Thursday, June 13, 2013

Habermas and Mormonism: Speculation in Private and Public Spaces

Some mornings, while preparing my Sunday school lesson, it will occur to me how Habermas' discussion of the creation of public and private spaces can inform how correlated Mormonism polices speculation (suggesting you do it on your own time and not in church) as an effort to demonstrate or perform the faith's assimilation into a more traditional American Christianity ... Like you do.

I posted this status on Facebook a few days ago. After explaining my thoughts a little more, Casey suggested I share my sentiments as a blog post. I have tried thinking of a clever introduction--one that might include some commentary on recent NSA controversies--but honestly the Facebook post still seems like the best approach. I mention the NSA because the controversy hinges on some basic ideologies regarding how we as an American society think about public and private spaces as separate spheres. Ostensibly, there are public institutions and conversations or debates and then there are private spheres where information or organizations operate distinct from the public sphere. While I don't feign a commanding knowledge of the recent controversy, one source of dismay surrounding the topic is rooted in a sense of the violation of those spheres. While I am not going to downplay the implications of the controversy, the academic in me that loves social theorists like Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser believes that post-Enlightenment state apparatuses always already create not just public spaces but also the notion of their being a private space. In other words, you might take comfort in the notion that you have a private part of your life or private spaces to operate, but such space and time is always already generated by the public or the state to create subjectivity of citizens or other members of society. In other words, the distinction is not only an illusion but a somewhat purposeful strategy in order to make society function. As one character in the movie In the Loop proclaims, "Now, you might not believe it; and I might not believe it. But my God, it's a useful fiction."

Jurgen Habermas is perhaps the most important contemporary philosopher to interrogate the idea of the public/private divide. Habermas suggests that in post-Enlightenment societies people discuss private spheres and public spheres, indicating that some things belong in one space and some things belong in the other. Religion is often used as an example--the ethics and principles can propel public conversations and even contribute to the creation of social and political policy; however, the beliefs and practices of the religion should be a matter of private investment. Religion happens in homes or churches, private spaces. The idea of the private space is both to keep certain things out of the public space (i.e., no established religion) but also to preserve the notion of privacy (that there are some things that belong to citizens that are not necessary for the public to know about or to impact--this is the chant of libertarians). What Habermas says is that the private is only ever a creation of public. The distinction of private and public are 1) less distinct than we like to think; and 2) tied in a mutually generative dance so that they are ultimately never free of each other but always already defined by the other. 

So, my point about Habermas and Mormon culture was actually built on the idea of how church--a congregation of people on Sunday that meets in a block meeting--could be read as a public space created distinctly from the private space of an LDS home. The private space is where speculation about doctrines can roam free, but the church space is where all things are always already correlated. And to me that impulse to correlate a church service is not only to generate cohesion or unity, but I think historically rooted in an impulse to assimilate Mormonism into mainstream American Christianity. It might be better stated that the generation of correlation in the 20th century was an act of assimilation, whereas the 21st century continuation of correlation that separates the spheres is a performance of a 100 year old repertoire. Mormonism's desire to keep speculation out of group meetings is to ensure Mormonism acts less strange, abnormal, fringe, un-American, subversive, dangerous, or weird. The thing is that we often say that we won't talk about Kolob in church anymore because it is a deep doctrine and that we need to focus on simple truths first. However, that impulse to discourage and police speculation ignores that the idea of Kolob and any sense of it came directly from a speculative impulse. So yeah, the public space I was thinking about was the shared space of a typical LDS church meeting and how Mormons self-govern, self-regulate, and self-police what is and what is not appropriate to talk about in church versus at home. In other words, I think it's a little bit more than a milk/meat thing going on.

It is probably worth noting some of the challenges to using Habermas to talk about a private, faith-based community as a public sphere. The institutional LDS meeting does not operate as a public sphere because there is NOT constitutive debate or dialogue. What is said is meant to change the people speaking, not the ideas discussed. Part of the public sphre is to interrogate ideologies as well as ideas. This is not a criticism of that dynamic per se, but an observation that might indicate the limitations of using Habermas to think about what speculation means to contemporary LDS communities and how it operates.

What do you think about the idea of speculation within Mormonism? In the past and now? In private spaces and in LDS Church meetings?


  1. It seems like there are a few occasions at church where we can engage in doctrinal speculation, but they're limited primarily to Sunday School discussions on specific issues, such as the Millennium or Exaltation. Even then, that can vary widely by ward and it's probably debatable whether, say, talking about people not dying but "twinkling" during the Millennium counts as speculation anyway. It all seems a far cry from the days of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, although I don't necessarily think that' s a bad thing per se. Personally, I don't really mind our general tendency to eschew public speculation, in part because of its non-empirical (and even anti-empirical) nature and also because it just doesn't seem to have much relevance to how we ought to live our lives day to day. I don't care much about the significance of "Kokaubeam" or "Olea"; I'm much more comfortable talking about the gospel as a system of ethics and values for improving our own and others' lives today, and I think that's the route the "public" church has generally taken. Unfortunately the way we discuss that often seems bland and trite to me, but that's for another discussion :)

    1. Oh I certainly feel the ambivalence about this myself. When I rail against the power structure that is correlation, I will often check myself by thinking how I'm glad we don't spend time in Sunday School or any other meeting calculating the distance to Kolob. For this I must be regrettably grateful to correlation's impulse to emphasize abstract, seemingly universal principles that should serve the utilitarian purpose of making students into better people.

      And speculation is the source of ideas I don't care about, possibly including a priesthood ban based on race. If not that, then the century of justification that has followed and continues. So I don't want to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to speculation.

      That said, I think the line between speculation and revelation is actually much thinner than the public space Mormonism likes to admit or confront. And to me, the revelation based quality of Mormonism--even in its anti-empirical and anti-intellectual moments--is part of its greatest strengths as a system of dynamic theism. Which is a wonderful paradox: it's a theology built on anti-doctrinal impulses and alterable theism. I actually think if we embraced speculation in the public space, we'd get some crazy shit as the parameters fell, but you'd also produce a space where people could confront and explore issues we choose not to talk about in order to be polite. We won't talk about issues of sexuality or gender or race because "we don't know" or "it's not pertinent to our salvation"--which is a system of power that prevents change by defusing discussion. Speculation wouldn't be pretty and what was said would probably often pain and frustrate me to no end. And perhaps it would produce an inordinate amount of strife, but I also think it would allow Mormonism to confront issues it ignores, but on the faith's own terms with the faith's own tools. We say "that's not what Church is for" but that's only because we keep telling ourselves "that's not what Church is for." Part of that culture is hierarchically enforced, but I also think it comes far more from self-regulation.

  2. Also, +10 points for quoting the best line of an immensely quotable movie.