Part Two: The Enchanted Mormon World

June 8, 2004 | 28 comments
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I’ve pretty much exhausted my energy and time on my first, philosophical response, so I’m going to keep this short. Hopefully the balance will be a bit more even tomorrow.

For now, let me leave you with a provocative suggestion . . .

Much of modern thought has been concerned about the problem of the “disenchantment of the world,” and it’s possible to say that the continued restless vitality of religion in America points to our collective longing for an enchantment that appears always on the verge of winking out of existence under modern conditions (in Europe they appear content to let it vanish).

Viewed in this context, Mormonism is remarkable for how radically it posits an enchanted world — doing, as it were, an end-run around other, less radical strategies for responding to modern disenchantment. After all, all orthodox Catholics and Protestants can say to modern men and women is: “Return to the old truths that still exist, preserved in the Church! Turn away from your false, secular assumptions and go back to the Tradition!” Even the many “new” Christian denominations in American history have usually been pretty tame and thin in their proposals to return some earlier form of worship.

But Mormonism posits something else entirely: that nearly the whole thing (indeed, if Siebach and Graham are right, all the way back to the first century; though I share Russell’s concerns in this regard) is a sham — and the age of prophesy has been restored in modern times. In other words, God is acting directly in the world right now, and He is speaking to living, breathing prophets at this very moment (roughly speaking). The world, in other words, is shot through with enchantment. Yet unlike evangelicals or Pentecostals, this enchantment is channeled (and thus moderated, tamed, and given concrete form) through an institutional structure claiming to have roots all the way back to a prior age of enchantment, as a direct link to divinity.

Leaving aside the question of whether JS’s revelations (and those of his successors) were and are true, this is a stunning accomplishment: an uncommonly potent effort at re-enchantment.

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28 Responses to Part Two: The Enchanted Mormon World

  1. Jeremy on June 8, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    Actually, I think in opposite terms–because Mormons envision God as embodied rather than ethereal (or “enchanted”), Mormons don’t think of revelation as all that supernatural (for lack of a better word) an occurence. Perhaps not disenchanted, but simply unenchanted.

    I’m anxious to read Jim’s response, since he has already written quite insightfully, albeit “propaedeutically,” on this very subject.

  2. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    Sounds like Chesterton’s take on the ethics, logic, etc. of Fairyland. He’s all for it! Didn’t he see enchantment as something Protestants (& the modern world in general) had done away with, but which the Catholic Church retained?

  3. Nate Oman on June 8, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    A while back Peter Ackroyd wrote a wonderful biography of Thomas More (much better than Marius’s IMHO, which is the other major modern treatment) in which he argued that it was Protestantism’s disenchantment of the world more than anything that More was fighting against.

  4. clarkgoble on June 8, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    I’ve read various histories of the Renaissance which saw the big change allowing modernism being what one might call disenchantment. (i.e. the move from “image based thinking” to quantitative thinking) I suspect that’s not what Damon means, although I do sense a bit of the Alvin Maker view of Joseph Smith (which in turn came from Quinn who basically wrote about remnants of the Renaissance in early Mormonism even if he wasn’t aware of that)

    I’m not sure I buy it though. As Jeremy points out even as Mormonism brings in an “echanted” view of the world (angels in age of railroads?) is de-enchants this enchantment, moving it into the realm of naturalism. As such I think it is quite radically different from say the Renaissance or most other views of that sort.

  5. Damon on June 8, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    I’m afraid I’m confused. Do believing Mormons not live in an world in which God communicates directly with a prophet? Any such world is profoundly “enchanted.”

    Let me put it another way. If I’m a secular modern person and I open most pages of the Old Testament, I encounter a world that sounds very foreign: God does this and that, talking to this person and that person, intervening, making covenants, etc. Does that happen today? Orthodox Catholics and Protestants answer with, at best, “kind of.” Why? Because the tradition states that the age of prophesy is definitively past. Mormonism rejects this view. It seems that to be a believing Mormon is, in some senses, to enter the enchanted world of the Old Testament. That’s quite a feat (if true).

  6. Jeremy on June 8, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    But Mormons don’t think God has to communicate across the kind of ontological divide that, in orthodox christianity as in Greek philosophy, separates heaven and earth, spirit and matter, etc. So revelation might be strange or mysterious to Mormons, but not really “enchanted” in the way Weber or Gauchet mean.

    I suppose, then, that we don’t think of prophetic communications in past epochs as “enchanted” either.

  7. Gary Cooper on June 8, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    Damon,

    You have hit the nail on the head, I think. However, my own experience is that this “enchanted vision” may be more enticing to the “initiated” than it is to those outside the Church. Let me explain.

    I am a convert to the Church, and when I first encountered it in any substantive way, I was extremely skeptical. Listening to the missionaries, I heard a few things I could agree with, but the vast majority of what they taught seemed “heretical” to me—a rejection of the standard of “Truth” God had “revealed” in the Bible, which I accepted as “inerrant”, and without need for new revelation.

    I didn’t see any of the “enchantment” until I first attended an LDS sacrament meeting. Children everywhere! The noise! The chaos! The bustle! I loved it. I had never attended any church meeting anywhere that I had ever felt comfortable in, until that day. Given that I had come from a childhood pierced by divorce, violence, dysfunction, etc., the strong family appeal of the Church certainly hit a chord with me. Still, rather than create a desire on my part to become a Mormon, I rather simply resented that those churches I considered “true” didn’t have the same family atmosphere. In other words, my thought was, “If the misguided Mormons can get this right, why can’t we “real” Christians do so!”

    For me, as for so many converts, I had no desire whatsoever to join the Church until after I received the “witness of the Holy Ghost”. I was not seeking such a witness (far from it), did not want such a witness (as I was quite comfortable with my current spiritual state at the time), but received it nevertheless, and at that point I can say that the “enchantment” began.

    Literally, it was an earth-shaking event in terms of its results. Suddenly, religion seemed REAL—TANGIBLE—MEANINGFUL—and TERRIFYING. The sudden realization that it was all true–that there really was a God, far closer to me in proximity than I had ever imagined, and who truly *felt* after me, enough to initiate contact with me, completely revolutionized my entire world view. The world really was an “enchanted place” after all, or at least windows were open in it that led to another world, and there was an active Being who had opened that window, and rather than bid me come to Him, He sought permission to come through to *me*. I simply cannot describe the force of empowerment this gave me–God could not only speak to me, but wanted to, and wanted me to communicate back, and actively sought to help me in my life, RIGHT NOW.

    Still, it wasn’t until many years later, that I began to fully grasp how radical a departure this is from traditional Christianity. Perhaps that was because I didn’t become as familiar as I now am with other systems of thought until later, now that I’ve been able to dabble more with philosopy, history, etc.

    “Enchantment”? Yes. “Escapism”? I don’t think so. “Escapism” seems to imply a desire to “leave” this world, to “abandon” it to its fate and leave for better pastures. I find the Restored Gospel has a much more activist and liberationist view. We seek not to leave for Zion—but to bring Zion here. We do not seek to leave the world to Satan, but to turn ’round, wielding the new weapons God has placed in our hands, and crush the serpent’s head, freeing our brothers and sisters from the tyranny of ignorance and sin (think of the hero’s attitude at the end of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem”).

    This desire is not universal though—in fact there seems to always have been and still is tension between members who view the Church as a “refuge” and an “escape”, and who tend to be judgemental of non-members and perhaps standoffish, vs. others who are much more extroverted, less judgemental, and who seek to enter the world and compete for humanity’s attention, offering a new vision and openly inviting all to come and partake. I see this tension most frequently on the issue of proselytization. Members of the former camp tend to see missionary work as “work”, a duty, and loose interest in non-members once they become convinced they aren’t interested in joining the Church. The latter, on the other hand, instinctively “feel” the need to share the Gospel, but seek to do so because of genuine love and concern for non-members as individuals, and hence are less pushy, less judgemental, and seek friendships and relationships outside of the Church for their own sake, regardless of whether this results in conversion. It would appear that the Church began with the latter view, but ran into trouble in Missouri when many of the saints adopted the former, close-minded view, and I don’t think we really “shook off” that and returned to our liberationist roots until after the end of polygamy and our “return to the mainstream.”

  8. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    Prof. Linker’s “The world, in other words, is shot through with enchantment,” appears to mean simply that the good ol’ days—God “is speaking to living, breathing prophets”—are here again, & seems to have more Chestertonian wonder than Quinnish speculation about it.

  9. Gary Cooper on June 8, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    Wow! It took me forever to complete my thread here, so I didn’t see any of the preceding threads until after I posted. I’ve got to say, am I the *only* LDS person here who agrees with Damon that the Restoration actually restored “enchantment” to Christianity? The “enchantment” of revelations, visions, dreams, prophecies, etc.; a God who is real and tangible and who could appear to us, coupled with a structure to bring order to this view?

    Boy, I know I’m not the only convert here. For me, the “enchantment” is so much of the beauty of the Church. Then again, this is clearer to me now than it would have been 5 years ago or so. Is it possible that as a people we “take for granted” what we have, that we take the reality of direct communication with Deity and everything else in the Restored Church as such an obvious reality that we forget how WONDERFUL a reality it really is?

    Damon’s Old Testament analogy seems apt. How many non-LDS Christians experience what we do on a regular basis? How many of them seek direct revelation, lay their hands on the sick and heal them, rebuke evil spirits, have dreams of future events come true, etc.? Isn’t this the Old and New Testemant world? I wonder if Brigham Young’s “Adam-God” theories, which in effect pulled God down to just being a member of the family, with grandfather and great-grandfather gods, etc., still haunt us a little here. Yes, God is the literal father of our spirits; yes, we can becomne like Him, etc. But has there ever been a Father like God? Have there ever been children as blessed as we are?

    Sometimes, it takes someone outside of the family to see what goodness the family has. I thank Damon for sharing his insights here.

  10. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Gary: No, I think a lot of people would agree with your (& I assume Prof. Linker’s) use of “enchantment.” Just not if it means: Oh, precious Mormons, believing in pixies & pirate gold. But that’s not what Prof. Linker was getting at (I don’t think).

  11. Gary Cooper on June 8, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Kingsley,

    Right. “Enchantment” would only make sense to us in the context of a renewal of a sense of wonder, excitement, adventure, etc. to Christianity, which had become very stale by the time of the Second Great Awakening. If it means we believe in fairy tales, then no, the Restored Gospel isn’t “enchantment”—it’s *real*. I assume Damon is speaking of the former sense. Right, Damon?

  12. D. Fletcher on June 8, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    I hesitate to enter this thread, because I feel so… undereducated… next to all of you.

    I actually feel that Mormonism’s great unfortunate problem is the inability to reconcile the “enchanted” with intellectual reality, with an embodied God and archaeology proving the Book of Mormon.

    Just a small example: the Golden Plates must have had both a literal, and an ethereal component. They were dug up from the ground in a box (literal) and stored around Joseph’s house. But most often, he didn’t have to look at them (ethereal) in order to translate them. Though Emma said she dusted around them (literal), the 3 Witnesses said they were shown them by the Angel Moroni in the forest (ethereal).

    One is entreated to seek a personal witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon by praying, a spiritual and mystical process of discovering truth by feeling. And yet, the Book of Mormon is a literal artifact, a book of writing by people we are supposed to understand as literal historical figures who lived and recorded their stories.

    I suspect that the people of the Old Testament had no literal artifacts of the existence of God, only mystical feelings and miraculous interventions like the plagues of Egypt. Only later did testimony based on literal artifacts like scriptures and splinters of the Cross develop.

    I wish Mormonism would decide, one way or another, which it wants to be.

  13. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    D. Fletcher: I can hardly see why staring at the plates would have been necessary, given the fact that Joseph Smith didn’t know Reformed Egyptian, i.e. he wasn’t looking at a Reformed Egyptian word, searching for an English counterpart, etc.–rather it was a revelatory process, as was the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, etc. The plates served the crucial purpose of bringing together the very worlds you would have us separate (Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon has some interesting things to say about this). Was Emma lying when she said she felt the edges of the plates, & heard them rustle? & what does Moroni showing the Three Witnesses the plates in vision have to do with it? Nephi was shown Christ in a vision–did Christ not physically exist?

  14. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    As far as OT “literal artifacts of the existence of God,” goes, the 10 Commandments, the Ark of the Covenant, & the Urim and Thummim come to mind …

  15. D. Fletcher on June 8, 2004 at 6:36 pm

    What I meant was, Mormonism doesn’t dismiss the intellectual — it wants to appeal to that side too.

    Why didn’t God simply reveal the Book of Mormon to Joseph through the seer stone?

    Joseph “translated” the plates, which gives them a reality. And yet, we are asked to receive a witness of that reality with a feeling.

    I’ve always wondered, for instance, why Joseph didn’t copy out the characters from the plates onto paper, like he did for the Book of Abraham.

    About the real/ethereal nature of the plates, I’m not saying that Emma was lying. I’m saying, the plates were in the house, and then they were brought down by Moroni in the forest. Did he go back to the house and pick them up? They obviously have a real and an “enchanted” quality.

  16. Clark Goble on June 8, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    Just to clarify, I’m not disputing the notion of enchantment. It brings with it the connotation of involvement, interest, and life, that I think is often missing in philosophical engagements with theology. I just think that unlike the Renaissance, our enchantment is a double move in which the enchantment is naturalized and made “normal.” It is more like a person being enchanted with a field of lilies than enchanted by buck the king of the leprechauns.

  17. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    Joseph did copy characters from the plates onto paper, right away, & sent Martin Harris off to the experts to validate them.

    Did the Holy Spirit grab hold of Jesus and plop him down in front of Nephi? Obviously, Jesus’ physical presence was not needed in order for Nephi to see him in “vision.”

  18. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    D.: (Sorry: didn’t get all of it pasted over the first time).

    You are also leaving out the Eight Witnesses, who handled, hefted, ogled etc. the physical plates. You seem to be saying that the plates are both real & not real. The fact that they were seen in vision does not sap their reality anymore than a vision, say, of the Father & Son saps their reality. The importance of the physical plates to Joseph’s early (& continued) success has been well documented by Prof. Givens (among others)–I heartily suggest giving his latest book a read.

  19. D. Fletcher on June 8, 2004 at 8:58 pm

    Yes, I am saying that the plates were real and not real. I think you are equating that with something negative. I recognize that the plates were real, and that contributed a great deal to their power. In addition to being real, they had a spiritual reality, as well.

    In fact, contrary to the very point of this thread, I think Joseph Smith entreated the intellect quite heavily. He brought spirituality out of the realm of the hysterical. He downplayed speaking-in-tongues, miracles, mystic revelations on the part of anyone but himself. For most people who joined Joseph’s church, a life of work and sacrifice, and studying the wisdom of the scriptures, was the way to exaltation.

  20. Ben Huff on June 9, 2004 at 1:11 am

    Yes, Damon hit the nail on the head; Jeremy’s point is as much about the *thoroughness* of the enchantment as anything. The world is so thoroughly enchanted that it becomes difficult to make sense of the distinction between hypothetically enchanted and unenchanted life. There isn’t anything unenchanted any more, so to say something is enchanted almost seems to introduce a distinction between enchanted and unenchanted segments of the world that we don’t believe exist. I take it Jeremy is resisting the idea that there could be segments of the world on which to base a contrast between enchanted and unenchanted things. But certainly there are people who think of the world as unenchanted, and we understand more or less how they think about the world, and yes, the way believing Mormons think about the world is very different.

    Jeremy may also be resisting another connotation of enchantment — to a person who doesn’t think the world is enchanted, it may seem that living as though the world is enchanted implies living irrationally or childishly (as I suspect Carl Sagan would think). And of course, we’ll have no truck with that, either. Enchantment in no way relieves us of our responsibility and agency; in fact, enchantment is a big part of what makes it so urgent for us to be responsible in our agency! It makes our responsibility, and the stakes for which we are striving, that much more serious.

    Maybe I’m working off spectral evidence, here, but did Carl Sagan ever read The Lord of the Rings? Magic or no, those books are not about irrationality or childishness; they are a moving reminder of how important it is for ordinary people, even “the little people” to be reflective and aware, and to earnestly and boldly work for the good in the sphere they find themselves in.

  21. Melissa on June 9, 2004 at 11:33 am

    Ben’s right that “enchantment in no way relieves us of our responsibility and agency,” but many of those (like John Dewey) who advocate the disenchantment of the world do so because they believe that an enchanted worldview promotes passivity, preventing experimental testing of solutions to problems using the scientific method by which society is improved.

  22. Kingsley on June 9, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    D. Fletcher: You write, “Yes, I am saying that the plates were real and not real. I think you are equating that with something negative. I recognize that the plates were real, and that contributed a great deal to their power. In addition to being real, they had a spiritual reality, as well.” I suppose I do not understand what you mean by a “not real … spiritual reality.” For example, I am real (I think); if my father saw me in vision, would that make me not real simultaneously? & the example I gave you earlier of Nephi seeing Jesus in vision–is Jesus “real and not real” because of this experience? If so, is everything one might see in a vision real & not real etc.? I am trying to tie all this in with your wish that “Mormonism would decide, one way or another, which it wants to be.” That seems to be an either/or sort of statement.

  23. D. Fletcher on June 9, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Once again, I hesitate to answer, because of the implications to my own faith…

    I think Mormonism entreats both the intellectual and emotional sides. Initially, it seems that Joseph Smith received his authority and acceptance of his religious appointment from real artifacts presented to him by God and Moroni, the Book of Mormon. This isn’t a mystical vision, but an actual book of writing, and the writing is historical, but with religious significance. Because of this book, one could be moved to follow Joseph Smith, simply because he seemed to be Chosen.

    But then, there are problems with an intellectual testimony. The Book of Mormon could be a human hoax — one must have corroborative evidence that these writers really existed, that the plates really existed. Corroborative evidence that is more than “witnessing.”

    So, the intellectual testimony is contradicted with the entreaty for an emotional testimony, a witness of truth delivered as a feeling. One must feel it is true.

    I, for one, do wish that my own reason didn’t doubt, because it was never given the opportunity to do so, i.e., I wish the Church was completely “enchanted,” and our faith is built on visions and revelations, not on actual artifacts which are so real they might be false.

  24. D. Fletcher on June 9, 2004 at 12:57 pm

    Once again, I hesitate to answer, because of the implications to my own faith…

    I think Mormonism entreats both the intellectual and emotional sides. Initially, it seems that Joseph Smith received his authority and acceptance of his religious appointment from real artifacts presented to him by God and Moroni, the Book of Mormon. This isn’t a mystical vision, but an actual book of writing, and the writing is historical, but with religious significance. Because of this book, one could be moved to follow Joseph Smith, simply because he seemed to be Chosen.

    But then, there are problems with an intellectual testimony. The Book of Mormon could be a human hoax — one must have corroborative evidence that these writers really existed, that the plates really existed. Corroborative evidence that is more than “witnessing.”

    So, the intellectual testimony is contradicted with the entreaty for an emotional testimony, a witness of truth delivered as a feeling. One must feel it is true.

    I, for one, do wish that my own reason didn’t doubt, because it was never given the opportunity to do so, i.e., I wish the Church was completely “enchanted,” and our faith is built on visions and revelations, not on actual artifacts which are so real they might be proved false.

  25. Kingsley on June 9, 2004 at 1:46 pm

    D. Fletcher: In that sense, Jesus himself might count as an “actual artifact.” If anything, I would say that the plates are the ultimate expression of Prof. Linker’s idea of enchantment, rather than an example of Mormonism’s intellectual side. In Nibley’s words, “When solid plates pass between inhabitants of different worlds … something is afoot. If it stopped there, we would be bemused, but Joseph kept his promise to tell us what was on the plates, to give us glimpses of things that lie beyond human reckoning.” The plates are part of the glimpses, the glimpses part of the plates.

    I am really having difficulty understanding your last two lines. When you say you wish the Church was “completely ‘enchanted,’ and [not built on] actual artifacts,” are you saying that the Book of Mormon is more of a hindrance to faith than otherwise? Or just that the plates are. I really do not see a contradiction between a physical book on the one hand & a “witness of truth delivered as a feeling” on the other–they seem to sort of rely on each other (although, I might argue that the “feeling” is a result of the Holy Ghost communicating good news, e.g. the Church is true).

  26. D. Fletcher on June 9, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    It’s just that the Book of Mormon could be proved false. If that were to happen, what would happen to the Church? Maybe nothing. The Church didn’t collapse after the Book of Abraham debacle.

    It’s my intellectual side that “doubts.” I guess I wish there wasn’t opportunity to doubt.

  27. Kingsley on June 9, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    Yes, doubt can be irritating & depressing. I remember reading that Wittgenstein approved Kierkegaard’s comment, “How can Jesus not be real, for I know that he has saved me,” as an example of how, ultimately, faith cannot rely on physical/intellectual proof for anything—faith is faith, it knows what it knows. P.S. The Book of Abraham was certainly never “proved to be false” by the discovery of tattered papyri fragments! The debate is ongoing, & Joseph is looking remarkably good.

  28. Adam Greenwood on June 10, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    I thoroughly, heartily, and unreservedly adopt everything Gary Cooper has said. Some of the best traditional Christian writing I’ve read is on the incarnation. The writer looks at the world around him and sees it all made holy and magical, brought up to Christ’s level, because Christ came down to it. The Catholic writers are the most notable here, as is C.S. Lewis. We believe the same thing, except in 100-point font. Every birth is an incarnation.

    Any Mormon who thinks the things we know makes life commonplace has mislaid their secret heart of understanding. Quite the contrary. This is the age of legends. Giants walk, kings and queens are aborning–even now we hear the rumbles of the Day that is Coming, when the small and despised will overturn the great and the scroll of the heavens rolls up to reveal the face of God.

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