Mormons of a certain bent (a bent that often leads to the bloggernacle) are prone to debate how one should relate to the institutional church and how one ought to think about trying to change it. On one side are those who are concerned about institutional failings and wish to find better avenues for reform and better ways of protecting those who might be subject to abuse. On the other side are those who seem to take a more passive or fatalistic stance toward the church.
It seems to me that what is at issue here is less one’s conduct than one’s emotional and intellectual stance. In other words, I suspect that there is relatively little in terms of conduct that would differ between folks here. We’re all interested in remaining faithful, contributing, serving, etc. I suspect that none of us is likely to go along with some great evil perpetrated by the church (such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience). We can all think of changes that we would welcome and that we would be willing to act to bring about. The difference, it seems to me, lies in the presence or absence of a particular kind of angst and how we interpret it.
I can’t help but notice the many places in which those calling for reform in the church invoke analogies to democratic liberalism. There is a desire for participatory self-government, a fear of institutional suppression of rights or other kinds of abuse, a desire for an ever more egalitarian, universal, and inclusive kind of discussion. Seen in these terms “fatalism” looks like an abdication of political responsibility, a failure to behave as virtuous citizens ought. It seems to me that the spiritual angst here is a spiritual angst that is filtered through a set of political ideas, ideas that we would do well to treat with some skepticism. Indeed, one of the intellectual virtues of a being involved in a hierarchical, authoritarian, and amodern (I say amodern because I haven’t figured out if the church is pre-modern or post-modern) way of life is that it gives one the resources to be skeptical about the democratic liberal universe. Without the benefit of being embedded in such a way of life, democratic liberalism encloses us so fully as to become invisible.
Now my point here is not the glib, “the church is not a democracy” — although that is true and something worth thinking on. Rather, my point is that I would prefer that my spiritual reactions to the church are expressed in an idiom native to the gospel and I fear that at times democratic liberalism is so firmly implanted in our intellectual and spiritual DNA that we denigrate legitimate spiritual stances that cannot be expressed in the idiom of virtuous citizenship. I am not fatalistic, if by fatalistic one means to suggest an unbecoming abdication of agency. I am hopeful and I am pragmatic. In some sense this means that I am passive because I don’t believe that I can and necessarily should work dramatic changes in the community. My pragmatism makes me extremely open to the notion of tinkering and playing around with new ideas and new practices. In this sense I am entirely sympathetic to creating more and better modes of dialogue between members and leaders and the like, as I suspect that such things could prove useful to the kingdom. My hope, however, is to be a tool in God’s hand, and this means that at times — often? — I am entirely content to do the best that I can and leave the rest in his hands.
I suppose that a big part of what makes me uncomfortable with spiritual reactions rooted in democratic liberalism is that embedded in such reactions is a notion of sovereignty in which we the people are vested with ultimate authority. Hence, we worry about abuse and illegitimate authority and locate such problems in a tyrannizing other that is something separate from and threatening to ourselves. Likewise, we see virtue within democratic liberalism as the proper assertion of self-sovereignty and we condemn fatalism as a failure to insist on sovereignty that ought to be insisted upon. We see the man standing before the tank in Tiennamen Square and rightly regard it as an act of extreme heroism, one in which the legitimate authority of democratic self-ownership asserted itself against the illegitimate authority of force and tyranny. We want to be like that. We worry that we are not. We worry that we are embedded in institutions that are more like the tank and less like the student. This is the spirituality, if you will, of modern democratic liberalism. It is a great, good, and noble thing.
The problem, however, is that in the end, we are not self-sovereign. We do not own ourselves. We were bought with a price and sovereignty lies elsewhere. Our emotional and spiritual reactions must make sense of this fact and I suspect that it means in some sense the proper stance toward the church and kingdom will necessarily seem perverse and at times even pernicious from the perspective of democratic liberalism.