Friday, April 23, 2004

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)