Mormonism: Monastic or Pragmatic?

June 25, 2014

monk

Kate Kelly and John Dehlin (if excommunicated) may lose some of their notoriety and influence.  But the questions that drove them to the brink (female inequality and homosexuality) are not going away and will be burning brighter than ever in the coming years.  In my last post I attempted to reframe these questions within the context of the church as an imperfect “bride of Christ.”  Today I’d like to present the same argument from a different perspective: Is the church monastic or pragmatic?  I believe that understanding this could help us more effectively answer the difficult questions posed by female inequality and homosexuality.

Monastic Religion

Monastic traditions are characterized by their peculiarities. Members willingly submit to practices which separate them from the world, making them a peculiar people, saints, “a chosen generation.”   Examples include the Sabbath Day, Temple ritual, prayer, meditation, baptism, sacrament, etc.  Having an all male priesthood is another monastic element which sets us apart from the pragmatic and egalitarian ideals of the world.

Within monastic traditions, practices and commandments may vary, from Old Testament circumcision, to New Testament celibacy, to Mormon polygamy.  The details of these practices are not necessarily as important as the humility and faith the participant demonstrates by submitting themselves to the peculiarities of the order as revealed by God to the prophet for the order.  From the outside, some of the practices may seem unnatural or pointless.  But the purpose of the monastic tradition is not to promote mortal efficiency and self-fulfillment.  The point is to deliberately separate oneself from the world in order to spiritually attune oneself with the kingdom “not of this world.”  Jesus began his mortal ministry with a call that was purely monastic, “come follow me…leave your nets…let the dead bury the dead.”   It may sound like insanity to some to abandon family and work, but when you hear the voice of God, you follow, no matter where it may lead you or what it might ask of you.

Pragmatic Religion

In a pragmatic religion, participants obey commandments and engage in practices which they believe are specifically designed to make their lives more fulfilling and protect them from the evils of the world.  The purpose of all these commandments is to promote happiness.  This is the spirit of the Proclamation on the Family: “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  The Book of Mormon’s cardinal law is pragmatic: “If you keep my commandments, you shall prosper in the land.

Pragmatic religions claim to be based on universal principles which apply to all mankind.  Prophets of pragmatic religions are not merely prophets for a specific “chosen people” but are prophets for the whole world.  The God of a pragmatic religion is a God of reason and order, who lovingly provides principles and prophets for their protection in a dangerous and uncertain world.  His laws are reasonable, rational, and self-evident.

Mormonism: A Mixture of Pragmatism and Monasticism

Mormonism incorporates elements of both traditions.  Individual commandments can be defined in both ways.  For example, the Word of Wisdom is a “pragmatic” word to the wise, designed to protect the saints from the “evil designs of wicked men in the last days.”  But it also can be interpreted as a sign which sets Mormons apart from the world, and offers a test of humility and obedience to God’s latter day church and his prophets.

Homosexuality in the Pragmatic View

There is perhaps no more troublesome issue in the church today than homosexuality.  One’s approach to it depends upon whether one views Mormonism pragmatically or monastically.  A pragmatic Mormon asks “How could homosexuality be inborn?  Our loving Father would never do such a thing to His children.” Heavenly Father pragmatically designed the commandments to bring us happiness.  Homosexuality is wickedness, and wickedness never was happiness.  Commandments against homosexuality are saving people with same gender attraction from a lifetime of misery.  By repenting and coming to Christ, one can overcome homosexuality and obtain all the wonderful blessings of marriage and family that God so generously offers us all, if not in this life, then the life to come.

A pragmatic Mormon embraces the principles of marriage and family as universal and ordained of God, and cannot conceive of a God that might deliberately create people unfit for heterosexual marriage, or justify some people in forgoing marriage by giving them an incompatible sexual orientation.  Thus a purely pragmatic Mormon finds himself opposed to the scientific and sociological consensus that some homosexuals are “born that way,” and that homosexuality is sometimes irreversible.  A pragmatic Mormon therefore, must either consider the science to be wrong, or else confront the frightening idea that perhaps his own beliefs are wrong.

Homosexuality in the Monastic View

“Born eunichs” was used in the ancient world to refer to homosexual men.

A monastic Mormon has no such problems.  It doesn’t bother a monastic Mormon that homosexuals were perhaps “born that way.”  An arbitrary God who creates a religion which denies the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage to some and not to others is consistent with the God of a “peculiar people” who demands sacrifice from His saints in uneven ways throughout the ages: martyrdom for some, polygamy for others, tithing for some, complete consecration for others.  Additionally, a monastic Mormon will not judge homosexuals outside of Mormonism, because monastic commandments are peculiar to our particular order, serving to separate us, and do not apply to those outside the order.

Monastic Mormons, like pragmatic Mormons, will insist that Homosexuals who want to be fully participate in the LDS church must only engage in sex within a heterosexual marriage.  But not because this is the “universal natural order,” but because this is the commandment of God for this particular order of Mormonism.

Transcending the Purely Pragmatic

I think some Mormons view their religion a bit too pragmatically.  A pragmatic view works fine when everything seems to be in order, when you are keeping commandments and being blessed for it.  But we all face times when our pragmatic views will be challenged: when we face trails that seem unnecessarily destructive, when we confront contradictions in church history, or when we see the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.

In church we talk about the extraordinary sacrifices expected of saints in former dispensations and try a bit awkwardly to “liken scriptures to ourselves.”  We talk about “trying to become like Jesus” but without considering the question Jesus asked Peter: “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of?”   When it comes to life in the modern world, we expect that obedience to our set list of commandments will make everyone happy and successful.

Confronting the reality of irreversible or inborn homosexuality offers us a chance to confront what it might truly mean to “deny yourself and pick up your cross” in today’s world, a true monastic commitment.  A gay man, trying to be a Mormon is most likely living a sacrifice of Biblical proportions.  If we can perceive this, we can see that God is the same today, yesterday and forever.  For even in our day, He tries his people in sometimes extraordinary and incomprehensible ways.

Questions:

  • Is Mormonism more monastic or pragmatic?
  • Can a monastic perspective help us to appreciate the eccentricities of LDS faith, our view of homosexuality and female inequality?

 

 

29 Responses to Mormonism: Monastic or Pragmatic?

  1. Howard on June 25, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Why does a straight pragmatic Mormon care enough about LGBTs to judge them? If it isn’t fear or hate based bias why is it an issue at all what someone else is doing? It’s simply none of their business! Uchtdorf: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”

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  2. Howard on June 25, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that Utah’s ban on same sex marriage was unconstitutional.

    Please explain what big problem this causes LDSs. If it isn’t coming from bias, why do they care?

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  3. alice on June 25, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    I wonder if Kelly and Dehlin will lose any of their prominence. Would anyone know Sonia Johnson’s name 40 years later if she hadn’t been excommunicated? Would the world know that the church has barred women’s way all this time?

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  4. Nate on June 25, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    “Why does a straight pragmatic Mormon care enough about LGBTs to judge them?”

    Homosexuality poses a threat to the pragmatist, because it presents a contradiction to the universality of his worldview. One weak link in the chain of his assumptions of one true church superiority can cause the entire paradigm to collapse, as it has for so many pragmatic former members who left over the unfairness of the church’s views on homosexuality.

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  5. Hedgehog on June 25, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    As is frequently the case Nate I find myself baffled by the way you choose to frame things.
    Monastic polygamy, for example… And the way you’re using pragmatic here, isn’t the pragmatic view to accept there are people who are defining themselves as homosexual and take them at their word and adjust accordingly, as opposed to requiring them to fit into a predetermined template?

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  6. Howard on June 25, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    Well we can’t have contradiction to the universality of his worldview! Listen up gays, you guys are screwing up the faithful’s worldview so either keep it hidden or go straight. K?

    Nate what do you think? Penalty of death if they continue to disrupt the faithful’s mental homeostasis?

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  7. Howard on June 25, 2014 at 12:55 PM

    The church is conservative institution built upon a liberal labor union model plus some peer pressure coercion that looks something like this. Elect (sustain) me and I will give you ___________ (entrance to the Celestial Kingdom). The path is both greed and ego driven, it includes an implied prosperity gospel and a perceived leg up in exchange for turning off your mind and paying, praying and obeying. An incremental seduction series of covenants locks you in. It could also be reasonably argued the members have been successfully colonized in the process for the purpose of funding construction projects. Leg up is accomplished by placing others (that Christ wouldn’t) “beneath” us like gays, and fem libbers and sinners and “the world”. Control is achieved through hyping vague fears by playing “Ain’t it awful?” “The world is going to hell in a hand basket”. Never mind that it’s actually becoming more peaceful. Unity is achieved by tribal peculiarities and encouraging a moderate level of “othering” and allowing a resulting level of hatred toward the “others” to be expressed and peer supported. Call it a conservative country club based on the enhanced dynamics of a labor union and subconscious coercion!

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  8. Kristine A on June 25, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    so are you saying BKPacker is too pragmatic?

    I’m a bit baffled by the distinctions here as well, hedgehog. What about the rest of us who think, ‘what other people choose to do has no bearing on my ability to worship my God as I please” or “gay couples and their families should be able to participate in our congregations regardless of their membership status – if my sins are accepted here, why not anyone else’s?”

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  9. Andrew S on June 25, 2014 at 3:36 PM

    Most of the comments to this article have not directly addressed the question of pragmatism vs monasticism, and I too was first caught off guard by the usages of the terms (since they don’t seem to be the same way I would understand these terms), but I actually think this is a very interesting framing.

    I definitely think there is reason to believe that Mormonism is in tension between pragmatic and monastic concerns. Things are fluid, depending on the political, religious, or social environment. In fact, I would probably guess that pragmatism vs. monasticism works on a similar sort of “axis” as Armand Mauss’s discussion of assimilation vs. differentiation.

    I think we can definitely say that something like, “We are a peculiar people” (which is assuredly monastic, and separates Mormonism from everyone else) and something like “The church is the one true church” (which is pragmatic, as it assumes that the beliefs and practices of Mormonism are based on a framework that would work for everyone) are both completely Mormon statements.

    The one thing that is very interesting about the monastic position is that it reminded me of how many of my non-LDS Christian friends online view certain discussion.

    Certainly, many Christian denominations (especially evangelical ones) would be familiar with the monastic vs. pragmatic distinction discussed within this post. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I usually default to thinking that Christian denominations are pragmatic — the Word is for everyone, and so Christian values are for everyone.

    So I have been surprised when Christian friends take a surprisingly monastic view: that Christian values, beliefs, practices, are binding for Christians only, and while it would be great for everyone to become Christian, Christians cannot expect non-Christians to hold on to the same values.

    This has implications on excommunication. I was in a discussion where some non-LDS Christian friends were saying that if there are “unrepentant” gays and lesbians (e.g., gays and lesbians who are in LGBT relationships, do not see anything wrong with them, etc.,) then after a certain process (described in Mathew 18:15-17), the Christian community should no longer consider them to be part of that Christian community.

    The parallels to Mormonism were striking to me. If you have “unrepentant” Mormons (where what is sin and what is repentance is defined by the church), then after a process, you should no longer consider them to be part of that Mormon community. If they will not hold themselves to Mormon values, then just don’t consider them Mormon.

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  10. Kullervo on June 25, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    Andrew S, you’re saying that you were surprised that non-Mormon Christians practice church discipline?

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  11. Andrew S on June 25, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    Jumping to address some comments. And maybe I’m misunderstanding nate’s framework, so take these comments with a grain of salt.

    re 8

    Kristine,

    I’m a bit baffled by the distinctions here as well, hedgehog. What about the rest of us who think, ‘what other people choose to do has no bearing on my ability to worship my God as I please”

    That’s a monastic statement, if I understand Nate’s framing properly.

    “gay couples and their families should be able to participate in our congregations regardless of their membership status – if my sins are accepted here, why not anyone else’s?”

    Unless your statement here is really getting at the fact that there are limits on what non-member or excommunicated members can do, then I don’t get what this statement is going for…Gay couples and their families *are* able to participate in our congregations regardless of their membership status. It’s just that that membership status will be “non-member” or “excommunicated”, and there are limitations on what those folks can do.

    re 5

    Hedgehog

    As is frequently the case Nate I find myself baffled by the way you choose to frame things.
    Monastic polygamy, for example… And the way you’re using pragmatic here, isn’t the pragmatic view to accept there are people who are defining themselves as homosexual and take them at their word and adjust accordingly, as opposed to requiring them to fit into a predetermined template?

    If I’m understanding Nate correctly, then his use of “pragmatism” is something more akin to, “The standards that we preach are universally applicable to people’s benefit. Thus, those who define themselves as homosexual are not meeting those standards, and thus are harming themselves.”

    This is in contrast to his definition of monasticism, which is more, “Our standards are simply meant to differentiate ourselves, and as a result may not necessarily be “practically” better for us or anyone else.”

    So, it’s probably more precise to look at many Mormon concepts as having both pragmatic *and* monastic presentations.

    For example, for the Word of Wisdom, if a person’s underpinning for the Word of Wisdom is that it has all of these benefits for people (that would apply to anyone practicing it), that would be a pragmatic understanding, and such a pragmatic understanding would apply universally (so everyone should not drink, because not drinking has benefits for everyone.)

    But there is also a monastic understanding of the Word of Wisdom. That regardless of any health benefits or harms of any of its prescriptions or proscriptions, Mormons do it because we are Mormon. (So, arguing that, say, tea can be beneficial misses the mark, because the WoW is more about setting ourselves apart than a practical benefit.)

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  12. Andrew S on June 25, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    re 10

    Kullervo,

    Not that non-LDS churches practice church discipline, but that something very similar to LDS excommunication is also in practice, and also outlined pretty basically in the New Testament.

    To illustrate the difference…

    When i was growing up, my understanding of non-LDS church discipline for, say, a “non-repentant homosexual” would be conversion therapy and other methods that would keep them in the congregation but would impose change efforts on them. The idea would be that this person is a Christian and is always a Christian, but must be brought to repentance no matter what.

    What has changed in more recent discussions is the understanding that non-LDS church discipline, like LDS church discipline, can also involve just letting people go. So you won’t repent? Fine, then you’re just not Christian and will not be treated as such (including our expectation that you maintain Christian values).

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  13. Kullervo on June 25, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    What was your understanding of non-LDS church discipline for sins other than homosexuality?

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  14. Andrew S on June 25, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    Kullervo,

    Outside of things like Catholic restrictions on who can take communion, I didn’t think much about non-LDS church disciplinary actions. But in general, I did not think that excommunication (or anything similar) would be a well-used option.

    I mean, outside of sexual ethics (e.g., homosexuality, abortion, and divorce [and even that is only really for Catholics]), i can’t really see much play about sin at all.

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  15. Kullervo on June 25, 2014 at 5:16 PM

    You might be surprised.

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  16. Howard on June 25, 2014 at 5:35 PM

    I think there’s a lot more to it. In resent years the church has moved more toward a separation of the gay sin from the gay person but this is still very incomplete. Supposedly we hate (why hate?) the sin but “love” the sinner. It sounds very conflicted to me.

    For example straight single LDS men particularly divorced or widowed are viewed with a lot of suspicion as if the are potentially highly probable sinners and callings are held back as a result. This is part of the pro family bias but it is also makes use of peer pressure to capture and control men by pressuring them to lock back into a faithful LDS family. It’s similar to the pressure being placed on young men and women to go on a mission earlier and marry young. Today’s missions are disastrously unproductive but they keep sending them as a way of retaining them and locking them into the church at a time many tend to fall away.

    Gays are prevented from marring so they remain permanently in that highly suspect category! (We know they’re really broken inside, you gotta watch ‘em or they’re likely to commit some wicked abomination.) Add to this the concept that common enemies unite tribes and provide a much enjoyed church tolerated hate catharsis.

    I think the less than status of women in the church is a carry forward of polygamous attitudes like Heber Kimball’s “I think no more of taking a wife than I do of buying a cow” Women were chattel, a commodity and this commodity concept is carried forward with ideas like any two faithful LDSs can make a good marriage which tends to make both men and women sound like replaceable commodities. He’s placed above her but only as long as he “honors his priesthood” when he fails she often believes she can/should divorce him and find one who does. (Of course that isn’t easily done.) But what’s driving all of this is an overriding goal of locking people into the church!

    There is no gay “lock in” equivalent so they are different, a minority. And what are minorities good for? Uniting the tribe in hatred! Of course hatred isn’t allowed to be openly expressed in today’s LDS culture unless we’re going to war but it serves the same purpose but in an unspoken way.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on June 25, 2014 at 6:23 PM

    Wow, this is really fascinating. Thanks, Andrew and Nate, for explaining more fully a difference in paradigm that really helps explain how different people within the church view it. The Word of Wisdom example really helped explain it better for me. I think I am monastic, definitely on WoW. Monasticism could be elitism or self-denial or a combination of the two: membership requirements. Pragmatism includes a lot of assumptions I don’t agree with. I think it’s hard to assume that the church is one way or the other. I think individuals each have their preferred way to see things. Lots of food for thought.

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  18. Kristine A on June 25, 2014 at 9:35 PM

    Andrew, thanks for your comments – that did help flesh it out for me a bit. I received some brushback this year from participating in Lent and posting about it. Most members were like: “idiots, we mormons do lent 24/7″ my first thought was . . . “well if it what you’re doing gives you such a self righteous attitude, you’re doing it wrong”

    That’s quite a monastic approach, “we are way better at denying ourselves than anyone else and better at it and it makes us superior” type of thing, right?

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  19. Andrew S on June 25, 2014 at 10:34 PM

    18,

    Kristine,

    I think that the monastic approach could lead some people to have that sort of attitude. But I also think that would probably be missing a mark on another side of the monastic idea.

    Let’s take the idea of being a “chosen people” — which several religious groups have, in one way or fashion. A lot of talk about “chosen people” status comes in terms of *responsibilities* or *knowledge*, rather than *ability*. So, one can’t just say “we are way better at denying ourselves than anyone else and better at it and it makes us superior” because maybe our “chosenness” is not be because of our increased *ability*, but simply because of our increased *knowledge*. (That is, Jews aren’t necessarily a chosen people because they are better at following God, but simply because having a covenant relationship with God gives them certain responsibilities that gentiles don’t have. And the scriptures suggest that actually, higher responsibility doesn’t mean that you won’t often screw up at that responsibility.) In other words, because we know what the higher standards are, so we are responsibility for that additional knowledge (although we might not always live up to that).

    Even if we happen to be pretty good at living at our particular standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are superior. Rather, this means we carry more weight, bear more of a burden, are responsible for more.

    For a recontextualization of the Lent comments you received, I think the sentiment there is probably something like, “Why would you move to [what is perceived to be the] “lower standard” of Lent when we have the increased knowledge of [insert various principles of the restored Gospel that Mormons might analogize as "doing lent 24/7"]” In the whole debate on whether Christians must also be Jews, the basic idea is similar: Christians have their own standards that set them apart, so one need not also practice the “fullfilled” practices of Jewish law to be distinct.

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  20. Hedgehog on June 26, 2014 at 1:23 AM

    Andrew: “If I’m understanding Nate correctly, then his use of “pragmatism” is something more akin to, “The standards that we preach are universally applicable to people’s benefit. Thus, those who define themselves as homosexual are not meeting those standards, and thus are harming themselves.”
    I thought pragmatism was rooted in dealing with what is actually happening on the ground, rather than an “ideal” world view. The idea of a set of standards for adherents comes across as distinctly monastic. So it seems back to front to me.

    However, that aside, I do enjoy reading Nate’s posts. Always an intriguing if baffling, perspective.

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  21. Andrew S on June 26, 2014 at 1:28 AM

    re 20

    Hedgehog,

    I still would say that the terminology is somewhat idiosyncratic. Perhaps it could bridge the gap to say that in a religious (and especially Mormon) viewpoint, “what is actually happening on the ground” includes what happens to one spiritually. But we don’t really know how to verify this — does that mean then that asserting spiritual consequences is always “ideal” or theoretical?

    I could see how someone could say that, but from within the religious worldview, those things aren’t theoretical or ideal. They are how things actually work.

    And this isn’t just a set of standards for adherents. Hence, the LDS church fights against gay marriage in the legal sphere, which would be applicable to far more than just adherents. It’s not just saying, “Gay marriage is something Mormons don’t do”. It’s saying, “Gay marriage is something we think everyone shouldn’t do.”

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  22. Nate on June 26, 2014 at 2:13 AM

    Andrew S, thanks for helping me out with the post. I’ve been using the terms “monastic and pragmatic” for a long time now to describe gospel approaches, but I’ve not stepped back to see how they might easily be misunderstood.

    You say, “Hence, the LDS church fights against gay marriage in the legal sphere, which would be applicable to far more than just adherents.”

    This is actually the origin of my thoughts on monasticism vrs pragmaticism. I started thinking of myself as being part of a monastic religion while trying to rationalize my opposition to the church’s aggressive political stance on same-sex marriage, while at the same time opposing homosexual relationships within the church. I work in an artistic profession with lots of high functioning gay relationships, so I could clearly see that the LDS assumption of “wickedness never was happiness” was out of touch with reality. It was hard being a Mormon when my gay friends knew that Mormons didn’t approve of their lifestyle. So I tried to explain it from a monastic perspective, that I don’t judge or try to impose my values on people outside of my religion.

    Society at large is very accepting of monastic traditions, regardless of how peculiar. It’s when those religions seek to impose their traditions and values on society that troubles start. I didn’t see any evidence in the scriptures that Jesus or Paul sought to impose their values on society, but rather that they merely extended specific invitations to specific people to join a higher path, “a strait and narrow way and few there be that find it.” It didn’t seem like Jesus or Paul had this idea of Christianity becoming the dominant influential power in the world. It was a smaller more esoteric community seeking a “kingdom not of this world.”

    But the Book of Mormon gives a different impression, that the gospel is universal, that society as a whole must adhere to it or risk calamities. The Book of Mormon was translated in an era when Christianity had spread universally (thanks to Catholic and Protestant unrighteous dominion), so there were baseline Christian values that everyone aught to adhere to, and that is the flavor the Book of Mormon took on.

    Today, we’ve lost the 19th century Christian domination of the world, and instead have an extremely pluralistic society. We’ve gone back to the same state as ancient Rome, when true (non-apostate) Christian religion, (i.e. Mormon) is a small sect. True Christianity was never meant to fill the whole earth (until the Millennium perhaps). Only apostate Christianity made that possible, and they made it possible through the most abominable wickedness and warfare.

    During the Prop 8 debate, I made a lot of references to Jesus’ phrase, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world then would my servants fight.” Mormons had adopted a crusading spirit in Proposition 8, “onward Christian soldiers” sort of thing. The only thing Mormons should be fighting about, is the freedom to protect our unique practices from outside infiltration, not trying to impose our uniqueness on others.

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  23. Kullervo on June 26, 2014 at 8:46 AM

    Andrew S, I don’t think you will find any church that practices church discipline but does not believe that God’s law is absolutely binding on all of humanity.

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  24. New Iconoclast on June 26, 2014 at 12:00 PM

    Would anyone know Sonia Johnson’s name 40 years later if she hadn’t been excommunicated?

    I would posit that most people, even in the Church, don’t.

    But at any rate . . .

    I would have framed the discussion more as one about the use and abuse of free agency, but that might come from an initial misunderstanding of Nate’s use of “monastic” and “pragmatic.” However, one might also argue that, despite the “pragmatic” commitment to the notion that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is “based on universal principles which apply to all mankind,” one can be committed to the notion that people are free to adopt and live by those principles, or not, and that it’s not our place to constrain them, but merely to teach, preach, exhort, and warn. Does one thereby become “monastic”?

    My issue, for example, with the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage isn’t the position that marriage is ordained of God, or the notion that God intended it to be between one man and one (or more, if so ordered) woman. It’s the idea that the Church would fight to constrain by law what it’s been unable to preserve by moral suasion. That strikes me as a stance profoundly contrary to our oft-stated views on agency.

    Even presuming that allowing same-sex marriage will bring down the judgments of God on our society, if the Church loses the battle for hearts and minds, the Church loses the battle no matter what the law says. And, frankly, the Church lost that battle. The handwriting has been on the wall for years and the change is accelerating and is soon to be nationwide. The Church gets no moral brownie points for preventing immoral action by force of law. If any among you look upon a woman to lust after her, he hath already committed adultery in his heart, morally, even if he technically obeys the law and doesn’t actually sleep with her.

    So, I wonder if the question about homosexuality for the “pragmatist” is its existence, or what to do about it? I sometimes think that those we might tag as “pragmatists” (in light of Nate’s post) sometimes end up betraying some of their principles by indulging their intense desire to fix things and set stuff in order.

    As usual, very thought-provoking.

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  25. Nate on June 26, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    New Iconoclast, interesting question. Does an appeal to free-agency constitute a monastic or pragmatic commitment?

    Fundamentally, I think monasticism is an attitude. It’s about taking oneself out of the world for ones own personal spiritual reasons. It’s not about leaving the world because the world is too wicked and they are all going to hell, and only you and those with you will go to heaven. That’s pragmatism. You HAVE to leave in order to escape hell, or earn heaven.

    So someone who allows people to have their free agency, but still judges them as being on the wrong path, is still thinking pragmatically, not monastically. They would do all they could to encourage them to join, except compel them, because they know compulsion is counterproductive. The pragmatist spirit is: “Oh that I were an angel and could shout the gospel in every ear so everyone would join.”

    Monasticism does not judge others on other paths. They only judge from their own spiritual experience. They heard a divine call, “come follow me,” so they followed. But they don’t judge others who may not have heard that call.

    In the end its all about attitude. For example, during Prop. 8, some members made extraordinary sacrifices to contribute financially to it. Did they do this because they really thought gay marriage would destroy society, and pragmatically, they wanted to do everything to stop this destruction? Not nescessarily. They did it because they were asked by a prophet of God, and they saw it as an opportunity to make a monastic sacrifice. They were weened on stories of pioneer sacrifices and were just waiting for the opportunity to be asked to do something like this, regardless of what it was. They could care less about gay marriage.

    Others supported Prop. 8 not as a monastic sacrifice, but because they really felt like they had to save the planet from destruction.

    The same destinctions could be made for those who were against Prop. 8. Pragmatists felt Prop 8 was homophobic or counter-productive, hindering it’s pragmatic efforts to grow and be effective the broader world. Maybe they saw the church as backwards on gays, and needing to change to become a better church, a pragmatic perspective.

    But the monastic perspective against Prop 8 is that Mormons should not judge others by our unique standards.

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  26. Joel on June 27, 2014 at 1:09 AM

    I enjoyed your framing of monastic and pragmatic religion, and can see how the two threads are present in Mormonism. I would argue that Mormonism, coming as it did after the Enlightenment, is first and foremost a pragmatic religion. God must act in ways consistent with universal laws, things are supposed to make sense, blessings are predicated on obedience to commandments. The monastic arguments are used more as fallback positions when what God or the church is asking of us doesn’t seem all that pragmatic. But the church leadership and membership, in my opinion, see their religion as primarily a pragmatic one.

    Would the church be better of with a more monastic approach? It might smooth out some of the bumps with the rest of the world, and it might make conversations with our non-member friends more comfortable, but it could also be used as an excuse to hold onto harmful doctrines and practices. The fundamentalist polygamists are certainly monastic, but their peculiar practices have provided cover for a litany of abuses. Far better to insist that your religion is reasonable, just, and universal, and then have to justify and prove yourself in the court of public opinion.

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  27. Nate on June 27, 2014 at 2:16 AM

    Thanks for joining us Joel! You are right that Mormonism has a somewhat pragmatic heritage. That is the way that Joseph Smith presented the gospel in the Doctrine and Covenants: “There is a law irrevocably decreed upon which all blessings are predicated…” Monasticism is sort of a fallback position when we can’t rationally explain what God asks us to do.

    So Joseph Smith wanted to be pragmatic, and who doesn’t? We like things to make sense and to be able to explain them rationally. But God put Mormons in situations that challenge our rational sense, and force us into monasticism. Like Joseph Smith saying, “I knew that I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” And later saying, “I don’t blame any man for not believing my history. If I had not seen it myself, I would not have believed it.”

    The problem with many modern pragmatist Mormons, is that they are under the illusion that their beliefs and practices are self-evident and rational. They obey because it makes sense to them, not because they had seen a strange, unexplainable vision they could not deny. Then they judge everyone else for not following their rational and self-evident way, and accuse them of being willfully blind and prideful for not investigating the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon in an impartial way, which would obviously lead them to see the truth of it.

    But the truth is that impartial investigation DOES NOT lead to a vindication of LDS beliefs. Elder Oaks said the evidence for and against the Book of Mormon amounts at best to “a draw.” One must rely upon a witness of the Spirit, which cannot be forced, but recieved by the will of God.

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  28. New Iconoclast on June 27, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    The problem with many modern pragmatist Mormons, is that they are under the illusion that their beliefs and practices are self-evident and rational. They obey because it makes sense to them, not because they had seen a strange, unexplainable vision they could not deny.

    Ah, very well-phrased, and there’s the rub. When they then read something that doesn’t conform with how they’ve been taught, there comes the crisis of faith, and sometimes people can’t resolve those issues to their satisfaction, and in addition, are angry at having been lied to. And sometimes they leave.

    And I’m not trying to be dismissive. Heaven knows the Church has contributed to this problem by not being forthcoming about its own history, to its detriment in the Internet age; and there’s an unfortunate tendency (I think it’s a human one but it manifests itself a lot in the Church) which might be the flip side to the pragmatic viewpoint to mention above, for some folks to obey because they have a strong need to obey and, more importantly, to squash questions in others. (As opposed to answering them.)

    But the truth is that impartial investigation DOES NOT lead to a vindication of LDS beliefs.

    Very true. I used to think that it did; all you had to do was “replicate the experiment” in Moroni 10 and it would all fall into place. However, that experiment requires a partial observer – one who’s willing to accept an answer, learn, change. I’m reminded of those ridiculous experiments the James Randis and Richard Dawkinses of the world occasionally conduct, where they line up people to pray for sick people and have a control group of sick people who are not prayed for, to “prove” that prayer doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t under those circumstances; it requires faith.

    At any rate, I’d again add the agency dimension and call myself a agency-oriented pragmatist. I do think that the Gospel is universal (although not everyone is ready for it, it is eventually or potentially for everyone), and I disagreed on Prop 8 not because I think the Church is backward (although a lot of members sure are) or because I care deeply about same-sex marriage, but because I think legislating morality (on issues that don’t directly result in harm to others) is deeply illiberal and deeply un-Mormon. We teach correct principles in my ideally pragmatic world, we don’t vote them down people’s throats.

    I don’t see Mormonism as “monastic” in the Nate sense except in very limited ways. I do recognize that this is only my view, and (to be consistent) am just fine with others thinking differently. I like a big-tent church. :)

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  29. New Iconoclast on June 27, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    Oh – and I had a “vision” – not an actual visit from God or a visual vision, but a strong spiritual experience as part of my conversion at age 20, so although the Gospel seems pretty rational (or at least internally consistent) and makes sense to me, it doesn’t shake me when I figure out that Jesus drank alcohol, or that Joseph used a seer stone, or that Church history isn’t as pristine and white as “Truth Restored” would have us think. I have often felt to say as did Joseph – “I had [received an unmistakable witness]; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.”

    Huh. Does that make me a wee bit monastic? ;)

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