Friday, March 9, 2012


I got an email question from a student about some of our discussion of the six themes I've chosen to focus on throughout the semester (Reason, Revelation, Authority, Freedom, Survival and Gender), and I thought it might be helpful to post my response here, since others may have similar questions. This student specifically asked about how I view or define "reason," and how my definition of reason relates to the ways in which we've been exploring reason as a class theme.

I do want to be somewhat open-ended in the approach to the six themes. This involves acknowledging that there may be different ways of defining Revelation, Reason, Authority, Freedom, Survival and Gender Roles. Liberal theists, for example, have generally looked to history itself and broad historical processes as a way by which God reveals godself. In discussing Native American history in class, I discussed two possible ways of understanding the problem of survival in looking at Native American history. From a European American viewpoint, what has been at stake in the course of American history has been the survival of a people or peoples -- Native Americans themselves. From a Native viewpoint, what has been at stake is the survival of the planet. These are examples of how the way any one of those six concepts is defined can depend on who we're asking to define it and what the context is.

At its most basic, I see reason as the faculty we use to create meaning, to arrange facts into meaningful narratives.

However, different cultures "allow" different fact sets into their reasoning exercises. So, for example, Western science has historically excluded huge, broad fact sets from reasoning activity: the subjective, the emotional, the spiritual. Western science has historically allowed observable, reproducible, physical/material facts only as part of the reasoning process, and has labeled everything else "irrational."

We've already seen a different approach to reason used by fundamentalists, called (in Marsden) "Scottish Common Sense Realism." Fundamentalists insisted on deductive reasoning alone -- generalizing from observable phenomena. They rejected inductive reasoning,which would allow hypothetical or speculative extrapolation from observable facts. (This was their basis for rejecting the Theory of Evolution, for instance.) On the other hand, they accepted scriptural accounts of miracles as eye witness accounts, and therefore allowable data. Marsden has pointed out that Fundamentalists did not reject reason per se, they rejected only a particular form of scientific rationalism.

The same principle applies when considering the role of reason in Native American culture. Traditional Native American spirituality has often been stereotyped or romanticized as "mystical" and "irrational." In our class discussion yesterday, one characterization that was offered was the Native American spiritual practices were designed to "transcend the rational mind." But that characterization, I think, assumes certain things about the nature of reason. And it also doesn't really square with my understanding of how Native Americans engage in spiritual practices.

For example, the vision quest was cited as an example of a practice that involves breaking out of or transcending reason through fasting, isolation, etc. But in Native American practice, once a person has experienced a vision as part of a vision quest, the process is not finished until that individual returns to the community and describes his or her vision to a spiritual leader, who then helps them properly interpret the vision and integrate the vision into the community's understanding of itself. That interpretive process is a reasoning/rational process. It's a use of the reasoning faculty to make sense of data -- in this case, the data being a vision or a dream. Native Americans are not, in this case, behaving "irrationally." Their experience with revelation is integrated using reason, and the two things, revelation and reason, are not seen as mutually exclusive phenomena.

Reason and revelation are seen as mutually exclusive in our culture only because the dominant view of reason in our culture has been defined by a scientific worldview that excludes certain sorts of data -- like visions or dreams -- from its accounting of reality.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Case for a Gnostic Tarot

Many students of the tarot over the years have argued that its images comprised a visual system of gnostic or hermetic wisdom. Some have tried to make very specific arguments, such as that the tarot was originally created by Cathar heretics as a way of secretly encapsulating their doctrines and history in a coded, visual format. (See, for example, Swiryn, The Secret of the Tarot.)

Many of these arguments break down in the face of the specifics of what we know about the history of the tarot. The Cathar heresy, for example, was effectively suppressed by the beginning of the 14th century, while playing cards don't appear to have been known in Europe until the end of the 14th century, and tarot cards don't appear to have been invented until the last half of the 15th century. The Guglielmites, another heretical group seen as possibly behind the tarot, were active only in the 13th century.  We just don't know enough about the origins of the tarot to draw a direct lineage between the tarot and any specific religious group or movement, and so far every attempt to do so has been based on conjecture that requires to put it generously a long stretch in order to work.

Nevertheless, the tarot contains spiritual images that can't all be explained simply by pointing to the predominant culture in which the tarot emerged. Many of the images in the tarot are puzzling or even disturbing from an orthodox Christian perspective, and demand some sort of explanation. The most reasonable explanations point to alternative theologies, spiritualities, or philosophies.

Many of the symbols in the tarot are conventional medieval and early Renaissance symbols that seem to be drawn from popular culture. But the “Popess” and the “Pope” cards were always problematic. The “Popess” was puzzling and seen as a slander against the Church, and the portrayal of the Pope in a pack of playing cards was seen as irreverent at best. Also puzzling was the fact that only three of the seven classical Christian virtues were represented in the cards: Justice, Strength and Temperance. If only three were to have been represented, why not the three higher, theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity? And if only cardinal virtues were to be presented, why not include the fourth, Prudence? The presence of the Devil in the deck was disturbing, as was the related Tower/House of God/House of the Devil card. Finally, the inclusion of the Star, the Moon and the Sun, with their astrological and pagan associations, with cards of a theological nature, such as Judgement/the Angel and the World, hinted at hermeticism.

The proof that these cards were viewed as problematic within their own cultural context is the fact that from the time of their earliest appearance on the scene, various attempts were made to “fix” the cards, and publish versions of them that were more conventionally palatable. So, for instance, in an early Visconti deck, produced in the mid-fifteenth century, Faith, Hope and Charity cards appear to have been provided. (There's debate among tarot scholars as to whether these cards were intended to replace the Pope and Popess cards -- we can't know for sure since the deck is incomplete.) In other early Italian decks, the Pope, Popess, Emperor and Empress were replaced with Moorish Satraps, or Eastern and Western Emperors and Popes, while in Flemish and Swiss decks the Pope and Popess were replaced with fanciful figures like “the Spanish Captain” and “Bacchus,” or “Jupiter” and “Juno.” In the “minchiate” decks that became popular in Florence, additional astrological signs and the elements were added to provide a more conventional astronomical context for the Star, Moon and Sun cards, and the missing virtues were supplied, while the offending Pope and Popess were not just replaced but removed outright. Sometimes – as in the case of the early Venetian “Sola Busca” tarot deck, or later German and Austrian decks, the mystical symbolism was completely done away with in favor of themes taken from nature or from secular history.

The reason explanations of the tarot pointing to hermeticism and gnosticism seem so attractive is because, considered in their entirety, as a collection, the symbols of the cards lend themselves well to a hermetic/gnostic worldview. They are capable of telling a complete story that makes sense in the gnostic Gospel. The Emperor, the Pope and the Devil easily correspond with the Gnostic idea of “the Powers” and the demiurge, just as the Popess, the Empress and the Star correspond with the gnostic idea of the Divine Feminine leading us back into the eternal realm of Spirit and Truth (symbolized by the World). Death, the Tower and Judgment correspond nicely with the idea of the release of the soul – the divine spark – from the prisons of carnality and convention. The Fool, the Magician, the Chariot, the Hermit and the Hanged Man, on the other hand, nicely correspond to gnostic stages in the path to enlightenment, while the Wheel, the Moon and the Sun symbolize important awareness acquired along that path. Love represents the key gnostic/hermetic concept of conjunctio, the union of the feminine soul with its divine source. Meanwhile, the virtues of Strength, Temperance, and Justice do double duty, representing both the virtues that are required to achieve spiritual awakening, as well as symbolizing mystical concepts such as the transmigration of souls, the discernment of spiritual truth, and the harmony that arises from mastering the physical. A key to understanding the role of the virtues has to do with possessing or intuiting the secret knowledge of where to place them in the journey – which may have something to do with why the cards were initially left unnumbered. In fact, with the cards unnumbered, the different ordering conventions could have constituted a form of theological debate – different statements about the role particular virtues or theological principles played in relation to others above or below it in the hierarchy.

While the set of 22 trionfi or atouts offered a fairly complete vocabulary for discussing gnostic theology, the same cards are not so apt for telling a complete story in an orthodox Christian framework. Too many elements are missing or transmuted beyond recognition, and some elements (like the Popess) just don't fit.

A comparison of the tarot with the (misnamed) Tarocchi del Mantegna shows something of how different the tarot would or could have been if its images had portrayed a more conventional scheme of Christian wisdom. The Tarocchi del Mantegna, neither a “tarot” deck, nor designed by the famed Italian artist Mantegna, was a contemporary product of Renaissance Italy, and contains a much more positive portrayal of conventional earthly hierarchies and a more straightforward rehearsal of the contemporary Christian view of the cosmos. In the Tarocchi del Mantegna, the social hierarchy is portrayed more unproblematically (without disruptive female authority figures) as a graded chain of being, and God is shown reigning highest in his heaven over all the intermediary forces and principles that govern the cosmos. The image of that cosmos is untroubled by disturbing images of Death, the Devil, wheels of fortune, or towers of pride and destruction. Women appear as ethereal virtues and muses. All Christian virtues are present, and faith is ranked as the highest virtue. Theology is ranked as the highest form of knowledge. In fact, all the cards are tidily numbered, leaving no doubt which values rank highest and which rank lowest. From the point of view of reigning Renaissance social convention and Catholic Christianity, the tarot, by comparison, is a disordered crazy quilt of puzzling symbols, having disturbing lacunae in its account of the social and cosmic order. At best it was a bad joke. No wonder it has always garnered mostly contempt from ecclesiastical establishments.

While it is not possible to draw clear lines between the production of the tarot and specific heretical or hermetic movements, we know that gnostic and hermetic thought existed as a constant cultural undercurrent in European history – from the classical age, when state-sponsored Christian orthodoxy first waged war against Gnostic Christianity, through the middle ages when gnostic ideas periodically surfaced as Bogomilism and Catharism, and, later, in Renaissance Hermeticism, which flowered in the 19th and 20th centuries in the esoteric movements that popularized the tarot as a source of occult knowledge. Gnosticism and hermeticism have, in essence, always thrived in European (and Euro-American) culture because of orthodox Christianity's inability to provide theologically satisfying answers to questions regarding the problem of evil and human nature and destiny, and also as a response to oppressive and corrupt state church establishments. Sometimes the gnostic undercurrent manifested itself in specific, articulate, theologically coherent movements. At other times, when those movements were violently suppressed or driven underground, it manifested itself more inchoately in smoldering anti-clericalism, skepticism, secret fraternities, and in various forms of popular mysticism.

Thus, while it can't be proven that tarot cards were the direct product of, for instance, underground Cathar theologians, it seems no coincidence that the cards came into being and were initially most popular in those parts of Europe where skepticism, anti-clericalism, anti-papism and gnostic heresy had historically been strongest, and where the authority of Pope and Emperor were relatively weak, namely in northern Italy and in France (especially, but not limited to, southern France). Northeastern Italy -- the most likely birthplace of tarot -- was also the last refuge of Cathar heretics. After the the Albigensian crusade in southern France, many French Cathars fled to states like Ferrara and Milan, where they were somewhat protected by a sympathetic, anti-papal nobility (Butler, pp. 164-168). These same noble houses commissioned the first tarot decks known to exist.

Card-playing itself has always – in western culture at least – carried with it a whiff of non-respectability, and has always been at least frowned upon by the Church, if not outright condemned. The popularity of the tarot – even, or especially, for the vast majority who saw in it nothing but a game – was undoubtedly due at least in part to the mysteriousness of at least some of its symbols as well as their seeming irreverence. The popularity of the Tarot of Marseille in particular was probably due to its perfection of those mystical and irreverent aspects of the cards, and its presentation of them in an attractive, iconic format.


Much of my analysis is based on study of facsimiles of the following antique tarot decks: the Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza tarot deck (Milan, 15th century), the Pierpont Morgan Visconti-Sforza tarot deck (Milian, 15th century), Tarocchi del Mantegna (northern Italy, 15th century), Tarot de Paris (Paris, 17th century), Jacques Viéville tarot deck (Paris, 17th century), Tarocchini del Mitelli (Bologna, 1664), Etruria minchiate deck (Florence, 1725), Nicolas Conver tarot deck (Marseille, 1760), F.I. Vandenborre tarot deck (Bruxelles, 18th century), and Giacomo Zoni tarot deck (Bologna, 18th century).

Barber, Malcolm. The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2000.

Clifton, Chas S. Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992.

Dummett, Michael. The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City. London: Duckworth, 1980.

-----. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1986.

Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot. Vol. 1. Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1978.

Swiryn, Robert. The Secret of the Tarot: How the Story of the Cathars Was Concealed in the Tarot. Kapaa, HI: Pau Hana Publishing, 2010.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

American Religious Histories 2012

Each year around this time, I spend some time thinking over this course, evaluating past semesters, and deciding whether to make any significant changes in structure, content, or format. Although there are certain things I feel I must include in a course like this, there are lots of things I could include or very much want to include but ultimately decide to leave out. Sometimes I feel I would love to teach this as a three-semester-long seminar... Then I would not have to make quite as many messy decisions about what to include and what not to include!

This year, I've decided to make significant changes in the course structure and content.

My most significant decision has been to introduce a new unit on American Islam.

In order to make room for this, I've decided to dramatically shorten my introductory lecture giving an "overview" of American religious history, and instead jump right into the substance of the course on the first day of class with a lecture on the American Religious Establishment.

I've also made some fairly dramatic changes in terms of text book choices:
* Catherine Albanese, America: Religions and Religion. Every year, I wrestle with using this text. I'm not sure I agree with Albanese's philosophy of religion. However, I like the fact that her textbook relies on a thematic approach. Rather than giving us a single narrative of American religious history, each chapter deals with a different religion or religions -- which fits with the way I've chosen to structure my course. This year I considered making the Albanese text optional -- for those students who were less familiar with the religious diversity of the American scene. Ultimately, I decided against that because I still had to be selective with my other text choices, and Albanese is the only text that deals with all the religions I have chosen to cover in the course.

* Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. I really thought about dropping this book this year, because it's too easy. My students have tended to take too much for granted in reading this text, and many have dismissed it too easily because of its obvious limitations -- or I should say, because of the obvious limitations of the historical space in which it was written. Ultimately, I decided to keep it because it speaks so directly to so many important themes in the class, and have opted instead to work harder at pushing my students to engage with Paine a bit more seriously.

* Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. I used this text the first semester I taught this, back in 2008. For a few years, I was using Armand Mauss' Angel and the Beehive to cover Mormonism, mainly because his sociological model for analyzing Mormonism was useful in studying some of the other religions we cover in my class, and because Mauss presents a portrait of Mormonism that tends to break a lot of the stereotypes my students typically come to a study of Mormonism with. I liked that he covered developments in Mormonism since the 1950s. However, I've decided I can present Mauss' sociological model in lecture, and I personally can play the role of stereotype-breaker and up-to-date-bringer. I decided I wanted to go back to using a text that will allow the class to engage more deeply with the substance of Mormon belief -- and the Book of Mormon is a great place to start with that.

* George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. I'm keeping Marsden. I wanted at least one "classic" work in the field of American religious history, and Marsden fits the bill. Marsden changed the way we look at Fundamentalism in some very healthy and helpful ways. He does not dismiss Fundamentalists as irrational, backward-looking naysayers, but rather shows how Fundamentalists were engaging with modern culture in a way that was both rational and defended positive values. His work is still in many ways definitive, and I want everyone who takes my course to come to terms with him and his arguments.

* Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950. NEW! I'm not sure I'll be able to use this text yet, because it's currently out of print. The Seminary Bookstore is looking into getting it from some used book distributors (a good thing for my students, because then it will hopefully be cheaper!) I really, really hope I can use this text, because I love the way it explores the relationship between religion and culture. I love the light it sheds on the triumphs, pitfalls and challenges of Jewish experience in America. Finally, I love its demonstration of how Jewish women, and concerns about the family, played a central role in shaping American Jewish culture and religion. This text, I think, can allow us to explore gender and American religion in greater depth.

* Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. Also NEW! I wanted a text that dealt with Pentecostalism, which is, after all, the fastest growing religious movement in America and in the world. The story of women in the Church of God in Christ -- the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S. -- is particularly interesting, because women did not achieve full ordination equality there as they did in certain other (smaller) Pentecostal organizations, though they did negotiate autonomy (through the creation of the Women's Department) and teaching status that permitted them to play a central, formative role in the denomination's history. In addition to exploring the theology, sociology and politics of women's relationships with the Church, it also explores Pentecostalism's relationship to the broader culture, and shows how women helped to define that relationship. Love this book!

* Clifton Marsh, The Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America. Also NEW! This may be the most challenging text for my students, because Marsh comes from a place of advocacy for militant black nationalism. This text certainly has been challenging for me -- but extremely rewarding as well. It contains a clearly written, engaging narrative of the rise of the Nation of Islam, including its more controversial teachings and doctrines, and its eventual dismantling by W.D. Muhammad in favor of Orthodox Islam in the 1970s and 80s -- only to be reborn again under the tutelage of Louis Farrakhan. Marsh argues that black nationalism will continue to be reborn in every generation, so long as the conditions of racism and inequality that produced it in the first place continue. I want to use this text for the course because it will allow us to explore black religion from a new perspective, and will also give us an angle from which to engage with the much broader history of American Islam (which includes both native-born African Americans and Middle Eastern and African immigrants). (I plan to require my students to read the first two appendices of this text, which reproduce in full Marsh's interviews with W.D. Muhammad and Abdul Alim Muhammad.)

These book choices may not be final... A lot depends on whether I can get Joselit's book on American Jewish cultural history!

In order to make room for the new texts, I've dropped Hatch's book on the Second Great Awakening (The Democratization of American Christianity), Raboteau's Slave Religion, and Orsi's classic work on immigrant Catholicism, The Madonna of 115th Street. All of these are, in their own way, classics of American religious history. They are all books every serious student of American religion ought to read. But, I decided my previous book choices were too focused on Christianity and not inclusive enough of women's voices. (Orsi's book of course was inclusive of women's voices... I regret dropping his book most of all.)

I'm also making significant changes in the order of the lectures as well. I've chosen to cover the religions in a different order partly to give myself a break from old routines, but also because I am going to make a greater effort to explore certain important themes in American religious history. My choice of 6 paired themes (REVELATION / REASON, SURVIVAL / GENDER, and AUTHORITY / FREEDOM) will guide the order of coverage, rather than some attempt to stay true to a chronological narrative of American history... There will probably be significant revision of the content of the lectures too, to overlap less with the Albanese text and to spend more time examining historiographical/theoretical issues.

I'm excited! Can't wait for February!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sacred Silence

My first, real encounter with Catholicism was with Jean-Marie, a man I met while serving as a Mormon missionary in Aix-en-Provence, France.

During my mission in France, Catholicism was usually an excuse not to speak with the earnest, young, name-tagged Americans eager to share a message about Jesus Christ. Not for Jean-Marie. Jean-Marie's love for God made him eager to speak about Jesus with anybody, including these representatives of what most French regarded as a bizarre, polygamist American cult.

Our meetings with Jean-Marie were always thick with the Spirit. The warmth was almost tangible, and tears were frequent. He was so sweet, patient, and attentive. And his response to our account of Joseph Smith's vision of the Father and the Son was simply, "What a beautiful witness of God!" We felt certain that a man of such pure faith had to join the LDS Church. But he did not. To this loving, hopeful man, the thought of abandoning Holy Mother Church was inconceivable. Years later, I was reminded of our experience with Jean-Marie when I read H. Vinson Synan's account of the encounter between Pentecostals and early Catholic Charismatics. After experiencing a baptism of the Holy Spirit together, the Pentecostals assumed that the Catholics would of course convert to Pentecostalism. The Catholics saw no contradiction between belief in the modern-day work of the Spirit and their enduring commitment to the Catholic Church.

When we invited Jean-Marie to attend the LDS Church with us, he willingly agreed -- on condition that we go to his Roman Catholic parish with him! Willing to do almost anything to get Jean-Marie to go to church with us, we agreed. When we went to Jean-Marie's parish, he took us on a tour of the church building. I particularly remember when he showed us a stained glass portrayal of the crucifixion. Growing up Mormon, I'd heard plenty of scathing criticisms of the religious use of crucifixes and portrayals of the crucifixion. Why would we want to celebrate the murder of the Son of God? When I asked Jean-Marie about it, he replied simply that this image of the crucifixion reminds us how Christ suffers still today, because of our sins and the enduring sinful state of the world. As a missionary who saw his primary role as calling sinners to repentance, Jean-Marie's explanation made perfect sense to me. I was deeply moved. I've never seen a crucifix the same way again since. Jean-Marie gave similar explanations of other stained glass windows and statues in the church. Every corner of this sanctuary, I realized, held some sacred significance for him, and taught some valuable lesson about the nature of faith and repentance.

I stayed in touch with Jean-Marie after my mission. We continued to correspond, and I continued to hope and pray that he might some day join the LDS Church. His letters were much like our visits -- inspirational. His faith remained steady, even as mine was beginning to waver under the stress of coming to terms with my homosexuality. When I received a letter from Jean-Marie announcing his intention to join the Order of St. John (an offshoot of the Dominican Order), I gave up hope that Jean-Marie would join the LDS Church. That was kind of a turning point for me in terms of the naïve belief I grew up with that all good, God-fearing people everywhere were destined to convert to the LDS Church. It felt disillusioning to me at the time; but my encounter with Jean-Marie opened me up to a more complex, multivariate understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, and the role of many different kinds of faith in the accomplishment of God's latter-day work. The one thing I knew for sure was that Jean-Marie had a true, living faith, and he was living that faith out in fullness within the framework of Catholicism.

Some years later Jean-Marie and I were still corresponding. Now I had a special request for him. I was trying to figure out what was the most faithful way forward for me as a gay man. The Mormon emphasis on marriage as the only path had become a terrible burden to me. On the other hand, I found myself strangely comforted by the high valuation of celibacy in Roman Catholicism. I wrote Jean-Marie to ask if I might come to pay him a visit, this time with him in the role of missionary and me as humble investigator!

Jean-Marie had received permission from his superiors to allow me to stay with them on condition that I would accept to live under the rules of the order while I stayed there. I gladly agreed! I wanted nothing less! I spent eight weeks or so with him at a monastery of the Order of St. John (near Le Creusot, France), praying, studying the scriptures, and working with the monks. I and the monks had been granted one exception to the rules of the order. Normally, silence would have been the rule. But I was allowed to ask anyone any question I wanted, and the monks were allowed to answer my questions the best they could.

Still, I actually found the answers I needed to find at the monastery not in questions and answers but in the silence of prayer and meditation. My favorite time of each day was about 5:30 in the morning when the matins rang, and I gathered with the monks in the chapel, where we would kneel in silent prayer while the sun rose.

I was introduced to the order's founder, Marie-Dominique Philippe, and it was explained to him that I was a former Mormon who had joined the Lutheran Church and was now exploring his order. He made some quip to the effect that he hoped I would make it "all the way." I guess he was destined to be as disappointed at my failure to convert to Catholicism as I had been at Jean-Marie's failure to convert to Mormonism.

Jean-Marie and I reached our own understanding. Shortly before my time at the monastery was over, we went for a walk together. He asked me what I had learned from my stay, whether I had discerned a call to monastic life. I told him I had indeed heard the still, small voice. I had found my answer, and it did not involve taking vows. He smiled contentedly. "I expected as much," he told me, "I've felt all along that you had a more apostolic calling." When he said apostolic, he explained, he meant I was destined to be something of a missionary, out in the rough and tumble and mess of the world. That was where and how the Lord would put my gifts to the best use. Our relationship had finally reached a kind of equilibrium and intimacy. We had each explored the other's world of faith, each been touched, and, in consequence, found God's unique calling for us.

Actually, it was to be quite a few more years after that before I would find my spiritual bearings, among the Latter-day Saints again. Still, I reflect on my time among Roman Catholics with profound gratitude. Jean-Marie opened my eyes to a work of the Holy Spirit that was and is far larger, richer and further-reaching than anything I imagined before I first met him. My time in the monastery provided me with vital pieces to the puzzle of my own life, helping me come to terms with some of its most painful questions, and helping me still myself long enough to hear God's word to me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Metaphysical" Spirituality, the Internet, and the Free Market of Religion

The constitutional separation of church and state laid the foundation for the American "free market" of religion. The "establishment" clause formally deprived any one religion of the special advantages of state support or sponsorship. The "free exercise" clause granted each American the right to affiliate with any religion or none at all. With the passage of the first amendment, religion in the American setting became strictly a voluntary matter. Consequently, ordinary citizens' religious choices could exert a kind of market pressure on churches. Religious communities had to work harder to cater to the needs and sensibilities of adherents or risk losing them. When there was a market "niche" that wasn't exploited by existing religious communities, new religions could spring up overnight to fill the void, expanding the range of religious choices available to Americans. Furthermore, there was only a small step between a religious free market, and a religious smorgasbord. Americans could not only pick and choose religions as they saw fit. They could pick and choose religious ideas. They could customize themselves a personal religion that mixed and matched spiritualities, teachings, and practices, if they so felt inclined. And they did.

There is some evidence that Americans, had, in fact, almost always taken this approach to religion. Even in Puritan New England, there were hinterlands where European settlers lived beyond the reach of colonial religious authorities. Throughout the American colonies, governments were weak and religious institutions underdeveloped, and, on the eve of the American Revolution, the vast majority of Americans -- an estimated 85-90% or more -- were unchurched. That alone increased the odds that religion would become, for most Americans, an individual affair.

Catherine Albanese, in A Republic of Mind and Spirit (Yale University Press, 2007), pointed out that historians have tended to overlook the ways American religion has always been fluid and individualistic. Previous generations of religious historians have focused on religious institutions, and the religious history of a people always looks more pristine and uniform when you look at it from that viewpoint. But when you look at it from the viewpoint of individual choices, religious life assumes a more amorphous quality. And American religion, she argues, cannot be properly understood without accounting for this metaphysical freedom and fluidity. Folk magic, transcendentalism, spiritualism, "new thought," and the "new age" are manifestations of spirituality that have always thrived outside of religious institutions, providing an alternative to religious establishments, and even becoming forums for counter-cultural movements of protest against religious complacency.

I witnessed an example of this the other night, while attending an after-show discussion at the Illusion Theater of Bare, a musical about two gay teens who fall in love in a Catholic boarding school. One of the things I loved about this musical was its serious treatment of spirituality. The first act began with a mass, and interspersed throughout the production were heartfelt prayers, priestly confessions, heart-to-heart theological discussions, and even a vision of the Virgin Mary! In the Q&A, I asked the cast to comment -- if they could -- on the importance of spirituality in the coming out process. What ensued, I thought, was very revealing.

An Episcopal priest, who had been invited by the show's director to be present for the discussion, launched into a lecture about how there were gay friendly churches (his own, for one), and he encouraged gay youth to seek out those gay-friendly institutions and get connected to them. He didn't really answer my question about spirituality. A young man raised his hand and began to talk about how "his generation" just didn't believe in religious institutions any more. I detected more than a hint of frustration in his voice; I don't know if he was directly responding to the priest's statement. But he talked about how Internet communities were creating forums where people could explore spirituality and religion totally free of the constraints created by religious institutions. People didn't believe in God anymore, he said, but they weren't uninterested in spirituality. There was, he observed, actually a hunger to connect spiritually, but on folk's own terms -- with or without churches, with or without traditional "God talk."

The Internet has in many ways accelerated cultural processes that are eroding the power of all institutions -- secular and religious. Five hundred years ago, the printing press played a similar role in medieval society, providing a democratizing forum for discussion that was difficult for the powers-that-be to control. The Internet is a thousand times more volatile than the printing press, both intensely individualistic but also profoundly connective, creating forms of immediate and interactive global community that never could have been imagined possible.

I don't think there will ever come a time when human culture can dispense with religious institutions, or when the more fluid, metaphysical approach to spirituality could ever replace religious institutions. But I think the metaphysical fringe will continue for the foreseeable future to exist in a kind of yin-yang relationship with religious institutions -- critiquing and being critiqued by them, and giving energy to and receiving energy from them.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

And the Prize Goes to...

I offered a prize to whomever could correctly name the most individuals portrayed in the masthead of this blog (or to whomever could name them all first).

The names of the people pictured are (starting in the upper left corner and going clockwise):

1. Anne Hutchinson, Puritan dissenter (1591-1643)
2. Black Elk, Oglala Sioux holy man (1863-1950)
3. Sally Jane Priesand, first woman rabbi in America (1946- )
4. Leaders of the Azusa Street Revival
5. John Ireland, Roman Catholic archbishop (1838-1918)
6. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist minister and Civil Rights activist (1929-1968)
7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy (1831-1891)
8. Jarena Lee, Methodist preacher (1783-1850)
9. Jonathan Edwards, Puritan revivalist (1703-1758)
10. Joseph Smith, Jr., Mormon prophet (1805-1844)
11. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheist activist (1919-1995)
12. Walter Rauschenbusch, Baptist minister and Social Gospeller (1861-1918)

I didn't consciously arrange the images in any purposeful pattern. I was more just kind of sticking them together in whatever way I could to make them all fit into a nice tidy rectangle. But I sort of like that Martin Luther King, Jr. seems to be looking for inspiration to Jarena Lee, an early black woman preacher. I also enjoy the fact that Madalyn Murray O'Hair seems to be pointing an accusatory finger straight at Joseph Smith, Jr. (She wouldn't be the first to do so!)

Lynda L. correctly named 6 out of 12 of the subjects of the photographs: Anne Hutchinson, Black Elk, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, so she wins the prize, an autographed copy of my book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand. (Not too exciting, I know, but better than a jab in the eye with a sharp stick!)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mormonism and the Emergent Church Paradigm

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.

--William W. Phelps, 1836

In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), Phyllis Tickle dispenses with Mormonism in two sentences:
Mormonism, which is growing rapidly domestically and globally, is arguably the fourth of the great Abrahamic faiths rather than a subset or variant of Christianity and increasingly is so treated by religionists. Accordingly, it is omitted here.
While some Mormon apologists take umbrage at the suggestion that Mormons aren't Christians in the classical sense, I (and many other Mormon scholars) tend to agree with Tickle's assessment, first elaborated by Mormon-friendly Methodist scholar Jan Shipps.(1) Tickle's sweeping analysis of Christian history shows how new faiths have come into being as the result of previous realignments of faith similar to what she calls the present "Great Emergence." In the scheme Tickle delineates, the timing of Mormonism's arrival on the world religious scene would arguably suggest that Mormonism is in fact the earliest product of the present "Great Emergence," and that understanding Mormonism is a key to understanding what is happening throughout the entire Christian world today.

For those of you unfamiliar with the "Great Emergence" paradigm, it is a model for looking at religious history that posits major shifts or realignments of belief every five hundred years or so. The last major realignment took place around 1500 A.D., and in the Christian world was known as "the Great Reformation," resulting in the emergence of Protestantism as a new form of Christianity and bringing about a major realignment of belief within the Catholic Church as well. Five hundred years before that, around 1000 A.D., a major realignment of faith resulted in "the Great Schism" between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years before that, around 500 A.D., we saw the emergence of Christian monasticism, helping preserve Christian belief and piety through the "dark ages." Around the time of this major realignment, we also see the emergence of Islam as the third branch of the family tree of Abrahamic religions.

Five hundred years before that is of course the time of the emergence of Christianity from Judaism. Five hundred years before that, around 500 B.C., was a period sometimes referred to by historians as "the Axial Period," because it involved another major realignment of faith not just within Judaism, but within many world religions, spawning Buddhism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Within Judaism, this was the time of the Babylonian captivity, and it was the period of history that produced the great prophets of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Amos.

Within this model, each five hundred year period of realignment is preceded by about a century and a half of growing instability caused and/or exacerbated by a crisis of authority. By the end of the realignment, a new foundation for spiritual and social authority emerges, usually requiring another century or so of adjustment. In the previous realignment, "the Great Reformation," the principle of sola scriptura, scriptura sola ("only scripture, the scripture alone") emerged as the dominant basis for religious and social authority.

People's faith in the authority of scripture has been eroding rapidly since roughly 1850, helping to bring on, among other things, the great social and religious schism between "fundamentalists" and "liberals" within most mainline churches. But the fault-lines that were to emerge in the great nineteenth-century debate over the authority of scripture were already starting to be visible in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of Enlightenment philosophy, Deist attacks on Christianity and the Christian canon, and the first public emergence, in the wake of the French Revolution, of atheism as a philosophical and moral system. Joseph Smith Jr.'s family were certainly aware of Deism. His paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, had read and was apparently a fan of Tom Paine's Age of Reason.

Implicit within the "Restored Gospel" revealed by Joseph Smith the prophet was a radical critique and rejection of the authority principle of sola scriptura, scriptura sola, and the substitution in its place of a new authority principle: direct, modern-day divine revelation, both personal and collective. Because of Mormonism's emphasis on direct personal communion with God, and on prophecy and other gifts of the Spirit, Pentecostal scholar Vinson Synan identified Mormonism as a "proto-Pentecostal" movement.(2) From the Mormon perspective, of course, it was Joseph Smith, Jr. who had "unlocked the Heavens" and opened the gates of divine inspiration that would result in a great outpouring of knowledge and spirit on "all flesh," among "all nations, kindreds, tongues and people."

Latter-day Saints currently have, and have always had, a paradoxical relationship with scripture. On the one hand, the Saints cherish and revere scripture as the repository of divine wisdom and revelation. The Mormon love for scripture manifested itself especially in early Mormonism as a seeming inability to get enough of it! Joseph Smith added three major books to the canon: The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, and promised more scripture yet to come as the work of the Restoration unfolded. It is likely for this reason that today's Latter-day Saints are fascinated by extra-canonical scripture like the Nag Hammadi library, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Enochian literature.

Yet, despite revering scripture, Latter-day Saints reject written canons as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth. For Mormons, not dead prophets but the living prophets and the living prophets only provide definitive answers to the great problems of the age. You could say that the new principle elucidated by Mormonism is sola revelatio, revelatio sola. The Mormon definition of scripture tells the whole story. For Mormons,
...Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (D&C 68: 4)
But also built into Mormonism is an acknowledgment of the fallible human element in written scripture, which includes problems of linguistics, human weakness, human inability to receive the divine fullness, and the inappropriateness of rendering transcendent truths into limited human discourse. Joseph Smith explained that Mormons believed scripture to be true "in so far is it is translated correctly." But even the authors of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith described as "the most correct book," acknowledged their "weakness in writing," and their belief that the fullness of the book's message could only be carried into the hearts of its readers by the power of the Holy Ghost (see, for instance, Ether 12).

The Mormon canon -- the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price -- have all been subjected to the same type of historical textual scrutiny and criticism as the Bible, but, to the dismay of some of Mormonism's opponents, without the same devastating effect among Mormons as textual criticism has had among mainline Christians. This is because for Mormons, direct personal revelation trumps all. Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon because they have read it and the Spirit has testified to them of its truthfulness; because they have applied its principles and found them to work in real life. And Mormons simply don't rely on the Book of Mormon as the authoritative guide for their faith in the same way that Protestants rely on the Bible. Mormons look to living prophets for that kind of authority.

While theologians and religious commentators are observing and talking about an "emergent church" phenomenon in Christianity as a whole, is there a similar phenomenon among Latter-day Saints? There are indeed signs (disquieting or encouraging, depending on one's perspective) of a growing generation gap in Mormonism, particularly with respect to the issues of women's equality, gay rights, and attitudes toward authoritarian Mormon claims of infallibility and exclusive access to spiritual truth. I routinely have conversations with younger Mormons who take women's equality and the validity of gay relationships for granted, and who, while having testimonies that "the Church is true," insist that to them this does not mean that other faiths do not also grant access to equally valid spiritual truths.

However, the sources of friction between the rising generation and present-day institutional Mormonism are not problems that require a re-invention of the Mormon authority paradigm in order to solve. The authoritarian, exclusivistic, infallible tone that has repelled some is, as argued by Armand Mauss(3), a relatively recent phenomenon within Mormonism, and Mormons have a rich tradition of inclusivity, broad-mindedness, and egalitarianism to draw on in reframing themselves for a new generation. Joseph Smith taught the existence of a Heavenly Mother and sent mixed signals on the question of women and the priesthood which provide the fodder for continuing speculation and debate. And individuals who are pained by the church's position on homosexuality or on gender issues can still find solace in Joseph Smith's insistence that
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.
While the encounter with gay Christians, as Phyllis Tickle observes, seems to be the straw that is breaking the back of sola scriptura among mainline Christians, for Mormons the principle of continuing revelation can only be reaffirmed by a revelatory resolution of issues related to homosexuality, whatever that resolution ultimately may be. Mormonism probably has a greater capacity to come through this issue with the overarching structure of its belief-system unscathed than almost any other of the great Abrahamic faiths.

The revelatory authority paradigm, which is the cornerstone of Mormonism and the source of its on-going dynamism, first began to shake the rafters of the mainline Christian world with the Azusa Street Revival, beginning in 1906. Since that time, pentecostal or charismatic Christianity has grown from several thousands to approaching one quarter of the world's Christian population, if one counts the charismatic adherents of mainline Catholicism and Protestantism as well as the members of explicitly Pentecostal sects like the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. For these Christians, as for Mormons, the mark of true divine authority is the on-going manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit, and true faith involves turning to a God who is expected to reveal and manifest himself visibly today no less than at any other period of human history. While the revelatory authority paradigm was primarily to blame for the scandal of disrepute under which Mormonism labored for most of the first two centuries of its emergence in the world scene, we are now seeing growing acceptance in the culture at large of the idea that "God is still speaking," and a growing sense that revelation is the way forward in a world precariously balanced on the brink of ruin.

Joseph Smith once said, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world and you will come out a pure Mormon."(4) That is about as classically "emergent" a faith statement as there is. Mormons frequently refer to their faith as "the fullness of the Gospel." For Mormons, that means having not just correct beliefs and true doctrines, but the living, active presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and the actual power of God that comes through a miraculously instituted priesthood. That is why, even though I in many ways fit the profile of an "emergent," even though I occasionally wrestle with a deep sense of personal tragedy as a gay man excommunicated from his home faith community, I find a deep, vibrant hope in my faith as a Latter-day Saint, and I can truly say that everything I have witnessed and experienced in my life has taught me a profound reverence for and given me a deepened testimony of the Gospel as restored in latter days through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
1. See Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (University of Illinois Press, 1987).

2. See Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1997).

3. See Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994).

4. Quoted in Don Bradley, "The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith's Unfinished Reformation," Sunstone 141 (April 2006): 36.