Mormonism is Romantic, Love It or Hate It

September 28, 2012 | 15 comments
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Simon Critchley had a charmingly effusive piece about Mormonism on the NYT Opinionator blog a few days back, “Why I Love Mormonism.” His effusions are not always flattering, or accurate, but he gets some important things right about Mormonism. He sees that much of the appeal of Mormonism is that it is a Romantic faith. That is to say: Mormonism is a reformulation of Christianity that leaves behind many of the more unpalatable features of traditional Christianity, as it has come down to us, and responds to many of the moral and spiritual aspirations of the Romantic movement—aspirations that many of us still share.

Of course, Critchley doesn’t exactly spell this out. He says that Mormonism is a heresy “from the same climate as Whitman” and “not so far from romanticism.” Those who know and love Whitman may see his point while the rest of his readers only hear that Mormonism is a “presumptive and delusional creation.” Critchley mentions that for Mormons, God is not unitary and infinite, but doesn’t say what difference that makes. He describes some unusual features of Mormonism at length, but without much explaining what he finds so lovable about them. I’m afraid the effect is mainly to reinforce what so many are already convinced of, that Mormonism is hopelessly outré, or at best, outlandishly entertaining, a bit like the recent musical.

So, let me say more about what it means that Mormonism is Romantic. Many of the most refined souls of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, figures such as Whitman, Blake, Emerson, Mill, and others, found that traditional Christianity was something they could not accept as they found it. Like the Reformation and Enlightenment, which had been unfolding for a couple of centuries already, the Romantic movement was an experiment in reinvention, proposing and exploring a new and very different view of the world and human life, through poetry, music, philosophy and literature. Many of the more humane and sensitive souls today find traditional Christianity unacceptable, or even appalling, for similar reasons, and yearn for some other spiritual perspective. Some of them find such a perspective in Mormonism.

Traditional Christianity is hardly monolithic, but in some of its more prominent forms, it presented a pessimistic view of human beings as creatures who on their own could only do evil. It presented God as a dictator whose decrees could not be questioned, who must be praised as perfectly loving and wise, even as he sentences much of the human race to eternal suffering in hell. It called for a negation of human reason and surrender to the authority of God, and also to his human, priestly representatives. It called for the surrender of our own desires and aspirations, in favor of God’s unearthly, abstract, and inscrutable purposes.

Meanwhile, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw spectacular progress in science, prosperity rising through new technologies like steam power, nations united by railroad, telegraph, and advances in navigation. They saw the overthrow of tyrants in favor of democracy, free people governing themselves with decency and justice, holding their political leaders accountable rather than vice versa. These centuries also saw a flourishing of religious liberty, and of religion in a climate of liberty. Religion and morality did not need to be imposed from above to flourish. Advances in science made human reason and discovery seem both indispensible and limitless.

In this environment, the traditional Christian ideas I’ve mentioned began to seem increasingly implausible, retrograde, and even degrading. To many, Christianity seemed hopelessly medieval, both intellectually and morally. It did not taste good to them. It did not fill their hearts with warmth and joy and hope, as Paul the Apostle promised that it should.

Mormonism is a powerful response to the Romantic sense that traditional Christianity could not satisfy the human soul. In the place of a God who rules for his own inscrutable purposes, to whom we must submit, Mormonism describes a God whose highest goal is to raise up humanity and share the glory and eternal life he enjoys with all who are willing. In the place of a view of humans as bound by nature to sin, it posits a humanity that is originally innocent, that falls into evil largely through ignorance, and that is capable of freely desiring and choosing the good. Rather than obey God because he is our creator, Mormonism tells us to look into our hearts and judge God’s message by how it tastes to us, relying on our own deepest sense of what is good.

Rather than calling us to blindly obey human religious authorities, Mormonism calls us to approach our faith with active minds and hearts, and to ask God personally, for direct confirmation of the truth. Rather than asking us to surrender our original desires, Mormonism calls us to purify our often conflicted hearts, and seek the joy of fulfilling our nature, a nature akin to God’s own. Rather than merely complying with a divine scheme of reward and punishment, Mormonism teaches we should recognize God’s commandments as guidance on the true path to happiness, which is found precisely in a life of Christ-like love. Rather than denigrating our nature as embodied beings in the face of divine incorporeality, Mormonism teaches that God himself has a body of flesh and bones, and that our bodies represent spiritual progress, allowing us to become more like God. Rather than regarding the great non-Christian religions as mere idolatry, Mormonism teaches that God reveals his truths to all nations in their own tongue.

On a host of points, then, Mormonism represents a religious answer to the yearnings of Romanticism, and of other skeptics of traditional Christianity. Whether it came from God as a response to human hunger, or merely from Joseph Smith’s creative imagination, fed by the unique climate of early America, the result is largely the same.

The twentieth century, of course, brought industrialized war and murder, overconsumption and environmental destruction, and mass poverty in the face of tremendous powers of production. This all may remind us how easily humans fall into evil after all. Romanticism may bear some responsibility here, inflating our sense of our capabilities, diminishing self-restraint, and encouraging us to wipe away tradition, the good with the bad. Even the least religious among us may feel humanity needs a benevolent authority, perhaps in the form of government, to save us from ourselves. Still, all of the hopeful developments of the nineteenth century have continued and even expanded in their way, and the democratic spirit has progressed to the point that in vast stretches of the world, it is hard to imagine any legitimate authority but that of democracy, at least in matters of politics, and often in matters of morals.

So far as Romanticism is still with us, then, Mormonism still responds to the impressions and yearnings of humanity today. It offers a stunningly hopeful and constructive perspective on human life, combining aspiration with discipline, reason with empathy, and authoritative guidance with individual self-determination. One might say that Mormonism combines the loftiness and rigor of traditional Christianity with the optimism and self-trust of Romanticism.

The original Christian message of course has the potential to be much more than the grim version of “traditional Christianity” I’ve sketched. Mormons aren’t the only ones who have responded to Romantic aspirations, finding fresh resources and possibilities in Christianity. Meanwhile, many of the ideas that Romantic thinkers rejected have become muted in Christian discourse today. Mormonism for its part claims to be post-traditional but not post-Christian—a restoration of original Christianity—and finds support in the same biblical texts that all Christians read (plus a few new ones, of course). Still, Mormonism is a more comprehensive and radical response to Romantic concerns than any other Christian denomination I know.

Critchley introduces his article as a corrective to the casual ignorance of the seemingly sophisticated, comparing thoughtless prejudice against Mormonism with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as it should be compared. He generously describes Mormons he has known as “some of the kindest, most self-effacing and honest people I have ever met.”

Under the banner of love, of course, Critchley also manages to bring up and magnify nearly all the things he might expect his audience to despise or fear about Mormons, whether true or false. One wonders if he means to replace ignorant contempt with a seemingly more informed contempt and even alarm. He makes Mormons out to be even more sexist than traditional notions of God might encourage, suggesting that only men can receive revelation, and only men can become gods, in Mormon belief. In fact, Mormonism promises revelation to every sincere seeker, and teaches that men can only become gods by becoming bound eternally in marriage to a woman, who becomes a goddess. Rather than believing in an “exclusively masculine” divinity, Mormons believe that our Heavenly Father is eternally united with a Heavenly Mother. Critchley mentions that Mormons abandoned polygamy long ago, but stirs fears of a return to polygamy as a kind of fulfillment of Joseph Smith’s vision. In fact, the Book of Mormon that Smith published clearly teaches that polygamy is only acceptable in exceptional circumstances, and that the norm is always monogamy.

Critchley praises the bold heresy of Mormonism on the one hand, but urges that if religion is not merely “a set of banal moral platitudes” then Mormonism “should be treated as such”—namely, as a heresy. How, exactly, should one treat heresy, I wonder? Critchley stirs concern that Mormonism might have some bizarre influence on a Romney presidency, and does not mention that freedom of religion and a separation of church and state is deeply entrenched both in the Book of Mormon and in modern Mormon revelation, with Mormons’ commitment to these principles deeply reinforced by their own tough experience as a religious minority. Unfortunately, Critchley’s misrepresentations and selective descriptions reinforce the sort of ignorant anti-Mormonism he appears to protest against.

Given the impression it leaves with a reader, I am not sure I love Critchley’s essay. Still, he does call our attention to some of the most important features of Mormonism, its theological differences from traditional Christianity, and one of the chief among these is the idea that humans are like gods in embryo, in principle capable of rising to the stature of our Heavenly Parents. Where traditional Christians may protest that Mormonism diminishes God, those of a Romantic spirit might cheer how Mormonism elevates humanity and reflects the original Christian call to follow Christ and “be ye therefore perfect.” Where some might worry that Mormonism encourages hubris, others might feel that it saves us from a destructive pessimism and a tyranny of low expectations. Where some might object that Mormonism undermines divine authority, others might argue that it reinterprets God’s authority in a way that allows it to remain compelling in a rational, democratic age.

As they come to understand Mormonism more fully, some will love it and some will hate it. Mormonism is not bland, even if some prominent Mormon or other comes across that way. Some may have doubts about Romanticism of course, and others may find that actual, contemporary Mormons, with their straitlaced morals and church handbooks, don’t seem nearly as Romantic as their theology. Critchley is right, though, that as Mormonism continues to come up in our national discourse, it would be nice to see people overcome reflexive prejudice, talk about what Mormonism is really about, and form their opinions based on sound information.

15 Responses to Mormonism is Romantic, Love It or Hate It

  1. Russell Arben Fox on September 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Well, cripes, it took seven years, but someone finally answered my question. Thanks, Ben! (Though, all kidding aside, what you’re talking about here is Romanticism as it relates to the understanding of humankind, whereas I was talking about Romanticism in terms of divine ineffability. Excellent post, though.)

  2. Ralph Hancock on September 28, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Very nice essay, Ben. I share the same ambivalence (to put it mildly) re. Critchley’s editorial. And no doubt T&S readers have already noticed Jim Faulconer’s reply. Some observations: 1) Terryl Givens is a great contemporary & sympathetic expounder of the Romantic dimension in Mormonism,no? 2) What you call “Romantic” can shade into what Harold Bloom called “Gnostic.” 3) Leaving tradition Christianity and the Fall behind altogether seems a perennial temptation among us. Just as Romanticism had trouble extricating itself from some fundamental assumptions of modern rationalism or the Enlightenment, so Mormon eternal optimism can get co-opted by the spirit of the age according to which all problems (all limitations on human satisfaction or fulfillment in this life) must have a human (and therefore a technological/statist) solution. There’s still something to be said for keeping this world and the next separate (even if not “metaphysically”), which is to say, the traditional attitude of resignation to God’s ultimate purposes and means will never be completely obsolete.

  3. Snyderman on September 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I rather like this post. Mostly because I’ve had similar thoughts myself. One thing I’ve always loved and found compelling about the Church (which is a major reason I continue to be a member) is its foundation in narratives.

    If you ever ask someone, “How do you know the Church is true?” you always seem to get that person’s conversion STORY in reply. It’s not the Joseph Smith law or principle, but the Joseph Smith STORY. The Atonement, even if we define it as the singular event of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, is still presented as a STORY (I really wish I knew how to italicize).

    The Church seems to almost have this kind of cognitive dissonance, because on the one hand we tout principles as the eternal truths of the universe; but then on the other hand, the truthfulness of the Church is based on the truthfulness of these stories/narratives. I think this may be why we don’t seem all that Romantic: because we tend to give preference to principles in our daily discourses. Yet it is exactly in these stories/narratives and the, I think, Romantic quality of them that I think the true power of our Church lies.

  4. chris on September 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    “Where some might worry that Mormonism encourages hubris..”

    I see how some outsiders might see that, but they are certainly not taking in the whole of Mormonism in that case. You can’t focus on exaltation, and ignore Christ.

    If Christ is the path to exaltation there can be no hubris. He is the way and example. Come follow me. How can we ever expect to be heirs of our divine potential if we presume that we can arrogantly claim we are Gods in embryo while denying the path that led to Godhood, which Christ made possible for us.

    When Christ was accused, he answered with teaching or with silence. It did not offer an aggressive defense. When he was mocked, he humbly ignored it. When he was beaten, he bore it. When he was condemned to death, he accepted it.

    I don’t see how anyone, who is informed, can look at the Church of -Jesus Christ- and see hubris as part of the path to exaltation.

  5. Thomas Parkin on September 28, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    A million times thank you.

  6. Julie on September 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I don’t want to discount anything said here, but to add where I feel this explanation is a bit incomplete. (My apologies, this topic was my focus in graduate school.)

    There is a strong current of historic scholarship arguing that Mormonism arose *in reaction* to the individualism & loss of central authority in America’s new “religious marketplace.” (See e.g., Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity.) According to this scholarship, the ideals of Romanticism were NOT adopted wholesale by early LDS converts. Rather, these ideals posed problems which Mormonism tried to solve.

    After all, Mormonism was hardly the only 19th-century religious movement to enact Romantic ideals. In fact, many (most?) frontier churches were even MORE open to personal guidance and religious enthusiasm. (Modern-day Pentacostals have nothing on the revivalist fervor of generations past.) We should remember that the early Latter-day Saints were not living in Boston. Their migrations consistently kept pace with the very edge of the frontier. Culturally, early Saints experienced much more of frontier lawlessness than of Emerson and Whitman. In their context, their prophet-led, priesthood-claiming religion was if anything a hierarchical and authoritative throwback.
    Or so that argument goes.

    In actuality, I think both analyses (yours and Hatch’s) present truth. (Reality is always more complicated than our neat categories allow, isn’t it?) As with nearly all movements, early Mormonism was a synthesis of many influences. Yes, it grew up in the world that also produced Romanticism. The “Romantic questions” we learn to identify in school were part of the zeitgeist. But to draw a Venn diagram that puts Mormonism within the larger circle of Romanticism is to wrest the realities of history into our current analytical categories. Early Mormon leaders were trying to find truth. So were the important Romantic thinkers. They both availed themselves of whatever resources they encountered, whether historic or contemporary. They both were inheritors of the Anglo-American Puritan tradition (which they actually both embraced as often as rejected). But Joseph Smith was no more looking to Wordsworth for direction than Wordsworth was to Smith.

    What I believe Mormonism gave us was a remarkable synthesis. As you point out, Mormonism encourages personal revelation, personal encounters with God, personal development of potential. But it is also very institutional. It stresses the importance of an institutional church, of divine sanction, of priesthood lines of authority. What early Mormons managed to create (and what we still continually wrestle with balancing today) is the fusion of these two components of religious experience.

  7. Ben Huff on September 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks for all these comments.

    Ralph, thanks for the referral to Jim’s piece. I am afraid I have trouble reading Critchley’s piece as a love letter like Jim does; it seems to me more of a “love tap,” with all of the ambiguity (perhaps disfunctionality?) that phrase involves, though I suppose Jim has to take an optimistic reading since he is friends with Critchley. I quite agree that Terryl Givens has done exciting work exploring the Romantic aspects of Mormonism. One short but powerful example is his talk, Lightning Out of Heaven, available in both HTML and audio. He and his wife Fiona have a much fuller exploration of these themes coming out as a book, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. It should be available in the next few weeks, but in the mean time Terryl also has a blurb up about it. As you suggest, there are dangers in trying to break too completely with traditional Christianity, dangers that I’ve tried to allude to in my post, and like Julie suggests, perhaps it is more accurate to think of Mormonism as a synthesis that responds to both the core messages of Christianity and the rejection of certain teachings that had become prominent in traditional Christianity, both Christian humility and Romantic exuberance. This seems to be what chris is thinking about, too.

    Julie, I completely agree that there is a lot more going on in Mormonism than an obscure branch of Romantic thought that somehow took off. For one thing, many of the concerns that fed Romanticism also played a role in other movements like the more classic Enlightenment impulses and, indeed, the Reformation. Some of the Reformation thinkers doubled down on aspects of traditional Christianity such as in the case of Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity, but others, such as the Mennonites and Anabaptists, moved decisively to emphasize free will, showing some related impulses to those of the Enlightenment or Romanticism. Protestant moves to de-emphasize the authority of clergy were a reaction against abuses and overemphasis of authority, akin to the broader democratic political movements. More broadly, though, there have always been tensions within Christianity, and Mormonism works to a great degree within these tensions.

    Fundamentally, Mormonism springs from Joseph Smith’s desire to understand the fundamental questions of Christianity: Who is God? What does it mean that Christ came as a mortal man? What is true discipleship, and where does it lead? These are questions that are unavoidable for any serious reader of the Bible. As it happens, Mormonism’s answers to these questions have a particular kind of interest from a Romantic point of view, and that is the point of my post. I could also say that Mormonism reflects central ideals of the Enlightenment, provides the Restoration that many Reformers dreamed of, and so on . . . but perhaps the Romantic points are enough for one weekend’s meditation.

  8. Adam G. on September 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    There is a Romantic Mormonism, or even a Romantic strain in it; but there is also a pretty non-Romantic strain that is more prominent of late because the Book of Mormon has been more prominent as of late. See here for one example on a doctrinal point addressed in your post:
    http://www.jrganymede.com/2012/02/17/korihor-and-terry-givens-vs-the-mormon-doctrine-of-original-sin/

    Someone like Neil Maxwell, for instance, takes quite a bit of stretching and pulling to fit into a Promethean outlook.

    Of course, partly this depends on your definition of Romanticism. I think it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that at one time or other literally everything has been claimed as Romantic.

  9. Adam G. on September 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I like the read where Mormonism synthesizes Romanticism with the virtues of Christianity. Good stuff, Julie.

  10. Jacob on September 29, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Part of my dissertation is an argument for interpreting Joseph Smith and early Mormonism in general as a New World Baroque figure (not necessarily in opposition to a more Romantic interpretation.)

  11. anonlds on October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am

    We require a lot of blindly leading human authorities. There isn’t a whole lot of tolerance for being different.

    We are told that we must attend church within our ward boundaries. We can pray about it, but if we honestly believe a neighboring congregation with family support is better for us? To bad, you need to go back and pray harder, because you will get the answer that agrees with the churches policy position.

    We advertise ourselves as thinking for ourselves, but the world doesn’t buy it. They view us as a bunch of clones that look, dress, act, and think alike. That isn’t very romantic.

    It’s a different argument to say that our early history derived from romantic ideas, but we are very far removed from those times and correlation has striped away most of the romanticism out of the day to day lived experience of Mormonism.

  12. Ralph Hancock on October 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    anonlds: the world advertises itself as thinking for themselves, but we don’t buy it.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 4, 2012 at 3:11 am

    One of the great things about Mormonism is that it starts with a rejection of the narrow creeds which are not only flawed in themselves, but flawed in claiming they encompass all truth, and thete is no truth outside the universe of propositions that can be derived from the creeds. The “creeds” include not just the formulations that are pre-schismatic, pre-Reformation, but also the formulations created.in various branches of Protestantism, such as the claim that the Bible is the universe of all revelation from God (except for the creeds of course), past, present and future. I think what offends God about the creeds is not just what they assert, but also that they reject the seeking of new revelation, and exalt the deductions of men. Creedalism claims to raise God to an ineffable, wholly Other glory, but it gives the human mind control of the narrative rather than seeking the author of the story of creation.

    Thus the difference between the Articles of Faith and the creeds of traditional Christianity is that the Articles of Faith are explicitly open ended. The Bible is God’s word, but so is the Book of Mormon. The lack of mention of the Doctrine and Covenants and the other revelations Joseph had received by 1842 tells us that this statement about scripture was never meant to be exclusive. The insistence that God will give more authoritative revelation in the future tells us that we will never possess a body of knowledge that circumscribes everything in God’s mind. And the Thirteenth Article enjoins us to mine the world for the Truth that God has embedded in it, through all the cultures of mankind, like insects trapped in amber, the sermons in the stones and the books in running brooks, the handwriting of the Author in the Earth and the Heavens.

    This is one of the reasons we WANT Mormonism to be true, why we are willing to believe, to plant the Word in our hearts, and try the experiment that promises divine confirmation.

  14. themormonbrit on October 4, 2012 at 6:27 am

    “In the place of a view of humans as bound by nature to sin, it posits a humanity that is originally innocent, that falls into evil largely through ignorance, and that is capable of freely desiring and choosing the good”. Does it? While there is certainly a very strong strain in Mormonism that emphasises an optimistic view of human nature, “the natural man is an enemy to God” is hardly a downplayed scripture. I think there is one reading of Mormon scripture, at least as strong as the optimistic one you outline, which is more in agreeance with the concept of original sin than the view that human nature is untarnished by the Fall.

  15. Lisa B. on October 4, 2012 at 10:57 am

    themormonbrit- What about the explicitly stated BOM doctrine that children are innocent, alive in Christ, not capable of sin, and not in need of baptism or circumcision? And what of countervailing teachings of divine nature, both physical and temporal? This is one of the main distinctions (from traditional creedal Christianity) that LDS doctrine has!