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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Is a Unitarian?

This Sunday, I and my family are heading south to participate in a service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato. We have a Muslim foreign exchange student named Farzad living with us until June. Although church attendance is generally considered strictly voluntary in our household, I informed our student that this excursion was required. Why? Because I feel one of our duties as foreign exchange hosts is to give our exchange student some opportunities to learn about different cultures and also to learn something about American history. When we were visiting family in Iowa for Christmas, he was also required to come with us to a Christmas Eve service at the conservative Evangelical Church Göran's step-dad has been attending lately. I felt that the UU Fellowship would expose him to yet another unique religious perspective in America, and I also wanted to take him to see the Buffalo Monument, and educate him a little bit about Native American history as well.

Farzad was born in Afghanistan. His family spent a few years in Iran and they are currently living in Finland. So when Farzad asked me to explain exactly what a UU was, I found myself a bit at a loss. How do you answer that question for someone who has almost no context for understanding American religion? As it is, I've struggled to explain Mormonism to him in terms that might be meaningful to him. The temptation is always to tell too much, or to start with details that -- while significant to you personally -- have no meaning for someone who still has some pretty distorted notions of what Christianity is. And I had to do it in fairly simple English. This is harder than it sounds, folks!

My best stab at it was to ask him if he was familiar with the Christian concept of the Trinity. "No," he said, "What's that?"

"That's this notion that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all Gods, and that they are one God," I explained.

"Oh, yeah, yeah," he said. I wasn't completely sure he had the faintest idea of what the Trinity was, but I didn't doubt that he'd at least heard of it.

"OK," I said. "Unitarians believe there is only one God who is above all things." (That was my best stab at including the notion of transcendence in my explanation of the Unitarian notion of God.)

His eyes lit up, and he nodded. "Oh, OK!" he said. I could tell that, as a believing Muslim, he approved.

"OK," I said, feeling I was getting somewhere. "The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is also known for being a very liberal church."

"What does this mean, 'liberal'?" he asked.

I was surprised, but not surprised, at having to explain this to an Afghan Muslim 18-year-old! I really, honestly found myself at a loss having to explain this from scratch. Sometimes it's the most basic terms -- the ones we take for granted the most -- that we have the hardest time explaining. This was turning out to be a good exercise for me!

"They believe that free thought and free expression is very important. They also believe that the church should be about striving for social equality. They are against racism. They believe in equality for women and for gays and lesbians. There are lots of gay people who are members of this congregation. And they believe in helping the poor."

"Oh," said Farzad, "They are very good people then."

"Yes," I said, "They are very good people." I was satisfied that this was the take-away point.

I could tell he was anxious to play the FIFA World Cup Soccer video game we gave him for Christmas, so I figured the Unitarianism 101 lesson was over. He'll hopefully learn more when we actually go there on Sunday!

Did I do a good job? I don't know. How would you explain it?

Friday, March 11, 2011

True Religion

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10: 27)
African slaves in America embraced Christ despite whites' best efforts to prevent it. At first, white slave-owners feared that if they permitted their slaves to be baptized, Christian law might require that they be freed. That, in itself, says a lot about what whites actually knew about Christianity. That fact alone ought to raise at least a shadow of doubt about the sincerity of later, popular Biblical exegesis arguing that chattel slavery was condoned by the Bible.

It wasn't until colonial governments began to enact legislation explicitly prohibiting the manumission of baptized slaves that slave-owners came on board with the idea of allowing Christian missionaries to teach and convert their slaves. Even then, they permitted missionary efforts among the slaves only reluctantly. Even then, they didn't allow evangelization of the slaves until white Christian missionaries had struck a kind of devil's bargain with them.

The missionaries promised slave-owners that Christianizing the slaves would make them more submissive, more obedient, harder working and more honest. Christianity, they promised, would make better slaves. That's the bill of goods they sold slave-holders in order to be allowed access to the slave quarters on the plantations. But missionaries knew that in order to deliver on that bill of goods, they had to preach a kind of truncated gospel to the slaves, something a little bit less than the full Gospel saints and martyrs had died for. There were certain Bible verses you had to be careful about bandying too much, such as, "There is neither bond nor free... for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," and, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."

Very careful provisions were made to ensure that when slaves went to Church, they heard only a certain kind of preaching. And though Protestants had fought and bled for the right to have Scripture translated into the vernacular, and had democratized literacy in the belief that true faith could not be possible without the right and the ability to read the sacred writ for oneself, literacy among slaves was made illegal.

Whites knew at bottom that the form of Christianity they were trying to foist over onto the slaves was an apostate, man-made mockery of the Gospel they claimed to love. As Alfred Raboteau points out in his classic study, Slave Religion, many wrestled with guilt over what they were doing. What they perceived perhaps less clearly was that in the process, they had not only denied the full Gospel to the slaves, they had ceded it for themselves as well.

White Christians failed to appreciate what they had lost I believe in part because of a tendency that had been growing since the Enlightenment to characterize true religion in terms of profession of correct creeds. Ironically, it was the slaves who learned -- despite whites' best efforts to prevent them from learning it! -- that true religion had always actually been nothing more nor less than a relationship with the living God.

Even without literacy, even with an abominable mock gospel being preached to them over white pulpits ("servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh," etc.), the slaves understood the core of the gospel message. When master wasn't looking, they'd "steal away" to some quiet place, where they could sing the songs of redeeming grace, and hear real preaching, and find real salvation. Many slave preachers carried around with them an oral Bible. They knew that when God gets involved in human history, he does so for the purpose ruining Pharaoh's plans and delivering slaves out of bondage. And they knew that Christ would soon be "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

Much has been made of the form of Christianity practiced by the slaves. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why slave worship tended to be "ecstatic," why people would shout out in worship, leap up and fall to the ground, why they would weep, or laugh, or spontaneously sing. Did that come from their African roots and heritage? Was it cultural? Or was it a by-product of their oppression? Was it psychological?

But if we listen to the slaves themselves, if we pay attention to the accounts we have preserved of their own explanations of what precisely was going on, what they tell us is that the slaves' worship was ecstatic because they had God in their midst. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ was walking among and ministering to his people. He was caring for them, tending and healing the awful wounds of wicked slavery, poverty and race hatred. If you got that kind of healing, wouldn't it make you want to shout?

The terrible, beautiful truth was, the slave-owners couldn't keep the truth from their slaves. Terrible for the slave-owners, if God is just and if he is real. And beautiful for the slaves, who learned first-hand that God is real and that God is love.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Indian Prophecies

Anyone familiar with the Native history of the American southwest knows of the impressive ruins left by an ancient American civilization known most commonly today as the "Anasazi." That's the Navajo word for the people who once occupied those ruins. We don't know what the Anasazi called themselves because they are long gone, having disappeared seemingly abruptly, without a trace, centuries ago. Historians and archaeologists are still debating who they were and what became of them.

David E. Stuart, in Anasazi America (University of New Mexico Press, 2000), takes a stab at solving the mystery of the "vanished" Anasazi. He argues that the Anasazi were, in fact, the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians, and he presents a particular, very interesting ecological explanation for their sudden abandonment of Chaco Canyon and other similar sites. Stuart argues that the impressive structures built in Chaco Canyon were a religious complex that was made possible by a specific type of social organization. The Anasazi, Stuart argues, would have relied upon intensive agricultural techniques that put increasing ecological stress on the land. Dependent as they were on ever-increasing agricultural output, the Anasazi suddenly found themselves in trouble when an extended drought left them incapable of sustaining the concentrated population that had built the Chaco Canyon complex and other impressive Anasazi settlements in the region. Famine would have led to social instability and violence, starvation, and, not long after, the rapid dispersal of the population.

As evidence for this provocative thesis, Stuart draws on the folkways and practices of the Pueblo Indians. He sees -- built into their way of life -- an awareness of the potential dangers of over-development, and signs of some collective memory of the disaster that took place in Chaco Canyon, as well as some wisdom about how to avoid similar disasters in the future.

Stuart draws some interesting comparisons between the collapse of this ancient civilization and the dominant Euro-American society that now holds sway over the lands once cultivated by the Anasazi. Like the old Anasazi, he argues, U.S. society has also built itself on an unsustainable ecological foundation, one that is in the process of leading to ruin on a global scale. The Pueblo Indians, who have lived continuously in the lands of the American Southwest for thousands of years, have always tended to assess the American experiment with skepticism. The Pueblo were here millennia before the arrival of the Europeans a mere three centuries ago, and they expect to be here millennia after American society has crumbled into the dust and become the fodder for future archaeology.

It gives one pause, especially when one considers the failure, in recent years, of the American ideology of "progress" and the blithe optimism that has accompanied it from the founding of the Republic until somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century. Until about the 1950s, Americans believed that in Calvinist Christian, Democratic, Capitalist Civilization, they held the key to the redemption of the planet. This was melded to an ideology of Manifest Destiny Americans relied on to excuse the wholesale obliteration of Native societies -- all of whom had a pretty good idea of how to live in harmony with the planet. Natives were swept aside in the name of progress and economic development. Now, at the outset of the twenty-first century, after two brutal world wars and a cold war that took us to the brink of total nuclear annihilation, we are caught in the grip of an unending "war on terror" that is accompanied by economic stagnation and the prospects of the depletion of the world's oil supply and the melting of the polar ice caps. We live in a society that is increasingly polarized and fragmented, and we grasp in vain at the kind of social consensus we once enjoyed in more prosperous times.

Americans themselves are starting to wonder if they can see the handwriting on the wall: YOU HAVE BEEN WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE, AND ARE FOUND WANTING. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of American civilization as we know it? And if so, how will we go out?