One of the recent debates in LDS intellectual circles has been whether or not Mormonism is about orthodoxy or orthopraxy. As far as I can remember, this debated heated up after Jim Faulconer’s 2002 Yale conference presentation on this topic. This debate has more or less died down, largely because people realized that it was a false dichotomy between the two options, and everyone recognized that it was a little bit of both. Today’s LDS Newsroom, however, seems to intervene in this debate with the following announcement:
SALT LAKE CITY | 6 Jun 2008 | The religious experience of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based on a spiritual witness from God that inspires both heart and mind, creating an interpersonal relationship directly with the divine. It does not require one to pass a rigorous theological test. Nor does it demand the extreme self-denial and seclusion of asceticism. Rather, this unique individual experience unfolds in the natural course of everyday living. Thus, the beliefs of Latter-day Saints are not rooted in concepts and principles, detached from the realities of life. They are grounded in a much deeper level of experience that motivates individuals to action.
I find this to be a strange newroom feed (but then again I am frequently puzzled by the output there). This official announcement does two things. 1) It says that Mormonism is neither theologically based nor based on “asceticism” and 2) It roots Mormonism in an “experience” that “unfolds in the natural course of everyday living.” The term “experience” is used three times here.
The first claim is rather interesting, and one wonders why exactly they have qualified these concepts of a “rigorous” theological test and “extreme” self-denial. Do these adjectives function to radicalize the concepts of theological tests and self-denial, or do we only oppose these things when they are “rigorous” or “extreme”? How exactly does one know when a theological test has become “rigorous” or self-denial has become “extreme”? In the minds of many, LDS self-denial in terms of the Word of Wisdom or Law of Chastity would constitute “extreme” behavior, so I am not really sure how these adjectives are meant. At the end of the day, however, my guess is that these subjective descriptors are added on in order to make those who do practice “theological tests” and “self-denial” look unappealing.
The appeal to experience is a particularly modern view of religion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as religion began to recover from and incorporate the language of the Enlightenment, experience became one of the most crucial categories for validating a religious perspective. Catherine Brekus at the U. Chicago Divinity School is working on an interesting project about 19th c. religious leaders’ appeals to “experience.” In this sense, Mormonism’s appeal to “unique” experience marks it as a product of modernity, wrestling within the categories of post-Enlightenment thought.
What has gone largely unexamined, however, is the very category of experience itself, especially in Mormon thought. The major philosophical movements of the 20th century, including phenomenology, structuralism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and post-structuralism have all grappled with the nature of human experience and the processes of interpretation, yet we are only beginning to avail ourselves of this thought in articulating our own views. What seems to be taken for granted in Mormonism is that religious experience is somehow self-evident, self-interpretive. There is little to no sense that our experiences need to pass through an interpretive framework in order for them to have meaning. There is no access to unmediated “experience.” So where does that leave us?