Modernism and Traditionalism

April 27, 2008    By: Matt W. @ 8:32 pm   Category: Theology

While I wait for Blake Ostler’s book 3 to arive in the mail from, I’ve been whiling away the free moments skimming Paulson and Musser’s excellent introduction. Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies . (It’s a great book, with some great introductions to different schools of thought. Check it out if you get the chance.)

One thing that has been impactful on me is Musser’s well written and extremely accessible introduction. In it he breaks down theology into two schools of thought: Traditionalism and Modernism. He basically defines these schools by their emphasis on different inputs, which are basically tradition, sacred texts, religious and social experience, and reason. Traditionalists tend to emphasize the first two and modern therologies emphasize the latter two. Musser gives a revealing statement on this, saying traditionalists tend to “look back, seeking to conserve the essentials of scripture and religion”, while modern theologies “look around at current personal and social experiences and contemporary ways of thinking, seeking to confirm the essentials of scripture and tradition in light of the present age.”

Musser is quick to point out that most theological positions and people are “more complex” than the above bifurcation, and are usually a shade of the two, but I thought this model sounded like a very interesting way of looking at the membership of the church.

My first thought was that as a church we teach our children in primary and seminary to be traditionalists, holding on to the scriptures and the traditions of the church, but we teach our converts to be modernists, using reason and personal experience (revelation) to claim for themselves the truths of the Gospel. In this way, we set up a fractured society to an extent, with some significant spillover between the two groups. (I guess, being a convert, I am giving away which camp I think I fall into).

In other ways, I think we compartmentalize our religion, with some area pushing for more reason and personal experience(the fast and testimony concept of inspired speaking), and others begging for adherence to tradition and sacred text (temple worship).

So what do you think: Are we artificially dividing our church with a problematic “convert”, “life member” divide that stems to epistemological roots like those I’ve outlined above? Is the traditionalist camp teaching their children to be “cultural mormons”?

Or do we segment our religion along compartments of modernism and traditionalism? Or am I imagining the whole thing and my generalizations don’t match your experience [or understanding of modernism and traditionalism]…


  1. That’s a real interesting comment about converts vs. ‘members of record.’ I’m not sure it’s entirely true – but there’s more truth to it than I think ought be the case. One thing I remember from my mission was the “don’t take our word for it – find out for yourself.’ That just doesn’t appear as much, from what I can see, in day to day ward teaching. (Of course anecdotal evidence is always risky)

    Having said that though I’m not sure I buy the compartmentalization claim you make. Arguably the temple, precisely because it isn’t talked about, forces personal interpretation, study, and revelation. With scriptures and doctrine because it is so public there isn’t that same kind of demand.

    Comment by Clark — April 27, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

  2. Interesting observations Matt.

    I think the boundaries of Mormonism are more narrow than what is presented. What I mean is that we might say we have scriptures and common doctrines on the one hand and personal revelation on the other hand. I really do not see much of the social experience and observation having a lot of influence.

    I might add that I believe personal revelation should be a close match to the scriptures and doctrines of the church, and if they don’t I am skeptical. My view is that in most cases the role of personal revelation is to confirm the scriptures.

    Since these are my current thoughts, I do not see any significant dividing going on.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 28, 2008 @ 5:50 am

  3. I appreciate the mapping of Traditional v. “Modern” onto our membership groups–especially as I serve as Ward mission leader with such issues on the forefront of my mind. Thanks for articulating the thoughts so well, MattW.

    Often, as you indicate, we seem to give preference to the traditional mindset in Church contexts, despite our insistence on the “Modern” approach in our conversion process. I wonder if a similar mapping of traditional v. modern might apply to the Old and New Testaments. I recently posted about reconciling those (see here:
    (sorry to mess up the formatting–eventually I’ll figure out how to tie a link to “here”)
    and would have to give additional thought to whether a comparable approach might be available in this instance.

    The restored gospel navigates across the gap between traditional and modern in the general sense; however, the practice of preferring one to the other in gospel discourse seems problematic. When lessons at Church teach us, as suggested, to hold onto the scriptures and traditions of the Church, a significant problem also enters onto the scene in that we encourage the early conceptions of those doctrines to solidify (“harden” so to speak), making us resistant to the modern revelation that disrupts our traditionalist sense of security.

    Even the still small voice does violence–it pierces and penetrates. The Lord teaches by calling us and His call intends to draw us out of our security/apathy/comfort and into a relationship of dependence on Him. This violent shifting of world-view is too often frowned-upon in Church contexts.

    I wonder what suggestions might give a path toward reconciling the “modern” and traditional approaches. I’ll definitely be giving more thought to the question and look forward to the added thoughts shared here. Thanks again for starting the conversation.


    Comment by MattM — April 28, 2008 @ 6:15 am

  4. Just noticed Eric’s thoughts and wanted to add that I agree that the content or substance found in each approach often does not differ; however, the emphasis on one or the other without reconciling the two can lead both sides to view their counterpart as unnecessarily limited. The “modern” side might see traditionalists as clinging to comfort zones and closed minded to new truths; whereas the modernists might be viewed by traditionalists as being insufficiently rooted in the gospel and overly influenced by new ideas not well-established in the Church’s teachings or practice.

    Again, I see the more important consequence in the implication on covenant relationships and the tendency to limit that relationship on either side unnecessarily. A reconciliation would be desirable, even if the content of “modern” and traditional thinkers is and remains very similar.

    I hope my thoughts aren’t too jumbled on this–let me know if so, and I’ll be glad to clarify.


    Comment by MattM — April 28, 2008 @ 6:21 am

  5. The Gospel is referrred to as the “new and everlasting covenant” a number of times in the scriptures when the ancient doctrine is restored anew. I see that as the traditional being modern. The traditional anticipates and requires a belief in all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and all that He will yet reveal pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

    I feel the dichotomy occurs, from both perspectives, when the Spirit of revelation is immproperly used – minimized in favor of the established order or over-emphasized at the expense of the established order.

    Beginning about the mid-70s, the missionary discussions changed from a very structured, Bible-based, reasoned argument (anyone remember the feltboard with the cut-out figures?) towards a more feelings-based approach – from appeal to the mind to appeal to the heart.

    Comment by mondo cool — April 28, 2008 @ 7:14 am

  6. Eric: I really do not see much of the social experience and observation having a lot of influence.

    I think you just aren’t recognizing this all around you Eric. One easy place to see this divide is the ongoing literalism/allegory debate we have over scriptures. The literalists can be roughly equated with the traditionalists Matt is talking about in this post. So some insist that there was a literal flood that covered the whole earth a few thousand years ago and others think that is just silly (based on what they observe around them). Some believe Jonah really lived inside a giant fish for three days and others think it is an allegory (based on what they observe around them). Likewise, some believe everything in the Book of Job is literal history and others think it is clearly a fictional morality tale. (I happen to be in the allegory camp on all of those.) The Experience and Observations thing includes scientific observations and experiences.

    So yes, Mormonism is all about revelation now. But there is a divide in the church about how many of the ancient tales should be taken as literal history vs. metaphors or allegories created as teaching tools.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 28, 2008 @ 9:05 am

  7. Thank you for making me aware of this model for understanding different approaches to religion…I have been wondering about this topic for some time.

    I am pleased that my LDS religion is large enough to accept believers on both sides of the spectrum as well as between. In fact, it seems to me that both the modern and tradition approaches can be useful and enlightening. Perhaps either approach alone is even limiting.

    Comment by Latter-Day Sustainablist — April 28, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  8. Geoff (6):

    So which is it? Scientific observation of revelation?

    And you make a good point – I was thinking more about the social sciences, and more about practice than theology.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 28, 2008 @ 11:34 am

  9. Eric: Scientific observation of revelation?

    You lost me with this comment…

    If you mean “observation or revelation” I am not convinced these two are at odds with each other. (A hallmark of the “modernist” crowd Matt is referring to I suspect.)

    Comment by Geoff J — April 28, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  10. As someone who went through primary and seminary, I think I got a healthy dose of “find out for yourself” taught to me.

    The bifurcation you are talking about strikes me as very similar to the “iron rod” vs. “liahona” divide, which made me chuckle since I know you consider those labels worthless. Don’t you think these two dichotomies very similar?

    Comment by Jacob J — April 28, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  11. touche’ Jacob, and a very good point. I can eat crow on that one. In my meek defense, I guess I don’t see the modern theologians thumbing their noses at the traditionalists so much, but that could be due to my inexperience. Further, I think I’d classify many people as traditionalists who may consider themselves “Liahonas”, but I could be wrong.

    re: scientific observation vs revelation. I’ve never gotten this pairing. revelation is a form of communication, and reason is “thinking”. It’s like saying which is better, thinking about something or getting a phone call. If you asked which was better, God’s reasoning or mine, that’s different.

    Sustainabalist- I think it is good to have a diversity of theolical approaches and perspectives, it helps us to get more from our religion, however, sometimes we fail to recognize or appreciate this need for diversity.

    Mondo- so where is the balance, and how can one know? We see through a glass darkly, after all..

    Matt- I think the traditionalism and modernism divide, as do many other divides, works best in “extreme” examples. (that’s a bad word for what I mean, but I can’t think of a better word) Think about people’s reactions to polygamy or evolution. I think people with a traditional bent are more likely to be disturbed by polygamy, and modernists are more likely to dismiss it as “other” than the Gospel in which they live and breath.

    Eric: It’s not like a “bloods and crypts” sort of divide, but It’s pretty noticeable. I mean, It’s the little things, like when a missionary from Utah told me I was smart, not like other converts. Or when I was one of two people in my MTC group who had prayed and received an answer that the book of Mormon was true. Or how I embarrass lifers because I say insane things in church and want to talk about business theory in bishopric meetings (as a clerk, mind you)

    Comment by Matt W. — April 28, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  12. For me, the balance is NOT to set up camp on either end of the spectrum, for by doing so one either loses the spontaneous aspects of the Spirit (…the pneuma listeth where it will…) or the sure foundation of a house of order.

    Comment by mondo cool — April 29, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  13. Mondo while setting up camp in any framework is limiting, is it not important to recognize in our selves a tendancy towards one way of thinking? “Know thy self” and all that?

    Comment by Matt W. — April 30, 2008 @ 6:13 am

  14. If I may, the house of order imagery is apropos.

    One should build solidly upon the sure foundation of the Gospel. But, the structure needs to be appointed with enough windows and doors to allow in plenty of light and the fragrant breezes of the pneuma. So, yes it is important to know the level of one’s tendency to shutter the windows and bolt the doors.

    A house of all windows and doors is of as little value as one without a strong foundation and proper substratum.

    Comment by mondo cool — April 30, 2008 @ 8:10 am

  15. Excellent mondo.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 30, 2008 @ 8:48 am

  16. My two cents on this topic.

    First, yes, there might be some value in seeing some general categories of thinking among Latter-day Saints, but we run into major trouble if we reify these categories and see them as fundamental. If, when we see Brother X, the first thing we think of is “traditionalist” or “modernist” then we are in big trouble. Most Latter-day Saints would not self-identify themselves as either, and would probably see themselves as much more complicated.

    Second, I wonder where I fit in. I do not see myself as a traditionalist OR a modernist. The modernist would probably call me a postmodernist (a label which I dislike) and the traditionalist might call me a relativist (a label that I dislike and which is wholly inaccurate). I am critical of the assumptions of both camps, in that both underestimate what is, to me, the fundamental realities of relationships and interpretation. I suppose I would call myself a relationalist, in that concrete relationships (not abstract modernist or traditionalist laws or principles) make the world go round. When Jesus Christ says He is the Truth, that for me means that all truth can only be seen in relationship to Christ. I would argue that this relational, non-dualistic, formal causal construct defies both traditionalist and modernist camps. Moreover, I see a growing number of Latter-day Saints who — if one is interested in pigeon-holing — fit better into this third camp then the other two. Even though they probably wouldn’t describe themselves using these words and labels.

    Comment by Dennis W — May 1, 2008 @ 12:43 am

  17. One thing I should add is that I feel like I have been very successful as a convert because my modernist inputs (personal and social experience, reason, etc.) have been very in line with the traditional inputs (scripture, church praxis, tradition, etc.) on the key points of the church (to me).

    Comment by Matt W. — May 2, 2008 @ 7:54 am