Friday, July 4, 2014

Shifting Faith Paradigms of a Mormon Academic

If you know me well, or perhaps if you read about my own shifting faith paradigms/personal faith journey, you might understand why I feel a kinship to Armand Mauss after reading the following excerpts. They come from the beginning and the end of chapter 3 in Mauss's memoir: "Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic". Buy the book–seriously! By way of introduction, I'll quote Richard Bushman from the forward:

As with all intellectuals, Mauss had his private battles to fight as well. His greatest early struggle was with "the social construction of reality," the notion that was sweeping the scholarly world at the time of his intellectual formation in graduate school. The words "social construction" mean that each society puts together it's own version of reality rather than finding a fixed and unchangeable reality out there somewhere. Independent reality may exist with God, and be known by faith, but humans have no direct access to it via reason and science. Every truth we know comes through a human mind embedded in a society of some kind. We have to accept the principle that every conception of reality is contingent on the conditions in the society where that conception originates. One can imagine the impact of this realization on a young Mormon scholar who had been raised on belief in absolute truth. One of the most intriguing passages in the memoir is the account of how Mauss coped with this crisis.

With five years' bishopric service behind me, I ventured back into the secular academic world to resume my graduate studies in 1962. I was, of course, expecting to be exposed to new intellectual territory, especially since I was switching my disciplinary focus from history to sociology for the doctorate. I did not, however, expect to be confronted with an entirely new ontology and epistemology. As my intellectual development continued, the sociological concept that truth or reality is socially constructed turned out to offer a greater challenge to my religious faith than anything else I was to encounter in my entire academic career. Gradually came to terms with that challenge, however, and eventually became quite comfortable with the "social constructionist" way of understanding reality.

My upbringing as a Mormon, as well as my intellectual training under the Jesuits at Sophia University, had equipped me with an absolutist or essentialist ontology. I recognized, of course, that there could be a variety of understandings and interpretations of reality derived from different cultures, religions, and life circumstances. Yet, among all of these, or perhaps outside of them, there would be a single ontology – an absolute reality as defined by God or as given in nature or both. The search for truth was a matter of applying the empiricism, the logic, and the epistemology, well known since the ancient Greeks, to get beyond all these differing conceptions to the real truth, or the true reality, in the universe. I have observed that most people, at least in the Euro–American world, grow up with similar epistemological and ontological assumptions and rarely have reason to question them.

I am not sure exactly when my doubts about these assumptions began, but it was sometime after I returned to sustained doctoral study in sociology in the 1960s. I recall no sudden epiphany or "breakthrough," no sense that I was leaving behind one entire intellectual paradigm for a different one. My intellectual transitions always seem to have been gradual and evolutionary. I simply became increasingly aware of the need to reconsider and revise earlier assumptions in light of new ideas to which I had been exposed...

[Different works and readings eventually helped show] how different visions of reality emerge from different social circumstances and...these works made clear the processes by which different cultures and interest groups construct the ideas, facts, "plausibility structures" that come to be "taken for granted" by their respective members – a process defined as the "sociology of knowledge" in academia. The major implication here is that any notion of "absolute" truth or reality, of the kind promulgated by the Judeo-Christian traditions, might ultimately exist in the mind of God, or in some other great cosmological sense, but if so, we as human beings have no access to it through any field of science.

Therefore, if we embrace any reality as "objective," existing independently of human invention, of the kind claimed in religions like Catholicism or Mormonism, then we do so on faith, as a matter of choice. Operationally speaking, the only reality we "know" is that which has been constructed by our families and passed along to us as part of our cultural heritage. In this way of looking at reality, it is easy to see how different claims to truth are embraced as ontological realities, not only in religion but also in science, in politics, and in many other fields of human knowledge. Where religion was concerned, at least in my case, it became increasingly obvious that if I were to continue as an active believer in the LDS faith, it would be mainly a matter of choosing to embrace a certain construction of reality, not the result of a meticulous process of testing and proving incontrovertible claims about the supernatural...

My reflections on this predicament [that embracing a social constructionist epistemology (that reality or truth is socially constructed within each contending society) is more relativistic than and challenges the traditional Christian and Mormon absolutist conceptions of reality/epistemology], however, led me not away from faith but rather toward a realization that in order to engage in a community of discourse, whether ethnic, religious, political, or any other kind, I would first have to understand that community's epistemology and ontology. My understanding, then, would depend on interpreting its discourse and behavior through the lens of its own shared conceptions of reality, rather than through my own or other lenses that I might bring to the examination. The same would be true, of course, for understanding the discourse and behavior in my own religious community. I had already learned to understand LDS reality as an insider and had taken that for granted. My new understanding, however, did not require me to abandon my religious community, ontology, or epistemology, but only to embrace them as a matter of choice, rather than as the only valid way of seeing reality.

Such a recognition seemed to accord also with a theological conception of faith as an active personal choice, rather than as a passive acceptance of a religious tradition. A social constructionist understanding of reality, furthermore, leaves one free also to reject any secular definition as the only true understanding of reality, since no particular epistemology can claim privileged status in the eyes of God or nature–or (still less) in Academia. Any epistemology has validity only within its own community of discourse. My "Mormon passport," then, was as valid as any other as I traveled through the various communities of discourse that I encountered. This line of reasoning, one might say, further relativizes the relativity of the social scientist's construction of reality. The scholar thus remains free to embrace the epistemology and ontology of a religious believer for ordering his or her own life and world, while at the same time being entirely free to venture into other epistemological worlds to understand other peoples with their respective discourse and behavior.


Jeff G said...

I loved every word of this. My own confrontation with social theory allowed me to begin my journey back toward the faith.

Clean Cut said...

I appreciate hearing that I was not the only one who found this beneficial! Thanks Jeff.

Richard Alger said...

Thank you for this post