My wife recently told me that she feels like there are two classes of people in the church: one class for whom the program works (couples happily married with children), and another class for whom the program has not worked (singles, gays, infertile couples, divorcees). Members in the first class dominate leadership positions and it from them that we hear the gospel preached. These leaders are sensitive to the fact that many have not been blessed with family and children and they take great pains to remind us that “no blessing will be withheld from us” in the next life if we are faithful. Unfortunately this phrase is cold comfort to many struggling to find their place in a family-idolising church. Human nature craves validation and fulfilment now, not after death. My bishop wonders why my infertile wife hangs out with older singles and divorcees rather than with the many other married women her age in the ward. In response, my wife says that she can’t really feel a connection with those for whom the program works. Their world views are simply too different. But she feels a natural kinship with older singles, gays, and divorcees. Indeed, in all the wards I’ve been in, trying to integrate these two groups of people has been a central concern for church leadership.
LDS Epicureanism and Asceticism
There is a vast philosophical chasm separating these two classes of church members, a chasm which has its roots in the ancient world. The Greeks introduced two starkly contrasting philosophies: Epicureanism and Asceticism. Epicureanism celebrates life and Asceticism emphasises self-denial. Traditionally Christians have adopted Asceticism, mourning the Fall of Adam as a great tragedy, and “building treasures in heaven” rather than on earth. But Mormons are unique among all Christians in their epicurean celebration of life. For us, the Fall of Adam was a wonderful thing. The LDS conception of the afterlife is simply a continuation of all the things we love about THIS life: our bodies, our sexuality, and our families. Joseph Smith wrote: “The same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” Traditional Christians look forward to heaven because it will be different than earth. Mormons celebrate heaven because it will be similar to earth.
I recently read an excellent primer on the German philosopher Friedrich Nieztsche at Art of Manliness and was struck by some of the similarities between his philosophy and LDS culture. Nieztsche would have admired LDS Epicureanism. In his most famous thought experiment, Nieztsche invites readers to imagine an afterlife which consists of a non-stop repeat of their own mortal life for all eternity. One who can rejoice at such an Eternal Return is someone who has found happiness and meaning in life. LDS ideals of eternal family are very much in this spirit. Those of us who have ideal families learn to adopt Nieztsche’s paradigm of Eternal Return, looking forward to enjoying our own families for all of eternity. But Nieztsche didn’t reserve this philosophy only for those who had ideal lives surrounded by loving families. For Nieztsche, anyone could find eternal worth in life, even in circumstances which were less than ideal. Indeed it would be a terrible crime to withhold the spiritual rewards of Eternal Return from those without ideal families.
Mormons in Group 2 (those for whom the program doesn’t work as well) cannot share the epicurean philosophy of Eternal Return that enlivens the hearts of Mormons in Group 1. Instead, LDS leadership asks them to adopt an ascetic philosophy: obedience and sacrifice, awaiting a reward in some distant realm. Herein lies the great chasm: one of Mormonism’s most attractive traits, its Epicurean celebration of life, and its extension of that life into eternity, is withheld from Mormons in Group 2. They cannot live for the present. They must live for the future.
Maybe living for the future isn’t so bad. Many single women imagine that they will one day meet the man of their dreams in the heavens and be able to raise a family. Even though they can’t project their own lives onto eternity, at least they can project their own desires into eternity, imagining a heaven overflowing with everything that was denied in this life. But LDS gays can’t even look forward to a fulfilment of their desires. Their afterlife vision is twice removed from their own reality: not only does it not resemble this life, but it doesn’t even resemble their desires. For a gay man to be married to a woman for all eternity is hell, not heaven. For a homosexual, the LDS path is as ascetic as it can possibly be. Not only is mortal life a sacrifice, but so is heaven!
Living for the Present AND the Future
There is nothing wrong with asking church members to make sacrifices. Sacrifice is central to our doctrine, the crowning virtue that built Zion during the 19th century and made the desert blossom as a rose. My ancestors lived lives of terrible poverty for several generations as homesteaders in Idaho, following the prophet into a cruel and barren land. But through their sacrifices they were able to build a beautiful world, a world that I enjoy in all its Epicurean splendour. We’ve all but forgotten just how ascetic life was for our ancestors, and how Asceticism became a meaningful philosophy for them, giving them a powerful sense of purpose.
Now that the desert has blossomed as a rose and many Mormons live happy lives within ideal families, our primary purpose no longer seems to be building a future Zion, but rather defending the family in the present. “Defend the present” has somewhat replaced “build for the future.” That’s fine for Group 1 Mormons and Nieztsche would wholeheartedly agree. We should celebrate and defend the blessings we’ve been given in life. The problem is that we don’t invite Group 2 Mormons to celebrate along with us. Rather, we tell them they should celebrate our ideal family lives, and await an afterlife when they will finally get to be like us. Sheri Dew’s famous talk Are We Not All Mothers? illustrates this philosophical paradox. Sheri Dew is the most powerful voice for singles in the church. Yet in her most famous sermon she upheld an ideal she herself cannot attain: being a mother. By being single and yet saying “we are all mothers” she became a powerful apologist for church rhetoric which demands Asceticism from Group 2, and celebrates Epicureanism in Group 1. She is the ascetic servant of the epicurean master.
This terrible inequality can be overcome once we recognise that all of us should embrace truths found in both Asceticism and Epicureanism. Zion has not been finished, no earthly families are truly ideal, and life is filled with unspeakable trials and terrors. Group 1 Mormons can join Group 2 Mormons in looking forward to a heaven that is not like earth, rather one that is be infinitely superior to earth. From a certain perspective, you might say that someone with an “ideal” family has a more “heavenly” life. But this is extremely subjective. The truest gauge for heaven is not the outward appearance or number of children you have. Rather, it is the state of the individual heart. Brigham Young once said, pointing to his heart, “My heaven is here. I carry it with me.”
Group 1 Mormons need not abandon their epicurean celebration of family life. But they can welcome Group 2 Mormons into their epicurean worldview. Life for singles has meaning now, not just in an abstract future. Life as a single can be just as rich and beautiful as life in a family. Indeed, life as a single servant, a “ministering angel” is what fired the hopes and dreams of all the righteous prophets in the Book of Mormon, some of whom, like the Apostle John, wanted to tarry indefinitely on the earth in their single, ministering angel state, a literal embracing of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.
An ideal fusion of Epicureanism and Asceticism is exemplified by the Apostle Paul, a single man who wished “that all were like unto me” so that they could more fully dedicate their lives to the work. Yet Paul’s life was not without pleasure in the present. He too found his way to epicurean joy when he wrote “I have learned in whatever state I am in, therewith to be content.” Like Nietzsche, Paul could say “Amor fati – love your fate, which is in fact your life.”
- Are you a Group 1 or a Group 2 Mormon and how does this effect your views on the afterlife? Do you see heaven as an Eternal Return of the blessings and joys you have been given in this life, or is heaven vastly different and infinitely superior to this life?
- Could the church do a better job of celebrating the eternal value of singles in the church at the same time they celebrate the ideal of the eternal family?
- Are you more of an epicurean or ascetic Mormon? Do you agree that the gospel must be a balance between the epicurean and the ascetic, and if so, how could the balance be improved?