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.


Aaron S said...

I think you're naive in assuming that countercultists don't recognize neo-orthodoxy and folk beliefs. I just don't see their existence as warrant to stop interacting with the more concrete, authoritative LDS positions, among other things because a Mormon's religious identity and the sort of repentance the gospel calls for encompasses not just what one individually affirms, but also the kinds of things one is willing to believe, unwilling to repudiate, and willing to acquiesce to. This is especially the case when it comes to beliefs on the fundamental nature of God.nd

John W. Morehead said...

Aaron, thanks for coming by and leaving your comments.

We'll just have to disagree concerning our assessments of the countercult and their acknowledgement of Mormon folk beliefs. My views do not assume naivete, but rather come as a result of reviewing countercult resources and having seen their approaches to the LDS where the views of LDS are often held up against institutional orthodoxy or at times nineteenth century Mormonism (as if the religion was static). I am unaware of any countercult engagement with LDS folk religion with its esotericism. In my thinking this is a reification of Mormon"ism" that does not necessarily reflect where many LDS may be in their faith practices and beliefs. If you read my paper on Eclectic Mormon Women, and trace down some of the bibliographic materials I interact with, you might come away with a broader picture for reflecting on this issue.

Aaron S said...

"I am unaware of any countercult engagement with LDS folk religion with its esotericism."

That is absurd. Every Christian countercultist in Utah who does regular evangelism is QUITE aware--on a personal level from personal experience--of Mormon folk doctrine and neo-orthodoxy (although they might not label as such). They are probably more familiar with it than you are, since they interact with it on a regular basis with new laymen.

I really think you need to spend some more time with the countercult community before you keep dishing out your outrageous generalizations. Or at least base your generalizations off some compelling public data. It's easy to knock down a strawman.

John W. Morehead said...

Aaron, you seem to enjoy monitoring this blog in order to keep tabs on where you disagree with me, and to counter my thinking that critiques aspects of countercult perspectives. I hope I can encourage you to reflect more carefully.

Rather than my post on Mormon folk religion being naive and absurd, I specifically had in mind a neglected or ignored facet in evangelical thinking related to the complexity that is Mormonism as it relates to hermetic and esoteric influences. Most, if not all, evangelical treatments, particularly those of the countercult, when they do consider this aspect, tend to note its connection to Joseph Smith's "money digging," or its relationship to Mormon temple rituals and the symbolism of its architecture. This is usually tied to a case that then tries to dismiss Smith and Mormonism due to "occultic" influences, but no further reflection is given to the significance of hermeticism in Mormon thought past and present.

If you are aware of countercult assessments of this matter that engage the primary source material from the nineteenth century cultural milieu that played a part in Smith's thinking and practices, as well as interactions with the relevant academic material on this then by all means please make me aware of where we can find it.

Until such countercult materials surface that meet the criteria I set forth above then it would seem that you may be guilty of the straw man argumentation that you accuse others of (which I have noted you do on other blogs in making comments on MoreheadsMusings). Please be more careful and specific in your comments as this will lend credibiity to your posts, and enable this important dialogue to move forward in constructive ways.