Is Mormonism Romantic?

November 15, 2005 | 21 comments
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A couple of excellent articles on C.S. Lewis’s life and work have appeared over the past few days–all part of the build-up to the release of the upcoming movie of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, of course, but still good articles nonetheless. In particular, the New Yorker piece, brought to my attention by Ronan Head, provides opportunity to think again about Lewis’s very magical, very romantic sense of the divine, and our own.

Many Mormons have been quick to join the explosion of interest in C.S. Lewis’s work that has swept American Christianity over the last 20 or so years, and with good reason: through Lewis, Mormons can find common ground with evangelical Christians, who have (no more selectively than us Mormons) taken Lewis’s many writings to heart and surprisingly turned a committed, highly intellectual Anglican into a passionate, all-purpose Christian saint (or Saint). I doubt that Lewis is displeased with this result: he really meant it when he said that his goal was to defend “mere Christianity,” to get people into the foyer of faith, from which point they can decide on their own which room–that is, which church–to join. I would never downplay the value of Lewis’s Christian fantasies and apologetics; I first encountered his (in my opinion) best book, The Great Divorce, while on my mission, and it played and still plays a huge role in my own faith. But there remains the sticky issue of how he understood the very nature of Christian faith in the first place.

Lewis, along with J.R.R. Tolkien, have climbed ever higher in the popular Christian pantheon over the last few decades because their sense of how literature, particularly the literature of fantasy and myth, intersects with Christianity has resonated with the experience of millions of Christians who have watched the mainline outposts of the Christian faith erode over the past two generations. The Anglicanism of C.S. Lewis’s day and afterwards eroded from within, the same way American Protestant denominations took a nose-dive in membership following WWII, the same way millions of Roman Catholics, in the wake of Vatican II, came to the conclusion that the church of their parents and grandparents didn’t offer anything that they couldn’t find in a good self-help book. For the seekers who remained, the problem was obvious: Christianity had gone mainstream, had become too rational, had neglected to tend to its roots in the spiritual Mystery that is Christ. Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, cherished the marvellous and strange and sublime; Tolkien called his work an act of “subcreation,” and meant it to be understood as a story which issued from and reflected something deeper than the modern world, something which echoed an actual Creation that the modern, rational world can neither access nor understand. So, allegorically or otherwise, the Christian hopes of these writers finds an enduring representation in their imaginations, and consequently the sort of religious longings felt by many Christians who had soured on both the mainstream and the counter-culture during the 70s and 80s found solace in Narnia and Middle-Earth, neither of which were troubled by respectability–on the contrary, both were “romantic” and “naive.” They were untroubled by the absurdity of the “subcreative” enterprise; rather, they insisted that the sort of secret longing which responds to myth is exactly what true faith is. This is how Lewis put it in his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. . . . I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you–the secret which hurts you so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something tht has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it.

In the New Yorker piece linked above, Adam Gopnik suggests that Lewis’s writings, particularly the Narnia books, was ultimately a prisoner of his own interpretation of this spiritual tension or sehnsucht; rather than just letting his muse flow with the rhythms of his own longings for beauty and joy, he kept trying to explain how that quest must, of course, result in Christian faith. Gopnik thinks Lewis’s conversion to Christianity–the result of the famous all-night walk with Tolkien and their mutual Hugo Dyson, during which Tolkien helped Lewis feel the imperative of the story of Christ as a “true myth”–is extremely odd and basically untenable: “It is perfectly possible,” he observes, “to have a rich romantic and imaginative view of existence–to believe that the world is not exhausted by our physical descriptions of it, that the stories we make up about the world are an important part of the life of that world–without becoming an Anglican.” I think Gopnik gets much about both Lewis and Tolkien wrong, but he insists upon a point which probably resonates with most Mormons more than perhaps they know: that the longing reflected in fantasy stories–the world of fairie and myth so important to Lewis–is fundamentally about escape, whereas faith is about discipline and an acceptance of some particular view of “reality.” To embrace God because God is wonderful and strange and unknowable and Beyond-The-Sea is certainly not how most Mormons interpret their own faith–again and again, the language of our curricula and sacrament meeting talks tend to emphasize witnesses and confirmations and testimonies. We like to tell ourselves–whether in general conference or in missionary discussions or just in private conversation–that apostate Christianity thinks the work of Christ is a humbling and searching “Mystery,” whereas we, believers in revelation, understand that true religion is about knowledge and intelligence and the advancement towards godhood. If there are things we don’t know, well, we are told to “put them on the shelf” and come back to them later–meaning, in other words, that the unknown and paradoxical are in a Mormonism a problem, something to be addressed, not the heart of faith itself.

I’m not sure that any of this is true–I am, that is, by no means convinced that the Mormon experience of the divine is all about knowing the “real nature” of God and gaining a “sure testimony” of His doctrine through a knowledge of the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon, at least not insofar as those terms have been polluted by philosophical concepts that lead us to interpret them in light of epistemological categories that leave myth and language and subjective experience out of it. However, methodological debates aside, the Christian apotheosis of Lewis, Tolkien, et al, begs the question: what do Mormons make of myth? Are we romantic? Is our everyday faith characterized by that longing piety felt by a mournful Jacob, an exultant Nephi and Lehi, a Joseph Smith who weirdly saw Zion in, of all places, Missouri? Or do we instead take our personal spiritual experiences to be evidences which impel us towards faith by logic, nothing more or less? And if our religion is, for most of us, most of the time, the latter, is that for reasons particular to Mormonism, or simply a function of the fact that Mormonism today basically comports with our thoroughly modern, Americanized world? American religiousity has always included, from the Puritans on down, a kind of radicalized Protestantism: a sense that, ultimately, belief comes propositionally, and in no other way. It’s not for nothing that Lewis, upon his conversion, turned to High Church Anglicanism, the only Protestant form in England that really still had roots in the medieval world. If America is the archetypical modern nation, and Mormonism the archetypical American faith, then perhaps it isn’t surprising that we tend to think about religion practically, syllogistically, in terms of works and fruits and proofs. (Utah has the lowest rate of heart attacks of any state in America–ah ha, see, Mormonism works!) What is surprising is that we embrace Lewis’s mythic Christianity so uncomplicatedly. But then, so do many evangelicals Protestants, who often tend to be even more literal and proof-oriented than us Mormons. So, if perhaps the appreciation many American Mormons have for Lewis and Tolkien reflects a buried but enduring romantic reading of the meaning of faith, we can at least take comfort from the fact that we are in good company in our denial.

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21 Responses to Is Mormonism Romantic?

  1. Clark on November 15, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    The one thing the New Yorker reminded me of what that discussion here by guest blogger Damon Linker on enchantment. Now I have to admit I’m not a fan of Lewis in the least. (Don’t ask me why, I’m not sure, it just never resonates with me) But the issue of enchantment that the New Yorker article discussed was quite intriguing.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    Nice connection, Clark. I argue with Damon about this issue quite a bit. He knows his postmodernism very well, but basically he thinks that most talk about language and subjectivity and naivete is kind of a dodge–that ultimately, truth has got to be about propositions that are amenable to some sort of discursive scrutiny. What he thinks is interesting about Mormonism is that, by re-introducing prophesy, we are changing the objective terms of this debate; we’re “re-enchanting” the world. But even if that is so, I wonder what kind of enchantment Mormonism really represents. We believe in an enchanted world, to be sure, but it seems to me that we still seem, often at least, to treat that enchantment as something which issues in propositions (“I know Joseph Smith was a prophet”). To bear your testimony by way of talking about how Joseph Smith’s teachings enchant you, and fill you with a hope for another world, is certainly acceptable, and often appreciated, but by no means the standard expectation.

  3. Adam Greenwood on November 15, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    My Mormonism is Romantic, but you probably already knew that. I like to think that we’re not opposing Romantic ideas about God but squaring them. You want the being beyond-the-sea? I’ll show you a million of them, if only they knew. You wish to talk of incarnation? I’ll show you a multitude made flesh.

  4. Adam Greenwood on November 15, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    “To bear your testimony by way of talking about how Joseph Smith’s teachings enchant you, and fill you with a hope for another world, is certainly acceptable, and often appreciated, but by no means the standard expectation.”

    I think this is a paltry and mechanical way of understanding enchantment. I don’t think the idea is that we find enchantment in J.S. teachings, and therefore we can make conclusions about truth of them. The idea is that our experience of finding truth in those teachings–our Holy Ghost witness–was enchanting. Powers from beyond the world! Glory, drunk from the spring.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2005 at 4:43 pm

    “We’re not opposing Romantic ideas about God but squaring them.”

    That’s a neat way of thinking about it, Adam: Mormon revelation doesn’t remove the romance, but rather fleshes it out, expands it. But I’m not talking primarily about doctrine; rather, my focus the “sense of the divine,” as I put it in my first paragraph. Is there a legitimate place for the “mythological” or poetic or romantic in our understanding of faith? Or is the proper telos for all faith to be made “sure” in some sort of almost empirical way?

  6. Clark on November 15, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    To borrow Heidegger, I don’t think we ought to discount the importance or role of the kind of truth captured by propositions. I just think we have to acknowledge more is necessary. While by no means a good discussion of this point, I touched upon similar themes yesterday in a post about phenomenology and Husserl. It’s the difference between having a theory of electricity and being shocked. The problem with the focus on just propositions is that it can ignore or repress the experience itself. Enchantment is just that awareness of experience as experience.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    “The idea is that our experience of finding truth in those teachings–our Holy Ghost witness–was enchanting. Powers from beyond the world! Glory, drunk from the spring.”

    Yes, but the romantic perspective would hold that it isn’t a definable power: we are enchanted, moved, empowered, and we don’t really know the why or the where of it. That’s why we need myths–stories that tell us about Joseph Smith and his priesthood, or grandma and her conversion–because outside of the story there’s no telling how to make sense of what we’ve got. The pragmatic (and arguably rather individualistic) insistence that you’ve got to know these things for yourself suggests that you don’t need myths; your longings are satisfied, because you’ve got it all, right here, right now, in the manual.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    “It’s the difference between having a theory of electricity and being shocked. The problem with the focus on just propositions is that it can ignore or repress the experience itself.”

    Nicely put, Clark.

  9. john fowles on November 15, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    I do think that Latter-day Saints are “romantic” in this sense, far more so than other “Americanized” (as you put it) Christian denominations. Zion, or the theory of it, pervades our entire religious perspective (or should), and what is more romantic, as you have noted, than the ideal of a Zion society?

    Gopnik misses out on a lot in his review, however, by failing to draw a distinction between the universal power and value of myth, how it works, and the substantive value of different myths in comparison to each other. Latter-day Saints, for the most part, believe that there really was a man named Nephi who lived and did the things that the BoM says he did. C.S. Lewis, as Gopnik notes, believed that Christianity was different because it was a “myth” that really happened. In other words, the myth or story is a vector for something that is a historical fact.

    I have offered my own review of Gopnik’s article over at ABEV. Yours is more constructive because it brushes aside what I couldn’t ignore in Gopnik’s treatment. Thank you for your good example.

  10. Adam Greenwood on November 15, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    “But I’m not talking primarily about doctrine; rather, my focus the “sense of the divine,â€? as I put it in my first paragraph. Is there a legitimate place for the “mythologicalâ€? or poetic or romantic in our understanding of faith? Or is the proper telos for all faith to be made “sureâ€? in some sort of almost empirical way?”

    I guess I don’t understand the dichotomy here. Now I think its generally right that romance and poetry can’t coexist with knowledge and truth very well. The man behind the curtain is not a great wizard.. But what I think C.S. Lewis was getting at by talking about the ‘true myth’ is that in Christ they can and do coexist. That’s why I think the contrast between myth and satisfied longings that you set up is also wrong. True myths are those that can actually satisfy Romantic longings.

    Which is not to say that we’re very Romantic in practice.

  11. lyle on November 15, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    All this is too complicated for me. All I know is that I like fantasy, tales of magic, dragons, etc. If this fits in with my Mormonism, which is realistically a very “fantastic” faith requiring a belief in magic-like miracles, etc., then so be it. I think folks like the impossible, the magical, the greater lesson may be in how to let the Gospel sell itself to fans of other “fantastic” ideas.

  12. Eric James Stone on November 15, 2005 at 6:51 pm

    Yes, we as Mormons have a romantic longing for that unknown but wonderful place. But we also have an explanation for that longing.

    For a wise and glorious purpose
    Thou hast placed me here on earth
    And withheld the recollection
    Of my former friends and birth;
    Yet oft times a secret something
    Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
    And I felt that I had wandered
    From a more exalted sphere.

  13. lyle on November 15, 2005 at 8:05 pm

    For the record:

    I disagree that:

    ‘the longing reflected in fantasy stories–the world of fairie and myth so important to Lewis–is fundamentally about escape, whereas faith is about discipline and an acceptance of some particular view of “reality.â€?’

    SciFi & Fantasy aren’t about escape; unless it is escape into a fantastic world where the individual will have a more central role in life, and concomittantly, more responsibility.

  14. Clark on November 15, 2005 at 9:22 pm

    Russell: That’s why we need myths–stories that tell us about Joseph Smith and his priesthood, or grandma and her conversion–because outside of the story there’s no telling how to make sense of what we’ve got. The pragmatic (and arguably rather individualistic) insistence that you’ve got to know these things for yourself suggests that you don’t need myths; your longings are satisfied, because you’ve got it all, right here, right now, in the manual.

    That seems a false opposition to me. One could easily say that it is only through narratives that we can see the commonality of experience and how to obtain it. Narratives relate personal experiences in a fashion that propositional models don’t. Myths work because they demonstrate a structural truth in a fashion that is living even if elements are false. That is, it is a presentation in terms of a kind of experiencing.

    That would actually be much more in keeping with the pragmatists as well who emphasized lived experience as the basis for knowledge rather than dry theory. (Although clearly they engage in a lot of theorizing as well)

    John: I do think that Latter-day Saints are “romantic� in this sense, far more so than other “Americanized� (as you put it) Christian denominations. Zion, or the theory of it, pervades our entire religious perspective (or should), and what is more romantic, as you have noted, than the ideal of a Zion society?

    To be fair, I don’t think that is true in the least. I think many Evangelicals, for instance, share that holistic perspective on religion. Indeed I suspect that’s a big reason why religion flourishes in the United States and not Europe. In Europe religion became focused primarily on the god of the philosophers. The Lewis article in the New Yorker touches upon this as well. In the United States, religion never stopped being a living religion. It prevented the “death of God” that the madman of Nietzsche warned of. Europeans killed God while Americans saved him, in a fashion. (Although clearly not just Americans – living Christianity flourishes outside of Europe)

    Eric: Now I think its generally right that romance and poetry can’t coexist with knowledge and truth very well.

    That rather depends upon the poet, doesn’t it. Thinking back to Plato, there are two kinds of poets. The one, whom Plato focuses in on, who is focused on representations of representations. They don’t have the truth. Then there is the poet – the mantic that Nibley talks about with respect to Plato – that brings people to the experience of truth.

  15. Sarah on November 15, 2005 at 10:21 pm

    I agree with Adam. Lewis’ whole point was that fantasy and enchantment are by-products of our not-quite-conscious awareness of a truth that’s frankly much more “true” than the dreary “real world” that characters like Eustace’s parents (and the real people they’re based on) are so obsessed with.

  16. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2005 at 11:19 pm

    Adam,

    “[W]hat I think C.S. Lewis was getting at by talking about the ‘true myth’ is that in Christ they can and do coexist. That’s why I think the contrast between myth and satisfied longings that you set up is also wrong. True myths are those that can actually satisfy Romantic longings.”

    It’s quite possible I’m mixing a couple of unrelated concepts here. But let me try again. C.S. Lewis came to faith because he came to understand that the story of God was sublime; it was joyous and beautiful, and that’s what he thought we are all looking for, whether we realize it or not. But we do not, for the most part, use a language or categories of wonder and enchantment in describing our faith in God; instead, we tend to speak of “power” and “knowledge.” Perhaps this is just a trivial terminological difference, but I’m not certain. I think Lewis’s “true myths” are, of course, “true” in the sense that one can express them in propositional form: God came to earth and died for our sins. But they also remain myths–stories that, while it is accepted that God really did come down and die for our sins, about which it is far more important to appreciate the telling of the story, our reception of it as part of a narrative that moves us because we’re part of it. The magic that Lewis thought was dwelling, hidden, always present but always out of reach, in the world could be glimpsed through English literature and fairy tales and folklore; so thus did Christ similarly make His story known through similar stories, of saints and great heroes and Christian history. The power of narrative is subjective, embedded, unquantifiable; hence that which is known through stories is only incidentally known as a recitation of facts.

    But it may be that I’m reading much to much hermeneutic philosophy into Lewis. Maybe this all just comes down to the simple fact that Americans aren’t very romantic in this sense. I mean, romanticism came here by way of Europe, not the other way around; they’re the ones with the haunted castles and mysterious old standing stones and 700-year-old literary traditions and everything else, not us. We have some pretty sublime landscapes, but not much by way of myths. So perhaps all this is just a rather Tory-esque way of asking the question, Is Mormonism American (or, more specifically, Why Isn’t Mormonism English)? And the answer to that is, of course, obvious.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2005 at 11:24 pm

    Clark,

    “One could easily say that it is only through narratives that we can see the commonality of experience and how to obtain it. Narratives relate personal experiences in a fashion that propositional models don’t.”

    Right, I agree; isn’t this what I’m saying? Narratives make experiences common; they can make truths experiential, and thus transitory and relational; they embed them in layer upon layer of stories, which gives us a sense of a meaningful world that we move through even though untangling the propositional, individual, “just the facts” truth of all those stories would be impossible. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not sure how you disagree with me (about the importance of the romantic sense, at least; the more specific question of the place of the romantic in Mormonism is something else).

  18. Jack on November 16, 2005 at 12:31 am

    ‘Can’t live without the mythos. Gotta look toward the horizon at least once a day in search of the undiscovered country. On the other I hand, the mythos–like the word–must manifest itself incarnate on occasion. Gotta meet the maiden in the woods–even if it’s only once year–and feel the burn of her kiss.

  19. Clark on November 16, 2005 at 12:52 am

    Russell, I was disagreeing with your characterization of pragmatism. I agree with what you say about myths. I disagree with your opposition between the pragmatist and the person valuing myths. Sorry, I should have been clearer I guess.

  20. Naiah Earhart on November 17, 2005 at 2:34 am

    You cannot tell me that you do not see the bearing of testimonies as a Mystery unto itself? For all that we would camouflage the beauty that is the fullness of the gospel for the sake of avoiding headlines on ‘A Current Affair’ asking “Are Mormons Christian?”–we are a church replete with Mystery and Romance. God, the Father speaks to an Earthly man, to give guidance and warning and comfort to us his children, and this is not a Mystery? Pioneers died pulling handcarts to Zion, celebrated to this day (the sesquicentennial–but who’s counting?), and we have no romanticism?

    Like attracts like. We are a church of romance and Mystery, though and through, from the restoration of the priesthood, to the blessings of ordinaces–in the temple and without, to ongoing revelation, to brotherhood, sisterhood, Heavenly Parents, and eternal progression.

    I have often lamented the lack of celebration that this aspect of our faith endures. It is there. The beauty is evident, when noticed. We just keep it out of the spotlight. Burn me at the stake, but I cannot help but delight in the Mysteries, the romance, and the beauty of it all.

    Latter-day Saints are such different creatures than the rest of the world; but those differences are fundamental to our window on the world, and thus, easily overlooked. The average LDS’s world/religious/spiritual view is more romantic, frankly than most anyone even in the so-called ‘pagan’ community with their multiple gods, calculated mythologies, and colorful ‘worship’ that half the time is indistinguishable from an SCA event.

  21. Adam Greenwood on November 28, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    “so-called ‘pagan’ community with their multiple gods, calculated mythologies, and colorful ‘worship’ that half the time is indistinguishable from an SCA event. ”

    If that’s not one of the truest things that was ever written on T&S, I dunno what is.

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