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).