The Fourth Age of the Church?

I happened to run into my friend Sam a couple of days ago in the food line at Costco, and his first words were, “I’ve been diligently reading your posts on Times and Seasons.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“I only said I’ve been reading them. I didn’t say I liked them.”

“So you didn’t like them?”

“Well, some of them have been . . . interesting. But you’re dodging and dancing around the elephant in the room.”

“That would be quite a feat,” I said. “But what do you mean? What elephant?”

“The elephant,” Sam said obscurely, “is the prevailing paradigm. It isn’t viable anymore. And what you can’t bring yourself to say is that we need to be prepared to enter into the Fourth Age of the Church.”

“Well, that sounds pretty portentous, but you’ll have to explain. What is ‘the prevailing paradigm’? And the Fourth Age? I suppose the first three were, maybe, the primitive church of the Apostles; and then the medieval church . . . .”

“No, no,” Sam interrupted. “I’m not talking about Christianity in general. I’m talking about our Church. The Mormon Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

We reached the front of the line, paid for our hotdogs, then sat down together at one of those metal picnicky tables.

“To understand what I mean,” Sam continued, “you need to remember the idea of paradigm shifts. Some dominant model or theory or conception– some paradigm– works for a long time. But then it comes under severe pressure. For a while, for a generation or more maybe, its defenders try to patch it up, make small corrections. Hold the fort. Keep their fingers in the holes in the dikes. (Pardon the mixed metaphors.) This works for a while. But then more holes keep appearing, and there aren’t enough fingers, or the holes become too big for the fingers, and . . .

“I get the idea,” I said. “I’ve read Kuhn.”

“Well, the point is that the old dike just can’t hold, and so a new fort has to be erected. It will use the materials of the old fort, will look a lot like the old paradigm in some ways. But it will also be fundamentally different. Some of the same terms will still be used, but they will acquire new meanings.

“And it’s a painful process. These paradigm shifts have to happen, but they can be wrenching. Some people who can’t make the shift– who think ‘This isn’t the fort we know and love’– will always get left behind. That’s why we need to be prepared . . . .”

“I understand. Like I said, I’ve read Kuhn. But you began by saying, about the three ages–”

“Well, the Church up to now has gone through three main phases. Three paradigms, separated by two paradigm shifts. The first age was a short one, maybe too short to count as its own age; but it was the phase of the restoration of simple, primitive Christianity. That’s what the first Mormons thought they were signing onto.

“So the Book of Mormon was– is– a thoroughly Christian book. It’s ironic that some evangelicals say we’re not Christians because we believe in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is actually more Christian than the Bible. Doctrines that took early Christians centuries to work out, like the Trinity and the Incarnation, are already there explicitly set forth in the Book of Mormon.

“But the first age– the age of the primitive Christian Church– passed into a second age: the age of the radical or iconoclastic Church. The key new components– the radical components– were the United Order and the ideas we associate with the King Follett Discourse and, above all, polygamy. That was a difficult transition for some people. Founders like Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer refused to go there.

“The radical Church had to move away from the settled United States in order to have the space to practice its radicalism. And all things considered, the Church flourished. But then the pressures built up– all of the laws and raids against polygamy, mainly. We resisted, heroically. And then things broke, and we renounced polygamy, and entered into the third age. The age of the bourgeois Church, you might call it– I’m no Marxist; I don’t mean that as a pejorative term– or the ‘traditional values’ Church.

“We became more American than Uncle Sam. This was a huge change– what had before been essential and non-negotiable was suddenly now forbidden– and again, some people couldn’t accept that. But you can see that the shift was necessary: without it, the whole Church would be like those people in southern Utah.”

“Okay, I can see how you could interpret our history in that way. It’s a pretty standard interpretation, really. Oversimplified, but I understand that these schemes and categories are always oversimplified. But why do you think a fourth age is coming?”

“Because it has to. The pressures are getting to be too great, and something will have to give.”

“What pressures?”

“Two kinds of pressures, really. At least two, one coming from the outside, and the other from the inside, so to speak; and together they put put us into a sort of intolerable squeeze.

“The outside pressure has to do with the situation of the world. Up until now we’ve lived in what was essentially a Christian world. Not that people lived up to the ideals of Christianity, of course. But Christianity supplied the accepted framework.  It was the standard, told us how things were supposed to be.

“Now all that has changed. Christianity is under siege from a new leviathan. I shouldn’t have to explain this to you; it’s what your book City Christians and Pagans, or whatever it’s called, is all about. I think you might have picked a better term than ‘paganism,’ by the way. But your basic point is correct.

“This change means that we need to transform our relations to the world, and to the rest of Christianity. Within a Christian world, we naturally viewed the other Christian churches as rivals. In a Pagans vs. Christians world, what we need is solidarity. We need the other Christians, and they need us. (Heaven knows that a lot of them are flailing worse than we are.) But again, you already know this. You’ve been writing about this in your blog posts.”

“Right. But you said there were two kinds of pressures. What’s the second kind?”

“The second kind is more focused on us specifically. I’m referring to a whole barrage of fundamental challenges to what we’ve treated as the basics of our religion. Challenges to our scriptures– the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham. Challenges to basic notions of revelation. Not the fact of revelation– we could never give that up– but the process and nature of it.

“So far we’ve responded to these challenges in the ways the defenders of a paradigm always do– by bracketing or ignoring difficulties, or by making small adjustments and admissions. And patchwork apologetics. Instead of ‘translating’ the Book of Abraham, we now say, Joseph used the scrolls as a ‘catalyst’ to receive revelation. That sort of thing.

“Now, don’t misunderstand me: there’s nothing wrong with these measures. And some of the apologetics are impressive, and illuminating. Overall, though, these are fingers in the dike. Stopgap measures. And measures that can work only on the already committed. You can ask committed, faithful members to bracket their suspicions, or ‘doubt their doubts,’ and concentrate instead on what they know and believe. Concentrate on the positive. This makes very good sense. People know that the Church is helping them live godly, fulfilling lives. Why should they sacrifice that just because they can’t come up with a satisfying explanation for the Book of Abraham?

“Even so, bracketing and looking away can only go so far. And you can’t ask an investigator– an informed investigator, that is– to do those things. Because she doesn’t have the preexisting commitment that provides the motivation for these measures. So you can’t just tell an investigator: ‘Don’t worry that the Book of Abraham was nothing like what Joseph said it was.’ Because she is going to think, ‘Hmm. That seems like a big problem for you, and you don’t seem to have a very satisfying answer.’

“And so you would expect the Church’s growth to slow down a lot, especially among more informed people. And it has.

“The upshot,” said Sam, “is that unless the Church is to stagnate in some sort of cultural ghetto, changes will be necessary. Not just patchwork changes. A new paradigm. A fourth age.

“The new paradigm will have a lot of continuity with the old ones. We’ll still believe in restoration, and revelation, and priesthood. But some of these things may come to have quite different meanings. In the way that ‘gather to Zion’ at one time meant ‘Leave your homes and come to Utah’ but later came to mean almost the exact opposite: ‘Stay where you are and perfect yourselves there.’ I tell you: it’s going to be hard for a lot of people.”

“And what will new paradigm look like?” I asked.

“Ah, that’s not for me to say,” Sam answered. “I don’t know, and who cares what I think anyway? I do have a few ideas. But the changes will have to come through the leaders, with the assistance of inspiration or revelation.”

“I can agree with that,” I said. “Still, I’d be interested in what your ideas are.”

“Some other time,” Sam said, crumpling up his now empty soda cup. “My wife is going to be wondering where I am, and this is probably enough for one conversation anyway. But, you know, I think your wife invited us over for dinner next week. Maybe we can talk then.”

For myself, I’m not at all sure that we are on the verge of any paradigm shift or “Fourth Age.” Seriously, could that happen? And people can live with doubts and dissonance; that’s pretty much the human condition. Still, if Sam has anything interesting to say about what this “new paradigm” will entail, I may let you know.

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