04 March 2008

Heidegger and Mormonism: A Possible Literary Aesthetic

Another cross post from Mormon Renaissance--please leave comments over there.

In my last post, I discussed the idea of Mormon literature as an aesthetic–an idea of how writing should be, rather than a specific genre. I briefly mentioned one possibility for a Mormon aesthetic, the idea of respect towards all human beings and the belief in the power of human choice. Many commenters rightly suggested that this idea is not unique to Mormonism–it is a general Christian, or even humanist, ideal.

So I’d like to present another possible “Mormon” mode of writing, this one derived from the philosophies of Heidegger. The major realization of Heidegger’s philosophy is that one can gain only so much from creating a system of knowledge. He believes that conceptual knowledge is reductive of reality, imposing limitations where none exist. The key to overcoming the barrier of human thought is not more human thought but human experience, for in situations that our intellect cannot make sense of, our experience has no trouble participating. As a result of this emphasis on experience, Heidegger thought that writing ought not to seek systematic views but out to be participated in as an experience–a poem should not represent a world view, but be experienced as a world of its own. This idea about writing seems to fit well with Mormon conceptions of what the written word can do and what it is.

I have often wondered over the fact that there is no explicit written Mormon theology. Sure, we have our scriptures and the Articles of Faith, which serve as at least a foundation, but when you think about it, they define only a very basic outline of our faith. It’s extremely easy to find points that can be and have been interpreted in multiple ways. And outside of scripture, any theological Mormon writings are a very delicate balance. Do we have room in our society for someone like CS Lewis, whose theological writings are mostly logic based rather than scripture or modern prophets? I don’t think so: I have yet to read any good logic-based theology from any LDS author. Yes, we have scholars like Hugh Nibley, but even those types are viewed warily from inside the establishment, and from outside of the establishment, it’s clear that they don’t derive LDS theology but use it as their assumption and continue from there. There seems to be a general perception that theological writings could get too scholarly and therefore detract from testimony and revelation.

From within Church correlated literature, the same is true: the ideas stay at a superficial level, never diving into the deep and controversial questions. I often feel a frustration over the fact that the Church doesn’t issue statements solving some of these basic controversial issues (particularly, of course, the ones on which I am right and other people are wrong, if they could only just understand properly). For this reason—not having a highly codified collection of doctrines like the Summa Theologica—Mormonism has often been called an orthopraxic religion, one that cares more about practice than an orthodoxic religion which emphasizes belief. This designation often feels like an accusation, and as a Mormon, I tend to be resistive to anyone who calls my religion a system of practices rather than a mode of belief. From this point of view, it would seem that writing in Mormonism is a futile exercise. The only texts that could be produced are essentially dogmatic propaganda or instructional books on practices.

But perhaps Mormonism is not really really all about practices but about their results. Like Heidegger, Joseph Smith believed there were some things that could not be understood only with words. When he commanded his followers to know the nature of God, he did not mean that we should be able to define Him in vague theological terms: to know the nature of God is not a command to study or think about him. In Mormonism, it is a command to reach out a meet him, face to face (a term that Levinas surely would have approved of). We believe that a knowledge of truth comes mostly through experience. The Book of Mormon is full of instances in which God told things to men which could not be written with language, not just that they were forbidden to write these things, but that they were unable to do so, perhaps because of the nature of language. Written things are seen as a limiting force in our religion.

Even our demand for correct practices, like daily scripture study, are really commands to find out truth through experience. In our reading of the scriptures, it’s not necessarily the words of the scriptures that we need. Rather, we seem believe that our presence in reading those books can open us up to receive other signs in our mind. It’s as though writing is not meant to convey knowledge, but to trip a switch, to create another experience all its own. We believe in revelation acting through the written word, not just through what it says, but through the very act of reading.

Perhaps this idea of literature as an experience could be a way around the much complained of didacticism of Mormon writing about spiritual matters. Instead of trying to explain our doctrines or show how those who make the right choices come to the right ends (one of the main faults of the Home Literature movement), our literature could focus on the reality of spiritual experience, trying to create literature that generates genuine spiritual experience. Of course, there are obvious problems with this: first, the highest Mormon spiritual experience, the temple, is mostly off limits in terms of writing. I have always seen this as a huge problem with taking Mormon literature seriously as a minority literature–we can’t immerse our outsider readers in the culture because it is forbidden to do so. Second, how does one go about creating a spiritual experience for the reader without presuming to be God and creating false revelations? And how do we keep this from becoming an aesthetic of manipulation? (Especially in film–cue the emotional music and fuzzy close-up.)

However, I think it still can be legitimately done. Actually, I think many Mormon artists are already out there trying to do just that–just think of the history of Church cinema. Some may think it a little manipulative, but at other times, it’s completely genuine in the world it immerses you in. The Mormon arts seem distinctively different than most post-modern literature in this way–we always genuinely have faith in the ability of arts to be an immersive experience, rather than a distant and cold examination of the world. Much of Mormon art has less regard for the nature of the medium and more focus on the subject matter.

What Mormon art has touched you in an experiential way? How can we develop this aesthetic into something legitimate rather than allowing it to devolve into a culture of propaganda and manipulation?

1 comment:

Michaela Stephens said...

"Instead of trying to explain our doctrines or show how those who make the right choices come to the right ends (one of the main faults of the Home Literature movement), our literature could focus on the reality of spiritual experience, trying to create literature that generates genuine spiritual experience."

I think you are absolutely right. However, I think after these sentences you make difficulties where none exist. Literature that includes a spiritual experience is best done when the writer has experienced what they are writing about, because then it is genuine.

I don't quite understand what you mean by theology. Yours is the second blog I've seen that complains about the lack of written Mormon theology. I don't understand quite what is being sought.

I like to do a lot of writing about the scriptures and I have found that generally every time I do so, I discover something new in an epiphany-type experience. Whenever I write about what I've discovered, I try to take my reader through the same reasoning that brought me to discovery and realization, so that they can experience the "Ah-HAH!" for themselves. And grow from it. (I like to call it "Discovery Literature".)

I have really liked reading your blog.