Nested (addendum) — Toward a Secular Mormonism

I was raised Mormon, but over the past few years my relationship with Mormonism has changed substantially; if there's a term for it, maybe I'm something like a "secular Mormon." At the least, Mormonism is literature to me: I have no contempt for it, perhaps I even love it, but I don't need it to be "literally true" any more than I need Hermann Hesse's Demian or Shusaku Endo's Silence to be "literally true." To me, Joseph Smith, though not necessarily a good writer, was a powerful storyteller at the very least. And though I have a number of disagreements with how the various institutionalized forms of Mormonism run (including the LDS Church), I count myself fortunate to have been raised in that tradition. Mormon cosmology especially has stuck with me.

As an admittedly eccentric hymn puts it, "Do you think that you could ever, // Through all eternity, // Find out the generation // Where Gods began to be? // Or see the grand beginning, // Where space did not extend? // Or view the last creation, // Where Gods and matter end? // ... Methinks the Spirit whispers, // 'No man has found "pure space," ' // Nor seen the outside curtains, // Where nothing has a place.” Existence abounds, eternal polyphony, unending drama, kaleidoscope of repeating patterns that would make even Nietzsche's Zarathustra blush.

In all that, this very moment may have happened before, infinite times over; perhaps it will happen again, ad infinitum. Brigham Young envisioned a cosmos populated by divine Adams and Eves, each peopling a planet of their own, repeating the same human patterns again and again. Taken "literally," this is sci-fi pulp; on a literary level, it's the patterns and rhythms of Existence with a deliberately-capital E. But Mormonism isn't just endless repetition; Joseph Smith insisted that we come into the world to "expand," exaltation upon exaltation, world without end. The same hymn, further: "The works of God continue, // And worlds and lives abound; // Improvement and progression // Have one eternal round." Like the daemon tattling to Nietzsche's Zarathustra the great secret of Nature, Mormonism fundamentally changes my experience.

A thought experiment, no metaphysics necessary: say an angel, whom you knew could not lie, whispered to you now that this very moment, where you are, doing what you're doing, wherever you are, whomever you may be, had happened before, infinitely many times, and that it could happen infinitely many more times. Like recognizing a neurotic behavioral pattern, suddenly what was unconscious becomes conscious; compulsive repetition melts under the intensity of your presence, becoming malleable.

Like two mirrors pointing at each other, this moment echoes throughout the deep past and future ceaselessly---a perfect, uniform rhythm. But now that you know, you're a little above the rhythms, head above water. If this moment is to repeat forevermore, how should it play out? If you knew what happened next would recur again and again forevermore, what would you do different?

To borrow from philosopher Eric Steinhart, at the base of reality lie two symbols: the circle and the arrow. The circle is the repeated patterns of existence, that this elementary world ever repeats itself again and again; and the arrow is the evolution of nature into ever greater complexity, either ascending to greater or descending to lesser glories. This is the space of moral agency, where your decisions this moment reverberate through eternity in a way both more and less real than literal.

So maybe I'm more of a Nietzschian Mormon: God is dead, we've killed God through moral failures and mediocrity, and we're at a loss for it. But the appropriate response seems not simply to replace this dead God with another idol, to look for the living among the dead. If God is dead, that death is an exile, not a Grecian Hades or Hebrew Sheol of no return. If God is in exile, we should rescue God; if God is dead, we should resurrect the dead God, realizing that this God may not look like the old one who disappeared into death and exile.

At the risk of eliminating what little credibility I might have, I'll paraphrase a line from one of my favorite stories: "This has all happened before, and it will all happen again," which becomes "This has all happened before, but it doesn't have to happen again."

For better or worse, Mormonism is in my blood and bones, and as I become more conscious of that, I find that it doesn't mean that I must play out the sins of previous generations or occlude their virtues; I can sift out the best of my heritage, and leave the remainder behind. I'm probably trapped in the "circle" of things, but the "arrow"—Zarathustra's daemon, Smith's tattling angel—makes it an ascending spiral rather than an ever-deepening rut.


Image: Sealing room of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Photo taken from the website of the Church, “Inside Temples”.