Historians tell us that Western culture is a synthesis of three ancient cultural forces: Barbarianism, Hellenism (Greek and Roman learning), and Christianity. These forces are embedded in our cultural DNA and continue to have profound influences on every individual in the Western world. In American culture, its easy to see how nationalistic attitudes are relics of our ancient Barbarian loyalty to the tribe, while our veneration for freedom and democracy comes from Greek-influenced philosophy, and religious values from our Christian heritage.
The influence of these three cultures can also be seen in Mormonism. Mormonism is supposed to be “a fulness of the gospel” and we often imagine that this means a Restoration of the gospel as it was once preached in purity, free from the apostate and secular influences of the Greeks and Barbarians. But what if it actually means the opposite? What if “fulness” means that Mormonism includes all truths revealed to man, even those truths revealed to non-Christian cultures? Brigham Young said: “Some say there is divine law, some say there is human law…but let me say to you, that the religion of heaven incorporates every truth that there is in heaven, on earth, or in hell.”
In this post, I’ve detailed some of the influences that I believe Barbarian and Greek culture have had upon LDS doctrine. Recognising these influences can help us appreciate that men like Plato and Aristotle may have done as much for LDS culture as prophets like Peter or Paul. This recognition could help us avoid the unnecessary conflict that is sometimes dredged up between the secular and the sacred, instead appreciating that God has spoken to His people in a variety of ways, both religious AND secular.
Our Barbarian Nature: Family, Nation and Emotion
When I say “Barbarian nature,” I mean our instinctual tribal nature. We’ve been Barbarians for many thousands of years longer than we’ve been Christians and our Barbarian instincts are as strong now as they ever have been. For Barbarians, family is everything: tribes, clans, bloodlines. Our church’s modern emphasis on family does not come from scripture. Jesus had sought to transcend family by preaching things like “Who is my father and mother? They that keep my word.” But as the family comes under attack in the modern world, our Barbarian desire to protect, nurture, and champion our families has reawakened. When our prophets defend traditional family, they often cite secular arguments about the importance of pre-Christian models of monogamous family life that have been around for thousands of years.
Joseph Smith reintroduced tribal and patriarchal ideas from the Old Testament, ideas which resonanated with Mormon converts whose Barbarian instincts lusted after the honour of sacred bloodlines and the Abrahamic promises of land and posterity. The passionate love of land is particularly Barbarian (we’ll find a place which God for us prepared far away in the West) and this vision contrasts with Jesus and Paul’s wandering version of a Christianity characterised not by land, but by a scattered community of believers building treasures in heaven, not on earth.
Joseph Smith’s Mormonism was also influenced by indigenous folk spirituality which did not have its roots in solely in Christianity. Seer stones, buried treasure, voices crying from the dust: these things probably originally evolved from the pre-Christian spirituality of Joseph Smith’s Celtic ancestors mixed with various Christian traditions.
Our Hellenic Nature: Humanism, Education and Reason
Many of our most prized values in the LDS church have their roots in the European Renaissance. These include free agency, the importance of education, apologetics and rational faith. Both the D&C and the Book of Mormon have a number of revelations reflecting Joseph Smith’s patrician values: democracy, the Constitution, rights, intelligence, etc. The endowment’s masonic elements echo some of masonry’s Enlightenment-era influences, particularly the notion of all truth being part of one great whole.
Modern revelation has allowed Mormons to canonise these “Hellenic” D&C and Book of Mormon scriptures alongside the Bible, making our religion far more modern and flexible than those churches bound to the closed cannon. And although modern prophets rarely add new revelation to the cannon, they still quote secular truths in General Conference. Religious freedom is the current hot topic on the lips of modern prophets and it is important to remember that religious freedom is not religious in origin. Rather, it is a humanist value granted religions by post-Enlightenment governments. The New Testament did not advocate religious freedom. Christ and Paul took slavery for granted and urged saints not to fight for religious rights, instead seeking a “kingdom not of this world” and preparing themselves for possible martyrdom. For centuries religions never imagined that it would be OK to let people believe and practice whatever they wanted, and the world was awash in religious bloodshed. Our religion would never have been possible without the innovations of secular humanism.
Our Christian Nature: Love and Self-Sacrifice
By Christianity, I mean the gospel as taught by Jesus Himself: “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” “whoever takes your coat, give him your cloak.” This kind of Christianity is unworkable on a large-scale. Jesus let Himself be killed without a fight and encouraged His disciples to do likewise. Christianity could easily have been completely obliterated had not it been rescued by Constantine and the Catholic church, who ignored Jesus’ more impractical sayings and transformed Christianity into a tool for political control. Even Mormons have exceptions to some of Jesus’ more stringent commandments. Unlike Christ, Joseph Smith went to his martyrdom with guns blazing, teaching the saints that they still had a right to defend themselves and their families. And unlike Christ who said “my kingdom is not of this world,” and “in heaven there is no marriage or giving in marriage,” Mormons celebrate mortal life and believe its pleasures will continue into heavenly life as the title of Samuel Morris Brown’s book on Mormonism suggests: In Heaven as it is on Earth.
Yet Christianity provides the world with an ideal, an ideal which may be impossible to achieve on practical terms, but which is nevertheless important as an ultimate goal: forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and perfect love. It is in striving for this ideal within the paradoxical restraints of contrasting cultures that genuine goodness and progress is achieved. For example, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis buried their weapons of war but still allowed their children to fight for them.
The Limits of Christianity by Itself: The Prisoner’s Dilemma
I do not believe that Christianity by itself is the fulness of the gospel. Rather, Christianity works best in concert with truths from other cultural traditions. There is a famous experiment in game theory called Prisoners Dilemma which illustrates how Christian, Barbarian, and Hellenic values work better together than they do separately. In a prisoner’s dilemma, two criminals are caught by authorities, separated from each other, and then offered deals for ratting each other out. Game theorists apply the principles from this dilemma to all kinds of human interaction in the face of conflict and mistrust. A classic example is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, in which neither side trusts each other enough to take anything but the most hardline approach to diplomacy, leaving them mired in continual conflict.
The complicated details of a prisoners dilemma are not important to this post, but suffice it to say that game theorists have done extensive experimentation on the prisoner’s dilemma, creating various iterations of it in video games and having participants play the game over and over, seeking for the best strategies to find cooperative solutions. They found that no single strategy will work effectively, but that a combination of several different strategies can be very effective. For example, a “Christian” strategy: “always be nice and forgiving” is disastrous, allowing opponents to ruthlessly exploit the strategy. And a more “Barbarian” strategy of “an eye for an eye” is equally disastrous, resulting in never-ending conflict. But “Christian,” “Barbarian,” and “Humanist” strategies used together provide the best overall outcomes:
Nice (Christian) Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice and never “cheated” on opponents for self-interested reasons.
Retaliating (Barbarian) But successful strategies were not blindly optimistic. They must sometimes retaliate.
Forgiving (Christian) Successful strategies must also be forgiving. Though players will retaliate, they must once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximising points.
Egalitarian (Humanist) The last quality is to be egalitarian, that is not striving to score more than the opponent.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma provides scientific evidence that pure Christian values are unworkable in real-world situations over the long term. Yet Christian values are essential as part of a comprehensive approach which includes Barbarian and Humanist values. Barbarian civilisations by themselves have historically been mired in continual violence. Rome tried to civilise the Barbarians without success. Then Christianity tried to civilise the Barbarians which helped somewhat, but still resulted in crusades and witch burnings. With the revival of classicism during the Renaissance, Humanist values were added to the Christian/Barbarian mixture. Suddenly mankind started making real progress. Today the Western world is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in history. This has only been possible because of the amalgamation of these three great cultural forces after the Renaissance.
Mormonism is arguably one of the most successful world religions. I believe its strength comes not from the purity of its Christian doctrine, but from the addition of other non-Christian truths into its cannon and culture. Joseph Smith was open to truth wherever he found it and boldly added it to Mormonism, whether it was a smooth stone buried in the earth, an Egyptian mummy, or a masonic ceremony. It is unfortunate that many Mormons do not recognise the value other cultures have added and remain antagonistic to secular humanism and other non-LDS influences. General conference is important. But so are TED conferences. I believe if Joseph Smith were alive today, he might be attending both, and his experiences at the one would influence the other.
- Does the “fulness of the gospel” mean Christianity in its purity, or Christianity mixed with truths revealed from other sources as well?
- I argue that Christianity in its purity is unworkable on a large scale and needs to be mixed with truths from other cultures in order to be effective. Do you agree or disagree and why?
- Joseph Smith’s Mormonism evolved as Joseph Smith came in contact with truths from various sources (folk magic, the bible, masonry), some of which were Barbarian or Hellenic in origin. Since Joseph Smith’s death, the church has largely stopped adding new truths to its cannon. Why is this?
- Should we as members continue in Joseph Smith’s footsteps, seeking truths from non-LDS sources as our own personal revelations or “truth collections?” Or are we in danger in being “blown about by every wind of doctrine?”