Mormon Boundaries

So I stumbled across a short book titled Judaism’s Great Debates (Jewish Publication Society, 2012) by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz. It includes an interesting chapter on defining boundaries, an issue that is familiar to Mormons. Why do we Mormons sometimes seem so eager to push people onto the other side of a formal membership line? Why do we still have the equivalent of heresy trials, and why are they so poorly managed?

The chapter highlights the story of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Jew living in Amsterdam who became one of the finest philosophers of his time. A brilliant student, Spinoza initially questioned traditional Jewish teachings. He went on to reject Mosaic authorship of the Torah and to formulate some of the earliest critical studies of the Bible. He was excommunicated from his Jewish congregation for heresy in 1656 at the age of 24.

Spinoza’s experience is certainly a better analogy for the disciplinary disputes that sometimes arise between LDS intellectuals and LDS leadership than the one that always gets mentioned, the Galileo episode. It’s not science that creates LDS difficulties: we don’t excommunicate physicists or even biologists, at least not because of their views on physics or biology. Here is the book’s summary of what got Spinoza in trouble with his local Jewish congregation, which was run by lay leadership but relied on several rabbis for advice on matters of Jewish belief and practice:

[Spinoza] denied almost every major tenet of traditional Jewish belief: that God creates and controls the world, that we can have a personal relationship with God, that God is the source of goodness, that God makes ethical demands upon us, and that the Torah is the revelation of God’s will. Spinoza admired some of Scripture but rejected the belief that Moses is God’s prophet. He had little use for Judaism’s ritual laws and practices (or those of any religion). He rejected the concept of the Jews as the Chosen People.

While I won’t go through the exercise of updating Spinoza’s dissenting views to their modern LDS equivalents, the reader will no doubt agree that an LDS 21st-century Brother Spinoza would likely end up as did the real Spinoza: excommunicated for his religious opinions and beliefs. Teasing out exactly how or why that might result raises three questions. First, there is orthodoxy versus orthopraxy. The claim is often made (see this earlier discussion and its links) that the LDS Church defines its boundaries more in terms of personal conduct and religious practice (orthopraxy) than in terms of a set of approved religious beliefs and opinions which members must affirm (orthodoxy). The September Six episode makes it clear orthodoxy claims alone are enough to create a membership issue, although which heterodox opinions are beyond the pale is not generally stated in black and white. I think LDS leaders generally apply an “I know it when I see it” approach. Orthodoxy, defined or not, is a live issue, regardless of one’s conduct or actions.

Second, the various levels of membership within the LDS Church complicate the question of how heterodox religious opinions affect a member’s standing: a member can be deemed ineligible for LDS employment, ineligible for a temple recommend, ineligible for callings within a ward, subject to informal discipline, subject to formal probation, subject to disfellowshipment, or simply excommunicated. For example, questions posed to candidates for LDS temple recommends require affirming certain orthodox beliefs: the Mormon version of the Trinity, Christ’s atonement, the latter-day restoration of the gospel (which implies an earlier apostasy from that gospel by the early Christian church), and divine authority as delegated to and uniquely exercised by senior LDS leaders. What’s not so clear is what happens if a candidate who satisfies the conduct-related questions posed as part of the interview nevertheless does not affirm one or more of the belief-related questions. How far down the membership staircase does he or she fall? Granted that a Mormon Deist who affirmed God as Creator but disaffirms God’s continuing action in the world would not receive an LDS temple recommend, what other consequences would attend such beliefs? Heterodox religious opinions will certainly affect one’s membership standing well before one reaches the excommunication threshold.

Third, how publicly one expresses one’s dissenting views is a key variable. Strictly speaking, the LDS interview process does not assess a candidate’s beliefs but rather a candidate’s willingness, in the interview, to profess the approved beliefs and to not profess heterodox beliefs. In the wider public forum, the same distinction holds: the transgression is professing heterodox beliefs, not holding them. Publicizing heterodox beliefs, particularly if presented as persuasive criticism, may threaten the faith of other members, a legitimate issue for those tasked with looking after the flock. Spinoza, a young, headstrong, independent fellow, was apparently broadcasting his dissenting views all over town, which made the vulnerable Jewish community in Amsterdam very anxious — there could be repercussions if one of theirs stirred up trouble with the local Christians. [The author notes: “the Amsterdam Jewish Council (Ma’amad) that controlled almost all aspects of Jewish life was ever-fearful of disturbing the peace.”] There is this additional community anxiety angle to LDS concern with public dissenters as well, although it relates more to potential damage to the carefully managed public perception of the LDS Church rather than external threats to the community, as with Spinoza’s Jewish community. External threats to the LDS community in the not-so-distant past are, I think, what gave rise to the ongoing concern with our public perception, so the concerns (physical safety, public perception) are certainly related.

So the Jews of Amsterdam pushed Spinoza outside the boundary of the Jewish community there. What did they lose?

[I]n his lifetime Spinoza earned the reputation as the most brilliant, and controversial, philosopher of his age. He published two major works: Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), and Ethics (1675). On the strength of the first work alone he was offered a university appointment, which he declined. His impassioned embrace of humanism — rigorous reason, utilitarian ethics, and political tolerance — laid the foundation for much of modern philosophy and government.

Let’s hope we don’t unwittingly excommunicate the Mormon Spinoza.


Mormon Boundaries — 8 Comments

  1. Interesting, Dave. Especially the bit about Judaism’s and Mormonism’s parallel concern for their public image.

    When we think about Spinoza today, we still generally think of him as a Jew. Do you happen to know whether this is simply because he was Jewish in the ethnic sense? Or did he continue to identify as religiously Jewish? A number of excommunicated Mormon intellectuals have continued to identify themselves as Mormon intellectuals despite their excommunications. I’m thinking particularly of the September Six. Perhaps Mormonism can excommunicate its Spinoza, but still benefit from a certain amount of indirect association.

    Sad as it would be to excommunicate the Mormon Spinoza, sociological studies would tend to indicate that boundary maintenance is important to the vitality of a spiritual tradition.

  2. I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know if it is addressed or not, but the post here misses the key factor in Spinoza’s ban- the internal threat. Chris got it right. Boundaries had to be maintained to safeguard the vitality of the spiritual tradition. This was particularly true of the Jewish communities of the Netherlands, being home to a large number of former Conversos. These Conversos had returned to their Jewish faith, but the long years of secrecy and dissimulation meant that not only was their knowledge of Judaism minimal, they also tended towards skepticism of religious tradition and authority. Boundaries had to be drawn in order to preserve the Jewish community as Jewish.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Christopher, Spinoza had little or no contact with the Jewish community after his excommunication. He latinized his name to Benedict de Spinoza, but never became Christian. So he was essentially neither Jewish nor Christian. No doubt Christians still perceived him as Jewish and Jews perceived him as no longer part of the Jewish community. He was also the son of Portuguese immigrants but living in the Netherlands. He spoke Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch; as a young Jew was taught Hebrew; and learned Latin. So it seems very difficult to define his identity in terms of religion, ethnicity, or nation. He sort of outgrew the identities that typically define people.

    Allen, I’m not unaware of the need to establish boundaries in order to define and maintain the distinctive identity of a religious community. In the post I noted: “Publicizing heterodox beliefs, particularly if presented as persuasive criticism, may threaten the faith of other members, a legitimate issue for those tasked with looking after the flock.” It’s a legitimate concern; it just wasn’t the focus of my post.

  4. A number of scholars have disagreed with you, Kullervo. Mormonism does seem to have an ethnic dimension, at least in the Inter-Mountain West. I’d say it’s at least quasi-ethnic.

  5. “It’s a legitimate concern; it just wasn’t the focus of my post.”

    Well, you did ask what the Jewish community lost.

  6. re: #2 & #5

    From my research on people who have left Mormonism (interviews), I will say that Mormonism, particularly for those who are entrenched, practicing, & whose social circles are primarily mormon, etc., it absolutely functions as an ethno-religion.

    That said, I think that what makes Mormonism difficult to peg down as an ethnicity per se, with clear ethnic boundaries, is that its boundaries have become increasingly porous and loose since World War II. Historically, when Mormons’ embraced Americanism and began to value assimilation over separation, Mormons stopped seeing themselves as different, or ‘peculiar’, and worked to be perceived as ‘normal’ by the rest of society. I would argue that, although there are roots to this transformation in Mormon culture dating back to the 1920s, it didn’t really gain momentum until after WWII. I think the drive to assimilate is strong even among practicing Mormons with limited “gentile” contact in the inter-mountain west. Conversely, there remain many (perhaps millions) of mormons who maintain the older drive to be separate or different from the dominant culture, both inside and outside of the Wasatch Front.

    Given that American culture generally tries to treat religion as an individual choice and a voluntary association, the ethnic tension for North American mormons manifests as the difference between seeing themselves as constituted by their mormonism vs. seeing themselves as choosing Mormonism and associating with it as a social group, not a “people.”

    For those who leave Mormonism (I specifically studied those who left mormonism and are now atheists and/or agnostic), for all but maybe three of my 23 interviewees, the difficulties that they experienced during the transition revolved, at least in part, around rebuilding an identity and sense of belonging separate from Mormonism. That is a key indicator that Mormonism functions at a much deeper than a voluntary association or personal choice. [Again, ethnicity was not the focus of my research, so I’m drawing on my data to draw conclusions, but I did not code for this, etc., in any systematic way.]

    I would speculate that there is probably what I call a “range of salience” within Mormonism. That is, for Mormons, there is an evaluative (judging) process (which may occur unconsciously) about just how salient Mormonism should be in how they create meaning and social ties in their lives. The more salient Mormonism is for an individual adherent, the more likely their mormonism will have the characteristics of an ethnicity, or more accurately, an ethno-religion; the less salient mormonism is for the individual, the less their mormonism will have the features of an ethno-religion. Among my students at SJSU, I find both ethnic Mormons; and students who are working to minimize their “mormonness” in order to be “normal” or “American” (or some other subcultural or ethnic identity). My primary research is actually about gay men, and this is somewhat similar to how gay men, and indeed, many cultural minorities negotiate their primary cultural identifications vis-a-vis the dominant culture.

  7. The LDS church today is governed by a “government by men”, and not by a “government by law”. This contradicts the D&C which clearly teaches that the revelations of the D&C are to be the law that the church lives by, and that no person– not even the President of the Church– is above this law. The agreement to sincerely seek to live by the D&C law– as an experiment based on the principle of faith– should be the boundary the church sets up for membership. Instead, the church membership are taught that it is a “done deal” that the church leadership should always be sustained and trusted. I predict that the Lord will eventually cleanse His Gentile church of this pollution of leadership idolatry. Consider this: