I have frequently heard people make the claim that there are no Mormon monks. This may be true, but as I was reading a book on medieval legal history this weekend, I was struck by the fact that Mormon monasticism is quite common.
Mormons tend to think of monasticism almost entirely in terms of celibacy and sexual austerity. Given what I take to be Mormonism’s whole-hearted affirmation of the value of sexuality and family, monasticism seems utterly foreign to most Mormons. I think, however, that this is a mistake.
Monasticism is a movement that was extremely influential during the first millennium of Christianity, and it was not primarily about sex. Rather, it represented a desire to withdraw from a fallen world and commune with God. The language of monasticism is frequently peppered with the language of death. The monk becomes dead as to the world and alive only to Christ and God.
The logic of monasticism was essentially apocalyptic. The kingdom of God was something expected at the end of time, the end of humanity’s life. The world was fallen and corrupt. The life of holiness consisted of escape from the world, and the attempt to live in the here-and-now as one would live in the apocalyptic kingdom of God at the end of time.
The austerity of monasticism thus flows from a particular conception of heaven. For first-millennium Christians whose view of God was heavily influenced by the neo-Platonism of late antiquity, heaven consisted of communion with the divine. This communion, in turn, involved a forgetfulness and indifference to the passions and desires of the world. Thus, the austerity of the monk was meant as tiny imitation of the grand aseity of God.
So what does this have to do with Mormonism? We are often apocyliptic in the same way that the monks were. We lack faith in a fallen world, and we turn inward. Like the monastics, we also try to live in the here and now as we expect to live in the apoclyptic kingdom of God at the end of time. The difference, however, is that we view the Kingdom of God in a strikingly different way than did Christians fifteen hundred years ago. In place of the radically transcendent deity of late antiquity, we posit eternal families. Thus, the oft noted tendency of Mormons to turn inward to their families mirrors the monastic turn to austerity. Both are withdrawals from the world to a kind of intermediate heaven, pending the realization of the ultimate heaven.
Monasticism began to run out of steam in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Lots of stuff was happening at around this time that could account for the shift. One of them was a movement away from an apocalyptic view of the world and toward what one might call a prophetic view.
In the prophetic view, the kingdom of God at the end of history recedes in importance and it its place is the comes the imperatives to make the kingdom of God in the here and now. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries this new emphasis came from an upsurge in the corporate power and cohesion of the church, which itself was the result of a prolonged power struggle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. When Gregory VII emerged more of less victorious from that struggle, it marked the independence of the church from the king, and the ascendency of the Pope (and the bishops) over the monasteries. Rather than turning inward, Christianity turned outward and sought to remake society in its own image.
In a way, the Church’s recent forays into the political arena over gay marriage represent a movement from the apocalyptic to the prophetic. However, I don’t think that as yet this kind of activism has had much impact on the essentially monastic outlook of most Mormons. Who knows, though, perhaps Gordon B. Hinckley will be remembered as the Gregory VII of Mormonism.