“God against Man. Man against God. Man against Nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature–very funny religion!” ~Dr. D. T. Suzuki. Is Mormonism as a restorationist church a “nature” religion or a “social” religion or something in between?
First, let’s clarify the terms:
Nature Religions are based on the premise that nature is benevolent (even human nature) and that mankind should strive to be in harmony with nature. These religions usually emerge when the religious community is tied to a geographic location (e.g. islanders or others who cultivate the land). Often these religions have a female deity because the whole world is the body of the goddess.
Social Religions are based on the idea that nature is evil and must be controlled. The means to control nature is through “magic” (we would say Priesthood in our religious tradition). These religions usually emerge when a religious community is nomadic (e.g. wandering in the desert for 40 years, trekking across the plains). In these religions, God is separate from nature, and nature is condemned by God. Often these are religions with a male deity because the female represents life and nature – the source of all life – while the male is elsewhere.
What happens when a Social Religion meets a Nature Religion? Usually, the social religion tries to control the “pagans.”
Joseph Campbell described: A local jungle native said to a missionary: “Your god keeps himself shut up in a house as if he were old and infirm. Ours is in the forest and in the fields and on the mountains when the rain comes.”
“In the Bible we are told that we are the masters. For hunting people the animal is in many ways the superior.” ~Joseph Campbell
“In classic Christian doctrine the material world is to be despised, and life is to be redeemed in the hereafter, in heaven, where our rewards come.” ~Bill Moyer
“The ancient myths were designed to harmonize the mind and the body. The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want. The myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.” ~Joseph Campbell
During OT times, there were many nature cults in which you would go to a grove to commune with diety. These groups were condemned by the Hebrews who had a temple-bound (or mountain-bound at times) god, and both groups were constantly at war.
Clearly, as a Christian religion, Mormonism has facets of a Social Religion (anti-nature):
The pioneer trek & Zion’s camp were examples of attempts to recreate the nomadic culture of the ancient Hebrews. These types of cultures require subjugation of nature to ensure one’s very survival.
Priesthood is sometimes described as the power to control nature, even to command the mountains to move.
Male deity is generally associated with anti-nature, social religions. However, the caveat to this is below.
Sin, the idea that man’s nature is fallen. Again, this is a Christian concept, so not unique to Mormonism.
So, what are some evidences that Mormonism (as a restorationist movement) has components of nature religion:
Female deity. Although there is little to no discussion any more of our Heavenly Mother, the fact that we acknowledged God to have an equal female partner is an interesting restored concept and adds balance to the male-dominated deity.
Theosis. The idea that we are Gods in embryo capable of becoming Gods. Certainly this ennobles our human nature.
Corporeal resurrection. Although some religions have this in common, Mormonism is somewhat unique in defining the resurrected body as part of the soul (not just the spirit). This contradicts the idea that our bodies are inherently sinful and weak.
Second estate. This is the idea that gaining a body is superior to a purely spiritual existence (like Satan & co). Again, many religions elevate the spiritual over the physical. We do the reverse.
Eve’s choice. Unlike many other Christian religions, our interpretation of the fall is that Eve made the better choice; she chose life and progeny (nature) over obeying the rules. And if she had not, we wouldn’t be here. However, the caveat to this is the notion that she was punished. The question is whether her punishment was a punishment or a natural condition.
There are some other key links between Mormonism and nature religions. Some of these links are very Mormon, others are common to Christianity:
- Sacred groves. Sacred groves were most prominent in the Ancient Near East and prehistoric Europe, but feature in various cultures throughout the world. They were important features of the mythological landscape and cult practice of Celtic, Germanic, ancient Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, and Slavic polytheism, and were also used in India, Japan, and West Africa. Examples of sacred groves include the Greco-Roman temenos, the Norse hörgr, and the Celtic nemeton, which was largely but not exclusively associated with Druidic practice. During the time of Christianisation of Estonia by German invaders starting in 12th century there was a common practice of building churches on the sites of sacred groves. Mormon mythical connection: Duh, when JS didn’t find God in the local churches (man-made buildings), he found Him in a grove of trees near his home. Chalk one up for nature!
- The “Mountain” of the Lord. Almost all religions have some sacred mountains – either holy themselves (like Mount Olympus in Greek mythology) or related to famous events (like Mount Sinai in Judaism and descendant religions). In some cases the sacred mountain is purely mythical, like the Peak of Hara in Zoroastrianism. Volcanos were also considered as sacred mountains, such as Mount Etna in Italy, which was believed to be the home of Vulcan the Roman god of fire. Mormon mythical connection: The temple is referred to as the “mountain of the Lord”; when the Hebrews couldn’t build a man-made temple, they built tabernacles. When they couldn’t build tabernacles, they went into a high mountain to commune with God. The trek to the Rocky Mountains makes this one stand out. Their man-made temple was destroyed in Nauvoo, so where did they head? Once again, to the mountains. Nature wins again! (Of course, then they built another man-made temple, but it sure took a long time).
- The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning. Worship or deification of fire (also pyrodulia, pyrolatry or pyrolatria) is known from various religions. As fire has also destructive capabilities, the worshipping of fire is necessarily ambiguous. This is indicated in proverbs such as “Fire is a good servant but a bad master”. Mormon mythical connection: While there are some fire / God connections we share with other faiths (burning bush, Israelites following God who was a pillar of fire) in Mormonism, God is described as dwelling in everlasting burnings. D&C 110: 3 says: “His aeyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his bcountenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his cvoice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of dJehovah.” Sounds like a God of fire to me. Another one for nature!
- And the star nearest to God is called Kolob. Astrolatry refers to the worship of stars and other heavenly bodies as deities, or the association of deities with heavenly bodies. The most common instances of this are sun gods and moon gods in polytheistic systems worldwide. Also notable is the association of the planets with deities in Babylonian, and hence in Greco-Roman religion, viz. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The term astro-theology is used in the context of 18th to 19th century scholarship aiming at the discovery of the original religion, particularly primitive monotheism. In contradistinction to astrolatry, which unambiguously implies a polytheism frowned upon as idolatrous by Christian authors since Eusebius, astrotheology is any “religious system founded upon the observation of the heavens. Mormon mythical connection: Well, this certainly sounds like the Book of Abraham to me!
So, what do you think? Is Mormonism a nature religion or a social religion or something in between? Has it changed over time? Discuss.