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Longing for Mormon Romanticism

September 28, 2012

A few weeks ago, Simon Critchley wrote a New York Times Opinion piece, Why I Love MormonismAt this point in my career, I cannot tell whether being linked to something multiple times on Facebook is evidence of a wide level of approval or acknowledgement for that thing, or simply evidence of the fact that my Mormon friend circle has reached critical choir-preaching capacity. (It’s probably the latter). Whatever the case is, I was in fact linked to the article by several of my LDS Facebook friends, and seeing as the commentary was positive across the spectrum, I think that says at least something favorable about this article.

So, what sorts of things was Critchley saying that could make even Millennial Star compliment the piece as being NY Times print[ing] respectful, fair article examining Mormon theologyJust pulling for the last couple of paragraphs:

Yet unlike Islam, for whom Muhammad is the last prophet, Mormonism allows for continuing revelation. In a way, it is very democratic, very American. Article 9 reads, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” In principle, any male saint can add to the stock and neverending story of revelation and thereby become exalted. From the standpoint of Christianity, both Islam and Mormonism are heresies and — if one is genuine about one’s theology, and religion is not reduced to a set of banal moral platitudes — should be treated as such.

Like Bloom, I see Joseph Smith’s apostasy as strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation from the same climate as Whitman, if not enjoying quite the same air quality. Perhaps Mormonism is not so far from romanticism after all. To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity. It is much more than mere Christianity. Why are Mormons so keen to conceal their pearl of the greatest price? Why is no one really talking about this? In the context of you-know-who’s presidential bid, people appear to be endlessly talking about Mormonism, but its true theological challenge is entirely absent from the discussion.

Of course, the traits of Mormonism that Critchley finds most intriguing are ones like these:

“You see,” my questioner said, “in his late sermons, Joseph Smith developed some really radical ideas. For a start, God did not create space and time, but is subject to them and therefore a finite being. The Mormon God is somewhat hedged in by the universe, and not master of it. The text to look at here is an amazing sermon called ‘King Follett,’ which was named after an elder who had just died and was delivered in Nauvoo, Ill., a few months before the prophet was murdered. He asks repeatedly, ‘What kind of being is God?’ And his reply is that God himself was once as we are now.”

He leaned in closer to me and continued in a lower voice,“If you were to see God right now, Smith says, right now, you would see a being just like you, the very form of a man. The great secret is that, through heroic effort and striving, God was a man who became exalted and now sits enthroned in the heavens. You see, God was not God from all eternity, but became God. Now, the flip side of this claim is that if God is an exalted man, then we, too, can become exalted. The prophet says to the company of the saints something like, ‘You have to learn how to be gods. You have to inherit the same power and glory as God and become exalted like him.’ Namely you can arrive at the station of God. One of our early leaders summarized the King Follett sermon with the words, ‘As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may be.’ ”

“So, dear Simon,” my new friend concluded, “we, too, can become Gods, American Gods, no less.” He chuckled. I was astonished.

With this background, I think I can now present the article that I read more recently, and which inspired me to write this post: it was Ben Huff’s post at Times & Seasons: Mormonism is Romantic, Love It or Hate It. Huff contextualizes Critchley’s argument as making a case that Mormonism is a response to Romantic yearnings and the deficiencies of traditional Christianity. Here’s how he sets the stage:

Traditional Christianity is hardly monolithic, but in some of its more prominent forms, it presented a pessimistic view of human beings as creatures who on their own could only do evil. It presented God as a dictator whose decrees could not be questioned, who must be praised as perfectly loving and wise, even as he sentences much of the human race to eternal suffering in hell. It called for a negation of human reason and surrender to the authority of God, and also to his human, priestly representatives. It called for the surrender of our own desires and aspirations, in favor of God’s unearthly, abstract, and inscrutable purposes.

Meanwhile, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw spectacular progress in science, prosperity rising through new technologies like steam power, nations united by railroad, telegraph, and advances in navigation. They saw the overthrow of tyrants in favor of democracy, free people governing themselves with decency and justice, holding their political leaders accountable rather than vice versa. These centuries also saw a flourishing of religious liberty, and of religion in a climate of liberty. Religion and morality did not need to be imposed from above to flourish. Advances in science made human reason and discovery seem both indispensible and limitless.

In this environment, the traditional Christian ideas I’ve mentioned began to seem increasingly implausible, retrograde, and even degrading. To many, Christianity seemed hopelessly medieval, both intellectually and morally. It did not taste good to them. It did not fill their hearts with warmth and joy and hope, as Paul the Apostle promised that it should.

Mormonism is a powerful response to the Romantic sense that traditional Christianity could not satisfy the human soul. In the place of a God who rules for his own inscrutable purposes, to whom we must submit, Mormonism describes a God whose highest goal is to raise up humanity and share the glory and eternal life he enjoys with all who are willing. In the place of a view of humans as bound by nature to sin, it posits a humanity that is originally innocent, that falls into evil largely through ignorance, and that is capable of freely desiring and choosing the good. Rather than obey God because he is our creator, Mormonism tells us to look into our hearts and judge God’s message by how it tastes to us, relying on our own deepest sense of what is good.

…On a host of points, then, Mormonism represents a religious answer to the yearnings of Romanticism, and of other skeptics of traditional Christianity. Whether it came from God as a response to human hunger, or merely from Joseph Smith’s creative imagination, fed by the unique climate of early America, the result is largely the same.

Huff brings up the point that I want to discuss in his last paragraph though. A relevant snippet:

As they come to understand Mormonism more fully, some will love it and some will hate it. Mormonism is not bland, even if some prominent Mormon or other comes across that way. Some may have doubts about Romanticism of course, and others may find that actual, contemporary Mormons, with their straitlaced morals and church handbooks, don’t seem nearly as Romantic as their theology.

Emphasis added.

I think that this post enjoys such wide appreciation — not only from orthodox Mormons but also from unorthodox, uncorrelated, and liberal Mormons, and even from many disaffected, ex-, post, and former Mormons — because it presents the most Romantic kind of Mormonism…and this rosy picture is very much, like Huff summarizes, an improvement over the “implausible, retrograde, and even degrading” image of Christianity in a technologically advanced society. But of course, not everyone sees modern Mormonism as being anywhere near as Romantic. In fact, many disaffected people are disaffected precisely because they believe that correlation has squashed out all the romantic tendencies of the religion. I mean…seriously, King Follett? Is that something the church even officially believes?

I don’t know that we teach it.

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2 Comments
  1. The more time I spend on the Bloggernaccle, the more I realize that *my* Mormon upbringing, grounded in Mormon history and a varied reading of the words of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, and very few books from Deseret Book. I have read King Follett, for a seminary assignment, and a lot of things that people seem to be shocked about were taught in class.

    I know as many not-Republicans as Republicans, growing up in the church in Oregon. We had a very active anti-Utah culture in my ward and stake, and the general feeling that Utah Mormons had lazy lives, and testimonies, was a common theme in pushing us to know and understand the Gospel, and to ignore Utah culture. My limited experience with Utah Mormons certainly reinforced my sense that Utah Mormons didn’t know the gospel, and were way too willing to go along with a cultural norm, instead of a “deep” gospel theology.

    It was in some ways some a very arrogant way to view Utah, and the Mormons who live there. I didn’t have many people I knew in Utah, and they were definitely more culturally Mormon. When they would tell me something was wrong, and I asked why, an answer deferring to an individual teacher or leader wasn’t going to hold a lot of respect when it disagreed with the writings of Joseph Smith. I think it would have been good if I had known liberal Mormons from Utah, but I didn’t. I would have loved to read intellectual LDS blogs, but I don’t know of any that existed in the early 1990s. I had never met anyone who grew up in Utah who wasn’t a Republican, and the disdain of Oregon liberals for those “Utah Mormons” was an easy attitude to adopt.

    I don’t know how Mormons in Utah see members in other areas. I don’t know if it is really as insular as it seems from the outside. I do wonder if the romanticism exists more on the fringes and in the hearts of the new members, rather than in the heartland of the church. Thoughts?

  2. poetrysansonions,

    I never thought to distinguish it by “Utah culture” vs. “non-Utah”…mainly because I have never lived in Utah, so I don’t think that the distinction is about culture vs. gospel. Rather, the very definition of what is the gospel changes over time, as different scriptures, doctrines, lessons, and concepts are emphasized and re-emphasized on a doctrinal level (e.g., via lesson manuals, conference talks, etc.,)

    I mean, how can a new member experience the romantic elements of Mormonism if these things are *never* presented to him or her? And, since the new member is going to experience Mormonism primarily through the official curricula (e.g., the concepts that the official missionary discussions promote…the concepts that the official lesson manuals discuss), a lot of the more esoteric aspects just aren’t going to come up at first.

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