There is enormous potential for intellectual life and intellectual culture within Mormonism. What can we do to bring this potential to fruition? What we see actually happening today are only tiny sprouts by comparison with what is possible, and what we must bring into being if the gospel is to fulfill its purpose as the organizing principle of a Zion society. How do we get from the minimal present state to where we need to go? This is the first of a series of posts considering the challenges Mormon intellectual culture faces, and ways these challenges might be overcome. I suggest that great things are possible, but only if we understand the challenges and patiently focus on the steps needed to move us toward our hopes.
The scriptures prophesy that the gospel will go forth to fill the Earth, bringing a reign of eternal peace. While it is difficult to know exactly how to fill in the implications of images such as the lion’s lying down with the lamb, it is clear that God’s revelations are intended to provide the principles not merely for individual righteousness but for establishing an ideal society. The gospel as we discuss and practice it today provides the most essential core principles, but if we compare the word of God to a mustard seed, it is still a rather modest sprout, far from a tree yet. The basis for a just, harmonious, and prosperous society is implicit in it, but it is a long way from becoming explicit.
At the moment it seems to me that Latter-day Saints are doing a reasonably good job of explicating and concretely realizing our core principles in the context of individual and family life, and in the functioning of the Church itself. This is not to say that there is not room for improvement, but we have done a lot to articulate how principles of love, faith, service, and so forth should be put into practice in these contexts, and to embody them in ways that are realistic and effective. In fact, I think it is fair to say that, as human efforts go, we have excelled in these areas, and no areas are more vital for the long-term success of the Church. If we cannot put the gospel into effect here, our other efforts will amount to little.
However, the gospel is not only a guide for running one’s personal or family life, and running the Church. The gospel is intended to be the basis for the ideal functioning of an entire society. This means it has distinctive implications for political institutions and arrangements, economic production and consumption, education, war and peace, as well as many more particular spheres of activity that are integral to an actual society. On these issues we have only begun to tease out the resources of the gospel, and until we have drawn them out, we have only realized a small portion of its full meaning and promise.
We can see from the scriptures that this is how past prophets understood the dimensions of the gospel. Moses in the desert both revealed and crafted political and legal arrangements for Israel that reflected the core principles of faith, justice, and love that lie behind the Ten Commandments. The peoples of Nephi, Mosiah, King Benjamin, Alma, Captain Moroni, and so on similarly set up governments, laws, policies of defense and religious freedom, and so forth, that reflected in various ways their basic beliefs and commitments to God. In the time of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Latter-day Saints built whole cities and societies, with all the accompanying institutions, in their own distinctive way, on the foundation of the restored gospel. Presumably they did so with varying degrees of success and correctness, but they put a lot of thought, energy, and devotion into formulating institutions and practices that reflected and supported their faith, and allowed their faithful aspirations to be translated into social reality. Yet these were only the beginnings of the full promise of the gospel.
Christian principles have played an important role in various aspects of Western political thought over the centuries, and in particular movements with real impact, particularly in early communities in what became the United States of America. However, Latter-day Saints’ understanding of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two is in many ways radically different from that operating in traditional Christianity, and surely has novel implications.
Isaiah writes that “in the last days . . . the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains . . . And he shall judge among the nations . . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2: 2, 4). The gospel, then, is intended to be a recipe, or the kernel of a recipe, for world peace. If we don’t currently know what sorts of institutions, national and international laws, principles and practices would allow us to build and sustain world peace, we need to get on it. We need to work out how to put the Lord’s commandment to love into practice on a global scale. We know that this practice must begin in our homes and church meetings, but we cannot treat these as though they were also the complete goal. What we do there is only a portion of a much grander process.
That said, we do not only need to extend and elaborate what we already know about the core principles of the gospel. We need to dig deeper into those core principles, to find the resources they offer for this expansive effort. In 1832 the Lord was already chastising the Saints for neglecting the message of the Book of Mormon, so recently published (D&C 84:57), and not long ago, President Ezra Taft Benson informed us that we were still under this condemnation. Terryl Givens, in By the Hand of Mormon, suggests that things have not changed nearly enough since then, either, and we continue to treat the Book of Mormon primarily as a sign that God still speaks today, without actually working as we should to understand what it is he has said. We have been promised that “unto him that receiveth [God] will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Nephi 28:30). I worry that we Mormons for the most part fall on the “We have enough” side. What we have is so great that we do not seem sufficiently hungry for more. If we think we have all the knowledge we need (and we seem to talk and act this way a lot), we are sorely lacking in imagination and probably have not properly thought things through. The small number of dramatically new truths revealed to the church since the time of Joseph Smith suggests that we have not sufficiently appreciated and pondered the revelations he brought us, so as to deserve more.
As I see it, the processes of digging deeper into our core texts and principles, and building higher and wider to improve a whole society, even a global society, are two sides of the same coin. As a mustard seed becomes a tree, its roots must grow down just as much as its trunk and branches grow up, and these deep roots are what support and enable its loftiness. Our knowledge of the gospel must become much deeper, as well as more expansive and more richly articulate.
How can we and should we magnify our efforts and develop our resources to respond to this grand calling? I’ll say more about that as the series goes on. For now, what do you think of this view of where we need to go?