Saturday, April 24, 2004

Fundamental Change and Reformulation or Superficial Change and Suffrage

A good discussion on Belief and Practices over at Times and Seasons brought a smile to my face. I am always amazed how the ideas of other members seem to go to the same place despite little formalized theology. Some of my personal views on progression seem to get brought up rather well in this post. Instead of rummaging around to find the link of those posts I just summarized some of my ideas below in “Progression and Stucco”.

To me, belief is a subset of practice. In other words, when compared to what we say, what we do is a more accurate representation of our beliefs. For instance I can profess to want to be in a serious relationship, but if I am unwilling to do any of the things necessary for it, what I tell people I want is at odds with my actions. If belief is a subset of practice, this means that I fundamentally don’t want a serious relationship. I may want the fantasy of one, but not the real thing. The problem is that, as much as people try, we don’t live in a fantasy world. I think one of the big hindrances to spiritual growth is the idea that living up to a belief or doctrine will lead to real progression.

Now I know this may appear as a rather radical statement. I agree that there are many instances where one could argue that good beliefs leads to good actions which result in spiritual progression. In most cases though, I would say that this train of thought leaves out one of the major tenets of the gospel, the power of change.

Of course one would normally answer “isn’t anything that leads to worth while change good”? Perhaps, but it does not mean it is very effective. It also does not mean it is very good if it keeps us from using more the more powerful tools at our disposal. I think Hugh Nibley’s essay Zeal Without Knowledge, discusses this issue quite well. Is it better to spend a 100 hours digging a hole by hand, or sleep for 10 hours, get a bobcat and dig the same one in another hour? I guess it depends on whether we are trying to did a hole, get strong, look like we are working, or get an extra 89 or 99 hours of time to do more important things. Hopefully we can see this life as being such a rare opportunity to learn and progress that we want all the extra time we can get.

In his T&S post, Jim Faulconer mentioned that “belief is not central to LDS religion”. The way he interpreted this statement sums up my views. The holy ghost probably isn’t there to give us the power to discover an infinite number of rules and commandments. To me, the Spirit is not a tool to the implementation of a legalistic religion. Instead it is a tool that lets us unlock the inherit power we have to change. A power that is activated through the authority Christ has given us, and the example and atonement he has offered.

I think too often the puritanical idea of suffrage has made us blind to the power of change had by spiritual beings like ourselves. Being born again (a repeatable event which I think happens any time we truly accept Christ and/thus repent of our sins) is a chance to reformulate who we are. The strong presence of the spirit gives us a chance to move a little further away from our natural tendencies. Of course being born again doesn’t make us a perfected being. The reformulation process keeps almost everything that we are. We may loose ourselves in Christ for a moment, but the reality of who we are quickly takes over again. However, the relative amorphous nature of our spirit lets us change our desires to such an extent that they become inherit within us. In essence, it isn’t thinking abstract ideas that change who we are, it is changing the spiritual side of our being so that the rest of who we are matches with it.

For this to happen, I wonder if the more physical aspects of our being have to, in effect, see a motivation for this change for it to become effective. Of course around here is where all the philosophical views of Leibiniz thinking particles, or Cartesian Dualism, Thomist souls, etc come into play. Ignoring those considerations and leaving them to my brother I think one still comes up with a conclusion that fundamental change and reformulation is much more effective that superficial change and suffrage.

This again gets back to some of my views on whether there is more than one right choice in any decision. Superficial change does not really alter our world view. Usually we can keep the same basic outlook on things. We are just trying to make everything fit a bit better. Fundamental change results in new world views. While these world views will usually be quite similar to old ones, they do give us a new perspective on things (both old and new). This change in perspective is representative of a fundamental change in who we are. From my original example, we have changed what we get out of R movies, we have changed what we want to get out of the Sabbath, etc. With this change we also escape from much of the rather pointless suffering and decomposition that can result from struggling to live up to something that we either don’t fully believe, or can’t realistically sustain.

Progression and Stucco

In Portugal we used to come across lots of building whose stucco was coming apart. For the first few months this gave all the building their European charm. After a year and a half I started to see them for what they were, decomposing slums. Of course you can either take the romantic or pragmatic view. What they are doesn’t change, only their apparent value.

The outer stucco of these buildings was very hard and brightly colored. Underneath was about 3 inches of a very soft sandy cement facing the brick behind. Once the outer stucco had been punctured, the porous sand underneath would quickly wash away, leaving behind hollow crust. This would quickly bubble and crumble. The erosion would then spread.

I think there are two distinct ways to try and grow. You can build with a foundation of sand or of stone. A foundation of sand is created when we try and “endure to the end”, suppressing consequences that come from living something that is not us. Perhaps it is trying not to watch R rated movies when we still feel like there is a lot to be gained from them. Perhaps it is trying not to play sports on Sunday when that is the only day we can manage to be active. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these struggles. I would probably say trying to live these ideals is impressive. However, I think what we get from these struggles may not be what we expect.

Many people expect that being able to discover high ideals and then enduring through the struggles that ensue as we try to live up to them is the way we progress in the gospel. I have my doubts about the universality of this idea. To me it is the same as the outer layer of stucco on those Portuguese buildings. If you can keep it together you will be fine. Indeed, you can get a pretty big building covered that way. However, a person walking by with a tiny stick can poke a hole that will erode the entire foundation. “Enduring to the end” shouldn’t be about putting up with the misery of living something that is not you. It shouldn’t be about repression. It should be about sustainability. Not just sustainability for two or three years when “God will take away our trials”. It isn’t about sustainability throughout this life. It is about being able to sustain something eternally. To me, this only happens through the process of becoming or embodiment. In essence it is a long slow process where we actually change who we are and what we want so that there never is an “enduring to the end” in the puritanical sense.

I have seen lots of people in my life with lots of energy go out and reach big goals very quickly. I have also seen lots of them burnout or crumble. Beliefs and doctrines are not another pail of solidifying stucco to apply over an insecure foundation. They are not righteousness. Getting a list of them won’t make you perfect. Getting a list of them and having the fortitude to act them out won’t make you perfect. To me, all it can do is teach the commandments of men but deny the power thereof (JSH 19).

Friday, April 23, 2004

Tribal religion notes

One interesting thing to consider when reading the Book of Mormon is the way in which religion was or was not integrated into their culture. From some reading I have been doing, it seems like religion that is fully integrated into the culture is basically invisible. It is hard to say what things are cultural and what are religious. Distinctions don’t make sense. I think our society is anything but this. The other end of the spectrum is termed by some to be governmental religion. In this case religion is viewed as distinct from the culture. It may intermingle in many ways, but it is highly visible. Our society would view religion in this way. One of the things it can be seen as doing is teaching an ideal set of morals or behaviour. Now what was the Nephite religion like? It is hard not to interpret their religion in terms of our cultural and govermental religous views. Of course, I think many people would say that trying to interpret tribal religion is fundamentally impossible unless you have grown up in that culture.

Here are some notes I made on the topic

Encyclopedia of American Indians
- rituals done by whole group
- can’t separate religion from culture
- no external moral educational institutions
- community based
- little frequent contact with external groups
- group survival
- reciprocity
- items have no meaning outside the community. This is because the goal of religious activity is to have an event that benefits the community. It is not trying to meet an external standard.
Based on commonly shared and commonly understood experiences

Tribal religions are best understood on what they are not. No
- universal salvation
- do not need to dialogue with outside groups
- no unique insight into gods
- not universal
- conversion is discouraged
- unless you are born into it, you can’t ever be expected to fully grasp it
No distinction between natural and supernatural

Georgia South University

- Christian religions are based on an ideal of government, tribal religions are based more on an ideal of person
- Tribal religions tend to be more gender equal, not necessarily in our modern view of role equality, but rather in the voice each gender has in the religion

Tribal religion in the Book of Mormon

Along similar lines I think looking at the distinctions between government based religions and culture based religions is quite interesting. Which one were the Nephites? If we assume that the religion of the Nephites permeated every aspect of their life and culture, it would tend to have characteristics of a tribal religion. If the religion was distinct from the culture, it would tend to follow the lines of a government based religion. Now I think it is obvious that over time, the Nephites varied in the degree to which their religion was infused in their society and culture. However, the question raised by the scientist at Metaphysical Elders some time ago “I also wonder about the use of the word "church" in Nephi's vision” maybe needs to be analyzed in these terms. Thus the question becomes, was the Jewish religion of Lehi’s time more a tribal based or government based religion?

From what I can gather, tribal religions, like those represented by many Native American cultures tend to have a few common characteristics.
1. Religious acts are meant to assist the group, not the individual. There is little if any concept of individual salvation.
2. The idea of living up to abstract rules, values or standards is foreign. Things are always relative to the societal environment.
3. There is no distinction between religion and culture. They are inseparably intertwined. Hence religious distinctions are artificial.
4. The religion has no meaning outside of the group. Ideas, values and concepts are not functionally transferable to other cultures. There is no pretense to a universal application.
5. There is no proselytizing. There is a very strong sense of “us and them”. You either are or aren’t a member. There is no grey in between.
6. The only way to fully understand the religion / culture is to be born into it. Converts, if they exist, can never truly become part of the tribe.

Now to be honest, I have no idea how the Jewish people at Lehi’s time would fit in with these characteristics. In some ways they appear to fit very well. In other areas, less so. However if we assume that Nephi most likely had *some* tribal bias in his view of religion / culture, it certainly would have affected how his visions were presented to him. It would also have affected and how he understood them. A specific example of this is the fight between the church of God and the church of the devil.

To Nephi, the word church, or the original equivalent could be either of two things – a physical building or location where religious rituals were preformed, or the community / tribe of people united by their culture and religion. Like the scientist, I find it hard to imagine someone of this era being able to comprehend the strong divisions we currently have between culture and religion. Thus I don’t think the Church of the devil can be interpreted based upon what doctrines it holds or promotes. Realistically, it would also not be another group or culture either. The key to this is who is doing the interpreting.

As mentioned, tribal religions have a very distinct view of “us and them”. Outside of small details used for trade, I believe, anyone who is not of the tribe is lumped into the a single stereotype. The determining factor is that these other people can never hope to understand the religion / culture of the tribe. If Nephi lumps all the people into two groups, it is pretty likely that his view of religion was definitely on the tribal side of things. Note I don’t think it makes much difference if you try and get around this point by saying that is was an angel leading the vision. I think things always get presented in a way that the interpreter can understand. What is important is that if Nephi came from Jerusalem with a tribal biased religion, this would have gotten carried over to the new world. This is fairly likely since Lehi’s family was isolated throughout their journey.

When Nephi gets to the promised land there is a chance that interactions with locals will force them out of the isolation of tribal religion. I think the classification of people into Nephites or Laminites is a strike against this idea. I also think there are a number other weaker arguments against this that I will have to go into later. Off the top of my head I think the initial motivations for preaching to the Laminites appear a bit more tribalistic than universalistic (govermental style religion)

Tribal Religion Changes

When we read the Book of Mormon, it is usually very hard to get a sense of large scale changes that may have occurred in religious structures. As I am going through the Book of Mormon again, I am becoming more aware of the places where large scale changes could take place. To see where these places may be, it is probably useful to break the Book of Mormon into a number of different religious periods.
1. Jewish with a strong Christ focus – 1 Nephi to Enos
a. Jacob may be seen as representing a definite change to religion as Nephi understood it (of course it may also be seen as a continuation of the same style of religion that Nephi learned in Jerusalem). To see this, look at Jacob 2 and how it might be indicative of a cultural amalgamation with the local inhabitants. Jacob 5 can also be seen as an attempt to try and remove some of the “stumbling blocks” inherit in a traditional Jewish interpretation of religion (see Jacob 4:14) – one that delighted in “things that they could not understand”. Basically it could be seen as using a complicated prophesy to stress the importance of plain prophecies. The arrival of Sherem the anti-christ in Jacob 7 may also be indicative of a fundamental change in religious outlook that created a substantial counter movement. Also Jacob 7:1, 4 may be interpreted to show that Sherem may have not have originated from the center of Nephite control. In other words, he presumably came from some of the societal outskirts that may have spoken a different language or dialect.
2. Exportation of a religious theocracy to the Zarahelmites – Words of Mormon to Mosiah 8
a. After Mosiah had led a group of Nephites out of the land of Nephi, they assimilated the people of Zarahemla. This can be seen as eventually causing some contention between the two groups of people. This would help explain the strong unifying focus in King Benjamin’s speech. His speech can be seen, not just as an attempt to unify the people to the Laminite threats (omni 1:24), but perhaps also as an attempt to unify the two new elements of Nephit culture, the Nephites and the Zalahemlites.
3. Liberalization period from Zeniff to Alma – Mosiah 9 to Mosiah
a. In particular, Zeniff’s concern for the Laminites in Nephi, and his attempts to bargain his way back into possession of the area belie a libertarian tendency. Noah’s reforms, though condemned can also be viewed as the beginnings of a more socialist or bureaucratic regime. Alma’s rejection of the kingship can be seen as evidence of this change. This despite the complete rejection of Noah’s teachings. Apparently some liberal leanings were carried over by Alma.
4. Creation of a “governmental” style religion (one that has a set government structure like most non-tribal religions) Mosiah 25 to Alma 48
a. Mosiah 25:19 indicates that Alma senior established churches throughout the land. Presumably this was due to the large number of non-nephites (Mosiah 25:12,13)
b. The existence of a non-tribal based religion that was separate fro everyday life seems to fit with many of the conflicts that occurred during this time. In particular, the rebellion of Alma’s sons, missionary work to the Laminites, rise in lawyers and beurocratic trimmings, in-fighting for power, etc.
5. Captain Moroni institutes a protestant like reform - Alma 48 on
a. To see the start of this possible reform, look at Alma 48: 10. The parallels aren’t very good. The book of Mormon focuses on the military struggle, not the religious differences. The winners, Moroni’s side did not remain part of the same society as the losers who became Laminites (Hel 4:2). Because of the segregation of Book of Mormon society, it is hard to say what changes Moroni’s conservative movement would have created. Where the parallels seem to work is in the perpetual war between the two religious groups.
6. Christ’s coming leads to a law of communion – 3rd Nephi to 4th Nephi 1:24
a. Everyone appears to be of one mind. Religion may have been inseparable from everyday life. Hence the divisions that eventually occur seem not to be as much doctrinally initiated as cultural. They began to live their communal religion on a class basis.
7. Religion used as a societal separator - 4th Nephi 29 on
a. Numerous new religions develop, each according to what groups of the population desired. Religion has gone from being an invisible part of the society to, presumably, an overt part where practitioners of each sect were clearly identified (4th Nephi 1:36-38)

Since I am now reading Mosiah, I think I will limit my comments to the time period surround King Noah. This is mainly due to the fact that I find the whole cultural changes around the return to the Land of Nephi rather interesting. For instance, there has obviously been a huge change going on in the society, and yet one can easily gloss over this without feeling the least bit guilty. To some, a prophetic connection with diety may be thought of as fixing religious thought to such an extent that it subtends a history of 400 year history of cultural invasion. In more polite language, the whole time period is a speculator’s gold rush.

When looking at changes from tribal religions to governmental ones the best starting question can be asked any 4 year old, why? Why would a culture that has an invisible, or seamless religion move to create a separate and distinct one? Why is there is new need to codify behaviour and convention? Why is there a new need to separate the everyday from the expected ideal? Perhaps the best way to answer these types of questions is to assume that people will usually choose the most effective practices for their knowledge, skills, and attributes. In a rather marxist way, one can assume that cultural evolution will change enough memes so that old ways are seen as blatantly impractical, and current tendencies as the way things always should have been.

As Jacob 7 comes to a close, we see a radical thing for Nephite religion, an anti-christ. Before this, Jacob’s preaching has a definite fire and brimstone feel to it (Jacob 6:6,10,11, etc). From what little I can gather about tribal religions, this is rather unusual. Now this can either be because Nephi and his brother never did get religion perfectly integrated into their society, or because 30 to 90 years after their arrival in the promised land, things had changed.

Assuming that Nephi and his group never integrated with locals is a bit of a hard assumption to swallow. It might be fine for a generation or two, but as time passes, it gets progressively more difficult to accept. Personally, I tend to think of Nephi’s immediate family as eventually forming a large priest class fairly distinct from the culture in which they inhabit. It is the relation of those in and out of this priest class where tribal and governmental religions come into play.

Sherem’s story gives us some interesting tidbits. Here we have a man coming into the heart of Nephi control from the outside. Apparently this wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant much special language (Jacob 7:1). Instead what we find highlighted is his knowledge of the language. His flattery also presumably highlights his knowledge of the customs and social clues of the society (although this latter point can certainly be interpreted other ways). This seems to get presented as a rather unusual occurrence. Now this could be interpreted due to his remarkable proficiency. It can also be interpreted as being unusual due to the fact that an outside could know so much about a tribal religion. Now I don’t believe the people at the time would have used my explanation. Instead they probably would have been surprised that someone from outside of the community could have such a strong grasp of the nuances of a seamless religion and culture.

Now why would this have happened? One view is that it signals a change from the cultural isolation of tribal religion to a more inclusive culture and universal style religion. In other words, Nephite culture was expanding. The assumptions of tribal religion were no longer unquestionably applicable as a result of this expansion. Hence people like Sherem found themselves able to question the hitherto invisibles of the religion. Today we assume that there will always be some whacko’s that disagree with whatever is said. In a tribal religion/society I think this is very unusual, or even impossible. I also find it interesting that a lot of Sherem’s motivations seemed to center around the idea that the people were tied down by their beliefs. In other words, he recognized a distinction between the culture and the religion. He was moving for a governmental religion that could accommodate the different needs, wants and beliefs that he saw being ignored. Now of course he was obviously led astray in his desires. Perhaps this was because as he rejected the culture assumptions he also rejected the relgious assumptions as well. To me, this seems very similar to what happens today with a lot of ex-mormons. As they get frustrated with the cultural aspects of the religion, they tend to also reject a lot of the religious aspects as well.