I recently read Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (Basic Books, 2003), in which Eagleton manages (in a very entertaining way) to be critical of just about everything, including fundamentalism and “Utah” (a term he seems to be using as a proxy for Mormonism). He makes an interesting argument about fundamentalism, suggesting that it is rooted in how certain people (“fundamentalists”) read texts. His references to Utah suggest he sees Mormonism as practicing a fundamentalist approach to truth. I think I disagree with both points. Some fundamentalist movements might be based on how certain texts are read, but not all, and Mormons don’t really employ the fundamentalist approach that Eagleton seems to attribute to us.
Eagleton first rejects some popular conceptions of fundamentalism. It is not just holding fundamental commitments or basic beliefs. It is not about narrow-mindedness or a desire to foreclose debate using censorship or simply holding one’s opinions dogmatically. Using the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example, he states his own view.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are fundamentalists because they believe that every word of the Bible is literally true; and this, surely, is the only definition of fundamentalism that will really stick. Fundamentalism is a textual affair. It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of words, seeing God as the final guarantor of meaning. It means adhering strictly to the script. It is a fear of the unscripted, improvised or indeterminate, as well as a horror of excess and ambiguity. Both Islamic and Christian versions of fundamentalism denounce idolatry, yet both make an idol of a sacred text. [Emphasis added.]
Eagleton sees fundamentalists as engaged in a quest for refuge from the uncertainties that characterize the modern world. “It is a neurotic hunt for solid foundations to our existence.” He later backtracks a bit on the textual point: “Fundamentalists want a strong foundation to the world, which in their case is usually a sacred text.” Usually.
So is fundamentalism all about texts? Other scholars take a different view. Here’s a definition summarizing a scholarly study by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, which I posted on elsewhere and that ties fundamentalism to a religious tradition but not to a mode of interpretating sacred texts. The key here is a reaction to modernity:
A fundamentalism is defined as a counterattack in the name of religious tradition against the forces of modernity, a reaction that selectively recovers portions of the tradition in question while at the same time utilizing modern techniques. It is acknowledged to have a true religious spirit, and to forge a firm identity amidst crisis and change. In its nature, say the editors, a fundamentalism seeks a comprehensive system for human life and so is hostile to isolating religion from social and political life.
Here’s another general definition, this one pulled from The Angel and the Beehive. This definition is directed more at Christian fundamentalism than at a more general conception, but does make a link to scriptural literalism:
In its fullest form, fundamentalism is characterized by such beliefs as scriptural inerrancy and literalism; salvation by grace (sometimes through a born-again experience); authoritarian leadership; and strict obedience to pastoral injunctions. Along with this general theological outlook there is also a certain austerity in dress and personal style, traditionalism in gender roles, prudery in sex, and hostility toward “modernist” influences like “secular humanism,” biblical criticism, and scientific theories such as evolution (p. 158).
The bottom line, I think, is that we are dealing with two different categories here, (1) fundamentalists, and (2) those who follow a conservative, literalist reading of scripture. Eagleton plainly doesn’t like either group, so merging them serves his rhetorical purposes, but they are still two different categories. Where the two groups overlap, we might use the term “textual fundamentalists” for the subset of individuals who fit into both groups, but it’s a stretch to say that how this subset reads texts is a key to resolving the disputed definition of fundamentalism in general. Still, the idea is clever and probably motivates us to pay more attention to how we (and others, those fundamentalists) read texts.
Utah and the Mormons
Eagleton makes two rather gratuitous mentions of Utah in the book. In the first chapter, he describes postmodernism as “spend[ing] much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress,” and questioning “the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexual norms, and belief that there are firm foundations to the world.” He notes, however, that the worldview characterized by these values is losing ground in the contemporary world; few now hold the positions postmodernism is fighting against. But: “This is not to say that these beliefs do not still have force. In places like Ulster and Utah, they are riding high.”
So Utah and Mormonism stand for objectivity, fixed moral values, scientific inquiry, and a belief in historical progress? We’ve been called worse. That’s not really pinning the fundamentalist label on Mormons, but he clearly thinks we don’t have a seat at the postmodernist table.
The second Utah reference occurs in Eagleton’s discussion of truth and objectivity in the fifth chapter, which starts off with this blunt sentence: “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth.” After reviewing the confused thinking of postmodernists on the concept of truth, Eagleton tries to salvage something for the postmodernists.
Absolute truth is not truth removed from time and change. Things that are true at one time can cease to be true at another, or new truths can emerge. The claim that some truth is absolute is a claim about what it means to call something true, not a denial that there are different truths at different times. Absolute truth does not mean non-historical truth: it does not mean the kind of truths which drop from the sky, or which are vouchsafed to us by some bogus prophet from Utah. On the contrary, they are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation. A lot of what is taken as (absolutely) true at any given time will no doubt turn out to be false. … But it remains the case that it cannot just be raining from my viewpoint.
This raises a more interesting point than the first reference. What sort of truths do “prophets from Utah” announce? Non-historical truths which offend historicizing postmodernists? Surprisingly, no. The two truly prophetic moments of our dispensation were terminating the practice of plural marriage by members of the LDS Church (in 1896 or 1904, depending on how you read the history) and ending racial restrictions for being ordained to the LDS priesthood (in 1978). These announcements fit nicely into Eagleton’s postmodernist definition of absolute truth: “Things that are true at one time can cease to be true at another, or new truths can emerge.” These LDS revelatory events didn’t drop from the sky, they bubbled up from history. So what’s bogus is Eagleton’s reference to prophets in Utah, not (at least as Eagleton would measure it) the style of prophetic truth they practice.
So Are Mormons Fundamentalists?
A final point: Using Eagleton’s definition, are Mormons fundamentalists? Eagleton’s definition quoted above was that fundamentalists “believe that every word of the Bible is literally true” and that they “make an idol of a sacred text.” Had Eagleton addressed the question (recall his Utah references were made in passing) I’m guessing he would assume Mormons are as conservative and literalist in reading scriptures as are the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
If he made that assumption, he would be wrong. We are not biblical inerrantists or dedicated literalists. The “as far as it is translated correctly” qualifier in the 8th Article of Faith makes it clear we don’t follow the “every word is true” version of inerrancy that Eagleton ascribes to fundamentalists. Even a cursory reading of D&C 77 shows that some Bible terms are deemed “figurative expressions,” some are “representations,” and some are direct or literal. I’m not sure what label to put on Nephi’s “liken all scriptures unto us” approach to interpretation (see 1 Ne. 19:23), but it is plainly more like restating or updating scriptural principles and truths in terms that apply to the contemporary world of the reader rather than stating the original writer’s intended literal meaning.
I guess this post is a short exercise in reflecting on the categories and descriptions used to discuss Mormonism. Which are correct or useful and which are flawed or misleading? I realize this is not a new topic, but it is certainly a more pressing topic today than it once was. Given that there is more and more discussion of Mormonism in the press and academia, this seems like the kind of thing we should be doing more of.