Note: This is Part 2 of an article series is adapted from a presentation originally given August 2021 at FAIR.
To read Part 1, CLICK HERE.
In Part 1, I explored how worldview stories can shape our expectations for our lives, and shape our understanding of what is important and good. Most importantly, these worldview stories set forth our vision of the good life and human flourishing. In the Gospel story, we step into mortality with glorious purpose, are alienated from God through sin, and find redemption through Christ by making and keeping sacred covenants. The good life is defined as a life infused with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, which can carry us through all of life’s difficult circumstances.
I also explored how expressive individualism offers a competing narrative, a story that offers different priorities. Expressive individualism treats self-expression a paramount virtue. In this story, the protagonist finds themselves in a community of oppressive norms, seeks personal liberation from those norms, and remakes the community to be more accommodating of their personal differences. This story turns anyone who seeks reinforce community norms as a villain in the story. It also leads us to define love and inclusion as building a community where no one ever feels judged for living differently. Any kind of judgment or evaluation of someone’s choices is seen as a lapse of love.
Expressive individualism is just one of many. In this article, we’ll explore a little more how worldviews are internalized, and briefly touch on a handful of additional worldview stories that can come to compete with faith.
How we absorb worldviews
Worldviews are a funny thing — we rarely step into them knowingly. We passively absorb them as part of the zeitgeist of our times. If you want to change a person’s worldviews, you don’t necessarily write books. Creating a “worldview identification book,” like the tree identification book earlier, can help us learn to see the invisible — and that’s great. But we absorb these invisible worldviews in the first place most often through our entertainment. It’s in the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the novels we read.
Like the air we breathe, if movie after movie, show after show, book after book, song after song, tells us stories that follow the expressive individualist template above, we can internalize that story as a default without ever realizing we are doing it. And the way our own faith traditions appear to us can be changed by that story, as well as our priorities and values. Most who embrace expressive individualism have never heard of Carl Rogers, and have merely imbibed on our cultural assumption — handed to us from Disney and other Hollywood studios — that human flourishing involves being true to ourselves, true to our hearts, or asserting our uniquenesses against a world that would suppress them.
A fun exercise is to ask: What sorts of plots and stories would populate our movies if self-discipline, moral-centeredness, and personal sacrifice were treated at least as important as self-expression? If, in addition to stories of protagonists learning to assert their own preferences and to be themselves, we also had more stories of protagonists who relinquish some of their personal, self-centered aspirations for the sake of their family and community, and find meaning and purpose in committing themselves to a cause that is greater than themselves? Stories where community norms are not the villain, but play an essential role? Today, I extend an invitation to fellow writers and artists throughout the Church to explore these questions.
Alright, so here, I’ve touched on expressive individualism, and contrasted it with Christian discipleship. Expressive individualism is one of many such worldviews that can be explored. Another related worldview is therapeutic deism, a worldview which presumes that purpose of religion is to help us be fulfilled, happy, and healthy. It offers us a central story where our lives were full of pain and hardship until we embraced religion. Because of our religious commitments, we are now content and happy. This can lead us to prioritize low-demand, high warmth religious traditions and to see trial and struggle as signs of divine disfavor, or as a sign that our religion traditions are yet imperfect.
We can contrast therapeutic deism with Christian theism, the belief that God is our divine moral sovereign, and that religion is more than about securing fulfillment and contentment in life — it is just as much about holiness, moral discipline, and becoming like God. In this view, we can recognize the necessity of pain and suffering as part of our sanctifying experiences, and see religion not as an escape from or cure for our trialsbut as a lens that provides meaning and purpose in our trials. Christian theism is, I believe, rightly consider a high warmth but also high demand faith tradition.
Someday, if I’m ever invited back here, I’ll explore therapeutic deism in much greater detail, and why apologists should be aware of it.
Another worldview is scientism, which gives us a central story where humankind progresses through history only by abandoning religious superstitions in light of scientific enlightenment. In this cultural story, societal progress is continually stymied throughout history by religious institutions and traditions. The dedicated efforts of scientists help move society forward in spite of these backwards influences. This worldview primes us to be suspicion of claims to revelation and to view empirical methods as the source of all reliable truth.
Ben Spackman has spoken in this forum about the dangers of fundamentalism. He uses the term in a very specific way, with a very specific meaning. I’ll use the term in a different sense here, to refer more broadly to a worldview that assumes that divine instruction can never change. It hands us a story where direct revelation established divine teaching, and where communities subsequently depart from that original teaching and thus fall into apostasy. This story has kernels of truth — profound truth. It is, after all, a worldview narrative at the heart of our history as members of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. But as the only story, it can prime us to reject ongoing revelation if it appears even slightly different from our past interpretations of historical revelation. This is how you get Denver Snuffer, Alan Rock Waterman, and their followers.
We can also explore the ways in which nationalism and other political worldviews set forth stories that shape our convictions and priorities in ways that distort how we live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ — stories that center on the state as the primary authority in our lives, and the locus of our salvation from the ills that plague our society (or the world).
There are others I could include here, such as hedonism, which treats pleasure, satisfaction, and personal fulfillment are life’s highest goods, and that pain and suffering are inherent evils to be avoided. Or secular humanism, which centers our attentions on human efforts and activity, as opposed to God’s activity in the world, as the source of progress and salvation.
I want to emphasize that even though these are all narratives that can compete with the Gospel narrative or the Gospel worldview, one can be a practicing, believing Latter-day Saint while embracing these various alternatives as their central worldview. And this is precisely, I believe, why many are having a faith crisis today — they have already been proselyted into competing worldviews, and just do not yet know it. As unwitting adherents to a foreign faith, but active participants of this one, they may start to find many of the things we do and teach to be strange and problematic.
When a person embraces expressive individualism as their central story, they might find it unjust that the temple garment interferes with preferred styles of dress. An uncritical adoption of therapeutic deism might leave someone wary of temple worthiness requirements and the attendant social risks of failing to meet them. An uncritical embrace of hedonism might lead someone to feel like their religion is failing them when they experience episodes of depression. An uncritical embrace of scientism might lead someone to implicitly elevate social scientists over prophets and apostles as the primary authorities on the good life and human flourishing. And so on.
Although ostensibly “inside” our faith, they view our practices and teachings through worldview lenses that predispose them to view our teachings and practices with some measure of suspicion. I’m not trying to universalize this interpretation to everyone. My case is simply that many are having a crisis of faith precisely because they are straddling two worlds and do not even realize they are doing so. Uncomfortable maintaining that posture, but not equipped with the language to articulate their predicament, they fixate on historical stuff that — for many of the rest of us — might pose few problems at all, but for someone who is already feeling out of place, might give them precisely the pretexts they need to leave.
Our critics sometimes accuse us of being unwilling to question. I believe we should ask far more questions than we often do, and that real critical thinking involves asking questions about our questions. What cultural and worldview assumptions are baked in the questions themselves? How are the terms defined? Why these questions, and not others? How do our worldviews inform what we accept as admissible answers to our questions? I believe that when we learn to think critically about our questions, we can become more discerning and thoughtful Latter-day Saints.
Today I extend an invitation: we need more people working on articulating these competing worldviews, providing labels for them, critically examining them by comparing and contrasting them with Gospel perspectives. We desperately need an improved vernacular and vocabulary on these matters, a “worldview identification book” — or many such books — to help make what is invisible to us visible. In other words, we need more people thoughtfully challenging the cultural presumptions of our day. And more especially, we need thoughtful writers and creators to explore how these worldviews find expression in our entertainment and media, and what it would look like if alternatives found similar expression along the way.