Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Experience" is the Premium Channel


Have you ever held something until your hands were aching? 
And then let it go and watched it fall and listened to it breaking?
I have held back time and tide when all the world was plenty,
But now my hands are open wide, open wide and empty. 
(Karine Polwart, 2005)

My hands are wide open...

And the possibilities are endless.

(Prayers of the Goddess Gaia)
(ByDesiree Delgado)

Coming to the end of another semester, I stop to reflect on where I've been and where I'm going. I've done much good work on my dissertation in the last three months, finally overcoming the abject terror and lethargy that gripped me every time I even thought about writing. Now, every day I easily contemplate and nuance the intricacies of the arguments I aim to weave about the intersection of Mormonism and the New Spirituality. I'm finally clear that that is the subject of my project. It isn't about New Age or Contemporary Pagan Studies per se. Rather, it's about where those I've called "New Age Mormon Pagans" fit in relation to the larger American spiritual/religious context. 

As I write, the path appears increasingly clear: A review of literature about "spirituality" in America points intuitively to the need to include commentary on the importance of experience in American religious history, which has led most Americans to expect (even demand) the right to cultivate a fulfilling--and unmediated--spiritual life. It's interesting to see how sociological investigation of what was happening to "religion" during the 1960s and 70s segued into the 1980s and 90s concept of spiritual marketplace (Wade Clark Roof, 1999) and religious economies/rational choice (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985; Stark & Finke, 2005) theories. 

Even if, like Mark Oppenheimer (Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, 2003), you think "alternative" religions had very little impact on Americans and that New Age" spirituality as just so much "silliness" (p. 228) (preferring instead to put your money on the influence of "mainline" religious institutions), experience is still the watchword. The subversive power of the counterculture, though according to Oppenheimer it produced only "aesthetic" and "formalistic" change, was that it created an entirely new experience of traditional religion (p. 220). 

Regardless of whether the women I encounter in my research consider themselves orthodox or heretical Mormons (or not Mormons at all), they are all engaged in the search for a more authentic self-expression in their spiritual lives. In the end, experience is the premium channel.

In addition to getting power around my writing, I have also been led to question the degree to which I am fully self-expressed in other areas of my life. What experience of the world am I claiming for myself? Does a scholar who studies historically new and alternative religions (including Mormonism) ever get to be powerfully and fully self-expressed? If so, what might that self-expression look like? 

It's no wonder that I've put off situating myself in relation to my work in my Preface.  Have I held onto academic political correctness with white knuckles, assuming the position so to speak, just hoping to avoid the hordes who perpetually mislabel critical analysis as "misunderstanding."
I've come to realize I'm consciously choosing something different, a different way of being. I am no longer so interested in safety. I've let go of the net and what lies broken was in any case no longer interesting or useful.


Joseph said...

Nice post, Doe. Just curious, though -- you say you find it interesting the way sociological research of the 60's and 70's segued into the whole rational choice trend. But I couldn't get a sense of your take on that. Do you take issue with that perspective or see your work as reacting against the rational choice school of thinking about religion?

Doe: said...

Joseph, I appreciate your question. Like all theories, it works well in some/many contexts and provides a really interesting way of seeing religious commitment. Rational choice is compelling, given that people have self-reported numerous reasons for why a religious tradition/church appeals to them, apart from the issue of Ultimate Truth. People report being motivated by everything from the social support and sense of belonging they get from participation; the economic benefits that accrue because of the Church's particular structure and commitments (its way of being in the world and what it deems important); and/or the fact that the Church gives expression to their preexisting sense of how the world works (e.g. attitudes about heaven or God, etc.).

What interests me is how religious identity changes over time. Having been a religious convert myself, I can now appreciate the many complicated reasons for my own conversion to Mormonism at the age of 16. My understanding of that conversion has evolved, of course. I would include that I had a naive belief in the Church, as well as the desire to believe in the Church as "true," but I would also have to admit to other motivations that had little to do with a belief in or search for "Truth." I suspect that I'm no different from other converts to this and other religions. As time goes on, however, regardless of the complexity of their motivations, converts are socialized to express themselves in church contexts so that their complex reasons for coming and then staying are always expressed as a testimony of the Church's truth.

I've heard church members state various reasons for maintaining their memberships, despite their lack of belief, just as I've heard others cite their continued belief and commitment as deriving from their expectation of eternal rewards.

I see my work as responding to Stark and Finke's theory that secularization is self-limiting. Crudely put, as a religion assimilates, some adherents will long for a more pure or more "something" experience and will break away to pursue that project. In this historical moment and for a variety of possible reasons, the LDS Church has "secularized" itself/become more pluralistic, through the intentional act of using all its resources to emphasize its similarities with other American denominations instead of highlighting their differences. While many of its members are clearly relieved to let go of their historical otherness as "peculiar people," others aren't quite sure how to be in their new protestantized skins. I argue that some of them supplement, integrate, or replace Mormonism with elements of the New Spirituality for just that reason.

JohnWMorehead said...

Wow! I haven't been on your blog since it was in a prior format, and stagnant for quite some time. It's great to see a new look, and current activity! I hope the PhD is going well. In your experience and research I find a coming together of my two primary research topics!

Doe: said...

Thanks so much, John. It's wonderful to hear from you! Yes, I've gotten very clear on my work and this blog, and I intend to write frequently, so I hope I'll see you here. Will you be attending Sunstone this year? If so, I would love to meet you!