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.