Mormon integralism, Part 1
The first in a series on learning from the LDS church
My favorite sci-fi author is Orson Scott Card, best known for the Ender’s Game series. Atheists are overrepresented among sci-fi authors, so I remember my surprise when I first learned Card is a deeply faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), though in retrospect it should’ve been obvious.
Take the Ender’s series. As a prodigious boy genius, Ender is recruited to the Battle School orbiting earth to train for the third invasion of the buggers, an alien species of hive-mind insectoids. Spoiler alter: Ender defeats the invasion, driving the buggers to near-extinction. In later books you learn that the buggers invaded earth by accident, leaving Ender tormented by the guilt of having perpetrated an unnecessary xenocide (genocide of an entire alien species). Ender travels to the bugger home world to investigate its suitability for colonization and stumbles on the dormant hive queen, with whom he can communicate telepathically. He writes an ethnography of the species with her help, and publishes it under the pseudonym “Speaker for the Dead.” The popularity of the book in the human colonies launches a new spiritual movement in which self-anointed Speakers for the Dead investigate and eulogize a person and their work after their death.
Back on earth, the Book of Mormon teaches that Native Americans are the Biblical Nephites, giving special theological significance to the genocide perpetrated by an alien species of European settlers. The most exalted Mormons will become as Gods and inherit their own planets in the afterlife. And like Ender, Mormons practice baptism of the dead, opening the Kingdom of God to those who didn’t have the opportunity to know Jesus and his final revelation during life.
Latter day capitalism
If I could find the will to believe, I’d probably be Mormon. While mainstream Christians consider Mormon scripture preposterous, Joseph Smith had a major cosmological advantage in founding a religion well after the Copernican Revolution. It was known by the 1830s that the universe is likely filled with innumerable other planets, perhaps many like our own. Uranus was first observed in 1781, for example. The industrial revolution was also well underway in Smith’s time, giving hints that a phase transition in economic and technological progress was about to occur.
Mormonism was thus the first truly modern religion, and arguably the last if you don’t count Scientology or random New Age cults. Given the historical context of its birth, it’s also among the most materialist and technologically progressive religions in history.
Upon the arrival of the first Mormon missionaries to Denmark in 1850, Søren Kierkegaard wrote a journal entry remarking on their belief that “God is not omnipresent but moves with great rapidity from star to star.” This amused Kierkegaard “as an uncharacteristic retrograde step in theology from the spiritual to the concrete,” leading him to surmise that “the invention of the railway train and the telegraph may have had some influence here.”(Ender’s space travels are likewise constrained by the laws of special relativity).
Mormonism’s embrace of technological progress has carried forward to this day, from their affinity for science fiction, to organizations like the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Salt Lake City, Utah, where the contemporary LDS Church is headquartered, is even a growing hub for technology start-ups with Mormon founders.
On the precipice of transformative advances in Artificial Intelligence, many otherwise secular people are convinced we live in the Latter Days. Perhaps other Mormon tenets can be made defensible to secular ears by extending the move Kierkegaard called out, i.e. by making the spiritual concrete. The Kingdom of God could refer to our eventual merger with a future superintelligence, for example, where we may even reunite with simulations of our long dead relatives.
The growth and success of the LDS church to date is a testament to this strategy. Given its emergence in the Second Great Awakening, Mormonism captures many aspects of Mainline Protestant theology, including temperance, universalism, and a growth-mindset. But in contrast to the collapsing Mainline church, the LDS church concretizes its practices in a hierarchical priesthood structure and a decentralized network of volunteer ministries modeled after fraternal organizations. In other words, Mormon belief is integrated with Mormon practice. Robust mediating institutions give the LDS church a staying power and adaptability that liberal Protestant denominations lack, helping guard its adherents against the institutional acid of secularization.
In a series of posts, I plan to explore these aspects of the LDS church in historical context. My goals are twofold. First, as a student of “the economics of religion,” I have a personal interest in understanding the functional origin of religious institutions. And second, given the malaise of modernity, I see a growing need to reconcile the procedural efficacy of religion with our contemporary inability to accept its propositional contents.
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Pyper, H. S. 2014. The Joy of Kierkegaard: Essays on Kierkegaard as a Biblical Reader. United Kingdom.