Who’s Responsible for the Culture?


So, there’s a piece from Greg Trimble that’s been floating around the interwebs recently and that I like the sentiment behind. However, I think it has some somewhat misguided assumptions underlying the argument. Some of that is expressed in this response on Young Mormon Feminists, which is worth a read. I wrote about some of my thoughts relating to this issue (though obviously not about Trimble’s piece in particular) in October 2014 here.

Trimble’s piece seems to assume that culture can be changed without doctrinal shifts. Asserting that problems within Mormonism are entirely independent of doctrines that are taught. The YMF response addresses this pointing to several areas where cultural shifts will only do so much and that doctrinal changes need to accompany efforts to change the culture. While this is moving towards the ‘elephant in the room’ as it were, I think it still misses some of the point.

Culture is tied to doctrine. Or at least, understandings and interpretations of doctrine. When I identify problems with Mormon culture, it is because I disagree with or reject the doctrines or interpretations of doctrines that lead people to those cultural behaviors. “Doctrine” is a pretty messy concept within Mormonism (and perhaps generally, but not as familiar with other faith traditions, so uncomfortable making that sort of claim). Despite a book being published infamously entitled Mormon Doctrine it doesn’t seem that clear-cut. Supposedly doctrine never changes, which means either we have very very few doctrines, or we are always interpreting something to get at what we term ‘doctrine.’

Especially if we believe that ‘by their fruits you shall know them’ it is absolutely fair to judge a religion by its culture. As culture is arguably doctrine or beliefs in practice. Now, obviously, no one is perfect and it would be unfair to draw conclusions from the behavior and actions of a select few or the weaknesses of individuals. Yet, again, if behavior is wide-spread enough to become culture then something exists in the beliefs or doctrines of those individuals that brought them to that place. And we can fairly (relatively) ask questions about the beliefs and doctrines of those people based on those behaviors. Even if (and perhaps especially when) those actions or elements of culture seem to conflict with what we understood to be doctrines.

It is also worth considering that we are a part of an intensely hierarchical culture that believes in the power and authority of a few to speak correction to us and to help us all live our doctrines and beliefs more fully. IF the wide-spread culture is truly out of step with the doctrines of the Church, we have systems in place to correct that. This weekend (General Conference) is one of those. If we need to change, if we need to stop doing what we are doing, these prophets, seers, and revelators should call us to change.

I acknowledge that there are problems with this. We also believe that it is not meet for us to be commanded in all things. The relationship between readiness and revelation is a complicated one. Perhaps we need to make cultural shifts before such revelations and calls to change will be given. I don’t know.

This weekend thus far, there have been some important talks that seem to be moving towards the ‘revolution of love’ that Trimble calls for. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk on Saturday is welcoming and opens up to some people that may feel alienated, along with some important calls to problems plaguing the world today (meaning, progressive issues that I think matter—gun violence, poverty, income inequality, etc.). There are definitely limitations to the acceptance preached by Elder Holland built into the talk and the metaphor that he chose (I might go into that another day, but I’ll just leave it there for now. Ask me if you have questions about what I mean). Pres. Uchtdorf on Sunday morning highlighted some similarly important issues—calling for us to leave fear behind and preach love, to recognize the vast amount of good in the world, etc.

So, there are some glimmers of the revolution that Trimble calls for in the talks at GenConf. BUT, there’s no specific condemnation of many of the actions that seem to me to be being addressed obliquely by these messages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to hear these sorts of messages, but I’d love to see the specific condemnation of certain behaviors or ideas that we’ve seen historically for abortion or same-sex marriage (not that I’m on board with those condemnations per say, but if we can call them out specifically and clearly, we can and should call out similar problems that are not tied to progressive politics).

So what do we do? I think we definitely need to act the way that Trimble lays out. We need to be those people that love unconditionally, that reach out to our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, that comfort all people of color in our midst and condemn and disavow any racist ideas that were present historically or still linger today, that we provide women with opportunities to share their voices and experiences, that we validate that sharing. That’s a small sliver. If we’re in positions of authority or have access to those that are, we need to ask questions about those issues. We need to seek further light and knowledge on how we as a Church can better love all those that are in our midst. We can make institutional changes in our small corners of the vineyard, even if those changes are not supported or explicitly endorsed by the institution at large.

If we want to be serious about changing the culture, we need to seriously examine the origins of that culture even, perhaps especially, if that calls some of what we call doctrine into question. Let’s do our part and help others do theirs.  If doctrines are the problem, be honest about the harm caused or reject those doctrines. If interpretations of doctrine are the problem, provide new and better interpretations without the damaging side-effects. More than anything, let’s truly, deeply love each other and reject anything that prevents us from doing that.

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