Lines, Circles, and Time

September 5, 2007 | 18 comments
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Let’s think about lines, circles, and time. The fall issue of Dialogue arrived today, and I was most interested in Henri Gooren’s article on church grown in Nicaraugua (“Latter-day Saints Under Siege: The Unique Experience of Nicaraguan Mormons”). What got me thinking was less the story that Gooren tells (although it is fascinating and worth a read) than the way in which he identifies cycles in church growth in Nicaragua: slow beginnings, rapid growth, a sharp drop, renewed growth, who knows what for the future… In the 1980s and 1990s there was a certain giddiness among Mormons at the sheer numerical success of our missionary efforts. Everyone gleefully quoted Stark’s predictions of a New World Religion, and dreamed of what the world would be like at the end of the 21st century when there were more Mormons than Frenchmen. (Indeed, in my first-ever published article I quoted Stark myself, although I am proud to say that I expressed some reservations.)

I don’t think that informed Mormon opinion still subscribes to the Stark thesis. (Yes, I realize that “informed Mormon opinion” is a loaded and elitist phrase; deal with it.) We realize that retention is horrible, attrition is high, and exponential growth is probably unsustainable. Indeed, I’ve even heard some informed (but mistaken) Mormon opinion talk darkly about the Church’s road to permanent decline and a future of small, fixed nominal growth that fails to keep up with attrition. From a demographics of millennial growth we go to a demographics of apocalyptic decline.

What is interesting about Gooren’s article is that it tells a story of cycles. Good apocalyptic believers that we are (we’re Latter-day Saints after all), we naturally think of time in teleological terms. We are moving from past through present to a conclusion in the future. Indeed, almost all of our theological narratives about the Church take a teleological form: this is the stone cut out of the mountain that is rolling toward its final destiny, etc. etc. Again, we think linearly and think about ultimate end-states. We could also, however, think of things cyclically. We don’t have good theological narratives for cyclical time, but Gooren’s research suggests something other than a dichotomy between unbounded future growth and inevitable future decline. Rather we have periods of growth and periods of contraction, with no inevitable cosmic sequence.

I suspect that both the historical reality and the actual future reveal not a single story of growth or decline, but rather cycles that include growth, contraction, and stagnation. Which poses the question of what sorts of theological stories we have to make sense of cycles? The clearest example I can think of is the Book of Mormon, but its cycles are embedded in a deeply teleological story of decline and fall. In the end, our doctrine seems to require a certain level of apocalypse, but we would do well — I think — to find a least some place for more circular notions of time.

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18 Responses to Lines, Circles, and Time

  1. California Condor on September 5, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Interesting thoughts. It does seem to me that in the 1990s there was a lot of enthusiasm for the growth of the Mormon population. A few years ago there was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune that claimed that there really weren’t as many Latter-day Saints as the numbers would indicate because of inactivity. Growth seemed to be declining. I wondered if the Internet had something to do with it since investigators could now Google “Mormons” after starting to take the discussions from missionaries. And the Internet is riddled with websites with rude things to say about Mormonism. But now we seem to be adapting to it by having a large Internet presence (kudos, Times & Seasons) and by being open-minded about LDS Church history (hat tip, Richard Bushman).

  2. Albert on September 5, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    For those of you who, like me, don’t typically use the word “teleological”:

    tel·e·ol·o·gy Pronunciation[tel-ee-ol-uh-jee, tee-lee-] –noun Philosophy.
    1. the doctrine that final causes exist.
    2. the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature.
    3. such design or purpose.
    4. the belief that purpose and design are a part of or are apparent in nature.
    5. (in vitalist philosophy) the doctrine that phenomena are guided not only by mechanical forces but that they also move toward certain goals of self-realization.

  3. Ardis Parshall on September 5, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    I sometimes wish that we as a church had held on to the concept of a Jubilee Year, as when John Taylor forgave PEF debts in 1880 — we embraced so much from the Old Testament, but barely touched this one. A regularly recurring time of renewal and forgiveness and fresh starts would be something to look forward to! Of course, weekly participation in the Sacrament, and annual tithing settlements, and periodic renewal of temple recommends all allow reflection and a time for setting things right — but their cycles are so short as to be in danger of becoming mere routine. Jubilee Years would be rare enough to anticipate and celebrate.

  4. Bob on September 5, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    ” slow beginnings, rapid growth, a sharp drop, renewed growth”. I have not read the article. But I don’t think History supports the beginning quote. Egypt did not come back, nor Greece, nor Rome, nor the White Buffalo. I see Circles in Nature, not so much in Man. I don’t see Man repeating his past (only his past mistakes). Once a Culture dies, you don’t see it come back. Where do you see “rapid drop, then renewed growth”? You can’t use the BoM…they are gone!

  5. Jack on September 5, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    Depends on how you look it, Bob. The rise of Egypt, Babylon, Rome, etc. in their respective ages may be viewed as a cyclical reemergence of Babylon across time.

  6. Bob on September 5, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    #5 I never saw that coming. You get an A! But what about the White Buffalo?

  7. David Clark on September 5, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    I haven\’t read the article but I served in Nicaragua 94-96, so I guess I am somewhat qualified to talk about church growth in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is an EXTREMELY atypical country as far as the church experience and growth is concerned. Just a few examples:

    Missionaries were thrown out of the country in 1979 but native membership was allowed to continue, but with harassments.

    Many of the strongest members left the country around this time (including my first mission president) so that they could worship in relative peace and escape the horrible economy of Nicaragua in the 1980\’s. I have only anecdotal evidence to support this: Almost every Central American companion I had remarked that their Bishop or someone in their stake presidency was from Nicaragua.

    During the 1980\’s all church buildings were confiscated and turned into medical centers or schools.

    When the church came back in 1989 the church tried an experiment called \”nucleos familiares\”, basically branches were organized but did not meet together. Members would meet in small groups at home and a branch president would visit each group on Sunday as time would permit. This led to lack of cohesiveness among members, odd meetings, and sometimes weird doctrines being taught. Thankfully this was ending in 1994 when I arrived.

    Finally, from what I gathered \”baseball baptisms\” were a problem for a couple of years after 1989. It was before my time, but the huge number of kids on the rolls without parents seemed to partially confirm that.

    I am sure all of this is covered in the Dialogue article. My point is that for these reasons I wouldn\’t use church growth in Nicaragua as basis for any conclusions about church growth.

  8. Bob on September 5, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    Nate: I am unclear as to the topic. Is it the Philosophy of Time or possible the future of the Church? As to the Philosophy of Time, I believe only a Primitive Culture can think Circularly . That is tomorrow will return to what happened in the past. This summer will be like last summer or Great Grandfather’s summer. In the modern world, Technology pushes things “Teleologically”. The Future will be new and unlike the past. I heard something a short time ago: “Only the past is eternal, the future is blank or empty, there is nothing there yet.” That is too big for my head.

  9. Susan S. on September 5, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    I’d say: read the journals of Wilford Woodruff. An annual event: record the events of the world that would lead one to believe that this year the world will end. (Wilford’s ongoing new years event.) And then he authors the manifesto. (And lives in a world with elevators and typewriters.) This seems to me that we have a prophet who understood or intuited (please help me with the blessed terminology) a world more cyclical, complicated than teleological. With Wilford Woodruff, we (read that “Mormons”) lived on into the 20th century.

  10. Ray on September 5, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Bob said, “As to the Philosophy of Time, I believe only a Primitive Culture can think Circularly.”

    Funny, I view my own perception of eternity as both circular (heavily influenced by the temple) and teleological, and I have never thought of that perception as primitive. That is a pretty complex theology, IMO. In fact, I always have thought of the Protestant linear perception of eternity as more simplistic (primitive) than my Mormon view. Perhaps, however, that’s semantics and the way I choose to interpret and define the terms.

    I think we miss the picture a bit in a discussion of teleology when we fail to take into account the unique Mormon view of the specifics of eternal life. Frankly, I’m not going to go into more detail than that in this forum.

  11. Kyle G. on September 6, 2007 at 2:27 am

    Alma 7:20 – I perceive that it has been made known unto you, by the testimony of his word, that he cannot walk in crooked paths; neither doth he vary from that which he hath said; neither hath he a shadow of turning from the right to the left, or from that which is right to that which is wrong; therefore, his course is one eternal round.

    See also: 1 Nephi 10:19, Alma 37:12, D&C 3:2,and D&C 35:1

  12. Bob on September 6, 2007 at 10:39 am

    #11:I knew that was coming (one eternal round). But how does “he cannot walk in crooked paths” square up with “Rather we have periods of growth and periods of contraction, with no inevitable cosmic sequence.”?
    In #8, I should have said: “I believe only a Primitive Culture can think FULLY Circularly. Also, I know our Culture has some Circular thoughts: “The Sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar…..”

  13. Mike on September 6, 2007 at 11:36 am

    “Indeed, I’ve even heard some informed (but mistaken) Mormon opinion talk darkly about the Church’s road to permanent decline and a future of small, fixed nominal growth that fails to keep up with attrition. From a demographics of millennial growth we go to a demographics of apocalyptic decline.”

    I don’t know if Nate would put my thoughts in this category. That quote pretty well sums up my view about the future of the LDS church if we continue as we are doing. I think the part about being “informed” might be a problem for me right off the bat. Aside from that….

    I think that we have a large degree of collective choice in our fate. If we continue to do things that do not work while hoping they do, then decline is likely. If we can figure out how to do things better then we have a good chance for progress. We have to transpose this onto other cycles of nature beyond our control. Some of them might be like waves that lift us up and carry us forward with little effort of our own. Others might be like waves that repeatedly drench us and pound us into the sand.

    Whether we are going in a straight line or a circle or both as Alma 7:20 seems to imply, we need to be doing what is right on a practical level. Whether and how much we need to be told that from some other source or whether we can usually figure it out on our own seems to be a fundamental question. I like to think that most people can figure it out themselves, (Teach them correct principle and let them govern themselves.) I think that the LDS church is going in the other direction, at least in the limited ward level view that I experience. Empowerment versus control. Education versus indoctrination. Etc.

  14. Bob on September 6, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    #13: Mike, I don’t know if the changes that ‘appear’ to be needed (by us mortals), can be made without a Crisis. The 19th Century was all about Crisis changes. One could say 1978 change came out of the 1960s.

  15. Joseph D. Walch on September 7, 2007 at 10:22 am

    As a fellow Nicaraguan Mission alumnus (99—01) I think C. Clark is pretty accurate in his assessment. The ‘baseball baptisms’ were a real problem in those early days as they artificially bloated the statistics in the nascent 90s. In Granada where I serve there was a little as 4% church activity, and I would often find people who were already baptized, but who weren’t aware they were on the church rolls. Part of that unsustainable growth may have simply resulted from the liberalization of religion in Nicaragua. Once the dust settled, the possibility for real substantial growth was possible (which came just as I was leaving—reflected in the creation of 6 new stakes within 6 years); partly as a result of the lack of the worldly trappings which so often funnel people’s energies to develop the baser side of their souls at the expense of the noble.

    I also visited just a few months ago and was joyfully surprised how solid and prosperous the recent growth has become. Now, the Nicaraguan Saints don’t just have paper growth, but prosperity has allowed their influence is expanding beyond their numbers.

    That is why an extrapolation from Nicaraguan growth, globally would be a difficult stretch; except perhaps in places like China or Zimbabwe (well, perhaps those places constitute a major portion of the world, come to think of it—I am not as hopeful for old Europe).

    Generally, however, I don’t think the church is going to see cyclical patterns. I don’t quite know what the future hold, but it does look extremely hopeful. I am less inclined to think there will be a cyclical growth-decline because of the fact that there is so much to do before the curtain is drawn and the stage reset.

    It seems much more likely that the church will steadily grow in influence and notoriety, if not simply in numbers, so that all people everywhere will have to sit up and take notice. It will have to be sufficiently strong on the world’s attentional radar to give most people the chance to prepare for the second coming.

  16. Joseph D. Walch on September 7, 2007 at 10:27 am

    Sorry about the clumsy post; should have proofread.

  17. James on September 8, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Like Joseph, I am hopeful about the progress of the Church. Membership growth has been almost linear for the last ten years. The increase in wards and branches has also been positive. There was a burst in 1996-1998 of ward and branch organizations that correlates with an experiment with smaller ward populations. Since 1998 the rate of change has slowed from that time but picked up somewhat in the 2002-2006 period. For all of the indicators of growth, the rate of change has, of course, varied from year to year, but tend to be stable.

    A long time ago, I took a course in partial differential equations at BYU. One day the instructor started talking about a mathematical model of church growth that some of the Math department had been playing with. He told that class that once they had taken into account changes in missionary terms of service and missionary instructional materials, the growth of the church was fairly stable and predictable. Their analysis had shown that changes to the missionary program had the most significant impact on growth. Looking at the growth rate of the church after missionary requirements were tighten, and young sisters were asked to de-emphazise going on missions in 2002, the rate of growth dipped by over 64,000 between 2002 and 2003 while total missionaries serving dropped by about 10,000 between 2002 and 2004. Growth per year is trending back up but is not back to the 2002 level yet.

  18. Richard O. on September 10, 2007 at 1:45 am

    Nate,
    I agree with your ideas of circles and lines.
    Three hopeful signs for building more solid foundations for the future.
    1. In order to create a new ward there now need to be a specific number of active Mel. priesthood.
    2. Lots of new temples.
    3. Perpetual Education Fund.
    While these programs started because there are problems, the changes point out the ability of the Church to adapt in some major ways to problems. (The P.E.F. is already up to over 28,000 and will probably double in the next ten years.) It will be interesting to see how the changes pan out.

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