In the world and of the world

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This is from “Exploding Dog,” a webcomic by Sam Brown (no, not that Sam Brown)

In a short story by Stephen-Paul Martin, a discontented American copes with despair following the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush by fleeing to a Zen Buddhist retreat.

“What appealed to me about Zen was its technique of destabilizing human arrogance,” he writes, “humbling its practitioners by leading them into radical uncertainty, relentlessly making them see that any assumption they might make about anything, no matter how logical or factual it seemed, was nothing more than a verbal house of cards” (48).

Of course, the narrator’s radical skepticism isn’t extended all the way down, as he begins the story “overwhelmed with disgust, embarrassed that I live in such an aggressively mindless nation” (44). And after undergoing a few mystical experiences, he must return to earning a living. Taking advantage of the widespread post-Enlightenment discontent with organized religion and political structures, combined with a lingering sense that “something more” still exists out there, the narrator edits a book called Shamanism for Dummies. The pay is great, but he doubts whether such a product can truly tap into whatever is behind shamanism.

In  fact, doubts about the authenticity of his own Buddhist practice creep up, even though his American teacher has studied with Japanese masters for forty-plus years. In the course of his reflections, the narrator arrives at a point that had me thinking about the place of Mormonism in the world:

The question was simple: What kind of spiritual authenticity was possible in a country dominated by shallow consumer ecstasies, a country in which monsters like Donald Trump and Bill Gates were called visionaries….In such a degraded context, it seemed to me that sacred experience was possible only among individuals who had disciplined themselves to resist the contamination of mass imagery and information, creating media-free zones for themselves in their minds and hearts and homes. How many people in America could even begin to fit this description? (65).

The American buddhist’s story is a rumination on spiritual authenticity that directly calls into question a popular Mormon dyad. As Mormons, we’ve sometimes prided ourselves on being “in the world, but not of the world.” Ironically, this sentiment isn’t unique to Mormons; we probably borrowed it from some other Christian sloganeer. But the truth is, we Mormons have been selectively in and of the world from the get-go.

The Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign is just the most recent in a long line of Mormon PR efforts to let outsiders know we’re not so outside, and that perhaps they’d like to be more inside. (Reid Neilson’s book on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair will get you up to speed on this phenomenon.) Far from interpreting mass media as contamination, Mormons have enthusiastically embraced God-inspired channels of proselytization. This requires being “in the world,” but it results in being “of the world,” or of aspects of the world, as “the world” is a problematic construct. A ban on facial hair, for example, begins partly as a way to avoid the appearance of hippy or communist. For men, a smart business suit, cropped hair and clean-shaven countenance told the world “I’m professional, I’m clean, I’m respectable,” in a total capitulation to being “of the world” in addition to being “in” it.

Of course, times have changed, and a beard no longer automatically signals radicalism–except amongst us Mormons.

Maybe being in and of the world is not merely inevitable, but also necessary if we’re to get on with the business of sharing our faith with others. Or should we further and further shun the world, gather into Zion, and remain isolated? The latter method has been proven to result in less-than-friendly relations with non-Mormons. At the same time, others have argued that a certain distance, a tension between the Church and its host cultures, is necessary to the vitality of any religious movement.

So, in contradiction to the American buddhist’s claim, the question is not so simple: What kind of spiritual authenticity is possible in a faith that is both in and often of the world? Assuming that it is possible, what kind is it?

***

Excerpts are from Stephen-Paul Martin, “The Health of the Nation,” in Changing the Subject: Stories (Jackson Heights, NY: Ellipsis Press, 2010), also free here. Armand Mauss’s Angel and the Beehive (which Mauss recently revisited in Dialogue) has outlined the pendulum-like swing from assimilation to alienation in the 20th century Church, while BCC’s Stephen C. Taysom explores the phenomenon in the 19th century in Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2011).

Comments

  1. Regardless of how LDS (ab)use it, the phraseology and semi-personification of “the world” comes from the NT. Here are a few of the many references. John in particular likes this construction.

    He was in the world… and the world knew him not. (Joh 1:10 KJV)
    If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. (Joh 15:18 KJV)
    If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. (Joh 15:19 KJV)

    I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. (Joh 17:6 KJV)
    And now I am no more in the world, but these [Apostles] are in the world, and I come to thee. (Joh 17:11 KJV)

    Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1Jo 2:15 KJV)

  2. BHodges says:

    Oh yes, I know exactly where it comes from! It should be pointed out that the us/them dichotomy can and has been used by all sorts of different boundary drawers, and that it can sometimes serve as a way to unfairly distance rather than include our brothers and sisters, etc. etc. And of course, we shouldn’t fool ourselves about the extent of our own being OF the world.

  3. I’m actually fond of the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate “the world” in their Bible: it’s often “this system of things,” which accords better with the original meaning of the term and has less chance of fomenting a problematic material/spiritual dichotomy. But it seems that this is the sense you’re using in this post already.

    If I were to teach a lesson wherein this came up, I’d pull out John 3:16 and ask 1) what world God loves, 2) why he loves it, and 3) how Jesus saves the world. I think that would be sufficient to upset our world/not-world binary.

  4. I think relying on it’s peculiarity and strict orthopraxy works to create a close nit uniform tribe but it is a somewhat defensive approach to rely on for retaining or gaining membership. Mormonism lacks and needs a revitalization in the form of meaningful continuing revelation which it officially claims to have but unfortunately infrequently receives and often substitutes with inspiration which commonly leads many churches. Religion is the moralization of spirituality, the finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. Holy sacred temples, ordinances, symbols and conference talks are but an metaphorical model of the real thing. To the extent that Mormonism fails to lead and guide it’s membership into an actual spiritual oneness with God it loses it relevance and becomes just another Christian variant with a higher time, money and obedience cost despite it’s claim to a very different genesis.

  5. I was struck by this:

    “it seemed to me that sacred experience was possible only among individuals who had disciplined themselves to resist the contamination of mass imagery and information, creating media-free zones for themselves in their minds and hearts and homes.”

    First, that it was quoted in a post on a large, public blog is ironic. but I also thought immediately about how meetinghouses and temples function as “media-free zones” for many members’ hearts and minds, as does Family Home Evening for our homes. We even talk very openly and directly about temples, especially, being there for “sacred experience” – and Elder Bednar mentioned in the Nov 2010 Worldwide Training Session that he wished we approached even our church meetings as potential revelatory experiences and not just as meetings.

    Finally, I agree totally that the concept of in but not of the world has lead far too often to a practical isolationism that is not in harmony with the Gospel and life Jesus taught and lived. It’s hard to be fully Christian when you refuse to associate with the people Jesus served during his ministry. In our focus on not being of the world, we too often forget to be in the world.

  6. BHodges says:

    “First, that it was quoted in a post on a large, public blog is ironic.”

    Glad you picked up on that ;)

    Interesting, tying it into Elder Bednar’s talk on media, and I believe Pres. Uchtdorf has touched on this, too, that we are sometimes too connected to the network.

    Also, apparently Pres. Monson’s prophetic gift was operating well back in 1984, when he became the first GA to mention twitter in General Conference.

    http://bit.ly/18K1u4O

  7. Angela C says:

    Some people focus on being IN the world. Some folks focus on being NOT OF the world. The balance is tricky to manage. For any missionary work to succeed, we have to be sufficient IN the world to meet people where they are. Otherwise, we only attract those who are fleeing the world for some reason.

  8. It’s definitely a tricky balance. Sometimes I think we have the opposite problem, being neither in nor of the world. Sure we are physically in the world no matter what, but I know Mormon families who cut themselves off from the world so intensely that they hardly count as being in the world because their children struggle to relate to even other church members. Their kids get to BYU and they’ve only ever seen Disney movies. They’re afraid to be on single dates because they don’t want to endanger their chastity. If they are struggling with relationships, they think the solution is to read their scriptures more (and not, perhaps, learn better interpersonal skills).

  9. I think the real question is: what is the world about? Why does it do what it does? In what ways does it manage power and necessity? That we have to do everything that the world does – find a way to keep ourselves clothed, fed, and even fulfilled – means that we are in the world. It seems to me that not being of the world is not in refusing to participate. It may be a slight gesture to get out of the world, but it is all the same profound, radical. We get a glimpse of the difference reading the Sermon on the Mount (something we can scarcely say that we believe in.) It finally has very little to do with things like whether we get a tattoo or no. The CEO uniform that is Mormon de riegeur is every bit symbol of the world. We fail to see the radical nature of not being of the world because we – individually, collectively, institutionally, from top to bottom, are, when it comes to the world, in it up to our eyeballs.

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