Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 1

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.

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12 Responses to Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 1

  1. Andrew says:

    Wow, this is great stuff. Can’t wait to see the rest of the series.

  2. Bob says:

    Runtu – I am an avid reader of Mormon Discussions though I’m not a member. I ran across something that might interest you and some of the other Shady Acres folk. It is a research paper from 2004 from “Sunstone” by John-Charles Duffy titled “Defending The Kingdom, Rethinking The Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy. It is available on the net. Thanks b

  3. Chris Paul says:

    Do you really believe that the church advocates seeking true scientific knowledge? The church may say that… but I don’t think they really believe it. When the church refers to science, they probably mean technology or any branch of science that doesn’t have to do with evolution.

    Same goes for when they advocate education. From my point of view, the whole point of education from the Mormon perspective, is just to provide the skills necessary to provide for your family. Education that has to do with skepticism, philosphies, evolution, etc. doesn’t “up lift” the soul. When the church says “Go get an education,” they most likely mean, “Go get the skills you need to pay for a family.”

  4. K*tty says:

    This is going to be a super series and one I look forward to. I appreciate all the work, thought and effort that went into this first one. It could not come at a better time for me, as I have had this discussion, though not as eloquent, just this past week. Just want to say thank you and keep up with the writing. I miss when you don’t post.

  5. This post was so worth waiting for. Framing LDS religious experience within the context of the Romantic movement makes sense.

    Chris Paul–your interpretation of LDS counsel to get an education is right on target!

  6. Chris Paul says:

    Heh, thanks Course Correction. A more cynical point of view would be: More education=more income=more tithing=LDS church becomes richer.

    Just a conspiracy hypothesis….

  7. Bull says:

    Not sure I agree with Chris. Within the church it seems like there are many members who wind up bending their faith to not conflict with science. I think that Richard Bushman is a great example. Here is a faithful, believing Mormon who acknowledges all of the essential facts about Joseph Smith that I find so damning and still has no problem believing that Joseph Smith is a prophet. Other member seem to have no problem making the Book of Mormon essentially an allegory that didn’t have to have occurred in any specific time/place while still believing that it is the revealed word of God.

    I think it is all quite subtle, but the human mind is very good at rationalizing away the cognitive dissonance and creating a new synthesis of beliefs that allows the romantic to coexist comfortable with the rational.

    You have to remember that the church has produced and continues to produce some very outstanding scientists and engineers who can be postively pedantic about objective reality while believing in spirits, dreams, visions, and other supernatural things. And they see no conflict because they believe that there are laws that explain those apparently magical things that we simply don’t know yet.

  8. Terry D Smith says:

    Your analysis of LDS philosophy is based only upon the left brain (logic/rational and engrained/emotional) – I wonder why that is? Although there are many left-brain people in and out of the LDS church, there are also right-brain people who do not fit your scheme at all. Actually, the LDS church is suppose to be based on influence or inspiration from Lord, Spirit, Light, spirit world – but I only see that you are attempting to lower every “spiritual” influence to “emotion” – why? There is emotion and rationality in the LDS church; and there are many who base their membership or analysis such as yours just on these two spheres of the human mind, however, you should at least be aware by now that there is a functioning right brain in humans who will listen and dedicate themselves to that part of the mind. It is on that side that certain “spiritual” experiences originate – at least within the human brain – why is it that you completely ignore (or do not know about) such right brain functions? Your analysis is good and quaint if one only wants to partially consider the possibilities. Science has yet to totally solve the brain main applications in the areas of religion and spiritual realms, but that does not mean there is not some validity to be ascertained scientifically in the near future. But you seem to ignore not only the right hemisphere of the brain, you also ignore the inner sides of the left hemisphere through which “Lord” and “Light” influence has been shown to change neurological patterns in some individuals. This is not the “God Point” of the left front lobe – which has been published but which actually seems to be more involved with “dry belief” rather than real experiences with any superior influence. I assume of course that what you wish to comment upon in your essay is the “dry belief” of some Mormons. But let’s not ignore or disparage any who might actually have had spiritual experiences by claiming all such experiences are only “emotionally” based; when emotion is apparent in such experiences it is just after the experience has gained recognition and is actually complete in the person’s mind – then an “emotional” experience can break through – for the past-engrained mind-set breaks up (or down)and tears or other emotions can come forth (and later written out) but until complete, the real spiritual experiences are not “emotional” at all. For example, you mention a rather low scale experience of burning felt in the chest – on what basis do you claim this is “emotional” …? For LDS and other people who report such occasions there is no “emotional” readings on our brain machines; any emotion comes later. My suggestion is that you and other “logical” “post-modernists” get “wet” … or at least take a good look at your own right hemispheres. Terry D Smith, Istanbul

    • runtu says:

      I must admit that’s the first time I’ve been called “quaint,” but I like it. What I’m unclear about is where I attempted to “lower” spiritual experience to mere emotion; in this post I explicitly refrained from commenting on the validity of Mormon spiritual experience. Situating Mormon ecstatic experience within a Romantic worldview is not to come up with a “scheme” but to explain where Mormon concepts of testimony and knowledge reside; that they fit better within the Romantic tradition (again, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, given where and when Mormonism started) than within Enlightenment rationalism. As I said in the piece, there isn’t really a neat division between the mind and the heart, though if you had read the few introductory paragraphs, you would understand that I’m responding to a particular postmodern critique that mocks ex-Mormons as “fundamentalist” rationalists, as opposed to the more enlightened, postmodern believers. I think that’s a false dichotomy, and it appears that you do, too, so I suspect that we have no real quarrel. Again, I have no interest in running down anyone’s testimony, but for the purposes of this discussion, it makes sense to ground understanding of a testimony in Romantic terms. The Romantics would have used the word “ecstatic,” whereas I used “emotional” because it seemed less loaded a term. Apparently, it wasn’t neutral enough for you. Anyway, I appreciate the comments. I hope you’ll read all six parts (you must not have, or you wouldn’t have called me either “logical” or “postmodern.” Cheers.

  9. […] a Patheos post that asked, “Is Mormonism a Postmodern Religion?” I’ve heard people make the claim before, and I feel there is a strange thing that happens to many Mormons as they try […]

  10. […] Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 […]

  11. I would agree that we mons are very subjective in our emtional feelings which goes right along with post modern mormonism romanticism.The doctrine and covenants modern scripture reveals to us in chapter ( verses 7 and 8 mention that if it be right i will cause your bosom to burn…..also the scripture mentions to us to STUDY IT OUT IN YOUR MIND.so theres the balance between rationality logic an reasoning and going through the subjective emtional experience intuiitively.like anything that we do in life we were given a brain to use by the lord and the right brain and left brain are both important factors to us mentally,emotionally physically and spiritually intuitively in our spiritual hearts.people in the church may be very good at rationalizing away cognitive dissonance through a new synthesis of belief that allows subjective romanticism to co exist with the rational butbtheres one other aspect of dealing ewith cognitive dissonance when dealing with objective external reality and that is spritually dividing the word of God thru the spirit body and soula. in hebrews 4;12 says for the word of God is quick and powerful then any two edged sword piercing to the divine dividing spirit body and soul.our spirit is Gods spirit and the spirit God made us as spirits and the soul consits of our spirit of emotion mind and will and the body is the outer shell. we are3a triparte being of body soul and spirit

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