Should Mormons (or Anyone) Hope to Change the World?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

For many decades at least–and maybe, depending on whose history you most trust, maybe ever since our beginning–the dominant American Mormon mode for thinking about this thing which the scriptures and those who claim to be able to authoritatively comment upon them tend to call “the world” has been to, if not completely flee it, then at least stand at a remove from it: to be “in the world, but not of the world.” There’s a deep scriptural truth to this formulation, reflecting as it does one of the final statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. But just as many Christians–and, of late, more and more Mormons–have been equally inspired by the tradition of the Great Commission: that we are called to go about into the world, and change it for the better. This means evangelization and missionary work, of course, something which the Mormon church has embraced from the start. But it also means many other kinds of service and charitable works as well–something which, to our credit, we’ve done our best to get caught up on in recent years.

Jesus taught the eternal value of changing lives through loving service, and that is more than enough for most Christians. Mormons, though, might imagine that there is an additional endpoint to all that going out into and changing of the world, one which which distinguishes us from many (not all, for certain, but nonetheless many) other Christian groups: the ultimate aim of building up the kingdom of God upon the earth and establishing Zion–which for Mormons like me means a community and/or state of being where all are of one heart and one mind, dwell in righteousness, and no one is poor.

There is much which can be said about the theological, ecclesiastical, political, and cultural aspects of this argument–or is it a dialectic?–between Christian resistance to “the world” and the (utopian?) Mormon hope for a real, actual Zion of unity, equality, and love, and no Latter-day Saint in the past century has written about the topic more provocatively and powerfully–if not always persuasively–than Hugh Nibley. (I’ve written and spoken some about Nibley’s ideas here, here, and here.) Last year, though, another voice was added to this ongoing argument: Joseph Spencer’s For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. In his smart and short book, Spencer explores a very specific philosophical matter which pertains to how worldly Mormons like myself think about Zion: how can we hope for something which is, by all apparently and historical experience, impossible to achieve? That is actually a truly vital question, and Spencer’s wrestling with it is genuinely challenging, something I didn’t notice at first. My belated realization of how good a book it is should be of no surprise to those who read Mormon blogs–just see here or here if you’ve missed out, somehow–but I’m happy to say it here: if you’ve ever thought about the why of the Christian call to change the world, or of the Mormon call to consecrate one’s time and talents on behalf of such an ideal goal, Spencer’s book is one to be read.

Note I said why, though: not how. Spencer’s book is directed towards shifting our philosophical appreciation of what it means to hope for something that lies utterly outside our experience, relying heavily upon a reading of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the entwined concepts of faith, love, and God’s gifts. “[H]ope gives up on the world in joyful affirmation that it can–and will–be otherwise,” writes Spencer; we must understand, he argues, that Jesus’s life and death ushers in the possibility of a hope that “refus[es] to trust in the supposedly self-sufficient, in the supposedly inert and fixed, and in the supposedly total and unchangeable [character of the world]” (pgs. 22, 51). Moreover, Spencer argues that such a “hope against hope” is essential to understand Joseph Smith’s fullest teachings about Zion. A “genuinely Christian hope” is that which frees us from (Spencer quotes the philosopher Gabriel Marcel here) “the ‘radical insecurity of Having,’ from the self-liquidation of every economy of property,” and since Smith’s law of consecration–which Spencer insists is still fully in force for every member of the Mormon church–obliges us to own our property “as though” we don’t, we need to be able to grasp such an unworldly hope if the motivation to act as other-directed, charitable stewards, rather than accumulators and profit-maximizers, is going to have any kind of chance (pgs. 63, 128, 141). I’ll say it again: that’s a vital shift, and writing a thoughtful book about it is thus a worthy and important thing.

But it is also, I think, a limited thing. It is an argument which insists that we ought to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize “not only that things can change despite the fact that they present me with an objective impossibility, but also that…I can be an agent of such change” (pg. 27)–a great message! It repeatedly underlines Adam Miller’s insistence (including at the very beginning and the very end of the book) that the responsibility faithful Mormons have to work out the means by which they will put that economic, communitarian, charitable hope into practice is finally and ultimately a personal one: “[i]f you do not work things out for yourself, they will never get done” (pgs. ix, 153)–again, a great message! But they both sound to me like individualistic ones, inward ones–which is why I’ve suggested (both in the review I linked to above and in a too-long, rambling philosophical post here) that Spencer’s book strikes a quietist tone to me.

Jim Faulconer–an old teacher of mine, my respect for whom is pretty immense–takes issue with this judgment. “I’ve seen Joe accused of a kind of quietism of thought, but this book proves that charge untrue,” he writes. “For he shows that the law of consecration has remained, from beginning to now, a matter of providing an inheritance for the poor of the Church, and he argues quite firmly that the law has not been rescinded, not even temporarily.” He quotes Spencer’s summary of the law (as he presents it as presently existing) in its all hopeful fullness:

To obey the law is to remain the technical or legal owner of one’s property while (1) deeding away all excess (everything more than is “sufficient” for an appropriate stewardship) in order to outfit the poor Saints, (2) maintaining what remains in one’s possession as a stewardship for which one is responsible to God and for God’s stated purposes, and (3) giving whatever excess accrues subsequently through wise use of one’s stewardship either (a) to benefit the poor directly or (b) to ensure that the institutional Church has the resources to do other work necessary for furthering God’s purposes (pg. 142).

Once again, this is a great–a challenging, sobering, inspiring–message. I do not–not when I truly think seriously about my and my family’s needs and wants, and the needs and wants of those I see all around me in my ward and city and world–consecrate all that I could. I don’t act like the steward I probably ought to be; we don’t have many excesses in our family, but we have a few, and we treasure them, and the prospect of giving them all away to the poor or donating them all to the church to use as it sees best rests hard upon my heart. To the degree to which Spencer’s arguments must be understood as a plea for ordinary (and comparatively speaking, quite wealthy) American Mormons like him and me and everyone who reads his book or this blog to gird up their loins, be hopeful, and work towards that demanding–though perhaps also liberating–personal end, then surely Jim’s response is correct: this isn’t a retreat from action, but rather a charge directly to the heart.

But that doesn’t resolve every concern I have, because “quietism” doesn’t simply mean “inaction.” Rather, quietism suggests a non-antagonist, non-confrontational, accepting attitude towards the world; it suggests a posture of acceptance, rather than engagement. Spencer’s book, insofar as we think of one’s personal understanding of what it means and what it involves to hope for and work towards a better, more equal, more loving world, is hardly lacking in hows. On the contrary, it is filled with them. But those hows never extend beyond his heart, or my heart, or yours. It is the how of Mother Teresa entering the slums of Calcutta, of Zacchaeus coming down from the sycamore tree and giving half his wealth to the poor, of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s reformation. It is a call for everyone, on their own, to figure out how better to love and serve their neighbor. For the fourth time–that’s a powerful and needed call! But not a comprehensive one–in fact, it’s the opposite of comprehensive: it’s piecemeal, it’s particular. I like the particular; I think it’s vitally important to involve oneself and to prioritize over other allegiances the local. But note what’s happening there: involvement and allegiance. Which means other people, all of whom are organized one way or another in reference to the world they (and we) are part of. To engage with any of those organizations, however hopefully, may well obligate us to make choices and experience alignments and disagreements with others–in other words, to say something to or about or sometimes even against the world.

I would never label Spencer’s book a call to some kind of spiritual individualism or atomism; that completely misunderstands his many, strong arguments pointing out our absolute dependency upon God’s gifts. Yet I fear his analysis at least allows for such a conclusion. He carefully and forcefully argues against the Mormon tendency to put the utopian demands of consecration in our distant 19th-century Utah past or our unknowable, millennial future, and I couldn’t agree with him more. But he does this in part by attacking the idea of any kind of “systemization” of consecration, insisting instead that seeking Zion is simply something that each of us, on our own, need to be doing right now, since, after all, there’s no “divinely orchestrated communism on the horizon” (pg. 145).

Of course, that’s not entirely true, as we still have the model of Joseph Smith’s communism, not to mention the model of dozens of experiments with communal economics under Brigham Young, to say nothing of hundreds of other Christian examples of Zion-type arrangements the whole world over. But Spencer’s arguments give me the impression, at least, that he feels that if, in our hopeful workings, we decided to critically engage in a changing the worldly systems and organizations we and our loved ones are part of, in the hopes of moving them in the direction of something more Zion-like, we’ll actually be getting hope wrong. Invoking the–one more time!–powerful and thought-provoking idea that conditions in Zion ought to be understood as similar to those economic and social relations which obtained among medieval monasteries, he deepens his commitment to an abiding, waiting, “as though not” framing of hope, suggesting that the truest and wisest realization of Smith’s efforts to build a Zion community was that “the law of God and the laws of the land” should be “neither directly opposed to each other nor regarded as potentially working in perfect concert” with each other (pg. 140). In other words, the hope for Zion should involve that which does not challenge worldly laws, nor that which makes use of worldly laws. Truly, monastic models of community have much to teach us…but as regards the whole debate over Christians not being “of this world” as opposed to Christians “changing the world” I mentioned earlier, and what a better grasp of hope may tell us about that matter–well, this sort of presentation does seem to stack the deck in favor of the former, don’t you think?

Thinking through these issues puts me in mind of another excellent book, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, which is a fascinating survey of–and a thorough criticism of–the many ways in which Christians throughout history (though mostly American history) have articulated their challenges to the world. There is–just like is the case with Spencer’s book!–a great deal to learn from Davison; his unsparing analysis of the presumptions he sees operating in favor progressive change on the part of the “Christian Left,” and in favor of cultural preservation on the part of “Christian Right,” and even in favor of the “neo-Anabaptist” rejection of both of the above, is both trenchant and mostly persuasive. But only mostly…because, after all, if the power of God’s call is to be experienced in this world as not one which makes peace with the world, but also not one which seeks to change the world this way or that, that how can it be anything except, well, a private, personal mystical experience? Hunter’s call for Christians to exercise “faithful presence” is wise one (and one whose parallels to the patient world of Christian monasteries supplements Spencer’s arguments), and I certain wouldn’t say that I’ve fully internalized all the good things I can learn from it. But I also can’t help but agree with Andy Crouch in this review of Hunter’s book, which observes that one cannot build a “presence” alone: “movement[s]…require partners.”

Partnership, friendship, community, collective sacrifice, building and eating and reaping and sharing in ways that tied and supported and protected the saints all together: all of that was central to Smith’s original social, economic, and ecclesiastical vision. Spencer’s book takes nothing away from any of that. But it also constructs a notion of hope that I think may, however insightful it is, lead some of us to believe we have good theological reasons to hesitate to orient our hope towards the collective possibilities and gifts always around us, and that it would be truer to God’s revelations to focus on the–admittedly!–great and needed and loving work we can do, on our own, in our own way, as we hope to get our hearts right. I would never judge another’s vocation. But I have to end my simply saying that my preference (without concurring every postmodern claim he makes) is to see we faithful, we hopeful saints, as Scott Abbot did: “we will own up to our stewardship as creators, and not just stewards.” A proper hope for Zion may begin with my shifting my heart to a willingness to embrace those gifts from God which enliven the objectively impossible, but it doesn’t end with a refining of that self-embrace; it looks for tools and partners and, yes, even systems and programs and suggestions and criticisms by which the whole community, perhaps even the whole world, can be embraced as well. If not that, well, then, what was the Commission for?


  1. Only Mormons who attend The University of Texas at Austin can aspire to such things. Because, you know, what starts there changes the world. (Offical UT slogan.)

  2. I’ve been thinking about this post (which I really enjoyed) for a couple of days now, particularly because the ideal of Zion is an integral part of what grounds my own faith and hope, and I have a couple of questions. First, do you have any suggestions for integrating the autonomous pursuit of Zion that Spencer’s text seems to implicitly privilege with the systems and programs you talk about in your final paragraph? Related to this, do you think that Mormons have an obligation (through temple covenants, especially) to use the existing programs and systems of the church in establishing Zion in this more communal, less individualistic way?

  3. Lawrence,

    do you have any suggestions for integrating the autonomous pursuit of Zion that Spencer’s text seems to implicitly privilege with the systems and programs you talk about in your final paragraph?

    Not off-hand, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility. I really do believe that there is something important to the idea of acting personally and locally with the aim of doing so in part so as to contribute to the conditions by with acting collectively and radically open up. On a certain level, with is simple democratic, neighborhood activism; for example, when I vote next week here in Wichita, KS, for an ordinance that reduce the first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana from a class A misdemeanor to low-level infraction, I’m almost certainly not going to change anything, because Kansas state attorney general has already said that he’ll sue the city to stop the ordinance (which tramples of state-set drug penalties) from going into effect. But by having contributed to the passage of the ordinance, become part of a movement which changes the conversation and expands the Overton window, however slightly. So along those lines, the “autonomous pursuit of Zion” may really contribute to the revealing of systems and solutions which could be collectively pursued. But I think that is less likely to happen if you’re not aware that such is the logic of things; if you’re committed to hoping for Zion in a manner which demands that you work “as if” you’re changing something, even though you’re not, then I don’t think you have your perspective right.

    do you think that Mormons have an obligation (through temple covenants, especially) to use the existing programs and systems of the church in establishing Zion in this more communal, less individualistic way?

    Absolutely–and not just “the existing programs and systems of the church,” but those of all sorts of local, state, national, and international bodies and organizations around us. There are many ideas and possibilities floating around that could contribute to the building of Zion; we shouldn’t assume that ours is the only community that has something to contribute.

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