In my last post I talked about Mormonism as an answer to the question, “Which church is true?” and suggested that this question has only been compelling on a large scale in fairly limited circumstances. I ought to note here that I am not trying to come up with some kind of general explanation for why people adopt religions or even of church growth in general. I am just interested in the kinds of messages that we have given about the Restoration and why those messages might or might not be compelling in differing social contexts.
Another message on which preaching the Restoration has relied is one that emphasizes the continuation of the supernatural world of the scriptures in the present. This is the message of angelic visitors, gold plates, the gifts of the spirit, continuing revelation, and a re-established and literal Israel preparing the world for an imminent second coming. It promises to believers a religious life filled with dramatic spiritual manifestations, esoteric spiritual knowledge (often with apocalyptic content), and an escape from a secular world bereft of supernatural content.
Historically, there is no question but that in certain times and places this has been a potent message. Indeed, in the first generation of the Church’s missionary work the promise of the gifts of the spirit and the reports of visions, angels, and miracles had at least as much – if not more – appeal than the sectarian message of the One True Church restored. There was a spiritual hunger for a religion that would allow its adherents to experience the world as it is presented in the scriptures, a world of miracles and an aggressively interventionist God.
Today, the message of supernaturalism strikes me as a two edged sword. Even when it was first articulated by Joseph Smith and his followers in the 1830s and 1840s, many in Western society dismissed such claims and longings as “enthusiasm” and “superstition.” In the 19th century such skepticism would likely have come from rationalist religious elites – Harvard trained Congregationalist ministers or Oxford-graduated Anglican parsons – but it would have also come from the tiny minority of religious skeptics. Over the course of the nearly two centuries since that time, in the developed world the intellectual and cultural authority of science has increased and with it strong supernatural claims have become far less plausible for many. Indeed, what may have been a cultural asset for Mormonism in the 19th century, has become a liability. When President Hinckley was on “60 Minutes” twenty years ago, he did not emphasize the opening of the heavens, the visiting of angels, or the miraculous power of the priesthood.
The secular West, however, accounts for only a portion of the world’s population. There are places today where the message of visions, angels, and the supernatural resonates powerfully. There are pockets of religious believers within the West that still long for the supernatural religious world of the scriptures, although those pockets are small and – I would guess – getting smaller. I suspect that the place this message is most likely to have existential energy for large numbers of people is in sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, from what I have heard it is a message that has powerful resonances in certain portions of Latin America. I don’t know exactly what is making the message vital in those parts of the world. It’s tempting to posit that these areas are simply more “primitive” and “superstitious.” I’m not really comfortable with this explanation for two reasons. First, it seems horrifically condescending, condescending in precisely the way that arguments in defense of imperialism, slavery, and the like have been in the past. In playing with such arguments one is playing with fire. Second, I think that as an explanation the answer is wrong. People in sub-Saharan Africa are not stupid or ignorant. They are often poor, but they also have cell phones, can watch televisions, and have seen modern automobiles and technology. In other words, they are well aware of the scientific and technological revolutions. For whatever reason, however, they exist in a world where such knowledge and technology coexist with credulity and enthusiasm for stories of angels, revelations, miracles, and prophets.
All of this creates a problem for an international church. If we are trying to have a single message to the world, there probably isn’t an “optimal” emphasis on the supernatural. What will fall on Western ears as an implausible emphasis on divine intercession may sound rather tepid to Southern ears. One can see this in differing patterns of disaffection. We lose members in the United States or Europe or East Asia, for example, who simply cannot find the stories of angels and gold plates plausible. We lose members in Africa or Latin America because they joined Mormonism based on the promise of angels, prophets, and spiritual gifts but find the correlated messages of modern Mormonism rather too tame and secular. Rather than migrating out of Mormonism into agnostic secularism, they migrate into the more vivid and dramatic spiritual world of Pentecostalism or syncretic forms of Christianity that offer visions and gifts of the spirit in a less antiseptic and more visceral form than that offered up by the Church.