Mormon Monasticism

February 2, 2004 | 8 comments
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I have frequently heard people make the claim that there are no Mormon monks. This may be true, but as I was reading a book on medieval legal history this weekend, I was struck by the fact that Mormon monasticism is quite common.

Mormons tend to think of monasticism almost entirely in terms of celibacy and sexual austerity. Given what I take to be Mormonism’s whole-hearted affirmation of the value of sexuality and family, monasticism seems utterly foreign to most Mormons. I think, however, that this is a mistake.

Monasticism is a movement that was extremely influential during the first millennium of Christianity, and it was not primarily about sex. Rather, it represented a desire to withdraw from a fallen world and commune with God. The language of monasticism is frequently peppered with the language of death. The monk becomes dead as to the world and alive only to Christ and God.

The logic of monasticism was essentially apocalyptic. The kingdom of God was something expected at the end of time, the end of humanity’s life. The world was fallen and corrupt. The life of holiness consisted of escape from the world, and the attempt to live in the here-and-now as one would live in the apocalyptic kingdom of God at the end of time.

The austerity of monasticism thus flows from a particular conception of heaven. For first-millennium Christians whose view of God was heavily influenced by the neo-Platonism of late antiquity, heaven consisted of communion with the divine. This communion, in turn, involved a forgetfulness and indifference to the passions and desires of the world. Thus, the austerity of the monk was meant as tiny imitation of the grand aseity of God.

So what does this have to do with Mormonism? We are often apocyliptic in the same way that the monks were. We lack faith in a fallen world, and we turn inward. Like the monastics, we also try to live in the here and now as we expect to live in the apoclyptic kingdom of God at the end of time. The difference, however, is that we view the Kingdom of God in a strikingly different way than did Christians fifteen hundred years ago. In place of the radically transcendent deity of late antiquity, we posit eternal families. Thus, the oft noted tendency of Mormons to turn inward to their families mirrors the monastic turn to austerity. Both are withdrawals from the world to a kind of intermediate heaven, pending the realization of the ultimate heaven.

Monasticism began to run out of steam in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Lots of stuff was happening at around this time that could account for the shift. One of them was a movement away from an apocalyptic view of the world and toward what one might call a prophetic view.

In the prophetic view, the kingdom of God at the end of history recedes in importance and it its place is the comes the imperatives to make the kingdom of God in the here and now. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries this new emphasis came from an upsurge in the corporate power and cohesion of the church, which itself was the result of a prolonged power struggle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. When Gregory VII emerged more of less victorious from that struggle, it marked the independence of the church from the king, and the ascendency of the Pope (and the bishops) over the monasteries. Rather than turning inward, Christianity turned outward and sought to remake society in its own image.

In a way, the Church’s recent forays into the political arena over gay marriage represent a movement from the apocalyptic to the prophetic. However, I don’t think that as yet this kind of activism has had much impact on the essentially monastic outlook of most Mormons. Who knows, though, perhaps Gordon B. Hinckley will be remembered as the Gregory VII of Mormonism.

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8 Responses to Mormon Monasticism

  1. Kristine on February 2, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    Nate, I’m not sure I entirely buy it. For one thing, the Mormon view of the Kingdom has changed pretty dramatically over the relatively short history of the church. Early Mormons weren’t particularly apocalyptic–they thought of the millennium as a time when they would reign with Jesus Christ as King and generally clean things up before judgment day. Their task in the short intervening time before what they believed was the imminent millenium was to establish the rudiments of the Kingdom of God on earth in preparation–but it was a very practical, this-worldly kind of Kingdom, involving lots of communal enterprise. The turn toward trying to build up a spiritual Kingdom, and especially the turn inward to families, is quite recent. Also, involvement in the campaign against gay marriage (and to a great extent, against the ERA, too) is a defensive move to protect the bubble surrounding the Mormon family, rather than an ecumenical outreach to society as a whole.

    In your schema, then, I think you’d have to make early Mormonism the Prophetic era, with a move toward increasing monasticism in the latter part of the 20th century. President Hinckley may be good at PR, but he will also be known as the prophet who radically accelerated temple building and temple participation, which is surely a monastic project.

  2. Jim F. on February 2, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    Nate, if monasticism means waiting for another world because one has despaired of this one, then Mormonism is anything but monastic. The monk is a Christian hero who, faced with the meaningless of this world, waits for a better world and rejects this one. We hear the language of heroism across our pulpits occasionally, but in the end I don’t think we are heroes. The hero recognizes the hopelessness of his situation and finds hope in something else: glory for Greek warriors, the afterlife for Christian heroes. But I think that Christian heroes misunderstand Christianity. (And, of course, a thoughtful monk might well disagree with the characterization of monasticism that we’ve made.)

    For Christians, Abraham ought to be the model: we look to Abraham, who leaves his home in Ur in order to make this world better (Genesis 12:3: “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”). In addition, for Christians and Jews, this world is God’s handiwork, so we should expect it to be a place of blessing. Jesus’s healings seem to me to be a powerful sign that we are not to withdraw into ourselves (or our families) and wait for the apocalypse, but to bless the lives of others not only spiritually, but also physically. And for LDS in particular, the doctrine of embodiment—God has a body and so do we; in fact, one of the reasons for mortality is to take on a body—adds depth to that doctrine, for it suggests that the literal Kingdom of God is, in some important sense, already here at least in potentia.

  3. Kaimi on February 2, 2004 at 7:20 pm

    It depends on what one considers monasticism. I’ve always considered conscious self-flagellation to be a big part of monasticism. And there is certainly a lot of conscious, public self-flagellation among church members.

  4. clark goble on February 2, 2004 at 7:31 pm

    I think that you are on to something Nate, although I think there are many other elements contributing to the monastic movement. I seem to recall one paper, back what in was into 1st century Judaism, that speculated about a connection between Jewish ascetic movements and the monastic movements. Especially the Essenes. I don’t know how widespread that idea was.

    But I think Mormonism definitely does parallel the various desert communities cutting themselves off from the world and attempting to create a Utopia: literally a microcosm of the divine. We have some that are successful (the City of Enoch) and one that don’t fair too well (the initial Nephite or Jaredite experience). Even our own Utah history is filled with such examples. How different, for example, really is Orderville from the classic monastic movement?

    Yes we have sex but even that is viewed as a microcosm of the divine order.

    Perhaps what we ought to do is instead of seeing ourselves as a different kind of monastic movement but instead see the monastic movement as a special case of practical utopias with ritual purity measures and communial practices.

  5. lyle on February 3, 2004 at 12:49 am

    Jim: I like what you said re: Abraham as a model, i.e. “who leaves his home in Ur in order to make this world better.” I think if you insert (anywhere other than Utah) for Ur, and preferably in a foreign country…there is a great model. :)

    Nate…nice historical comparison. Again though, much like the Maine thread re: status, Mormonisn is very much a hybrid, or archetype, of modern and traditional societies, i.e. we do try and be monastic by living ‘in, not of” the world…yet hopefully we all are actively engaged in bringing about God works and building the Kingdom…

    interesting to note that I think the folks in the 15-40ish range in the Church seem to be growing more apocolyptic, more like the early Saints (both restoration and time of Christ), as mentioned by Kristine.

  6. Jim F. on February 3, 2004 at 12:50 am

    Lyle: so why not insert “Utah” as well?

  7. lyle on February 3, 2004 at 1:03 am

    Um…no real reason, except my personal bias that too many people ‘cower’ in Utah when they could be doing more to build the kingdom, preach, etc. in other states/countries. Honestly, at the core of it…I’m just lazy. I think it is much harder to be a good member of the Church and do missionary work, be charitable, etc. in Utah, or anywhere else where there is a large population of Saints, than otherwise. Basically…it is so much easier to be a Saint in an area where every person you meet is a missionary opportunty/you already know they dont’ have the restored gospel in their lives. In Utah, 33% of the time, you get this, but the rest…it is either re-activation and/or perfecting the Saints.

  8. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    Jim F.,
    I think you’re right about what heroism is, and wrong about its place in the gospel. Look at the narrative of the Book of Mormon–right at the first Nephi finds out that his posterity will dwindle and be destroyed; we then move on to a series of lavishly chronicled wars, the results of which are always, at best, a stalemate. The compiler of the Books are a father and son team who lead a hopeless war and a hopeless effort to save their people from wickedness. “Notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently . . . for we have a labor to perform while in this tabernacle of clay.”

    Perhaps under the influence of the Book of Mormon, our own apocalyptic vision is hardly a triumphal one. Our leaders emphasize again and again that the last days will be a time of suffering for the Saints. How often have we heard the truism that conditions will be such that, if Christ didn’t come, not a good man or woman would be left? Or, to put it another way, how often have we heard that, were it not for the atonement, we and the world with us we inevitably sink into eternal hell? For each of us the time will come when defeat is inevitable. Our best efforts do not avail. Only heroism can keep us at it, ready to be welcomed into the eternal service of the King.

    I don’t want to overstate my case. The gospel can be understood through lens other than the heroic lens. Nonetheless, all good things come from Christ, and heroism as you so excellently define it is a good thing. I’d be happy for more of it across our pulpits and a greater place for it in our mythic mind.

    Let me add a couple of other types of heroes to your Greek and Christian examples:

    The Japanese hero accepts failure and defeat for the sake of honor. The story of the 47 Ronin comes to mind.

    According the C.S. Lewis, the Norse hero accepts ultimate failure–he allies with the Gods who will be destroyed at Ragnarok–solely because the Gods are right and represent bravery, joy, warmth, etc.