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Faith in the Twenty-First Century
Letting the Dream of the 90's Die
“The times they are a becoming quite different.” – Principal Seymore Skinner, The Simpsons
Perhaps you’ve noticed something of a 90s revival going on in popular culture. It’s fun for me to see this happening. I’m myself a product of the 90s, shaped so thoroughly by that decade that I often feel like a foreigner to the times I’m living in now. I’ve in fact taken the aphorism above from that quintessentially 90s show, The Simpsons. But the statement gets at something very non-90s-ish that I want to reflect on here: the recognition that the 90s are long over. From Friends to Seinfeld, from Nirvana to Tupac, from VHS rentals to dial-up internet, from Winona Ryder to Chris Farley, from the O. J. Simpson trial to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal—it’s all well behind us. And I think that fact has implications for what it means to be a believing Latter-day Saint today.
In an utterly absorbing recent book about that last decade of the twentieth century, the pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman reflects on how much easier things were for many Americans before 9/11. He’s clearly haunted by a sense of lost innocence, a sense of lost naiveté. It’s a feeling that believing Latter-day Saints in the United States might readily understand. The 90s were the last time in recent memory that it felt easy, in the American context, to be a Latter-day Saint. Since then, we’ve encountered increased political divisiveness, the internet-enabled expansion of information, new forms of identity politics, the rise of social media, and the impact of a global pandemic. All of these things have their specifically Latter-day Saint inflections, and they all make for an intensely cross-pressured life of faith.
Today, in a word, it’s hard to be a believer. I want to ask why that is, and to say something about what it might mean to press forward in faith anyway.
Klosterman asks repeatedly in his book what exactly it is that changed as the 90s gave way to the decades that have followed them. At the book’s richest in-a-nutshell moment, he suggests the answer might lie in a curious ideological displacement:
If you ask a semi-educated young person [today] to identify the root cause of most American problems, there’s a strong possibility they will say, “Capitalism.” . . . In the nineties, when a semi-educated young person was asked to identify the root cause of most American problems, the probable answer would not have been capitalism. The more likely response would have been commercialism.
I think Klosterman’s quasi-sociological suggestion regarding the changing times is on the money, so to speak. It certainly gets at something deep, although my aim here will ultimately be to point beyond it.
Klosterman preliminarily unpacks his own pithy observation:
A hatred of commercialism is unconsciously optimistic. It operates from the (possibly naive) premise that—in and of themselves—things have merit, regardless of what those things are. Social sickness only emerges from how those things are presented. . . . This differs from a hatred of capitalism, where the problem is the thing. Anything produced through capitalism is a tool of capitalism, so the things people most desire become the obstacles upholding capitalism most effectively. The notion of intrinsic merit is superfluous, since the only quality capitalism values is the perpetuation of itself. A hatred of capitalism is consciously pessimistic.
There’s much to say about the optimism of the 90s and the pessimism of the early twenty-first century. For example, it’s no accident here that the fall of the Berlin Wall launched the 90s, while the fall of the twin towers in lower Manhattan launched the twenty-first century. But optimism and pessimism aren’t the core issues here, I take it. They’re generalized or representative moods that grow out of very different ways of understanding how the world works.
It’s this, I think, that Klosterman gestures at with his talk of whether things do or don’t have intrinsic merit. Paying careful attention to it might allow for the development of a theory of what it means to have faith today.
I’d prefer to put Klosterman’s point as follows (especially to avoid using a too-broad brush by speaking of optimism and pessimism). In the 90s, young Americans generally still believed or at least felt that there was an outside to the material-economic machine of the world. Good things could be taken up and transformed by the populism that governs the flow of the world’s economy, but they didn’t have to be. For example, authenticity, the virtue most celebrated in the 90s, involved embracing and defending whatever hadn’t been sucked into the black hole of commercialization. But today, young Americans generally lack these convictions. There’s just the machine. It has no outside. Good things and bad things alike are the products of the machine. And authenticity of the 90s sort is impossible, if not simply incoherent.
It isn’t just young people today who take all things, good or bad, to be products of the machine, ultimately inseparable from the whole system. This has, I think, become a general conviction. The 90s seem to be over for everyone. The political deadlock between conservatives and progressives in America isn’t about whether good and bad things alike derive from the world’s economic machine. Rather, it amounts to an irresolvable disagreement about whether the good things produced by the system are so valuable that the machine must be preserved more or less as it is (conservatism) or whether the bad things produced by the system are so egregious that the machine needs serious redesigning (progressivism). All, however, seem to agree that the things that make up the world are the products of the system in one way or another.
But this isn’t to say that there’s no debate between conservatives and progressives about whether there’s an outside to the system. In fact, they definitely do debate—or at least aspire to debate—the existence of such an outside. It’s just that the debated outside isn’t things; it’s human agency. Broadly put, conservatives take agency to be a real thing, something that existed prior to and that therefore still remains decidedly apart from the system. Progressives, by contrast, understand agency to be a product of the system itself. Hence the forms the debate over agency takes. Conservatives allege that progressives dissolve agency in a vaguely Marxian and/or Darwinian materialism, while they (conservatives) hold bravely to the idea that there’s something in human being that stands beyond the merely material. Progressives in turn allege that conservatives valorize a form of human agency that’s really propped up by a baseline level of wealth, and that they (progressives) alone wish to meet those same material conditions for as many people as possible rather than for the privileged few.
This is a debate that leaves the 90s definitively behind. Things aren’t the issue anymore, only agency. The key question has become whether agency is an unconditional good that ought to be used to uphold the system (because of the beneficial things it has produced and still produces) or whether agency is a conditional state produced by material conditions that ought to be extended to those who lack it through a reworking of the system (because of the harmful things it has produced and still produces).
Klosterman has helpfully described a situation that concerns us all, I think. But now, what has all this to do with Latter-day Saints? And how might it allow for an articulation of what faith looks like here and now, letting the bygone era of the 90s fade definitively into the past?
At first glance, one might guess that what Klosterman has to say is relevant to Latter-day Saints above all because of the way it concerns agency. If human agency has emerged as the key point of contention regarding what might or might not lie outside the system, then isn’t the potential eclipse of agency what spells disaster and leaves the Saints beleaguered in the early twenty-first century? I don’t think so. Instead, I’m convinced that what’s essential isn’t the emergence of agency as the point of disagreement between conservatives and progressives. Rather, it’s the apparent agreement between conservatives and progressives regarding the dissolution of things wholly into the system as such. It was the apparent freedom of things in the 90s that allowed faith—in particular, here, Latter-day Saint faith—to flourish in a way it hasn’t in the decades since.
Obviously, this matter of things needs some unpacking. What of agency? I’ll come back to that. The key question that needs answering first is a wholly non-Klostermanian one: What does faith look like? And what does it have to do with things?
Let me work my way toward an answer by starting from a context where I think faith doesn’t show up, although I think it’s very natural to think that it does. I have in mind a debate between a critic and a defender of Latter-day Saint faith claims. The defender labors to show that the most intellectually honest approach to things out there in the world is one that ultimately finds them arranged just as Latter-day Saint faith claims seem to imply. The critic labors in turn to show that the most intellectually honest approach to things out there in the world is one that ultimately finds them arranged in some other way, such that things are at odds with what Latter-day Saints say.
Here, it seems to me, the believer and the unbeliever share a key assumption. Both assume that the things of the world simply stand there in some determinate way, in a way that they’d both like to know as certainly as possible. Their contest is over which of them sees those things better, and whether, once they’re seen well enough, it’s the claims of the believer or of the unbeliever that are ultimately justified.
Is faith on display anywhere in this picture? It’s clearly not what the critic represents, of course. But what of the defender of Latter-day Saint beliefs? I think it’s safe to say that the believer in this picture represents faith—in the sense that she takes faith’s side in the debate—but does she actually embody faith in her work at defending its claims?
I think the answer has to be no. After all, faith isn’t embodied in the intellectual labor of showing that a mountain that appears to be in one place is actually in another; it’s embodied in the act of telling a mountain to move from one place to another. This is to say that faith isn’t embodied in the labor of trying to see static reality always more clearly, trusting that every new discovery will confirm what one has already heard; it’s embodied in the labor of participating in the dynamic change of reality, always assuming that a rather different world than the one that’s been known will come into view. In a word, faith doesn’t observe things. It instead pries things—possessions and plans, identities and interests, even traumas and turns of phrase—from the world and sets them free.
Consequently, the ever-present danger attending the impulse to defend the faith (however important and perhaps even necessary the fulfillment of that impulse is) is a temptation to reduce the faith to the way things are in the world. It’s too easy, in striking a defensive pose, to leave things trapped in the system of the world, rather than to liberate them. But the person who embodies faith doesn’t attend to the world’s economy, making sure that she’s been right about the nature of the system. Rather, she pulls out of circulation things that have been produced by the world’s economy, and then she offers these up to God in consecration.
Faith, in other words, doesn’t look for an outside to the system; it creates an outside to the system. Trusting what she has heard of or from God, the person of faith looks at the world with an eye to dislodging things from their places in the network of the world and then seeing what use they can be for creating a community where people can and do live together in love. Faith doesn’t look especially like defensiveness, in the spirit of fear. It looks like creativity, rooted in a conviction that Christ has indeed overcome the world.
So why is it easier to believe at certain times and harder at others? Why was it easier to be a believing Latter-day Saint in the 90s but harder to be one two decades into the twenty-first century?
It’s probably true to say—as Klosterman does between parentheses—that there was something naive about the widespread conviction in the 90s that some things, or in fact a good many things, stood outside the system of the world’s economy. The pessimism of the present era almost certainly has something to do with a collective loss of naiveté. But if one genuinely feels as if a good many things stand outside the system, it can’t but appear easier to lay claim to them, mustering them for whatever good work the Kingdom of God calls for. If one sees the world as making fewer claims on things, it inevitably requires less work to put those things in the service of faith, such that people of faith might even live free from the demands of justifying their faith.
But where, as is the case today, there’s a general assumption or at least a general feeling that nothing stands apart from the economy of the world, faith’s labors are dramatically more taxing. This is especially the case because so many things directly attached to the Church were easier, a few decades ago, to regard as standing outside the system. Today that’s difficult for increasingly many believers. From the reasoning behind policies to the decisions about leadership, from the concrete history of the Church to the ideas presented as official doctrine—there’s far, far greater pressure today than before the end of the twentieth century to see all these things as products of the material machine of the world’s history.
The result is that faith requires more today than it did even just a few years ago. It sometimes seems like it’s something of a miracle to find a solid example of faith today. That’s maybe just as should be expected, however—at least if we trust the Book of Mormon. Mormon claims—in a sermon delivered in a time when beleaguered believers also faced a dominant culture of unbelief—that “it is by faith that miracles are wrought,” adding that “if these things have ceased, wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain” (Moro. 7:37).
The challenge is real, then, as it’s sometimes been for our forebears. But this just means, I think, that there’s all the more reason to rejoice at faith when it shows up in such challenging times. Simpler times have disappeared into the past, and nostalgia for times that aren’t our own will only make the challenge harder. In fact, one terrible temptation we face in the brave new world of the twenty-first century is to think that faith looks backward, as if its work were that of forcing the world to look again like it did in the past. Faith, though, looks forward, beginning from the word of hope we’ve received. The faithful have the task of building a better world, still to come. According to the words of prophets past and present, that’s only going to be accomplished through trust in the Christ who—miracle of miracles!—transcended the world by rising from the dead.
It's in the context of this kind of faith that agency has its fullest manifestation, I think. Even if human beings turn out to be, at some level, fully unconditional agents, that isn’t our ultimate destination, according to the gospel. We’re to become agents of Christ, which is exactly what faith looks like. Similarly, even if it turns out that every form of human agency visible in the world is fully conditioned by the grinding machine of history, the gospel issues a call to rise beyond that sort of agency to another. There’s an agency of faith whose unconditional work is to subtract things—including human beings—from the world so as to see what can be done with them. That’s exactly what Christ himself said he came to do, and to get us to do: to recover people from the narrow confines into which the categorizing world traps them so that they’re free to do real good for the world.
Believers have always been wayfarers in this world, but certain periods of history have made it harder to see just how true that is. The 90s was one of those periods. Because we follow hard on the heels of times when faith felt easier, the labors of faith feel particularly burdensome today. And in such circumstances, it’s dangerously easy for wayfarers to find fault with one another—grasping for someone or something to blame for the faltering of so many. But this is a mistake. The lesson of faith in the twenty-first century is that, precisely because faith feels harder, it also has the potential to free us from both the demands of a frictionless agency and the crushing pressure of history. With eyes wide open, and embracing each other’s labors to do real good, the faithful look forward in the hope of seeing more. Faith always hopes for a better world. I fully trust that such a world awaits us in earnest.
Joseph Spencer is a philosopher and an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.