Given the trend in some circles of Mormon apologetics to adopt a postmodern stance, I feel motivated to discuss what postmodernism is and how it relates to Mormonism. I suspect that most postmodernists would be amused that some apologists have appropriated the terms of postmodernism as a means of promoting Mormonism’s truth claims over the inferior and naïve claims of rationalists.
Before we get there, some background is in order. A favorite punching bag of some Mormon apologists is Enlightenment rationalism, or the belief that scientific study is the most reliable means of discovering what is real (obviously, that’s an oversimplification, but it is sufficient for this brief discussion). Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant famously stated that the Enlightenment was “man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity” through the “use of one’s reason in all matters.” Thus, reason and science provided knowledge of what is real. Kant’s motto, “Sapere aude (dare to know)! Have courage to use your own understanding,” applied in general terms to the Enlightenment as a whole. It was a movement of optimism rooted in the belief that the human condition could be improved through the rejection of superstition and dogma in favor of rationality. Central to this belief was the idea that by educating the public, one promoted the free exchange of ideas and thus the enlightenment of the entire society; in that sense, enlightenment was a community effort rather than an individual endeavor. Enlightenment ideals of reason informed the American and French revolutions, the push for scientific discovery, and the rise of Industrialism.
Of course, with the advent of the Enlightenment came inevitable backlashes. One such response was Romanticism (and no, I’m not talking about the Nicholas Sparks kind). Romanticism explicitly rejected the power of reason to approach external reality and the ability of society to work together toward that reality.
Instead of grounding reality in reason, Romanticism asserted that reality was found in strong emotion within the individual. Society and culture, rather than providing a place for public discussion and enlightenment, put up barriers between humans and the real or divine; only by removing ourselves from society’s taint could we approach what is real. This notion is exemplified in Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which a young man “polluted” by society must leave his home and family to wander in search of himself:
And slight withal may be the things which bring
Back on the heart the weight which it would fling
Aside for ever: it may be a sound —
A tone of music — summer’s eve — or spring —
A flower — the wind — the ocean — which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound;
In short, it’s the experience of emotion through through impressions, whether in nature or in art, that break the heart free from the societal chains that bind it. But the reality of the Romantics is not the physical or rational, but rather what Emerson calls the “Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” So, for the Romantics, truth is an affair of the heart, not of the mind. Keats puts it most succinctly:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
This experience of truth is often described in ecstatic terms, as heightened emotions that provide clarity and oneness with the universe. Emerson describes it thus:
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear…. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances-master or servant, is then a trifle, and a disturbance. I am a lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I have something more connate and dear than in the streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.
This theme of truth in individual experience permeates American literature and philosophy through the nineteenth century. Thus Thoreau rejects the “so-called comforts of life” as being “positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”; he retreats to Walden pond to find the “pastoral realm” where he can discover “the essential facts of life.” Similarly, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, contact with society and its rules “deforms” Huck’s “sound heart”; only when he and Jim are away from the rest of the world, on Jackson’s Island and on the raft, can Huck find his true moral compass. Melville describes social construction as a “pasteboard mask” covering the real; Ishmael thus discovers the real on the journey away from home.
Mormonism resides within this American Romantic tradition, which is not surprising given that it arose in the midst of the Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment. Within Mormon scriptures, truth is “things as they really are,” but again the experience of truth is through emotion, described variously as a “burning in the bosom” or an ecstatic experience of being released from the “incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction.” A good example of this Romantic ecstasy comes in Alma 18-19, when King Lamoni escapes the traditions of his culture and experiences the divine, sinking to the ground as if dead:
Now, this was what Ammon desired, for he knew that king Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul, yea, he knew that this had overcome his natural frame, and he was carried away in God (Alma 19:6).
In Mormonism, then, finding truth is an individual endeavor, and it occurs outside the rational as an experience of emotion that, to steal a phrase, is “instantly apprehended” as being from God. Even at its most practical, the Mormon experience of the real is grounded in emotion. Alma 32 describes a process of planting a seed, or conditionally accepting the “word” and putting it into practice (what Thomas Monson has helpfully summmarized as “fake it till you make it”). After putting the seed into practice, you will discover through experience that it “is a good seed.” But even then “good” is defined not as “what works” but as something that “will begin to swell within your breasts”–again, an emotional experience quite removed from the rational. And this ecstatic experience is called knowledge:
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
In keeping with this notion of truth in isolation, we find in Mormon scripture moments of revelation when prophets are alone, removed from the cares of family and home. Lehi goes forth to a place where there is a “rock” (presumably somewhere outside of urban Jerusalem) where he sees a vision of God on His throne; only then does he return to his family. Nephi and Moses alike are “caught away into an exceeding high mountain” to be shown a vision of the “world and the ends thereof.” Enos has his ecstatic conversion “in the forests.” And of course Joseph Smith does not have his experience with the Godhead until he removes himself from sectarian influence and “retire[s] to the woods.”
None of this is to say that Mormon experience of the divine isn’t “real.” Rather, Romanticism provides the vocabulary by which Mormon ecstatic experience is interpreted. And clearly that Romantic tradition carries on in the everyday experience of Mormonism, from monthly testimony meetings to the instruction that missionaries help investigators “recognize the Spirit” through feelings. When we understand that in this Romantic context, “truth” is conveyed in emotion, the statement “I know the church is true” becomes understandable.
I would caution that we not call Mormonism necessarily “anti-rational,” however, as the church teaches the value of education and scientific knowledge. But clearly the ecstatic is privileged over the rational. For many Mormons, when scientific information conflicts with testimony, science is held to be incomplete or simply wrong.
So, with this understanding of where Mormonism comes from in its “methodology” for approaching truth, we are ready to discuss the appropriation of postmodern terms to the defense of Mormon Romanticism.