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My Private Obscene Secret

My Private Obscene Secret May 29, 2011

I’ve recently been haunted by Kathleen Flake’s statement from last month: “Mormonism is a pre-modern religion full of miracles and grand providential acts of God.” My concern with the status of Mormonism in the modern and postmodern world is one of the main topics of my blogging. The assessment of Mormonism as a premodern religion strikes fear into my heart, not because it isn’t (partly) true, but because I really don’t want it to be in the future.


What is the place of a religion which is premodern and precritical in the postmodern world? In the introduction of Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, he describes the dialogue between intellectuals about religion that goes something like this: “Okay, let’s cut the crap. Do you really believe in some kind of divine or not?” The response is something stuttered, a bit caught off guard, like, “Well, that’s not the right question. It has something to do with a radical experience, an openness to radical Otherness, not about belief,” etc, etc.

Zizek responds, “What we are getting today is a kind of ‘suspended’ belief, a belief that can thrive as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.” (6). He speaks about the distancing from belief involved in those who follow the “customs” or “culture” of religion without really believing. Culture, he argues, is all of those things that we don’t directly believe. In this regard, “we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who live their culture immediately, those who lack a distance toward it.” (7) This assessment seems to perfectly capture the culture-wars internal to Mormonism, where each side perceives the other as a threat to the culture of Mormonism itself; one because it establishes a critical distance between the believer and the belief, and the other because it refuses to do so.

The struggle between the immediacy of religious experience and the distance (or even disenchantment) defines the modern religious community. For Zizek, he sees three acceptable religious options in the postsecular world: 1) the return to polytheistic premodern religions where there is no cultural “distance” between religion and the practitioner; 2) a sort of mysticism or vague spirituality rooted in Judaism or Gnostic Christianity that sees the divine as totally Other; and 3) what he sees as a Pauline organization of a community that is distanced from the historical Christ, seeing Christ as a set of fundamental principles. This last one he represents as the result of the Hegelian synthesis of the first two. Mormonism, one may say, is variously rooted in all three options, providing a reenchantment, a mysterium, and a community rooted in largely secular ethics. Yet, at the same time, Mormonism seems to reject all three as well.

So, let’s cut the crap. Is Mormonism necessarily premodern, offering unmediated access to an enchanted world that one either believes or doesn’t (as Flake’s formulation suggests)? Or, is Mormonism a source of a vague “spirituality”? For me, the answer is neither. But that third option is harder to articulate. In fact, this post has sat for a few months precisely because I can’t yet articulate it. The answer is one that is situated in a postsecular openness to religion, but what hangs on the answer is more than just defining Mormonism, but rather religious subjectivity itself. Zizek seems to foreclose the option of “suspended belief” at the outset, but I’m not so sure I am ready to give up that “private obscene secret” yet.I’ve been rather fond of it. For me at least, there is a lot more crap to cut still.


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