The Awesome, Radical Transformational Potential of Religion

April 30, 2011

The Book of Mormon Musical

About a week ago, you may have read an article in the New York Times by David Brooks regarding the message espoused by Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Book of Mormon Musical. And if you read that, you may have read Andrew Sullivan’s article pushing back against Brooks or Joanna Brooks’s rather different disagreement. Maybe you got wind of the entire thing at BCC from John C’s article that posited that both Brooks and Sullivan fail because they argue along a false dichotomy. Maybe you saw MCQ’s article at 9 Moons that referenced nearly all of the above.

Welp. I guess Wheat & Tares is just too late to this issue and I’ll just be beating a dead horse?

I’ll try not to. Unfortunately, even though this article will be nearly 2000 words, I can’t guarantee that I’ll say anything.

While each article discusses — on the surface — what the musical’s message says and whether that message is compelling or right…underneath that surface message are different assumptions about the power and purpose of religion.

Let’s begin with selections from the article that began it all — David Brooks’s.

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

What caught my eye was the idea of motivating people to perform heroic acts of service. What does this mean? Is this necessarily tied to “religions that grow”? And is this factor necessarily tied to theological rigor (whatever that means), arduousness in practice, and definiteness in convictions? I’ll try to get into this later, but I don’t think Brooks really has the same idea about this that I do.

What I liked about Brooks’s argument was that it mimic’d some conclusions I had drawn elsewhere: liberal religions, like “cultural” religious identities, only exist to the extent that a conservative religious community exists. However much it would be great to have Mormonism be an open tent for liberal and New Order Mormon types and those who disbelieve-but-kinda-think-it’s-cool, these people will not be driven to proselytize, to teach the church’s doctrines to their children as if it is truth itself (because they don’t believe that themselves!)

The problem with Brooks’s argument is that I don’t think this conservative, rigorous kind of religion “motivates” people to perform heroic acts of service. To be sure, I think conservative religions are very great motivators, and they can motivate people to very great levels of service.

But I believe heroic is a special term that ought not be used lightly.

That’s why I turn to MCQ’s post at 9 Moons.

…Though I don’t understand how [the Atonement] works, it has blessed my life in ways that I am well aware of and in ways I fear I am still quite ignorant of, and I am grateful for it every day.  I believe the Atonement has the power to truly change us as people, and it is through its power that we experience the change of heart that is required of all who wish to truly become followers of Jesus Christ.

…There’s no way to really change people’s behavior, in any meaningful or permanent way, without changing their hearts, and no nice story, however firmly believed in by any number of gullible idiots, ever had any power to do that.  The power of the Atonement is the only thing that ever can change hearts, change people and redeem mankind, and unless the Atonement really happened, Mormonism specifically, and Christianity in general, is useless and powerless.

So Parker and Stone can go on thinking of Mormonism as a useful lie, and Mormons as wonderful, nice helpful idiots, but the reality is that the thing they ignorantly recognize as “warmth” and “niceness” in the Mormons they have met is actually the transformative power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, working in the lives of those who choose to believe in Christ and attempt to follow him.

Emphasis added.

This sentiment highlights something that Brooks didn’t have that I think is critical. Brooks’s religion need not create a change of heart because it is arduous enough to encourage great service by sweat. Perhaps as a result, the service that can be mustered, although it is great, isn’t heroic.

What do I mean?

The idea of “faking it till you make it,” (or, more positively, of positive hypocrisy and hypocrisy upwards) It’s controversial, certainly, but I’m willing to bet that as a result, many people serve who otherwise wouldn’t. And there even is a “making” process, if it works right. The “making” process is gradual, incremental, and I guess it changes people. But radical, awesome change of heart? No, it is not.

Unfortunately, where I disagree with MCQ is that I believe that in many cases, Mormonism doesn’t produce that radical, awesome change of heart. I think that the “warmth” and “niceness” that MCQ is often refreshing, but often is human cultivated warmth and niceness. As a result, Brooks can account for it with arduous religion.

Elder David A. BednarConsider Elder Bednar’s extended metaphor in his recent conference talk, ‘The Spirit of Revelation.” Maybe it’s just the case that some change is like the sun’s light that slowly, gradually, and incrementally pierces through a cloudy or foggy sky.

…But let us not forget the idea of the light switch that, when flipped, immediately floods the area with light.

Bednar would comfort us by saying that perhaps the two forms are ultimately equivalent — one’s just a lump sum and the other an annuity.

But I’m wondering if they aren’t.

A while back I talked to someone who was Christian who called atheist morality confusing.

As a protip, I’ll have you know that any time you doubt whether atheists can be moral, any atheists around you will not be amused. But this person wasn’t saying that. He could see that atheists could be (and generally are) decent, amicable, moral folks — at least, pretty similar to any other kind of folk — but he thought that the motivation and orientation were different. In his view, much atheist morality tended to be oriented to negative injunctions (do no harm), while his morality as a Christian was oriented to positive duties (proactively help).

I can understand that in many times, people stick with negative injunctions because, many times, positive duties step on toes. (Proactively helping homosexuals by trying to ban gay marriage doesn’t send quite the message you might want it to). So, even I’m a fan of silver and platinum rules.

But I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with his generalization as to orientation. I think plenty of atheists try to positively help.

So, I turn to a comment that Seth R — unofficial e-missionary of the Blogging Wilderness — posted on my personal blog, Irresistible (Dis)Grace.

Sure, atheists can be as moral as anyone – often moreso than many religious folk.

But where’s the motivating drive? The overarching point? Where’s the narrative that pulls it all together? Where’s the engine?

I mean, I suppose that when an atheist is moral, it’s nice and all. But it never seems to rise much beyond the level of all nice things being nice together for niceness’ sake. Love is love. Love is loving. Sort of a warm bath of words rendered down to a vague sort of sentimental goo – but lacking any real point. Not really going anywhere important.

It’s nice to be nice and all. But really, in an atheist paradigm, you might just well not be nice as be nice.

I’ve been thinking about that issue…motivation. At the time, I believe my response to Seth was to say that what he describes are features, not bugs. Atheists are moral without an engine, narrative, overarching point. Shouldn’t that be commended?

But over time, I’ve been thinking more.

I don’t think Seth’s comment applies just (or even “mostly”) to atheists, and this gets me back to what I think about “heroic” service. I think that for many people, religious and not, when these people are moral, it’s nice and all. But it never seems to rise much beyond the level of all nice things being nice together for niceness’ sake. Love is love. Love is loving.

And THIS is what I’ve been spending 1300 words trying to address.

See, there are a few people who I find to be noticeably different. They are all across the spectrum…non-LDS Christian, Mormon, excommunicated Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim, even atheist and agnostic…and they don’t just seem “nice and all.” They seem radically transformed. How can I begin to describe them to you? So many people think they are this, but so many people are misinformed. I can’t tell you what these are like…you just have to…experience the company of one of these people.

These people are such a minority!

William JamesWhen I read John Gustav-Wrathall’s post on Three Rules of Revelation or his post on The Simple Gospel, I can’t help but feel like he (and William James, of course) were on to something. There is something different about a certain class of religious experience — in that it actually does inspire a great change of heart…greater compassion, a motivation for service, and a personal radiance that reaches through the internet — I don’t know why it’s so rare…I don’t know how people get it…it seems not to be more or less common in any particular tradition…but it seems to be something real.

That’s what I believe leads to heroic service. That’s what I believe is the awesome, radical transformational power that each religion talks about

James acknowledges that while many people do have spiritual experiences, only a few seem to have the really intense, really powerful ones, and there are many, many who never seem to have any kind of spiritual experience at all. And it is not for lack of trying. There are many, many good people who follow all the steps. They obey the commandments, they read the scriptures, and they pray and ask and sometimes even desperately plead for some sign, for some spark of revelation that will make them know too, and they just never seem to get it. And James confesses (as I think we are all obliged to confess) that he simply doesn’t know why some people seem spiritually tone deaf, and others seem to have this rich world of spirit that they access easily and intuitively.

I feel like I could summarize with this passage. I feel that many people (Mormon or not) develop “warmth” and “niceness” from trying, and the church — because it is arduous and rigorous — is great at this. But then again, most decent moral folk are that way from trying. But does that mean everyone has the “really intense, really powerful” spiritual experiences that truly change the heart? Does that mean everyone is geared toward “heroic service”?

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5 Responses to The Awesome, Radical Transformational Potential of Religion

  1. Stephen Marsh on April 30, 2011 at 7:10 AM

    Or could be.

    Does that mean everyone is geared toward “heroic service”?

    No. But they could be.

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  2. Mike S on April 30, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    Andrew:

    Nice post. I do think there is room for “motivation” outside the typical LDS-thinking. While I have by taught since I was a child to “Do What Is Right” or “Love My Neighbor”, these never had the depth in my life that they do now.

    The thing that has most powerfully motivated me to look outward and help others has actually been studying Buddhism. Seeing the vast interconnectedness in the universe and how every little action or intention I have profoundly affects others has made me incredibly more aware. Ironically, I’m probably a better “Mormon” because of studying something which many may argue is “Godless”.

    So, I’ve never had that profound light switch moment that Elder Bednar talked about within the LDS Church, but I have had it outside the Church. Because of that, when people question the motivation of Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics or even atheists, I think it says more about the person questioning than the person being questioned.

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  3. Andrew S on April 30, 2011 at 8:10 PM

    re 1:

    Stephen,

    Right. I think “could be” is a given. But then again, everyone *could be* given to huge spiritual experiences…the question is why it seems that few people have the really huge ones that change hearts thoroughly, especially when various religions try to say that they have doctrines and practices that are more conducive to experiencing these things.

    re 2:

    Mike S,

    So, I’ve never had that profound light switch moment that Elder Bednar talked about within the LDS Church, but I have had it outside the Church. Because of that, when people question the motivation of Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics or even atheists, I think it says more about the person questioning than the person being questioned.

    One thing I’ve certainly noticed is that in the people who I’ve known who are radically transformed, while they may have a “home” religious tradition, they certainly are open…maybe syncretic. They seem to recognize that no one religious tradition has a monopoly.

    Maybe it is precisely the exploration of multiple traditions (that seem to be mutually exclusive) that allows people to zero in on the most important points?

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