I worry that the bloggernacle is a crucial cog within a cultural machine that takes prophetic religions and transforms them into secular and therefore apostate institutions. I worry that the same mechanisms by which modern intellectuals overthrew feudal society are also attempting to secularize the church today. (I have a strong suspicion that a very similar process characterized the transition from apostles and prophets to theologians and state authorities in the early church.) I will follow Jurgen Habermas in calling this mechanism, “the public sphere.” Let me first give a very brief description of the role that the public sphere played in the overthrow of feudal society before I articulate the rather obvious parallels which I see in the bloggernacle. (All references are from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas)
The public sphere can roughly be characterized as any forum in which 1) participation is open to all, 2) all participant are considered equal, and 3) any issue can be raised for rational debate. A public sphere emerges and operates within and in opposition to some context in which some institutionalized authority has, or is perceived to have control over the media as it relates to itself. Critically, this institutionalized authority does not use the “press and broadcast media” to provide “public information and debate,” but rather uses it “as technologies for managing consensus and promoting [its own] culture” – that culture which serves and forwards its own interests rather than those of the general public. (p. xii) Whereas the public sphere in the contemporary world is (ideally) meant to check and undermine both state as well as capitalist attempts at using the media in such ways, its rise in the 17th and 18th centuries was primarily an expression of capitalist attempts at checking and undermining such uses of the media by the absolutist state within feudal society:
“In its clash with the arcane and bureaucratic practices of the absolutist state, the emergent bourgeoisie gradually replaced a public sphere in which the ruler’s power was merely represented before the people with a sphere in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people.” (p. xi)
Habermas sees the public sphere as the critical mechanism whereby democratic sovereignty came to replace monarchical sovereignty in the west. He also suggests that the compromise of the public sphere by contemporary capitalist influences is exactly what undermines the prospects for democratic societies today. In both cases, it is the creation and demise of uncensored, critical reason within the public sphere that is responsible for the respective creation and demise of democratic society:
“While the historical structures of the liberal public sphere reflected the particular constellation of interests that gave rise to it, the idea it claimed to embody – that of rationalizing public authority under the institutionalized influence of informed discussion and reasoned argument – remains central to democratic theory.” (p. xii)
Habermas gives the following account of struggle in which the early capitalists used reasoned publications within the public sphere to wrest authority away from, monitor and to some extent delegitimize state authority while the state authority tried to contain and censor such attacks – for attacks are exactly what these publications were:
“In the guise of the so-called learned article, critical reasoning made its way into the daily press. When, from 1729 on, the Hallenser Intelligenzblatt… published learned articles, book reviews, and occasionally ‘a historical report sketched by a professor and relevant to current events,’ the Prussian King was moved to take the development into his own hands. Even the use of one’s own reason as such was subjected to regulation… In general ‘the scholars were to inform the public of useful truths.’ In this instance the bourgeois writers still made use of their reason at the behest of the territorial ruler; [but] soon they were to think their own thoughts, directed against the authorities. In a rescript of Fredrick II from 1784 one reads: ‘A private person has no right to pass public and perhaps even disapproving judgment on the actions, procedures, laws, regulations, and ordinances of sovereigns and courts ,their officials, assemblies, and courts of law, or to promulgate or publish in print pertinent reports that he manages to obtain. For a private person is not at all capable of making such judgment, because he lacks complete knowledge of circumstances and motives.’… The inhibited judgments were called ‘public’ in view of a public sphere that without question had counted as a sphere of public [stately] authority, but was now casting itself loose as a forum in which the private people, come together to form a public, readied themselves to compel public [stately] authority to legitimate itself before public opinion.” (p. 25)
In this account we see criticism of the institutional authorities being published under the guise of academic research. There is a subtle transition in which the publishing and reasoning that are encouraged by the institutional authorities gradually become publishing and reasoning against these same authorities. The institutional authorities responded in turn with a degree of censorship, by encouraging scholars to focus on more “useful truths” and insisting that the non-institutional public is in no position to pass negative judgment on its policies and dealings. The triumph of democracy was thus marked the demise of stately authority as the “people’s public use of their reason … claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves.” (p. 27)
I hope this sounds at least somewhat familiar, since the “people’s use of reason” against our church authorities has played out in almost the exact same manner, down to the verbiage. Early Mormon studies were originally pursued at the behest of the church authorities, the latter insisting that we seek all forms of learning from the best books. These learned articles soon brought to light information which fueled, if not functioned as a criticism of the contemporary church and its authorities. The church then pushes back by censoring and disciplining various scholars and disallowing easy access to revelant information while insisting that “some things that are true are not very useful.” Soon after this, many of these scholars and intellectuals flee the public light to the privacy of various online and private mailing groups. These mailing groups eventually become the direct precursors to the public blogs that would later form the heart of the bloggernacle. This online forum soon becomes the very epitome of the public sphere – a forum in which all people have equal access and legitimacy to problematize any aspect of Mormonism such that gospel discussion comes to be no longer regulated from above by priesthood authority but is instead brought against the priesthood authorities themselves. This forum then becomes the primary recruiting pool for various social movements which unambiguously and directly call for church authorities to answer to the public use of reason. When the heads of such movements are brought before various church courts, the general and public membership is again reminded that they are in no position to pass judgment on the proceedings of these courts. The parallels in the conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the feudal state and the conflicts between the bloggernacle and the priesthood authorities couldn’t be more striking.
Up until this point, many readers will construe my account as itself being an indictment of the church and its authorities, but such a thing is the exact opposite of what I intend. There are two points which serve to put my account in its intended perspective:
1) The public’s use of reason is the very heart of democratic society and as such is used to check and undermine all authority: stately, corporate and ecclesiastical.
2) The church is not and was never meant to be a democracy whose heart is the public’s use of reason.
These two points highlight the contradictions which exist between the church and the democratic world around it. It seems clear to me that we as faithful members of the church within a larger democratic society are under an obligation to bring the public use of reason against all forms of authority except the authority of God that functions within the church. Accordingly, faithful bloggers are meant to bring their publishing and reasoning under priesthood authority rather than against it. It will be remembered that institutionalized authority is used to manage consensus and promote its own culture, a culture which serves and furthers its own interests.
The question, then, becomes this: Do we have a testimony of the authorities, culture and interests of the church? If so, then we too should object to the ways in which the public’s use of reason is brought against the church and its authorities within the bloggernacle and will likely sustain the institution’s efforts to protect itself against such attacks. If not, then we too should object to the institution’s attacks upon the public sphere of which the bloggernacle is a part and will instead support the ways in which the public use of reason is brought against the church and its authorities. The contradictions between the church and the democratic world around it present a zero-sum battle in which support for one side constitutes an attack to the other.
Thus, I see the bloggernacle as a critical battle ground in the war of the church against the democratic world. It is the place where the seamless and unconscious transition is made in which public reason ceases to be a representation of church authority and becomes instead a constraint upon church authority. In the exact same way that democratic values and practices functioned to undermine and replace feudal institutions and authorities, those same democratic values and practices function to undermine and replace the church and its priesthood authorities and the interests that they represent. No doubt, there are those within the bloggernacle who disagree with my diagnosis, but the onus is upon them to demonstrate how the relationship between the bloggernacle and the church is significantly different from that which existed between the bourgeoisie and the feudal state.