Some critics of religion like to point out that religion is mostly focused on the afterlife rather than the concerns of this world. Some would say that Christians make lousy stewards because they don’t care enough for temporal matters. This is a criticism about too much airy fairy transcendence and not enough human, domestic practicality.
Mormonism is particularly secular in its immanent frame focus when compared to many other Christian sects. God has a body of flesh & bone, and becoming a God means an embodied (and one assumes immanent) Person. This focus on the immanent is one thing that sets us apart. Immanence is a secular approach, one that is assumed more and more as time goes by as simply the way the world works. We seek meaning and transcendence from within, not from without. In the words of E.M. Forster’s character Mr. Emerson (who personified the Romantic movement) in A Room with a View:
(pointing at his chest with his fork) “Here is where the birds sing! Here is where the sky is blue!”
We value human flourishing and individuality, not just an eternal reward that feels imaginary and too far removed from our daily experience to be believed. Even the Book of Mormon promotes a uniquely immanent doctrine of human flourishing:
Men are that they might have joy. 2 Ne 2:27
Elizabeth Drescher wrote about the shifting search for meaning in our secular age in her book Choosing Our Religion. She noted that many Millenials found spiritual meaning in simple activities like meals with friends or taking a yoga class. Finding moments for reflection or connection have become a spiritual touchstone for many. To them, these activities filled–at least partially–the longing for transcendence, the space religion once occupied. In a secular age, meaning comes from within, from our current lives. This is often called being spiritual but not religious.
“it is the sense of an absence; it is the sense that all order, all meaning comes from us. We encounter no echo outside. In the world read this way, as so many of our contemporaries live it, the natural/supernatural distinction is no mere intellectual abstraction. A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as immanent. In some respects, we may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.” Charles Taylor
Mormonism straddles the individual-focused secular world with our focus on personal revelation. While revelation assumes the origin is external (messages from God), the experience of personal revelation often has more in common with internal inspiration. It feels right to the individual. It clicks. Bosoms burn. It doesn’t necessarily feel like intervention; in a sense, it is similar to a divine spark from within that takes voice.
“Religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.” Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own
Even when we are given church-wide revelation, a nod is given toward seeking personal revelation as a confirmation; although it is not generally accepted to question the authority of church-wide revelation, we can quietly acknowledge that it is not binding to us as an individual due to personal circumstances. This respects the primacy of immanence or internal experience and promotes the ability for individuals to have fulfilling lives when the the broader narrative fails to promote their happiness.
What’s the difference between the source of one’s transcendence? Well, an imminent framework is about human flourishing, not just celestial reward. One unique aspect of Mormonism that has always struck me is that we don’t hate the body; there’s no Mormon Opus Dei. We view the soul as the combination of a spirit and a body, and we view God as embodied. This means that we value both the divine and the human. But integrating the two is not always easy.
On my post that gave an overview of Charles Taylor, Andrew S made the following astute comment:
To me, the biggest thing that strikes me is the difference between an immanent frame and a transcendent frame, with the immanent frame being about flourishing, and the transcendent frame being about transformation. The immanent frame is about perfecting or realizing our human material (things like sexual fulfillment, success, health and prosperity, and so on), whereas the transcendent frame is about going beyond human categories. And I totally recognize that I have a definite immanent focus — I want to be the best person I can be, which means improving things in this life. I am not concerned so much about the eternities, especially to the extent that I am asked to suppress or repress or abstain from core human life elements on the hope or faith of a transformation in eternity.
This is also a good place to point out how Mormonism developed as the systems were changing — because we can point out that Mormonism doesn’t have quite as transcendent a frame as other older religions do. It has a lot of immanent focus to it.
Mormonism talks about becoming gods, casting off the natural man, etc., but godliness is not definited as wholly different from humanity. “As man is, God once was” after all.
So, in Mormonism, human flourishing is identified with transcendent transformation. Paul in the New Testament takes a rather cynical look at marriage and sexuality, conceding that maybe it is better to marry than to burn, but his ideal is clearly celibacy. This is usually not so with Mormonism — the fulfillment of the law of chastity isn’t celibacy, but a fruitful, heterosexual marriage with children. So, there is that extent that sexual fulfillment is defined as transformative — at least for some people.
Mormonism obviously isn’t completely about immanence, though. While the law of chastity absolutely views celibacy as a lesser goal for straight people (to the extent that the leaders chastise straight members for not doing everything they can to marry and have children), we can still see the rhetoric of transcendence when looking at the LDS church’s position on LGBT members. Here, sexual fulfillment is anathema. These members are supposed to set aside their sexuality in hopes that the Atonement can transform them into something else in the afterlife.
I think this also can explain why we see faith crises more and more. People don’t natively live in the religious mindset. They live in a secular mindset, with an immanent frame, and when religion is at odds with that, that builds tension. So, LDS policies to LGBT folks often seem unfair precisely because we live in a society that has an immanent frame, and we cannot help but have that immanent frame ourselves.
Because Mormonism came about when this shift from transcendent to immanent was underway, we strive for a balanced perspective between happiness now and in the eternities. Older versions of Christianity had a much bleaker outlook on the human condition. In the words of Alexander Pope, life’s a bitch and then you die. But we don’t have such a negative view of mortality. Our celestial reward is viewed as an extension of the good life we are building here: positive relationships, sexual love, and so forth.
That puts a lot of pressure on this life. Why would we want something to continue if it’s not good to start with? When we try to pivot from human flourishing toward celestial transcendence, that’s where the cracks in the veneer become visible. The stresses between the two create a tension that can’t be borne. For those displeased with the idea of bad things from this life carrying into the eternities, we often say “It will all work out in the end,” like there is some sort of celestial lobotomy that will magically convert an earthly hell (like polygamy or homosexual celibacy) into an eternal delight. Sometimes the dialogue sounds like this:
Party Line: X is so, so important. It’s the most important thing.
Individual: But I don’t have X and can’t have X.
Party Line: X doesn’t work for you? Well, it will all be worked out in the eternities then. X isn’t that important. Trust me, X or you will be different then. X will apply . . . later.
In a sense, the celestial becomes a Plan B when human flourishing fails, or rather when our system to promote human flourishing fails. But if we can’t get it right in the temporal mortal sphere, why do we assume we’ll get it right in the celestial one? The rationale falls back on the human deficiency argument again; either the individual is deficient or the temporal plans for happiness are limited by human reasoning and human imperfections. Human flourishing is so, so important. Except when it doesn’t work. Then, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Maybe this is why older religions don’t focus so much on human flourishing. Perhaps they’ve been burned too many times.
 Although garments are kind of the Mormon hair shirt.