Saturday, February 08, 2003

TWO DIRECTIONS OF PURITANISM: I have been doing research for my paper on the case of Reynolds v. United States. In it the Court held that religious freedom means the freedom to entertain any belief, but not to engage in action based on that belief. Thus, George Reynolds's claim to practice polygamy because of religious belief was not entitled to protection. In my research I have uncovered an interesting origin for this belief-action distinction.

The Court's opinion was written by Chief Justice Waite who was next door neighbors in Washington, D.C. to the historian George Bancroft. Waite focused particularlly on the history of the free exercise clause, using historical material from Massachusetts and Virginia to craft his argument. The material was all provided by Bancroft who was working on a history of the constitution at the time. (Interestly, the modern historical concensus is that Bancroft and Waite got the history wrong.)

What is more interesting to me, however, are Bancroft's substantive views of religious freedom, which found their way into the opinion. In particular Bancroft equated religious freedom with the liberty of conscience and the unrestrained ability to believe as one will. This belief, however, seems less tied to Bancroft's historical research than to his own religious convictions. Bancroft was a Massachusetts transcendentalist Unitarian. In other words, he was a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What is interesting to me is that in a sense both Trancendentalism and Mormonism can be thought of as differing responses to the failure of orthodox New England Calvinism. Both grew out of the Second Great Awakening, and both drew their initial followers mainly from New Englanders alienated from Puritanism. Emerson's response was to exalt the sovereignty of individual conscience. Joseph Smtih's response was to rebuild the Puritan ideal of a City on Hill, but reinterpretted through a radical rejection of Calvinism. Emerson exalted an ethereal, almost solipcistic spirituality, while Joseph offered a communal theology that offered immediate, literal connection with God.

Thus there is a sense in which Joseph Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson squared off against each other in the Supreme Court's chambers in 1878-1879. Emerson's vision won, and the results of the victory, I think, illustrate the limitations of the vision. Religious liberty in any practical or real sense was vitiated. Emerson's essentially metaphysical proposition -- the soul, contra the Puritan divines, is free -- was wraped in the language of mid-nineteenth century moralism and then read into constitutional law. The problem is that the metaphysics and the moralism offer virtually no traction against concrete legal persecution. I suspect that Joseph would have given us better law...

Friday, February 07, 2003

I just wanted to thank the Scientist for helping one of my dreams come true. Singing "Sons of Michael He Approaches" last Sunday was the highlight of my entire week.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

I'm back on blogger! Oh, the exhilaration! It's been far too long . . .

Did anybody read the Cummings article? Did you find it useful at all? It's not a great piece of scholarship by any stretch of the imagination, and it is blighted in some measure by some pretty predictable "liberal" rancor, but I thought it had some real heuristic value for the distinctions it makes between different kinds of literalism and the identification of Joseph Smith's very oddball "creative literalism" as distinctively Mormon. I am very interested in how, when, where, and why Mormonism literalizes certain discourses. This may be the key to a Mormon hermeneutic. For instance, on the point we would most expect Joseph Smith, conditioned as he was by a backwoods biblicist culture, to be a strict constructionist literalist, namely, on the sanctity of the biblical Word, he is the most flamboyant of loose constructionist canon-cannon-ballers. And, then, where we would most expect him to be more metaphorical or symbolical in approach--as in his appropriations of gnostic/hermetic concepts of divinization and the marriage of opposites--he is almost scientistically literalistic, envisioning rooms full of tobacco-chewing, grammatically-challenged, financially-ruined frontiersman as Gods with swooshing robes (think the temple video), bodies of flesh and bone, and planetary litters of children.

In fact, I think a lot of the misapprehensions of Mormonism as a warmed-over hermeticism (Brooke, Owens, et. al) arise from their failure to grasp the ingenious way in which Joseph and others transformed a largely mystical/metaphorical discourse of (neo)platonic transcendence into a semi-scientific, celestial-sociological discourse of pragmatic personalism (see the creation account in Moses for instance). Likewise, I think a lot of Mormons' default conservatism arises from their failure to recognize Joseph's literalism as "creative" rather than "doctrinal," as multiplying rather than foreclosing possibilities, as in my favorite example of the beasts of Revelation. In this astonishing instance, literalism operates in the diametrically opposed manner that it typically does--instead of shutting down interpretation it actually fuels it. By literalizing the beasts, Joseph actually dynamizes, pluralizes, and expands the universe. Tellingly, Joseph's literalism operates within the context of a critique of "learned interpretations" of scripture that "spiritualize" the prophecies. But Joseph faults such spiritualizing not because it leads to an unstable subjectivism, which is what most fundamentalists tend to conclude, but rather, in his sarcastic words, because such interpretations are "flat as a pancake," far too provincial, puny, and myopic for a thoroughly 3-D, full-bodied, densely-packed poundcake of a universe.

In other words, Mormon literalism--at least in this instance--contrary to most received wisdom about literalism, actually exerts a relativizing function: it converts the spectacular beasts from stable symbols in a predictable eschatology into flesh-and-blood agents in a wild cosmology,increasing rather than decreasing the contingency index. What do we make of such genius?