By Stephen Carter
Eight years ago, while working on my third issue of Sunstone, I edited an article by John-Charles Duffy titled, “Mapping Mormon Historicity Debates—Part II: Perspectives from the Sociology of Knowledge.”1 Not the most exciting of titles, but the article itself upended my worldview and sent me on an eight-year journey that I have only recently begun to complete.
Drawing on research from sociology of knowledge scholars, Duffy’s basic thesis was that what we believe as individuals is largely dictated by the beliefs of the groups we hang out with. Though we like to think what we believe is the result of our smart brain considering all the evidence and making an informed judgment, it simply can’t be true.
Consider the Book of Mormon historicity debate, for example. It’s likely that 90 percent of the people who are reading this article have had at least two different opinions about the Book of Mormon’s historicity. Most of us started out believing that its narrative was tied to historical people who literally did the things the book chronicles: Mormon was a real guy, Abish was a real gal; the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations actually lived somewhere in North or South America and have therefore left behind traces of their civilization and DNA. But now your view may range from a belief that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century work of fiction by Joseph Smith to a belief that it was the product of automatic writing to a belief that it is a shamanistic text.
But how did you arrive at whatever belief you currently hold? The literature that constitutes the Book of Mormon historicity debate would probably take a decade to read—and another decade worth of material would have been produced in the meantime. And even if you did read it all, the fact is, you can’t fully process the body of evidence rallied for or against particular views and theories of historicity. Yet, you have an opinion on the matter. In fact, you probably feel that your opinion is well enough founded that when people bring up other views, you’re kind of amazed that they could believe such a thing.
However (as hard as this may be on your ego), your view on Book of Mormon historicity is not a result of your having processed all the information, it is a result of your feeling that you have processed enough of the information. After that, you unconsciously allowed the group you identify with most closely to form the rest of your opinion. As Duffy puts it, “. . . beliefs about Book of Mormon historicity are fundamentally social, not intellectual, in their origin.”2
I’m going to call these groups that invisibly direct our opinions “discourse communities.”3 That you unconsciously rely on a discourse community to develop your opinions—though disconcerting—is not necessarily something to be ashamed of. There is simply too much information to process, integrate, and evaluate. You’re like a little camera walking through the world, your lens pointed in a particular direction, only being able to be in one place at a time, only able to pay attention to a tiny part of what is going on around you, only retaining a tiny part of what you perceive, only processing a tiny part of that, only remembering a tiny part of that, and usually remembering it wrong.4 Plus, there are billions of other little cameras walking around, and you have next to no access to what they’ve seen. The world is infinitely too large for you to process. And it keeps getting larger. So you tap into the discourse community you identify with to help you form your worldview and opinions.
The LDS Church understands this dynamic well. Why else does it pour so much money into the Seminary and Institute programs—keeping students inside the orthodox Mormon discourse community while they’re testing out the academic discourse community. It’s the reason Mormons meet once a week for three hours, plus family home evening, plus youth nights, plus home teaching, plus visiting teaching, plus stake conference, plus general conference, plus temple attendance . . . the list goes on. This constant contact is essential to keeping Mormons immersed in the LDS discourse community.
Of course, this tactic is not confined to just the LDS Church. Think about talk show programs, anything from Glenn Beck to The Daily Show. Often the more content they release, the more devoted their followers are. One of the main reasons you have favorite podcasts is because new episodes come out often enough to keep you engaged. They create a discourse community that is robust and recurrent enough to maintain you.
One important thing to note: the ideas constituting a discourse community are never completely logical and unified. Why, for example, does the conservative wing of American politics have so little interest in conserving resources or land? Why would they be so invested in guns? On the other hand, why are liberals so interested in in preserving state-run institutions while also championing people on the fringe of society? It’s partly because those ideas happened to coalesce around that particular identity. The logic tying them together was usually fitted retroactively, and is therefore full of holes. This is the reason why the Internet is always bubbling with articles about “Why What You Believe about this Particular Thing Is Wrong!” and articles countering those articles.
The influence discourse communities have over our perceptions becomes especially interesting when we consider LDS Borderlanders. From the sociology of knowledge perspective we’ve been talking about, Borderlanders are people caught between two discourse communities: devotional history and academic history, perhaps, or a right-wing approach to Christianity and a left-wing approach, or a democratic view of church governance and an oligarchic view. Borderlanders feel a pull from both communities.
If you’re new to the Borderlands, this tension can be the worst thing you’ve ever experienced. A discourse community that you held in your orthodox days to be apostate might now be starting to make sense to you. But as you move toward that new discourse community, you notice that the worldview you inherited from your original discourse community starts to fall apart. You start to wonder what your marriage means, what your family means, what God means, what the Church means, what anything means.
Usually our first reaction when we enter the Borderlands is to escape its tension as quickly as possible. Perhaps we try to put our issue on the shelf so that we can stick with the things we value about our original discourse community. Or perhaps we’re so quickly persuaded by what the new discourse community says about our original discourse community that we simply cut ties and go fully over to the new discourse community.
Believe me, I empathize with these reactions. I have felt both of them many times. I vividly remember how lost and terrified I was during the months of deepest religious tension, and how much I longed to escape it one way or another. The tension was psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually painful.
If you’re a Borderlander, you’re probably annoyed with me right now. You’re annoyed because I’m basically arguing that your religious distress is not the result of your commitment to use your brain, follow the evidence, and accept its conclusions, but of two discourse communities fighting over you. And which community you choose won’t depend on your integrity or intelligence but on how much time you spend with a particular discourse community, because you will tend to believe what the community you interact with most believes. Think, for example, of how much time you spend listening to podcasts like Mormon Stories and A Thoughtful Faith, and reading blogs like RationalFaiths and Feminist Mormon Housewives, compared with how much time you spend going to church. Which group are you interacting with most? If you think about it, you’ll see that the community you spend the most time with is the one that has the most influence over your worldview.
But this doesn’t help at all. Most of us believe that the entire reason we’re in the Borderlands in the first place is because we’re trying to figure out which community should have the most say in our lives—which community has a more direct access to or a clearer view of the truth. But I’m saying that your perception of truth will actually be directed by which community you choose. It’s a tautology: This particular community is best because it influences my worldview the most.
Faced with this situation, what we’d most like to do is find an objective third party to help us evaluate the competing discourse communities. But anything that would claim to be an objective third party would be, in the final analysis, just another discourse community.
It seems that I have thrown you into a world without values. I’ve left you in a place where you have nothing to push against. Where you can never find solid ground. And solid ground is precisely what you’re looking for.
I felt the same way when I read Duffy’s article. The idea of discourse communities and their effect on our decision-making and worldview seemed very clear-eyed and useful. It freed me from the tyranny of thinking I was right. It freed me from defending my view at all costs. It helped me be more tolerant of other people’s opinions. It gave me humility and a willingness to be more open to the information and possibilities around me. But it also seemed to condemn me to living life without a solid basis for judgment.
However, I’ve had about eight years to think about the implications of discourse communities and how they affect us in the Borderlands, and I’ve come up with a few ideas that I hope will be useful to you.
A quote from Joseph Smith that Eugene England made popular says: “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”5 At first we are tempted to think that “proving contraries” means to prove which of the contraries is correct. But England interpreted it to mean that we must go into the tension between the contraries. A good example of inhabiting this kind of tension is the early part of Joseph Smith’s First Vision narrative. Young Joseph is dwelling among many religions, each of them exerting its pull on him. He is drawn toward the Methodists but decides that he needs to do some more searching. In other words, he stays in the tension of the contraries.
But what good does residing between contraries do? After all, that position is uncomfortable, and sometimes even miserable. Shouldn’t we just find a community we fit into and dump all the stress?
To answer that question, consider how Sunday school classes often proceed. The normal approach is to bring up a gospel principle and then ask the class to tell stories supporting it, or to offer up reasons why it is correct. In other words, the teacher invites the class members to inhabit one discourse community. The same thing can happen in a secular classroom. I once took a course on nature literature that was structured like a Sunday school discussion but with the orthodoxies of environmental conservation as the foundation. I have to admit, it was fun to talk in a unified way about why national parks should do this and why corporations should do that. It makes a group feel good to uphold a principle all its members seem to agree with. However, besides the dopamine hit of feeling right, what comes out of this kind of conversation? You can get a hint of the answer by thinking about what often happens next in this hypothetical classroom discussion—answers peter out, the class enters an awkward silence, and the teacher presents a new, often unrelated, topic to start the whole process again. A single Sunday school class can easily consume half a dozen topics. In other words, nothing comes out of these discussions. The topics aren’t questions, they’re answers; they point only to themselves.
This kind of conversation is what happens when you identify closely with one discourse community. You find yourself going round the same circle, ending up where you began. And such a path cuts us off from what I think is an essential aspect of being human.
To finally answer the question: the most important thing that can come from a willingness to dwell in the tension between discourse communities is the possibility of creation. Think about the creative process, whether it is in art, literature, science, sports, religion, computers, or sales: new approaches and new schools of thought are created by people who are dwelling in the tension between current contraries. Those who are comfortable in a particular discourse community don’t explore and therefore never create anything new. Tension is essential to creation.
Once again, Joseph Smith is a good example of this. He dwelt in the tension among competing religions until he was called to build a new church, which turned out to be a very creative church indeed, complete with new scripture, new doctrines, new settlements, and new marriage practices. We are often told the story of the First Vision to reassure us that the LDS Church is God’s true church, but, for me, a more compelling interpretation is that the answer to Joseph Smith’s prayer was a commandment to create something new. And that he spent the rest of his life doing so.
However, it’s important to remember that the new thing you create out of tension (as imaginative as it may be, as many problems as it may solve, as many followers as you might amass) isn’t the right thing, the correct thing, or even a better thing. It is simply a new discourse community, and as such, it will follow the pattern of discourse communities, creating its own gravity and interacting with the gravities of other discourse communities. This isn’t to denigrate its value, though. The addition of a new discourse community creates a richer environment where many other communities can spawn.
I think this theory resonates with the Mormon idea of how the Creation occurred. We portray God as wading in to “matter unorganized” and separating out contraries—light and dark, land and sea, day and night—and then setting them into a productive tension with each other. The planets begin to spin on their axes and orbit the sun. The elements of the earth and sun interact in such a way that they create an inviting environment for life. Lehi tells us that there “must needs be opposition in all things,” not so that we can call one good and one evil, but because they need to interact with each other, otherwise everything falls into a murky, undefined chaos. God called both the day and the night good.
Perhaps this is the reason why God gives no answers when Job demands an interview. Instead of saying, “Well, all that suffering was for you own good,” or “I let evil happen because of this and this,” God shows Job Creation and asks, “Where were you when I did all these things?”
Perhaps Job, like so many of us, was trying to get God to be the objective third party, the solid ground, to help him choose which discourse community was correct. He wanted to escape the tension of his questions. But God refuses to let him out. “Look at what I made from the chaos,” he says. “You are a child of God. Therefore, you too are a creator. Get to work!”
What does this have to do with being a Borderlander? It seems to me that the tension you are experiencing is the perfect place to start your career as a creator. If you are willing to accept the thesis of this article, that belief is socially constructed, I hereby release you from the illusion that one discourse community or another has a corner on truth. You don’t need to choose any of them. Rather, you, with your utterly unique soul, passion, and experience, can immerse yourself in tension and start to learn from it, start to detect connections and challenges. Start to see what new thing is coalescing around you in this chaos. But as you create, don’t take it too seriously. What you’re making isn’t the answer, it’s not the perfect thing, but it is something that arose from your particular interaction with the world. No one else could have made it.
I’m not saying this process is easy, though. Creation isn’t full of dancing muses, secret gardens, and perfumed air. Creation is work. Creation requires that you abandon your ego. It requires connection with the people around you. It requires deep love. It requires failure. And it requires work, work, work.
My current project as a Borderlands Mormon is to create a thoughtful, nourishing space in my Sunday school classroom. A place where we can drop our Mormon veneer and cease scrambling for a faith-promoting story or general authority quote. I’m trying to make a place where we can talk about messy things—in our personal lives, in the Church, in the world. Where even if we don’t agree with each other, we understand each other, which is my definition of being one in heart. Creating this kind of environment takes hours of preparation before the class, and it takes all kinds of energy during class. It requires that I relinquish a lot of my hard-won theories so that I can make room for my class members to do their own exploring. It requires that I drop my ego, so that I can see possibilities in even the most thoughtless of remarks. It requires that I see the divine spark in each of my class members, even when they say things that seem destructive to me. After all, I’m just one small discourse community trying to interact with eight other discourse communities sitting in the same classroom with me.
There is no possibility that I have the corner on the truth, but there’s every possibility that I can learn and create from whatever tension presents itself.
- You really need to read his article. It is excellent and goes into much more depth that mine does. John-Charles Duffy, “Mapping Mormon Historicity Debates—Part II: Perspectives from the Sociology of Knowledge,” Sunstone 152, https://sunstone.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/152-46-61.pdf (accessed 29 August 2016).
- Duffy, “Mapping Mormon Historicity Debates,” 48.
- Duffy uses the term “plausibility structures,” but I’m going to use “discourse communities” to emphasize the communal aspect of this dynamic.
- See, for example, John Hatch, “From Prayer to Visitation: Reexamining Lorenzo Snow’s Vision of Jesus Christ in the Salt Lake Temple,” Journal of Mormon History 42, no. 3: 155–182.
- HC 6:248