Saturday, January 03, 2009

Deep Mormonism: A Manifesto of Process

This is a small piece I wrote for the Session that I facilitated for a three day workshop held from Dec. 28-Dec. 30th in Utah.

The following words are not pronouncements, they are not new dogmas, and they are not theses. The following is a window to a personal process that I hope will resonate with you all. I am not starting a new religion, I am thinking about my own.

Theology implied praxis, or, what we do in consequence of our strongly held convictions. Thus, in defining depth it is important to distinguish between the radical and the sectarian. In his classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire says:
“Sectarianism, fed by fanaticism, is always castrating. Radicalization, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative. Sectarianism mythicizes and thereby alienates; radicalization criticizes and thereby liberates. Radicalization involves increased commitment to the position one has chosen, and thus even greater engagement in the efforts to transform concrete, objective reality. Conversely, sectarianism, because it is mythicizing and irrational, turns reality into a false (and therefore unchangeable) ‘reality’” (Freire 1970, 21).

Thus in calling for a Deep Mormonism, I am not pursuing a more fundamentalist interpretation of scripture, a wider separation between us and “the world,” or a zealous increase in evangelization. I am calling for a spiritual process, beginning, for most of us with Mormonism; but I am unsure where it may take me. I admit that I seek a theology that contributes to the collective goal of social and ecological liberation. That is my bias, my compass. It is a hope that since history is full of the movements that had their origins in religious ideas then why should Mormonism be any different?

Despite what it might appear, I am not simply picking and choosing my favorite sound bites from the scriptures and elevating them to concrete dogmas. Deep Mormonism is a process about engaging dialogically with the tradition, its history, the power of its ideas, its weaknesses and the theological problems created by a uniquely American religion. If I am honest with myself, this process may even lead me to reject any affiliation with Mormon or Christian Theology. But I am not prepared to simply dismiss my tradition because of contemporary trends in philosophy and politics no matter how compelling and I cannot deny that Mormonism is a part of my identity and I must therefore be patient with it.

This process began many years ago, in Sunday School, seminary, and reading the scriptures. The structures of the church that to me were potentially radical (capable of getting at the root of problems), slowly revealed themselves as being platforms for the static recitations of internally logical mythologized truths. Deep Mormonism is about articulating how I thought the conversation could have gone in that Sunday School lesson (how I have attempted to make it in a few of the testimonies and comments I have made over the past few years). It is about putting the fragments of ideas out into the open and seeing how they connect.

Influences and Inspirations
I remember reading the words of Brigham Young on the squalor of Industrial Era Britain as a missionary in the slums of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, where trash was as plentiful as sand along a small bay on the Northern Coast. Brigham said, “The latter-day Saints will never accomplish their mission until this inequality shall cease on earth” (quote in Nibley 1989, 51). This has been one of the most powerful motivations to be an activist in my life. The Gospel has a threshold, which are the basic needs of human existence. Liberation Theology as articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez places an ethical duty to the plight of the poor. What Paulo Freire calls the “historical task of humanity.” Liberation Theology rejects that salvation of souls in preparation for the afterlife as an excuse for temporal poverty and calls for the immediate liberation of the oppressed so that they too may live life to its fullest, or in his words, become fully human. Mormonism affirms the tenants of Liberation Theology through the social teaching of the Book of Mormon and the D & C in addition to teaching that this life has a definite purpose beyond simply joining the saved, or hoping for an eternal reward. The threshold of the gospel, when our material needs are met, is where the real work beings for cultivating our minds and spirits. Therefore it is the task of a liberatory theology to “humanize” oppressor and oppressed that we may all reach a place where our talents can be cultivated and not simply assume that the poor will somehow be rewarded in heaven (Freire 1970).

Another ongoing influence is Native American lifeways and cosmology. Within a great majority of Native American cosmologies we find a spiritual and subjectified nature, a deep and abiding connection to place, and traditional ecological knowledge that embeds humans into the landscape as full participants, not as exploiters or passive observers.

Lastly, the Deep Ecology movement has been greatly influential, specifically in its call for a non-dualist Ecosophy. The Deep Ecological approach to the environmental crisis also contains a robust and well documented critique of Christianity’s role in the current ecological crisis and a rejection of “shallow” natural resource approaches to environmentalism which have largely failed to prevent the growing ecological crisis.

At the heart of my spiritual and religious process is my frustration with what I call fun-fact theology. These are bits of theology that while they are generally admitted to be true or relevant do not find themselves into our religious praxis. Whether this is because the real truth of these ideas have been safely relegated to some future millennial time or because they are considered non-essential to our salvation many but not all of the following categories of inquiry have grabbed my attention because of their place in Mormon theological purgatory. Following is a list of the categories that have occupied my thinking in regards to Mormonism, they are by no means complete, and clearly reflect what has been most pressing in my own process.

Non-dualist Earth Stewardship
In the Book of Moses the earth weeps over the sins of her inhabitants. We also learn of a spiritual creation; one that implies that plants and animals possess spirits. Mormonism also contains the belief that the intelligences that make up all of matter and life are co-eternal with God. This doctrine sometimes referred to as Hylozoism (all matter is endowed with life) is technically different from animism which states that all life possesses a spirit. However, Mormonism does not take the view that spirit is immaterial; therefore, Hylozoism would probably be a more accurate description of Mormon ideas on spiritual nature. Unfortunately, no matter how enthusiastic I get about these doctrines and their connections to ecological ideas, they are not actually practiced in any meaningful way. They are fun-fact theology. This is understandable considering that the scriptures also contain the Stewardship doctrine that Joseph Smith Proclaims in D & C 59 which contradicts the animism and hylozoism of the Pearl of Great Price. This more typical Christian stewardship doctrine states that the earth and everything on it was placed here for the material benefit of human beings; and that if we do God’s will we will be blessed with an abundance of the earth’s bounty. In the stewardship model, life was created by God as a backdrop for the human experiment, and makes up part a material accountability to fill the moral lessons of greed and material prudence.

The stewardship doctrine perpetuates Western dualism, meaning, it places human subjects (those capable of knowing and acting) in relation to a world of independent objects (only capable of being acted upon). This subject/object dualism is nearly ubiquitous in Western philosophy, science and culture. The view found in the Pearl of Great Price on the other hand endows nature with spirit. This implies that there is subjectivity in the natural world, a view held by Native and many other spiritual traditions for thousands of years.

Thus, for me stewardship is exactly what Joseph Smith described it in its social context, only I would extend this to the land. Stewardship is accountability to God for another subject, so in Mormon-speak, we are stewards over our home teechees, because they are subjects as we are. Imagine the power of an earth stewardship that is accountability to God for a natural world of which we are a part that is filled not just with material resources that are to be used prudently, but with other co-eternal subjects with whom we share this planet.

Deep Ecology suggests that this view, one that subjectifies the natural world is called non-dualism. This means that all of life on earth is made up of “particulars-in-relation.” This view rejects Western dualisms which objectify the natural world, but is not to be confused with Monism, which posits that we are all manifestations of the big one. Non-dualism requires that we see ourselves as beings-in-place. So for example, a deer is not a deer outside of the habitat which has shaped it. So, there was no eternal prototype of the deer life form which was simply planted on earth to serve as a human food source. Both humans and deer emerged organically and dialectically from that which shapes them. This view is also compatible with Gaia Hypothesis which suggests that the earth is quite literally, and not mystically, a self regulating entity (Bender 2003).

This idea of a subjective nature leads me to question Gods role as creator. It would seem that if Life is co-eternal with God, what meaningful role is there for a Creator? Creation seems to be more an inherent quality of life than the act of a divine subject carried out for his lesser children-subjects mediated by a universe filled with material waiting to be molded into life.

The Word of Wisdom
The word of wisdom is held up as a prophetic chapter of scripture which was before its time. I agree with this assessment, and have frequently felt inspired by its words. But what lies beyond a code of health and dietary restrictions? What are the implications of the Word of Wisdom on the way we interact with food and the way we grow it? How can processes become as sacred as doctrines?

In Sunday school, I was constantly frustrated whenever we talked of Zion. The conversation would usually start by talk about a millennial ideal that not even the early saints could live by and then lapse into a metaphorical Zionism of “the pure in heart,” wherever they may be. A Deep Mormonism would not be afraid of working toward not simply a Zion mentality, but a truly Zion Society. A society based on equality, beauty, cooperation, kindness, and in my opinion a rejects private property as an end of accumulation. I cannot resist quoting Hugh Nibley, for the following is one of my most favorite quotations and is like scripture to me: “One may not accumulate property, for then it ceases to be property and falls into the forbidden category of power and gain. Oil under arctic seas or mahogany in unexplored jungles can be neither private nor property, save by a theory of possession cultivated in another quarter” (Nibley 1989, 396).

A Theology with social and ecological values would not shy from rejecting consumerism, corporatism, capitalism, and competition. Cooperation is a core principle of a Zion economy. Indeed Deep Mormonism aspires to the Zionic standard of scriptural Christian communities: “They had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free and partakers of the heavenly gift (4 Nephi 1:3).”

Tomorrow and Tuesday’s workshops will hopefully present plenty of ideas for how to bring this about, but for me the central value of talking about a Zion society is that another world truly is possible, and that we can be integral an part of shaping that world. I seek a theology that does not simply preach the virtues of a spiritual life within a morally depraved world, but seeks to shape the world with a vision of what humanity is truly capable.

Race in the Book of Mormon
In reading and writing for the proposal for my summer research, I spent some time on The Book of Mormon portrayal of Native Americans. First, I find great power in the Book of Mormon and am not starting a historicity argument. But I cannot deny that Joseph Smith is just as visible to me as Christ in the Book of Mormon. The narrative is almost too obvious: A white and delightsome, agrarian people, come from the Old world, are tormented by a dark skinned, hunter-gatherer society with a poor work ethic. What do we do with a document that contains powerful spiritual lessons, witness of Christ, but also one that seems to teach a false doctrine of theological racism and social evolution?

I also find other Book of Mormon prophesy troubling; including the glorification of Columbus and the zealous American nationalism that seems to interweave itself into Mormon theology.

Priesthood authority, revelation and what it means to be a prophet
The schism which created Protestantism was over authority. These religious rebels declared that they did not need a priest to mediate their relationship with God. The doctrine of revelation as a process of spiritual learning is quite egalitarian, yet at the same time in Mormonism we find the absolutist doctrine of obedience to the prophets. To me the church is dangerously approaching the tyranny of old. Therefore, I would like to make a distinction between an institutional prophet and a historical prophet. Joseph Smith was a historical prophet, he challenged convention, criticized the social and religious order of his day and caused a fundamental shift in the way we practiced religion. An institutional prophet is a guardian of the status quo, an enforcer of calcified dogmas. What might happen if we freed ourselves of an institutional definition of prophet and extended it to those who speak truth and challenge structures of unjust authority? This does not mean we reject the leaders of the church, become antagonistic to them but see them for who they are: People who have relationships with God as we do, who run a large religious organization. Is the priesthood a vestigial organ or antiquated socio-political power structures? Does priesthood power actually exist? If so, then women must be co-equal holders of it.

In fun-fact theology, one paradoxical and ambiguous doctrine is that of Mother in Heaven. Deep Mormonism is not afraid to ask: Do we or do we not believe in a Mother in Heaven? And if so, how should the act of worship change? How does my theology change? In what ways do the goddess movement, ancient and pagan spiritual movements relate to Mormon doctrines of Mother in Heaven. In addition, I would like to have a more robust discussion of Mormonism’s apparent Henotheism, or worshiping of one God while acknowledging that there are many.

What can we do with a theology and cosmology that is so deeply embedded in antiquated (not implying false) concepts of gender and sexuality? How to the politics of identity relate to Mormon theology and to what extent is the homosexual movement a product of Western concepts of essential identity?

That was a flavor for some of the topics that I have been thinking through. As I have stated, much of what brought about my crises of faith is the lack of praxis for some of Mormonism’s most profound ideas. It is one thing to declare the earth a spirit-being, and quite another to live life with this idea as part of the framework of your view of reality. For this reason, I am searching out ways to make the above a real and authentic part of my Mormonism, theology and praxis. Here are a few ideas I have had for meaningful praxis in these areas:
• Prayer to heavenly parents, Mother and Father in heaven
• Prayer with and spiritual interaction with nature, basic elements such as water
• Growing wheat for the sacrament on communal plots
• Celebrating or commemorating ecological events, ie solstice, equinox, first planting, harvest
• Consecrating agricultural work

A Deep Mormonism:
• Is dedicated to the cause of lifting and liberating the poor
• Does not see the earth or the land as a commodity
• Upholds the dialectical process as sacred and essential to a living theology
• Believes that the earth is sacred and that our human identity is inseparable from it
• Sees relationships with each other and the earth as a kind of worship
• Believes that God is Male + female; and if not, something completely distinct from Western ideas of individuality

Bender, Frederic 2003. The Culture of Extinction: Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology Humanity Books,Amherst, New York.
Friere, Paulo 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continuum, New York, NY.
Nibley, Hugh 1989. Approaching Zion Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT.