I’m reading through The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (CUP, 2010), a collection of essays addressing the field. Chapter 5, “Science and Secularization,” by John Hedley Brooke, raises an issue we can kick around. The larger issue he addresses is how it came about that the religiously dominated society of the Middle Ages and early modern Europe turned into the modern secular society we live in. One common explanation is that, in the long run, science trumps religion. Modern science emerged in the 17th century, it gradually came to displace the religious worldview that previously ruled the minds of men … two or three centuries pass … wave hands … voila, modern secularism. Brooke rejects that simple story and suggests an alternative story.

One of Brooke’s main points relies on a discussion by Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age (Harvard Univ. Press, 2007), a very important but very long book — I’ve never gotten more than halfway through it. Taylor’s approach asks how modern society changed “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (p. 115, quoting Taylor). Brooke affirms Taylor’s rejection of the science story. Instead, Taylor sees a moral element as a large part of the story, the emergence of modern humanism, which places human happiness or flourishing as the primary goal of life. That’s happiness and flourishing in *this* life, not happiness in a life to come as compensation for sacrifice and unhappiness in this life. Brooke claims that to explain the emergence of modern secularism it is “more instructive to examine changes in moral sensibility than changes in scientific theory” (p. 117).

And thus we come to monkish practices. Both Brooke and Taylor cite with favor David Hume’s critique of “monkish virtues.” “What Hume decried as sterile monkish virtues had to be replaced by a civic morality in which human actions were for the benefit and improvement of society” (p. 117). Here’s the quote from Hume. His list of “sterile monkish virtues” will lead into our discussion of Mormon monkish virtues.

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve no manner of purpose, neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society.

A couple of quick observations. First, what Hume calls virtues are really a mixed bag of practices (fasting, penance) and virtues (humility, self-denial). I’m going to refer to the lot as monkish practices, but plainly the practices are valued because they are associated with some virtue, and the virtues are encouraged by various practices. Second, Hume’s view, while expressed in the context of his philosophical theory of ethics and morality, is right in line with the Protestant rejection of most Catholic practices not taken over into Protestant life. Mormonism is rooted in Protestant beliefs and practices. But, having inherited a Protestant approach to church life that eschewed most if not all Catholic “monkish” practices, Mormonism developed its own set of monkish practices. Are these Mormon monkish practices good or harmful? Do they develop or support a happier or more productive human life (in the here and now) or are they an impediment, a sort of sacrifice or hardship we endure now in order to secure a happier and more productive life in the hereafter?

And what, pray tell, are the possible Mormon monkish practices I am alluding to? I’ll bet readers can come up with a dozen items without even trying too hard. Here are a few initial suggestions, along with an evaluation of whether they contribute to a flourishing life in the here and now. It is by no means necessary to accept Hume’s view that all of these practices/virtues are “everywhere rejected by men of sense.” That question is sort of the point of this discussion.

Fasting. This shows up in the New Testament as well as on Hume’s list, so it has a place in Protestant practice, but not a central place and it’s not typically an institutional practice. But fasting seems to enjoy a prominent place in LDS practice. It’s a Mormon monkish practice. Fast for 24 hours once a month. Pairing fasting with prayer increases your odds of getting an answer. Fasting before going through the temple somehow enhances the whole experience. Where did this elevated Mormon view of fasting come from, anyway?

Now maybe fasting makes your life more enjoyable. The standard Mormon claim is that fasting somehow makes a person more spiritual, more open to spiritual things, closer to God. Personally, fasting just makes me hungry and grouchy. I’m a lot happier sitting through a Mormon testimony meeting after a nice breakfast than after a morning bereft of food. And why would God for some reason consecrate abstinence from food as opposed to anything else? Does skipping sleep for a night bring one closer to God the next day? Would abstaining from television or reading make God more likely to hear my prayers? The various religious justifications for the prominent Mormon practice of fasting just strike me as weak. Readers with a different view of fasting are welcome to share.

Missions. Two years of celibate proselyting. Read scriptures and not much else. Pray a lot. Very little contact with family or friends back home. A Mormon mission is about as monkish a practice as you can come up with. It out-monks most monks. There have always been LDS missionaries who “come home early,” as the gentle phrase goes, but it seems to be more prevalent in the last few years. Increasingly, the rigors of an LDS mission are just more than the average 18- or 19-year-old Mormon can take. That’s an indication of how truly monkish the whole missionary experience is.

That is certainly how it appears to most outsiders, and accounts for much of the fascination that outsiders have with Mormon missionaries. It’s a mixture of admiration, envy, and puzzlement. Admiration and envy because it seems to exhibit a degree of religious belief and commitment by tens of thousands of young LDS every year that would be hard to match in other denominations. Puzzlement because it’s such a sacrifice at that age (foregoing whatever other good things could be done in those two years) and perhaps because the proselyting results of the whole huge project are minimal.

Now I’m guessing most readers are, in one sense or another, Mormon “insiders” not outsiders. Many of you have served LDS missions of 18 months or two years. There’s an element of adventure to the experience. Six weeks at an MTC aren’t physically challenging or painful like six weeks of boot camp. You have never met the missionary peers you spend so much time with, but they aren’t much different from friends back home and some of them turn into lifelong friends. So an LDS mission isn’t really that bad, is it? And it’s only two years, not a lifelong commitment, right? On the other hand, looked at objectively, wow it really is quite a thing. The Mormon monkish practice par excellence. But, strangely, an LDS mission is often held out to be, and arguably is, the basis for success in life after the mission, what Hume called being a more valuable member of society. The exact opposite of the monkish life.

Mortification. This is not a term that appears in LDS discourse. In Catholic thinking and practice, mortification (or mortification of the flesh) is a spiritual practice rooted in worldly self-denial and even self-suffering. Fasting is one example of mortification, but it gets worse. Thomas Moore wore a hair shirt all his life — because it was uncomfortable (to say the least). Self-inflicted pain is practiced by some. Think Monty Python or The DaVinci Code.

LDS doctrine and practice rejects all this, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. LDS discourse avoids the term and the vast majority of LDS would say that Mormons reject the whole idea. And yet the Church embraces fasting, a central practice of mortification of the flesh. One of the Mormon justifications for fasting is that is suppresses the worldly, fleshy desire of eating and somehow strengthens the spiritual part of us — exactly the claims made for mortification of the flesh. Mormons don’t wear hair shirts like Sir Thomas Moore, but temple garments can be pretty uncomfortable in some climates. Funny thing: the hotter and more humid the climate, the more wearing LDS garments becomes a badge of loyalty and commitment. The more uncomfortable it is, the more it hurts, the more it is valued. Just like the more extreme versions of mortification of the flesh.

So here is another key monkish practice (mortification of the flesh) that has a prominent place in Mormon life, with the added feature that Mormons stoutly deny that it is practiced. Sacrifice and self-denial are certainly a part of Mormon religious discourse. But we don’t call it The Plan of Sacrifice and Self-Denial. No, it’s the Plan of Happiness. We preach happiness but practice mortification.

So here are a few things to talk about in the comments.

  • Can you come up with other candidate monkish practices that are part of life in the LDS Church?
  • Are these positive spiritual practices of discipline and self-denial that make us better people, better Christians, or more productive members of society? Or are these just misguided practices, based on the strange religious belief that somehow pain, at least in measured doses, is a good thing?
  • I’m not stacking the deck here. There are good arguments to be made for discipline and self-denial. Anyone who has lost twenty pounds on a strict diet has something to share, I imagine. Anyone who has endured a difficult and painful health challenge and then recovered has something to share, I imagine. I’ve trained for and successfully completed a few half-marathons. I invite you full marathoners to share all the benefits that the grueling experience of training for and running a full marathon has to offer, and tell me what a wimp I am for running halfs.