Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bloggernacle and Institutional Change


Fifthgen emailed me this question. I thought the group might like to toss it around.

I sense in the bloggernacle some guarded optimism that we are entering an era of comparative openness with respect to Church History. The talk is about the new Church Historian, the Joseph Smith papers, etc. Am I misperceiving things? Is there a basis for the optimism? And if so, is it because the Church's hand is being forced by the internet/bloggernacle? In other words, all sorts of information is all going to be out there, so we (the Church and its members) might as well get in the fray. And, does Pres. Monson change anything?


23 comments:

Sanford Barrett said...

Fifthgen wonders if the Church is becoming more open about its history, and if so, is it because the Church's hand is being forced by information widely available on the Internet/Bloggernacle.

It seems to me that a decision to change how the Church discusses its history would have to be made at the very highest levels. So, has the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve discussed the Bloggernacle and made changes as a result? As unlikely as it sounds, I think perhaps they have. In an address to BYU Hawaii students last December, Apostle Russell M. Ballard said:

“As I look into your young faces, it is an uncomfortable reminder that I am in my 80th year. By some accounts that makes me pretty old. Actually, some folks think some of the Brethren may be too old to know what's going on in the world. Let me assure you we are very much aware.“

He continued:

“If you read newspapers, the chances are you read them on the Internet. Yours is the world of cyberspace, cell phones that capture video, video downloads and iTunes, social networks like Facebook, text messaging and blogs, hand-helds and podcasts. As many in my generation are just getting onto email, that’s already becoming old hat to most of you."

Furthermore:

“Today we have a modern equivalent of the printing press in the Internet and all that it means. The Internet allows everyone to be a publisher, to have their voice heard, and it is revolutionizing society. Before the Internet, there were great barriers to printing. It took money, power, or influence and a great amount of time to publish. But today, because of the emergence of what some call New Media, made possible by the Internet, many of those barriers have been removed. New Media consists of tools on the Internet that make it possible for nearly anyone to publish or broadcast to either a large or a niche audience.“

Now here is the money quote:

“There are conversations going on about the Church constantly. Those conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them. But we cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the Church teaches.”

That is quite a striking statement coming from an Apostle. I think the brethren realize that their take on Mormonism could be eclipsed by others who want to discuss it. And by discuss, I mean discuss – not indoctrinate or make weak historical claims that don’t bear scrutiny. I mean a real discussion. I dare say that Elder Ballard realizes that if the Church maintains a rigid posture about its history, it may lose its place at the discussion table.

Rubymainia said...

Please, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, please do a poll!

Sanford Barrett said...

Make that M. Russell Ballard -- not Russell M. Ballard.

Anonymous said...

The church lost control of the agenda pretty much when the Internet became the oracle for open dialogue that we see today. All they can do now try to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear they now hold. Good luck fellas. Peristroika won't be stopped. The cat is out of the bag and they know it. They will have to start spinning their story faster than ever, lest the more curious and skeptical saints who have finally become enlightened during this new era (not to be confused with the zine) continue to flee out the back door in the numbers they are. The game is pretty much over, they know it, and all they can do is hope to stay even. They will never come fully clean on the real story on church history because if they do, even the most strident followers will also start leaving the pews as well. You gotta know you have problems when wards in the 21st East and 19th South area of SLC are forced to consolidate for lack of members and leadership. No doubt this is just one of many areas of SLC and Utah in general that see this change.

Fifthgen said...

Who is anonymous?

Sanford Barrett said...

Anonymous says

The cat is out of the bag and they know it.

and

The game is pretty much over, they know it, and all they can do is hope to stay even.

I laughed at your quote about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but I think you’re dead wrong about what “they” know. Undoubtedly the internet is a grave concern to them. They repeatedly assert that the internet can be a great evil if used inappropriately. But ultimately, they see the internet as just one more way that the Gospel can spread. Given their belief (knowledge to them) that the Kingdom cannot be stopped, I very much doubt they know the game is over.

Fifthgen said...

It is interesting to see the diversity of thought on the internet regarding the LDS Church. There is everything from pretty virulent anti-mormon stuff to the Sunstone crowd to very agressive Mormon apolgists on every topic. And all of this includes pretty scholarly stuff going in both (all?) directions.

Whatever else you think of them, the leaders of the LDS Church are no dummies. They can see that they cannot "beat" the internet (meaning, they cannot be the only source of information on Mormonism), so they better join it. The LDS Church has proven to be pretty resilient and adaptable in the past. It may be a bit early to predict its post-information-age demise.

I think it will be interesting to see if the apparent diversity of thought among LDS Church members on the internet translates into cultural changes, too. Maybe the internet convices you that the rabid survivalist or vocal feminist in Sunday School are not alone, and that their ideas are worth a second look.

kframpton said...

wow..i am joining this late as usual.

1. people will be people. as we further technology with the internet, phones and more there is more information avaliable. people are naturally curious. they will search for "secrets" or what they percieve to be secrets. people like "anonymous" will say that the church will have to cover things up quickly because s/he likes/wants to think that people have these secrets to cover up.
2. all religions, countries, individuals and organizations have things that when looked at from an outsiders point of view are wierd, strange, cult-like, embarassing, or outrageous.
3. what does it bother us that other people do things that we do not understand or "get"?
4. why can we not just "do unto others"?
5. "anonymous" you post many comments on this page...why do you not want us to know who you are? Are you afarid that we will find you weird, strang, cult-like, embarassing or outrageous?

I guess I am just rambling now.

DMI Dave said...

Welcome to the Bloggernacle, Sanford. Yes, it seems like Elder Ballard's speech is a sign of new openness to Mormons speaking candidly, both online and in professional circles.

But consider the impact of the Olympics, the PBS special "The Mormons," and the Romney candidacy, which collectively have moved the Church more into the public eye. I think this has pushed the Church toward more openness as much as any online activity.

jupee said...

Umm, don't you have 3 kids?

pb said...

This discussion reminds me a lot of a column in the NY Times today reporting on the Chinese government's attempt to define the Dalai Lama as a rabble rouser. It rang rather hollow, to say the least. The power to control information is crucial to dictatorships like "the Church" and the Chinese.

Equally important, however, is the nature of the audience. If a person is not susceptible to persuasion by evidence, then it really doesn't matter what kind of evidence there is. It seems to me that sufficient information has always been available to kill anyone's belief in mormonism or christianity or a personal god. All that is required is a look at the scripture itself, or even just application of rudimentary general knowledge and observation, which tells us, for instance, that the earth has been in existence for more than 6000 years, that virgins do not give birth, that prayers are ineffectual, that Joseph Smith, while married, seduced numerous young women, that the book of mormon was not translated from an ancient document, etc. etc. If persons, knowing these facts, continue to "believe," it's not the kind of belief that is susceptible to persuasion by evidence.

What I would like to see is less discussion about "the Church" and the truth or falsity of its historical and factual claims -- I take it as a given that there is no supernatural God and most of the fact claims made by western religions are false -- and more discussion about what needs "the Church" is meeting. Is it possible to meet these needs without a Church, without God, and without dogma that insists on distorting the truth? I think so, but I haven't found out how.

pb said...

Having said all that, this is your blog, so I guess you get to say what the discussion is about. What is the bloggernacle anyway?

Fifthgen said...

What was/were the question/s?

Sanford Barrett said...

pb says

It seems to me that sufficient information has always been available to kill anyone's belief in Mormonism or Christianity or a personal god.

I think fifthgen’s question is not whether the internet’s easy dispersal of information will kill people’s belief, rather the question is will it cause the Church to be more open about its history.

I hope and think the answer is yes.

As someone who still navigates within the framework of Mormonism, I hope for changes in the Church that allow for open and candid discussion of our faith.

Religious faith isn’t particularly rational in my opinion, but I can’t dismiss it outright. I just can't abandon much of what I have experienced and been taught because I don’t understand it. At some points in my life I have had a lot of faith and at other times a little. At this point in my life I want to try and understand what faith I have. I want to discuss it, toss it around, read about it, argue about it, puzzle about it and generally explore it. One frustration I have with the Mormon Church is my experience that the exploration of Mormon faith is discouraged if the seeker strays to far from conventional ideas or routines. I would like that culture to change and perhaps easier access to ignored information will prompt us to consider that information more openly and honestly.

Because you take it as a given that “there is no supernatural God”, it is understandable that openness in the Church is not particularly compelling. But for me, it’s a step in the right direction.

pb said...

You say you can't abandon what you've experienced and been taught because you don't understand it. Isn't it necessary to "unbundle" what it is that you can't abandon? Is it what you've been taught or is it what you've experienced? It seems to me that those two things would need to be looked at differently. And when you say "faith", does this mean faith in what you've been taught or faith in what you've experienced? Or something else? And how is faith defined anyway? Is it simply belief in something absent evidence or in the face of contrary evidence? Or is it something else? If its belief absent evidence, what is the value of it? If its something else, then what?

Sanford Barrett said...

pb says

And how is faith defined anyway? Is it simply belief in something absent evidence or in the face of contrary evidence? Or is it something else? If its belief absent evidence, what is the value of it? If its something else, then what?

I use the term faith in a couple of ways. First, to describe the Mormon Church in general – as in, I was brought up in the Mormon Faith. On a personal level, faith to me is about as you described it – a belief in something absent evidence or in the face of contrary evidence. I like the term “leap of faith.” Or perhaps, leap to faith. Faith to me is not an easy or rational thing to have. I think I touch up against faith but have only a smidgen of it – I suppose what I really have is an approximation to it, I don’t really have it but I can sense it out there. To gain real faith, I think I would have to discard my doubts and jump. In some sense it would like just making a policy decision to believe. It would be irrational (or perhaps delusional to some) but it might work.

pb says

If its belief absent evidence, what is the value of it?

I don’t think that I live much of my life based upon evidence and I not sure I would want to. There are lots of reasons why I do what I do and rationality and proof is probably just a few of the many impulses I respond to. Do you, pb, live your life a purely rational manner? Do aspire to that? Is creativity rational? Are feelings? Is existence?

pb says

Isn't it necessary to "unbundle" what it is that you can't abandon? Is it what you've been taught or is it what you've experienced? It seems to me that those two things would need to be looked at differently.

Oh, I think I’ve done a lot of unbundling. In fact, I don’t think I have a bundle left. What I have now is a bunch of scattered notions and ideas and questions. So now what do I do now? Which strands do I keep and which do I discard? I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I want to build upon what I have left rather than abandon my broken down structure by just walking away from it.

As for what I have experienced. There have been times in my life when I had faith – do I discard those experiences? Was I deluded? Was I dumb? Was I young and na├»ve? Who is to say that I am not deluded now in my lack of faith? When I say that I “just can't abandon much of what I have experienced”, I am saying that I have to acknowledge that I have experienced belief and I am not prepared to completely discount that or dismiss it.

rick said...

I'm late to the party, but let me address some of your questions.

Someone asked "what is the bloggernacle?" It is a term to describe LDS-themed blogs.

I sense in the bloggernacle some guarded optimism that we are entering an era of comparative openness with respect to Church History.

I agree--there does seem to be a sense of comparative openness.

is it because the Church's hand is being forced by the internet/bloggernacle?

Yes and no. Certainly, the internet is playing a role, but I also believe that Pres Hinckley has been much more open than previous presidents. Some of that lack of openness is due to illness (Pres Kimball, Benson, Hunter were never very healthy), while on the other hand I think Pres Hinckley was generally more tolerant of alternate voices than, say Pres Benson. I think that different presidents handle things differently. Pres Kimball was much more moderate than his predecessors (note the 1978 priesthood revelation as example), but Pres Benson was much more conservative (anti-communist, back to Book of Mormon, exed intellectuals in 1991 for dissent.)

does Pres. Monson change anything?

Time will tell the answer to that question. My guess is that Monson is relatively moderate, but not so much as Pres Hinckley. I think if Pres Packer lives long enough to succeed Monson, he will be more conservative, along the lines of Pres Benson. So this conservative/moderate balance could be a short-lived phenomenon, or if Monson out-lives Packer it could be longer.

pb said...

sanford on faith:

I'd like to hear more. If faith means abandoning doubt, that can be good or bad, can't it? Its problematic to abandon doubt in something that should be doubted, isn't it? Consider Jim Jones. Would it not have been better for the faithful in that situation to have been less faithful and more doubtful? Or perhaps the faithful's initial "leap of faith" should have been re-assessed when new evidence started coming in. On the other hand, complete commitment to something is often required to reap the benefits that that thing has to offer. In this sense, I see faith as being something like persistence or hope or determination or optimism. However, it still comes down to what your "faith" is in. And ultimately the decision to have faith in something, or not, should, I think, be based on evidence. Evidence includes feelings & observation and knowledge acquired from outside, credible sources. I'm still not clear what you're talking about when you say you've had a little faith and a lot of faith at various times. Faith in what? If its faith in "the Church," what does that mean? Does that mean a belief that Joseph Smith saw God (or some other such tenant) that cannot be shaken, regardless of the evidence? If evidence existed that demonstrated irrefutably that Joseph Smith did not see God, would it still be a good thing to have faith that he did? My answer to that would be no because I cannot distinguish between such faith and stubborn ignorance. Stubborn ignorance, in my mind, is the primary cause of pretty much every woe that exists in the human world, from terrorism to racism to George W. Bushism. I can't see it being a good thing. So, in answer to your question, while I certainly do not live in a purely rational manner, I would say that I do value knowledge, I do try to educate myself, and I do make conscious changes in my life based on what I learn and observe. I also try to remain open to changing course if new evidence comes in. As far as my faith, at this point, I can say that I have faith in the laws of nature. I also have faith in certain human virtues, which I think should be cultivated. In my view, religion should be 100% about providing a means to practice and cultivate these virtues, and 0% about whether Joseph Smith saw God, or any other fact claim. Wouldn't it be more useful, ultimately, if the energy that is currently wound around deciding whether "the Church" is true (whatever that means) were instead directed toward deciding what virtues should be cultivated and then figuring out how to cultivate them? And what if the whole world operated this way? Wouldn't it be a good thing if radical muslims had less faith and more interest in cultivating compassion, for instance?

Fifthgen said...

Somehow this thread has gone from, “What is the impact of the internet on the LDS Church?” to “What is faith?” or “Is faith a good thing?” Oh, well. I can go with the flow.

People a lot smarter than I have grappled with the idea of what faith is. Their conclusions, of course, are all over the board. Paul would not agree that faith is belief absent evidence or in the face of contrary evidence - - he thought faith WAS evidence. Pascal said, “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.” I think that is what makes it “faith” instead of knowledge or fact or something else.

pb’s comment that she “[tries] to remain open to changing course if new evidence comes in” gave me a lot to think about. In some ways, I see faith as “staying the course” in recognition of the fact that all the evidence is not in (and may never be). I do not see that as “stubborn ignorance,” but rather a conscious decision about to what (or Whom, better said) I want to give the benefit of the doubt. Are there facts that are problematic to a belief in Mormonism (or any other belief system). Sure. Are there facts about Mormonism, or religion, or God, that are hard to explain without some “supernatural reality?” I think so. So do you change course each time a new piece of evidence comes in, or do you stay the course with the one in which you have the most hope or confidence or faith or whatever you want to call it?

For me, faith is a transcendent understanding of the spiritual. I think I agree with Paul that faith really is “evidence of things unseen.” It may not be the kind of evidence pb is looking for, but I don’t think it is without value. I also think the connection between knowledge and faith is really interesting and really difficult and I, for one, do not have all the answers. One thing is for sure: Coming up with questions about the connection is a lot easier than coming up with answers!

Sanford Barrett said...

pb says

I'm still not clear what you're talking about when you say you've had a little faith and a lot of faith at various times. Faith in what? If its faith in "the Church," what does that mean? Does that mean a belief that Joseph Smith saw God (or some other such tenant) that cannot be shaken, regardless of the evidence?

The time when I had the most faith was on my mission. At that time faith was synonymous with knowledge for me. I regularly said things like I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that he had seen God the Father and his son. I no longer view faith and knowledge as the same thing. I no longer use the declaration “I know” when describing my understanding of Joseph Smith. I am much more likely to use the term “I believe” or even “I think” when describing Joseph Smith. These toned down declarations are much more in line with my current view of faith and knowledge. And even though it may seem illogical, I am not prepared to say that I was wrong when I said I knew. I just no longer know.

fifthgen says

So do you change course each time a new piece of evidence comes in, or do you stay the course with the one in which you have the most hope or confidence or faith or whatever you want to call it?

As I have shifted from knowledge to faith to a search for faith – I have generally stayed the course with Mormonism, as least in my mind. But friends and family probably would not consider my course to be aligned very closely with their idea of what the course of Mormonism is. I suppose I am trying to stay the course but make it my course.

pb said...

Fifthgen & Sanford: I agree that it makes sense to stay the course if the course continues to inspire hope and confidence and faith. For whatever reason, I haven't had such a course, so I really can't stay it. But I can try to find "my course" as Sanford puts it, and I guess that's what I'm doing. I also like Fifthgen's definition of faith as "a transcendent understanding of the spiritual." I most certainly would include a transcendent understanding of the spiritual as evidence. It would be evidence that would help us determine what is good, moral, virtuous, desirable, and to be sought after. I just don't see how it would be evidence that a particular fact claim made by a particular institution is true, such as, for instance, the claim that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from an ancient Egyptian scroll.

But maybe this has been beaten to death. Sanford, do you have another topic that we can veer drastically from in our comments?

Fifthgen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fifthgen said...

Re: Faith in "fact claims."

Don't you think that faith in "fact claims" is really just a link in to the ultimate truth? Isn't faith that Christ really was crucified and rose again (fact claims), simply a way of conceptualizing the idea that Christ is the Son of God, and divine himself? Wouldn't faith in the idea that Allah/God revealed his will to Mohammed on a mountain and Mohammed wrote it all in the Koran (fact claims) be important to having faith that we know God's will and should try to follow it? And isn't that just a link in the chain to the ultimate truth that there is a God who cares about us and what we do, how we live, etc?

I doubt any Christian or Moslem would say that faith in the "fact claims" central to their religion are the "ends" of their faith. They are just links to the ultimate truth of understanding God's will and helping us "determine what is good, moral, virtuous, desirable, and to be sought after."