Tuesday, December 19, 2006
New Religions and Folk Religion: Considerations Beyond Institutional Orthodoxies
After posting my ethnography paper on Eclectic Mormon Women on a few websites I received some positive feedback from Pagans and evangelicals alike. One of the helpful comments confirmed my own thinking related to the significance of folk religion as it relates to understanding new religions and world religions.
My friend and colleague Philip Johnson suggested four essays for further research on this topic, one of which was Richley H. Crapo, "The Grass Roots Deviance from Official Doctrine: A Study of Latter-day Saint (Mormon) Folk Beliefs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26/4 (1987): 465-85. In this article Crapo surveyed a number of Utah Latter-day Saints concerning their doctrinal beliefs. As the abstract notes, "in spite of the authority-based concept of revealed doctrine, actual beliefs at the local level may deviate from doctrinal positions issued by church Presidents." This was the case with the women I surveyed and interviewed in Utah who combined active Latter-day Saint practices and beliefs with various elements from the New Spirituality, Paganism, and Wicca. This eclectic mix resulting in folk religiosity happens in every religious tradition, including traditional expressions of Christianity, so we should not be surprised to find it among Latter-day Saints.
As I was reminded in my research, and in Philip's comments, the presence of folk-beliefs among Latter-day Saints at the grass roots level represents significant blind spots for evangelicals. Many evangelicals assume that a given adherent to a new religion holds beliefs consistent with institutional orthodoxy, but this may very likely not be the case. (Indeed, Mormonism emphasize participation in community, testimony, and ritual over doctrine or doctrinal conformity). In interactions with Mormons, for example, evangelicals frequently engage them by reminding them of either present institutional orthodoxy or a nineteenth century variant that is likely to no longer to be held by many Mormons. If folk-beliefs are held at a grass roots level then institutional orthodoxy as a starting point is flawed. It seems likely then that the presence of folk religious aspects within Mormonism represent apologetic and missiological blind spots that need to be addressed by the evangelical community. But despite the importance of such issues it is unlikely that they will be addressed by those in ministry to Mormons. Why? Since so few recognize the existence of Mormon neo-orthodoxy it is unlikely they will consider aspects of folk Mormonism.
Philip Johnson will be leading an intensive course on new religious movements at Salt Lake Seminary, with a special one-day intensive on January 2, and the rest of the week devoted to the intensive course from January 3-6. And in the spring semester Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary will be coming out over various weekends in February, March, and April for an intensive on world religions with an emphasis on "Exegeting Religious Cultures for Mission" as it relates to folk religions. These two scholars represent some of the best thinking in these fields, and their teaching should provide a helpful corrective to our reified understandings of new religions and world religions.