misunderstood his work, but what I found most interesting about it was the end where he wrote about Derrida as a person. Many religious opponents of postmodernism that I have encountered have characterized Derrida and other postmodernists as angry, bitter people with no hope; “To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture.” Certainly, that describes some subscribers to postmodernism, but Taylor wrote of a man he knew for two decades, a man who listened earnestly to others, a man who thoughtfully responded to questions from both colleagues and students. He personalized this claim by relating some bits of his relationship with the man. I want to let Taylor speak for himself on this point:
But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my family and I were in Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles away. He insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived at his home he presented our children with carnival masks. At 2 a.m., he drove us back to the city. In later years, when my son and daughter were writing college papers on his work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement as well as signed copies of several of his books.
So here was a man, considered by many such a “threat” to the world and whose name has become “a hiss and a byword” (to use a Book of Mormon phrase) to some, but who was generous, attentive, and warm. Postmodernism,it seems, does not necessarily create nihilism where it did not already exist.
Taylor observed that Derrida is perhaps most widely known for the idea of “deconstruction,” which some supporters and critics alike seem to not grasp fully:
When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichés often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure — be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious — that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.
The exclusionary nature of these structures is where oppression and violence are fostered. Taylor noted that in the last years of his life, Derrida became very concerned with religion, especially the way that religion can be used as a punishing tool even when it claims to be way of peace and reconciliation. Although I do not know whether Neil Peart (2007), the lyricist and drummer for the band Rush, has read Derrida (and I rather suspect he has), he captured Derrida’s concern in the song “Armor and Sword.” I am going to jumble the lyrics a bit here to present the gist clearly without having to quote the entire song:
We hold beliefs as a consolation
A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation or medication
A comfort or a promised reward…
We build our defenses, a place of safety
And leave the darker places unexplored…
[But] Sometimes the fortress is too strong
Or the love is too weak
What should have been our armor…
Becomes a keen and bloody sword
Contrary to how many characterized Derrida’s work, Taylor observed that it could lead to a rather moral perspective:
As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us…By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical.
By looking at how linguistic, cultural, political, ideological, and even religious structures necessarily construct exclusion, Derrida’s notion of deconstruction can actually open us up to the possibility of thinking about relationships that can be less oppressive and violent, a way to find love for others who are different from us without feeling the need to make them into our own image.
More on this in my next post.
Holland, J. R. (2013a). Conviction with compassion. Liahona. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/liahona/2013/07/youth/conviction-with-compassion?lang=eng
—. (2013b). Faith, family, and religious freedom. Clark Memorandum. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/bc/content/ldsorg/topics/citizenship/elder-holland-faith-family-freedom.pdf
Peart, N. (2007). Armor and sword [Recorded by Rush]. On Snakes and arrows. Atlantic Records. Retrieved from: https://www.rush.com/songs/armor-and-sword/
Taylor, M.C. (14 Oct. 2004) What Derrida really meant. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/opinion/what-derrida-really-meant.html