Saturday, February 21, 2015

Food for Thought

Mormon Intellectuals—The Question of Conjunctions

By Bryce Christensen 18 Feb 2015

            Coordinating conjunctions—and, but, or, so, yet, for, nor— are mere syntactic connectors. They look like no more than communicative fasteners, just verbal nails and screws that hold together words that carry real weight. Yet they can say a great deal, especially as they come out of the mouths or pens of those who represent themselves as Mormon intellectuals. Consider, for instance, what these intellectuals signal by their choice of conjunction after they make a public declaration of their religious identity. How often have we heard a Mormon intellectual affirm, “I am a Mormon” or “I am a Latter-day Saint,” only to deploy a coordinating conjunction that raises questions, even suspicions, about that affirmation?

            Mormonism—more properly, the faith taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—entails heavy doctrinal truths, and consequently heavy moral and spiritual obligations as well. The person who affirms his or her personal identity as a Mormon or Latter-day Saint is thus acknowledging ties to very sacred declarations about the nature of God, the meaning of life in mortality and hereafter, the source of true ecclesiastical authority, the content and interpretation of Sacred Writ, the origin and destiny of the soul, the nature and eternal duration of marriage and the family. What is more, anyone who self-identifies as a Mormon or Latter-day Saint is acknowledging that he or she has participated in sacred ordinances—baptism by immersion and confirmation by the laying on of hands—conducted by those who hold proper priesthood authority in the Church.

            Given all that intrinsically inheres in a personal affirmation of identity as a Mormon or Latter-day Saint, those familiar with English might reasonably expect the conjunction that follows such an affirmation would be so. I am a Latter-day Saint, so I embrace and affirm the doctrines of the Church. Or, I am a Mormon, so I accept and support Mormon leaders. Or, I am a Latter-day Saint, so I do all I can advance the Church and its sacred mission. Or, I am a Mormon, so I have reason to be deeply grateful for the spiritual guidance that the Church gives me in a confusing world. Or, I am a Mormon, so I defend the Church against its detractors.

            In sentences such as these, the conjunction seems natural, organic, and wholly consistent with the affirmation of self-identity.

            However, with puzzling frequency, when some prominent intellectuals identify themselves as Mormons, they immediately deploy a coordinating conjunction that raises serious questions about that identification. The coordinating conjunction we find some intellectuals opting for immediately after publically identifying themselves as Mormon is definitely not so. Rather, it is but.

            To be sure, for anyone who takes seriously the very high standards that come with membership in the Lord’s Restored Church, choosing to add a but after self-identifying as a Mormon or Latter-day Saint can be not only appropriate but even doctrinally necessary. That is, I am a Mormon, but I acknowledge that my own conduct is not always fully in accord with Church teachings. Or, I am a Latter-day Saint, but my own behavior frequently falls short of Church ideals.

            Deployed in this way, but signals simply the humility and awareness of personal fallibility that Christ enjoined in his parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14). No mortal is a sinless embodiment of the truths taught in the Lord’s Restored Church. A but that links an affirmation of Church membership with a humble acknowledgement of personal inadequacy as a Church member simply reflects honest self-scrutiny of the sort that fosters awareness of how much of the spiritual path that the Church has marked out remains to be traversed.

            It is, however, a different kind of but that intellectuals often deploy immediately after identifying themselves as a Mormon or a Latter-day Saint. It is not a but that prefaces self-judgment or self-criticism. Rather, it is a but that introduces self-assertive judgment of the Church, its doctrines, and its leaders. I am a Mormon, but I can hardly endorse the Church’s position on same-sex marriage. Or, I am a Latter-day Saint, but I find the Church’s positions on women dreadfully retrograde. Or, I am a Mormon, but I find Church leaders terribly abusive in their response to dissent. Or, I am a Mormon, but I consider the Church’s concern for doctrinal purity oppressive and stultifying.

            When used in this way, but is clearly not a conjunction that checks self-righteousness. Rather, it looks disturbingly like a but that authorizes self-righteousness, over and against the righteousness called for by the Church. Such a but can even begin to look like a syntactic Rameumptom affording the speaker or writer an opportunity to indulge in some warm self-congratulation on having reached a perspective higher than that of the Church.

            This syntactic elevation, not coincidentally, also affords the exalted speaker or writer the opportunity to look down with condescension on lesser beings who append to their public affirmations of Church membership not a self-elevating but, but rather a self-effacing so. The syntactic elevation of this kind of but is one allowing some pretentious Mormon intellectuals to hold up their doubts, their skepticism, as an attainment of the mind far above the mere faith and convictions of lesser members of the Church.

            No doubt many take pride in using a but after any acknowledgement of Church membership. Such a conjunction, they are sure, signals their intellectual independence, their personal autonomy, their refusal to surrender to the strictures of dogma. A closer look raises doubts. Many of those who are so careful to signal their independence from Church orthodoxy seem almost anxiously intent on protecting a political correctness rooted in a progressive secular orthodoxy.  How willing are such individuals to deploy a but declaring personal independence after identifying themselves as a progressive intellectual. I am a progressive intellectual, but I recognize only marriage between a man and a woman as truly a marriage? Or, I am a progressive intellectual, but I recognize the prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as God’s inspired mouthpiece on questions of morality and doctrine? Or, I am a progressive intellectual, but I recognize the Latter-day Saint Church’s position on women and the priesthood as divinely ordained?

            Unless they are utterly blind, progressive intellectuals know that secular progressivism conducts its own rituals of excommunication, its own auto-de-fés. (If you doubt this, ask Brendan Eich, ask Richard Raddon. Former CEO of the Web giant Mozilla, Eich was forced out of his position by gay-rights activists when they learned that he had supported California’s Proposition 8 affirming a traditional heterosexual understanding of marriage. In similar fashion, Raddon was pushed out of his position as director of the Los Angeles Film Festival when his contributions to support Proposition 8 became public.)

            Progressive intellectuals know that if they do not watch their step, they may be cast out of the progressive congregation. They may indeed want listeners and readers to interpret their choice of conjunction after acknowledging Church membership as a token of their valiant personal autonomy. However, it is quite possible to discern something far less laudable, something far less courageous, in their choice of conjunctions. Their choice of conjunctions may be interpreted as the consequence of a tacit but decisive syntactic chain that governs any public acknowledgement of Church membership: I am first and foremost a progressive social thinker, so whenever I acknowledge my identity as a Latter-day Saint, I must immediately qualify that identification lest I in any way jeopardize the personal identity or the social doctrines I actually value most.

            What is the real meaning of a public acknowledgment of Church membership? It depends largely on the conjunction that follows that acknowledgment. Will it be a but signaling supercilious skepticism, or will it be a so reflecting humble but deep devotion?

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