11/14/2012 - 7:56pm
Elder's Game: Modernity, Mormonism, and Aesthetic Intuitions about Religious Legitimacy
by Ariel Cruz

Portrait of Salt Lake City, and 16 important Mormon leaders


The cliché “with eyes wide open” presents an interesting irony when instantiated physically and in a conversation about whether or not the Indians ever hung out with Jesus.  I’ll explain.

Once, there was Alex, the dishwasher.  Alex was a lanky, blandly white kid in his early twenties.  He spoke in a halting, Comicon cadence and moved around with the tightly wound economy of someone for whom the body was only meant to taxi around his imagination.  I used to know him from working at an unbearably hokey Mexican food chain here in upstate New York about 10 years ago.   I “knew” him in the way that you know anyone in foodservice that you’re not already friends with and you haven’t seen naked.  For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided it thus far, foodservice is a rare sort of environment which brings together isolation and intimacy in a mixture that tends to dilute and adulterate both.  The isolation is that which is born of the knowledge that the work you and your colleagues are engaged in is objectively frivolous.   But it’s also frantic and high-stress work, outside of any due proportion to how meaningless the consequences of failure at any given task might be.  It has a way of making the act of fetching forgotten side-dishes feel like Cold War diplomacy.  Foxhole bonds abound.

So, in light of this, I used to know Alex.  Alex was by all accounts a weirdo, albeit the harmless kind, so he got along with everyone just fine.  Word had it that he was an Olympic level drug user in his teens, but had turned himself around suddenly, with the help of Joseph Smith and the revelations of the Angel Moroni.  So yes, he was a Mormon.  And my first Mormon, I believe.

Regrettably, not much of what he said to me about this, his beliefs, really stuck if I’m being completely honest.  But what I do remember is the way Alex looked at me.  His gaze in conversation, especially about his faith in the Latter Day Saints Church, had a sort wattage which conveyed simultaneously the possibilities that behind it was either an emotional life that was rich and enormously complex – an electrical storm of frenetic engagement with the world – or the opposite: a vacant and reductive internal life that sees in the universe nothing amiss, as the answers to all questions have been settled forever.

Here was young man for whom “wide open eyes” were a natural and constant feature.  Yet in spite of this de jure embodiment of the well known phrase, Alex was a kind of de facto refutation of its message.  In everyday circumstances, we are rarely exposed to the kind of sclera-explosive gaze that this phrase suggests is the ideal way to greet the day.  Rather, we cucumber-cool moderns, glide about this world with half-lidded nonchalance- an epicanthal attitude which serves to weed out, dismiss and filter rather than let light to simply flood in indiscriminately.  Such is our conception of wisdom, I suppose.  In direct contradiction to the wide-eyed picture of omnivorous openness to experience, we create but slits of our perceptual faculties and dare data to find a way in.  We judge first, with an eye toward condemnation always.  We mistrust our world and we bar it entry to our thoughts, pending approval from the array of diagnostic bouncers we set as sentries to the eternal nightclub of our brains.  One imagines Diogenes, lamp up to face, eyes widely narrowed in expectation that the glare might impede his search.

At the time, I was a pretty strident Atheist.  The kind of strident Atheist who went out of his way to pick fights with believers with the relish of sport.  But in Alex’s case, I didn’t feel the need to beat up on him.  I liked him and I was curious, not so much about the beliefs, but in the way he processed my objections, my re-interpretations of evidence he adduced in his apology, etc.  Often, a talk with him felt like a half-hour Turing test:  an initially gleeful simulation of engagement that tended to end in a vaguely unsettling sense of solipsism.  Being a know-it-all-Atheist, I found his beliefs completely unwarranted.  But in retrospect, I find that my interest in him was quite a bit different from my interest in encountering zealous believers in more “mainstream” religions.  And this is still something I struggle with as an adult:  Why is there this additional quantum of bizarreness in my estimation of something like Mormonism, when the assertions all of the major religions I don’t believe in have roughly the same truth-value?  

I readily admit that part of this bias is an inherited, cultural one.  Mormonism’s standing in our society, up until the recent ascension of public figures like John Huntsman and Mitt Romney, had been one of dismissive neglect.  Even this state of affairs was progress when you take into account the L.D.S. Church’s outright pariahship during the mid-19th century, where anti-Morman violence reached its zenith with both the killing of founder Joseph Smith and the besetting of the Mormon outpost in the Utah territories by federal troops in which close to 200 were killed in incidents related to the siege and the tensions which brought it about.  As a minority religion, Mormanism has been pretty thoroughly marginalized in this country.  And this is something one should always keep in mind when appraising the movement.  But there are other, more material reasons for my intuitions.  I suspect modernity, and its relationship to the founding of the LDS, might have something to do with it.

I’m surely not alone in feeling that, in spite of my incredulity toward the stories and truth-claims made by, say, Catholicism, I can still find a great deal of gravity and beauty and awe in its cultural products.  Often the art, rituals and texts strike me as if something profoundly and urgently true is trying to smuggle itself through to our understanding from the meager stuff of human device.  I can bracket out all the obvious tribal superstition and find a deeply poetic core at the center of these cultural products.  And I can relate to them, sometimes viscerally.  The birth of the ideas and aesthetics out of which these cultural products rose is, in human terms, deep time.  It seems to come out of the chthonic blackness of primordial history.

Temporal remoteness of this kind is essential to a belief system’s capacity to sustain mystery for the vast majority of us.  And this mystery is the self-renewing fissile core which animates religious belief.  Even though a church may still exist in the present, it is constantly drawing power from revelations that came to men in its infancy.  Men for whom there were no alternative explanations or theories about where these flashes of wisdom came from.  My aesthetic judgments about the kind of profound religious transmission of knowledge that it would take to found a system of faith, on which depend the fates of countless souls, demands a pure and psychologically/spiritually clear space into which this wisdom may flow.  So the thought of a man in upstate New York getting a divine message which significantly alters one of these “mysterious” theological canons, roughly around the same time Americans were getting a handle on the relationship between electricity and magnetism, strikes me as a bit hollow.   Truth is, our world and the world of the ancients are distinct.  Theirs was a world of constantly intervening deities, plainly visible through miracles, epic punishment and incarnations.  Ours is the world of coy gods whose methods of appearance constitute a kind of burlesque fan dance behind the twin plumes of Tillichian Grounding and Negative Theology.

And it’s not only modernity’s naturalized picture of the relationship between God and man that make a recently created religion seem flimsy and suspect to me.  There is also the self-awareness that has been both the gift and curse of our species’ cultural evolution to consider.  When Moses began his trip up Sinai to visit the lightning engravers, I am almost certain that the first thought through his head was not, “ok, I guess this is the part where I go into the wilderness alone, away from the straying rabble who have grown decadent and willful, and receive the saving scripture of divine command”.   Moses knew nothing of tropes or Hero’s Journeys.  No themes, plot structures, archetypes, nothing save the direct human experience of doing what one is told by and wrathful and exploding sky.

But just imagine something like that happening in the present day.  How many times would the chosen communicator of the Law think about Charlton Heston?  How would our narrative-savvy modern prophet intertwine this living and breathing experience with the constant internal meta-commentary on how revelatory moments are to appear, to the spectator?   The spontaneous and transcendent way that the original Moses story resonates for us depends on the idea that Moses’ actions were directed by the divine, and not merely a rehearsal of deeply ingrained narratological grooves set by a lifetime of education and reflexive media.  Even in the not-quite-so-advanced time of Joseph Smith, there was still a tradition, going back as far as the mid 17th century with philosopher Baruch Spinoza, of a “higher” criticism of the bible as an historical and literary artifact.    The L.D.S. movements founding occurs around the time that distinctly American literature, and criticism of that literature, was coming into its own on the world stage.  The language of the texts dictated to Joseph Smith attest to this literary self-awareness.   Although these are purportedly words given to Smith by an angel, the style of expression is inexplicably reminiscent of the King James Bible- a ubiquitous document written in language suited for a monarchy both an ocean and 200 hundred years away.  So this objection can essentially be boiled down to this question: what to make of a revelation which comes in an environment that is already primed with the idea of “revelation” as a structural feature of religion as such?

But, perhaps the complete and immediate absorption of modernity is an unfair expectation with which to saddle new religions, such as Mormonism.  After all it has taken the more established churches centuries to fight their way to incomplete modernity as it is.  And this not without tumult, schisms, and often bloodshed.  These are powerful institutions which rely on a naked type of authority whose underpinnings must remain explanatorily self-sufficient lest the work of evaluating truth be progressively outsourced to science, psychology or philosophy.  Controlling the world often means having a monopoly on the way that world is understood, this much is clear.  But the relative believability of the new or old religions isn’t really of interest here.  It’s the aesthetic appeal of the religion as a culture, and the differences between how a “legitimate” one might differ essentially from the upstart faiths we are presently considering.  A religion’s founding – its bedrock texts, its historical circumstances, the often harrowing stories of the dangerous lives and deaths of its earliest emissaries – are more than simply beginnings.  A founding sets a trajectory which continues throughout the course of the religion’s path through time to affect our perception of its legitimacy or folly.

The significance of the foregoing attempt to show that differences in the circumstances of the birth of a modern religion, from those of what we collectively consider to be the legitimate Churches from antiquity, rests on this very current state of affairs: that one’s religion in post-modern America is the consequence of choice.  It is no longer the case that we take on a religion as an inextricable tangle weaving together our basic metaphysical and cultural assumptions, in the way that humanity had for most of its existence.  For us, no matter what lengths our parents and sect authorities may go to in order to keep the outside world from presenting itself to us, there is always a sense that there are other people, other cultures, who believe all manner of different things about the world from us.  And these people get along just fine without our most vital assumptions and rituals.  The sheer panoply of ways to engage with the world and the media which give us in America access to that array of faiths creates something of an Empire of Options which subsumes all the tiny kingdoms of sectarian spirituality.  And what this means at bottom is that the faith we land on is always a choice of some kind.  Even the act of sticking to the faith of one’s father and mother is a negative selection in the face of all these possibilities.

So, when it comes down to it, what I find novel in the intensity of the dishwasher’s febrile gaze is not the ecstatic fervor of true belief.  There’s nothing novel about that.  No, to my own surprise, I discover that what I find so discomfiting is really the profound absence of good taste in making that choice.

Which leads me to this: my reaction has much more to say about me and the condition of belief in modern times, than it does about some really nice kid who is just trying to survive emotionally in a hard and chaotic world.  Faith of that type, a default mode of being for most of human history, has become impossible.  But perhaps it is the case that many of us, for whom modernity has made faith impossible, cope with this impossibility of experiencing faith by sublimating that need into an aesthetic appreciation for religion as artifact.  We cannot participate, but we can value a well-formed, beautiful theology.  Where pre-modern humans found transcendence in devotional art, our detachment can only allow us to appreciate devotion as art.  So when we see a faith system that lacks the mysterious quality which draws us toward a religion as a beautiful object, we instinctually spurn it as, well, kitsch.