Who’s Afraid of Secularism (4): Humility, Patience and Progressive “Moral Convictions”

Who’s Afraid of Secularism (4): Humility, Patience and Progressive “Moral Convictions” January 21, 2015

Ten Commandments I have been otherwise occupied and have neglected my engagement with David Bokovoy’s very reasonably-presented thoughts on “How to Save LDS Youth in a Secular Age.”  It is because David is reasonable and manifestly well-intentioned, and because I think many of the views he expresses resonate quite favorably among internet-active LDS, that it seemed worthwhile to address his arguments directly.

In my earlier installments in this series I have tried to show that the difference between David and me is not about whether we should openly accept certain plain facts of LDS history.  Nor does it concern whether LDS scholars can learn from engaging authors who do not share our belief in the Restoration.  The question is whether, in order to facilitate such engagements, it is wise for Mormon scholars (and particularly Mormon scholars writing in organs of a Mormon university) to unilaterally disarm either by granting certain premises of the “secular” study of Mormonism (that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century document, for example), or at least by promising not to contest such premises.

I am ready to learn from and indeed to converse with anyone who brings interesting insights to the table, but I do not see why we believers should have to check our beliefs at the door in order to be included in the conversation.  Who is more afraid of “secularism,” after all? Is it he who engages non-Mormon authors in a friendly but frank way, willing to learn but not willing to be ashamed of the Restored gospel?  Or is it he who is so eager to be included in an academic guild that he praises as “breadth” the suppression of the very question of truth?  For example: if an LDS journal publishes a scholar’s flat rejection of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, does it really show confidence to let that rejection stand unanswered?  Or would a true demonstration of confident truth-seeking (and for that matter true friendship to the non-Mormon scholar as well as to the journal’s readers) consist rather in calmly and frankly noting such a dismissal of fundamental truth-claims and in providing, or at least pointing to, a faithful alternative to it.

They who are really afraid of secularism are they who are afraid to question its premises.

This evaluation of our stance towards secularism applies even more, I think, where the Church’s moral teaching is concerned.  David Bokovoy assumes an interesting parallelism between historical and moral questions.  Just as we must confront certain facts about the history of the Restoration that some may find uncomfortable (and here I agree), he argues, so we must show respect to “the moral convictions they’ve gained through secular studies…”  Now this is extremely interesting — extremely illustrative, I think, of a mindset common among Mormon writers who take pride in their openness towards “secularism,” that is, towards views dominant in the non-Mormon “mainstream.”  To be intellectually respectable is to accept the “moral convictions” of intellectual and media elites.  This especially concerns matters of sexual morality.  According to David Bokovoy (and of course he is far from alone), we must expect critical thinkers with open minds among our LDS youth to adopt or at least to sympathize with the “moral convictions” of those who take for granted the legitimacy, even the “dignity” of non-marital sex and who argue for a radical redefinition of marriage to include homosexual coupling (and perhaps more).

This is all very familiar, of course, but the question that David Bokovoy and so many others fail to ask is, just what is it about “secular studies” that is supposed to produce these progressive “moral convictions”?  Has a system of secular reason been developed somewhere that demonstrates the superiority of the “new morality” to the old?  Or is it not rather the case that these “moral convictions” – at bottom the belief in a kind of progressive liberationism, a commitment to emancipation from all traditional moral restraints on sexual expression – are not so much conclusions drawn from some objective and rational study as they are the premises driving the movement of secularism?

In other words, I think David Bokovoy may be on to something when he associates the secular intellectual movement with certain “moral convictions.”  There indeed seems to be a link between (1) the premise that all truth is historical construction (made by human beings) and (2) the rejection of moral restraints on sexual expression.  And once we see that the latter is a moral (or immoral) assertion and not the product of some objective evidence, then perhaps we are in a better position to evaluate the former premise as well.  In any case, it is telling that David perceives a kind of seamless unity between the pose of scholarly objectivity and that of moral liberation.

And David Bokovoy and I agree on the urgency of the practical question: how do we respond to youth who tend to be swayed by secular “moral convictions,” that is, by a moral viewpoint, or, let’s say, a stance towards morality that is ever more dominant among intellectual and media elites, and that he associates with “a more exciting time in the academic field of Mormon Studies”?   David takes his bearings from the insight of a “famous Mormon philosopher,” J. Bonner Ritchie, who argues that institutions are always riven by conflict between two forces: “progressives who recognize that in order to survive, the institution they love must evolve and adapt; and conservatives who want to preserve the way things were, who feel threatened by change.”  Now both Ritchie and Bokovoy want to reassure us that they recognize the necessary function performed by both groups, but it is clear that they judge that we now need to distance ourselves from those who “feel threatened” and embrace those who, out of “love” for an institution, are ready to help it “evolve and adapt.” There are good men in both camps, David is generously willing to concede, but clearly he wants to resist those who would “fan the flames of concern for those who feel threatened” and who “fight against the progress of Mormon studies and academic discussion.”   Such fan-flaming reactionaries (like me) paint “‘intellectuals’ into a corner where they must abandon either their religion or their moral convictions.”  Rather than force progressive intellectuals into a corner where “they feel compelled to choose between Mormon studies and apologetics, or between moral convictions and Mormonism,” Bokovoy argues, we should remind intellectually and morally venturesome youth to be humble and patient. “Part of being spiritually minded is remaining open to the reality that we’re not always right in our moral convictions.”

But David has already softened this unsettling advice by joining the chorus of internet intellectuals eager to emphasize that Church “leaders have made mistakes in the past and that if they’re [the youth are] correct, that supporting same-sex marriages is the correct moral path, then the Church will eventually make changes similar to those related to the Priesthood ban.”  Clearly the doses of patience and humility Bokovoy administers are helped to go down with more than a spoonful of sweet indulgence: patience is patience in waiting for the Brethren to align themselves with progressive “moral convictions,” and humility is a readiness to recognize that one can be wrong — as long as it is first conceded that Prophets and Apostles can be wrong, too.  And since the moral and historical context of these concessions has already been defined as a struggle between the fan-flaming paranoids who are “threatened” by as nice a thing as “change” and philosopher-approved “progressives” who sweetly counsel evolution and adaptation out of pure love for the institution – well, how hard can the choice be?  A little patience with reactionary fear while evolution runs its course – surely our tender youth can manage that!  Just enough humility to suffer the delay in progress imposed by Authorities not humble enough to recognize the sovereignty of our progress – that should not be too much to ask!

We already know that David will not like these interpretations of his words, because he has responded to Bill Hamblin’s similar reading with a “clarification” that seems to retreat from what seem to me some of the plain implications of his words.  I’m afraid David will feel that I am twisting his words, whereas I think I am simply bringing out the pretty clear logic that informs his statement.  Be that as it may, I certainly appreciate Bokovoy for recognizing the need for a “clarification,” and would by no means want to deny David the right to change his mind.

So we must consider this “clarification.”

First, David thinks it important to specify that he is not counseling “youth” in general, but only imagining what might be said to a particular youth who is “leaving the church over this [same-sex marriage] issue.”  Here I must say that David has posted his counsel on a public blog, and so made his advice and more generally his progressive viewpoint available to all youth, whatever there circumstances.  In any case, as I will explain, I do not think the advice is likely be good for LDS youth in any circumstance.

More important in Bokovoy’s clarification is his denial that the “patience” he was counseling was intended to suggest that one “should simply remain patient until the Church changes.”  Well, I am truly glad to hear that David would reject that interpretation of his words, but I’ve already explained why it is hard to read his original text any other way (given the bias towards “progressive” evolution and all that).  In any case, now he seems to be seeking a greater conservative/progressive balance of humble patience by specifying that “either he [the troubled youth] or the Church” might need to change.

I have to say that the naïveté of this style of advice is charming.  For on what view of the matter is the youth supposed to act while he or she is humbly and patiently waiting for either the prophet or himself to “come around”?  Let us imagine, for example, that the youth in question is powerfully moved by sexual passions (as youth tend to be, if memory serves).  The youth is in effect asking us whether the passion should be indulged or the Prophet heeded.  Our answer: well, the Prophet could be right, or wrong; and your passion could be right, or wrong.  So you make the call.  I have to say I don’t like the Prophet’s chances under these decision rules.

In any case, the whole attempt at balance between the youth’s convictions (and passions) and the Prophet’s falls apart rather spectacularly, and again with a naïve charm, when David concludes his advice to his imaginary son, daughter or protégé with this statement:  “This course has worked in the past for those who opposed the Priesthood ban.”  So since progress towards true moral convictions frames this whole discussion, I guess we can be pretty sure who needs to be patient with whom and which moral views must give way to “humility.”

So it is time to sum up this response to the views of David Bokovoy.  I thought it useful to engage David, because he is reasonable and sincere, and because it seems to me he represents a very influential sensibility among LDS intellectuals who consider themselves at once progressive and faithful.  I have tried to show that David and I disagree little or not at all on the question of coming to terms with the plain historical facts of Mormonism.  On the more general question of the Mormonism’s engagement with secular “Mormon Studies,” I have argued that, precisely because such engagement is not to be feared, we should not lay down our basic beliefs as a condition of discussion with those who would stipulate in advance a “secular” frame of assumptions which is by no means neutral and tends not to be open to the possibility of a truth beyond human construction (and therefore morally binding).

My disagreement with David comes into the sharpest focus on the question of the conflict between progressive “moral conviction” (that is, the conviction that the old moral convictions are mere prejudices) and prophetic counsel.  Here I think we do our youth no service by inviting them to keep their options open and thus avoiding “putting them in a corner” where they have to decide.  Morality always puts us in a corner, and morality backed by the authority of revelation all the more so.  We need moral guidance in our lives, especially our sexual lives – not only, but perhaps especially, when we are young – and to remove the “corner” of choice between Mormon faith and the “moral” convictions of progressivism is necessarily to remove this guidance.

This authoritative moral guidance is a prerequisite to any real and serious “spiritual journey” along which we would like to help any youth.  If we attempt to retain youth by helping them “feel connected” while removing all definite and authoritative moral content from that connection, then we are just facilitating their very risky wandering.

The corner of moral choice is a necessary condition of our spiritual progress.  It is fine to “make room on the pew for feminists, critical scholars, and intellectuals,” but we must recognize that any such who tend explicitly or implicitly to relieve our youth of this “corner” are doing them no favors.  We owe it to our youth to warn against such influences, and in fact to warn against the false prestige of progressive “moral convictions” insofar as these detract from moral clarity in essential matters.

David Bokovoy disagrees; he instead thinks it wise to warn youth against the influence of conservative intellectuals who imagine we are “living in a hostile world.”  Well here I have to plead guilty.  I am as eager as anyone to lay my hands on truth wherever it may be found – in fact, I could be accused of spending too much of my time searching for nuggets of truth among “secular” philosophers.  But there is no question, in my mind, that we are living in a “hostile” world; I would think in fact that it would suffice to let your scriptures fall open to just about any page to find support for the proposition that we are living in a hostile world.  But since the role of the BYU Institute named for Elder Neal A. Maxwell has been in question in these discussions, let us consider a statement by Elder Maxwell that bears directly on the question of “secularism”: Neal A Maxwell

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. [C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), p. 19; emphasis in original]

It is a profound quote.

I readily recognize that you will be living in an increasingly secularized society in which people simply don’t see other humans in this true light. Many don’t even believe in an individualized resurrection. I grant, too, that some also assume that there is an absence of immortal truths and absolute principles. As a result, these people prefer to view humans as being without real behavioral boundaries. Given such disbelieving views, it is no wonder that the ways of the natural man quickly prevail. Whether by giving way to materialism or to the things of the flesh, these individuals live without a knowledge of and a commitment to Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation. …

Do not, my young friends, expect the world to esteem the seventh commandment—chastity before marriage and fidelity after. Some people in the world will fret genuinely over the consequences of its violation, such as staggering and unprecedented illegitimacy and marital breakdowns. However, sexual immorality per se will still not be condemned by the secular world as long as the violators have any commendable qualities at all or as long as they are, in some respect, politically correct. We will have to keep the seventh commandment because it is spiritually correct, not because we will get much support from society’s other institutions.

And this more recent statement by Elder Chistofferson shows strikingly little “progress,” it must be said, beyond Elder Maxwell’s distrustful view of secularism.  And here Elder Chistofferson addresses quite directly David Bokovoy’s concern for counseling those loved ones whose commitment to the Gospel and the Commandments is at risk (my emphasis added):

…Saying that He came not to send peace, but rather a sword, seems at first impression a contradiction to the scriptures that refer to Christ as the “Prince of Peace,”22 and the proclamation at His birth—“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,”23—and other well-known references, such as, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”24 “It is true that Christ came to bring peace—peace between the believer and God, and peace among men. Yet the inevitable result of Christ’s coming is conflict—between Christ and the antichrist, between light and darkness, between Christ’s children and the devil’s children. This conflict can occur even between members of the same family.”25

Yes, the cost of joining the Church of Jesus Christ can be very high, but the admonition to prefer Christ above all others, even our closest family members, applies also to those who may have been born in the covenant. Many of us became members of the Church without opposition, perhaps as children. The challenge we may confront is remaining loyal to the Savior and His Church in the face of parents, in-laws, brothers or sisters, or even our children whose conduct, beliefs, or choices make it impossible to support both Him and them. It is not a question of love. We can and must love one another as Jesus loves us. As He said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”26 But, the Lord reminds us, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”27 So although familial love continues, relationships may be interrupted and, according to the circumstances, even support or tolerance at times suspended for the sake of our higher love. 

In reality, the best way to help those we love—the best way to love them—is to continue to put the Savior first. If we cast ourselves adrift from the Lord out of sympathy for loved ones who are suffering or distressed, then we lose the means by which we might have helped them. If, however, we remain firmly rooted in faith in Christ, we are in a position both to receive and to offer divine help. If (or I should say when) the moment comes that a beloved family member wants desperately to turn to the only true and lasting source of help, he or she will know whom to trust as a guide and a companion. In the meantime, with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide, we can perform a steady ministry to lessen the pain of poor choices and bind up the wounds insofar as we are permitted. Otherwise, we serve neither those we love nor ourselves.

To say that forsaking the world in favor of receiving “him … whom God hath ordained” is countercultural in today’s world is certainly an understatement. The priorities and interests we most often see on display around us (and sometimes in us) are intensely selfish: a hunger to be recognized; the insistent demand that one’s rights be respected (including a supposed right never to be offended); a consuming desire for money, things, and power; a sense of entitlement to a life of comfort and pleasure; a goal to minimize responsibility and avoid altogether any personal sacrifice for the good of another; to name a few.

Certainly, worthwhile achievements are laudable, but if we are to save our lives, we must always remember that such attainments are not ends in themselves, but means to a higher end. With our faith in Christ, we must see political, business, academic, and similar forms of success not as defining us but as making possible our service to God and fellowman—beginning at home and extending as far as possible in the world. Personal development has value as it contributes to development of a Christlike character. In measuring success, we recognize the profound truth underlying all else—that our lives belong to God, our Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Success means living in harmony with Their will.

Rather than flattering the “progressive” prejudices of the age and offering to relieve our youth of the moral and spiritual choices they face, we Mormon scholars, writers, and internet “intellectuals” would serve our youth and our communities much better by supporting such apostolic advice, and by using our intellectual gifts to question, not the wisdom of Church authorities, but the rationality of the secular “moral convictions” that now invade us from every quarter.

""Cut off from sobering reality, idealism is exciting. It is also destructive, and finally murderous." ..."

200 Years of Karl Marx
"I don't know why we feel the need to keep beating this dead equine, especially ..."

200 Years of Karl Marx
"And yet the United Order seemed like a revelation?"

200 Years of Karl Marx
"I saw the film in Germany yesterday evening with locals - actually people who look ..."

The Darkest Hour: Review

Browse Our Archives