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.
Here are some potential monkish practices:
Seminary: Denial of adequate sleep and rest for “scripture study”
Callings: So many church and youth leaders sacrifice their precious vacation time for campouts, high adventures, youth conferences, etc. instead of a restful vacation with their family or spouse.
Tithing: Let’s rid ourselves of 10% of that filthy lucre for the Lord. Besides, we’re too busy to spend it anyway.
General conference: Let’s spend the entirety of the two nicest weekends of the year weatherwise indoors watching a bunch of old men tell us how to be more spiritual by showing greater loyalty to them.
Temple: Fun dates with you spouse are so in-a-pro-pro. Why don’t we sit apart in a small movie theater with a bunch of strangers and watch a slideshow and chant words together for two hours instead!
No R rated movies: Careful! You might hear the F word twice and see a nipple or two. Scandalous!
Word of Wisdom: The tobacco thing… spot on. Coffee, tea and alcohol in small amounts can actually be beneficial. In fact, moderate alcohol drinkers live longer that their teetotaler counterparts.
Fast and testimony meeting: ‘Nuff said.
How about giving up intimate relations if you are gay or lesbian? Isn’t that the ultimate in monkish behavior?
You forgot to mention that coupled with fasting is donating to the needy in the form of fast offerings. This is a strong reminder each month to share with those who are less fortunate.
As for missions, in the 60’s, foreign-speaking missions were 2-1/2 years. We tracted with few (and mostly no) results. There was certainly better and more productive ways to have spent those years. For example, participating in the civil rights movement. However, my mission did introduce me to the French culture and existentialism. I became a bit of a francophile.
There are extreme forms of Mormon monkish behavior. Only have sex for procreation. Wear your garments during intimacy. No birth control.
There is no difference between true religion and true science. They are one and the same. The great irony of the age is that people who claim they believe in science have abandoned so-called “monkish” practices.
For you see, science demonstrates that the self-indulgent anti-monkish practices of today are extremely harmful. Wanton sexuality leads to disease and broken homes. Drunkenness leads to other diseases, but the same broken homes. Gluttony leads to yet more diseases and a lack of capacity to enjoy physical activities.
It is irrefutable fact that the modern attitude of doing whatever one wants whenever one wants causes harm to physical and mental health. In essence, science has proven the truth of religious principles.
JCS, no one is arguing for self indulgence and irresponsibility. There is a huge spectrum between strict, painful austerity and wanton hedonism. Balance in all things.
The obvious one, to which Roger Hansen alludes, is the law of chastity in general. There is evidence that foregoing all sexual activity before marriage actually inhibits one’s ability to both enjoy and communicate about physical intimacy once married. It’s a “sacrifice” that simply isn’t necessary.
And JLM mentioning testimony meeting reminds me of how much I despise it, precisely because it’s not really the sincere expression of belief, but rather piety theater. I keep wondering how someone talking about their profound spiritual experiences is supposed to uplift other people. What about the people in the congregation that have never had powerful spiritual experiences? How on earth must they feel to hear all of these stories every month? Uplifted? Or alienated?
Family Home Evening is another one. I think in theory, it’s great to spend time together as a family, but the way it’s mandated just seems a so formal and stilted, like we can’t just do something because it’s a good thing to do; we’ve got to make a big spiritual deal out of it.
And re the marathon: I trained for and ran one. Training to run a marathon is not that hard, it just takes consistence. I promise you can do it. But training to run a fast marathon (like less then 2:45) is like running hip deep through an ocean of agony on a daily basis. The mental strength required to push your body through that kind of pain is simply something most people (including me) aren’t capable of, so don’t feel bad if you can’t manage to run a really fast one. But just covering the distance at a relatively leisurely pace isn’t that hard, especially if you’ve already run some halfs.
Early church (Prophetic) and Migration phase:
1) Bodily mortification (whatever happened to your body on the trek – frostbite, exposure, nutritional deficits, accidents, mortal danger, traveling/camping diseases, death).
2) Loss of community, agrarian security, etc.
3) Tithing of labor for building temples, ward buildings, etc.,
4) Donating skilled craftsmanship for church and community buildings/events.
1) “Trek” reenactments (twisted ankles, heat attacks/strokes, blisters, physical over-exertion, exposure, poisonous plant/venomous animal bites, uncomfortable- weather inappropriate clothing, other physical injuries frequent). There have been a small number of unintentional deaths (primarily among leaders or youth w preexisting conditions.)
2) 3 hours of church- hard chairs, pews.
3) Church pot lucks or salmonella/e-coli Russian roulette.
4) The MTC and missions don’t fully celebrate the holidays. Holidays are working days, with potentially some quiet reflection/calling mom, but, they never “celebrate” in a festive sense. 2 years in solemnity is hard.
My mission was super lax.
My MP actively encouraged us to take days off on holidays and enjoy the culture.
Either find a friend or member to enjoy the holiday with or group together as elders.
We definitely took a couple of days off over Christmas.
This does sound like anathema. But every day was a mortification in the mission, so we knew how to blow off steam on Mondays and high days.
There are some monastic orders out there who do very interesting things, like brew beer, make cheese/wine/chocolate, breed working dogs or sing in choirs. There are others who dedicate their lives to serving the poor and educating the underserved. These are monks who engage in a certain amount of self-deprivation, but do it for the purpose of directing their time and energy to a specific worthwhile pursuit, rather than suffering for the sake of suffering. I don’t think LDS missions approach “monkish” in this regard, but it would be interesting if they did. Despite the fact that missionaries have set-aside time every day for scripture study, it lacks the depth, intensity and scholarship with which real Christian monks engage with the scriptures. While LDS missionaries are encouraged to study the language of the land in which they serve (if it is different from their native tongue) they are practically forbidden from studying that country’s literature, culture or history in any depth, and have almost no context for the land in which they intend to proselytize. The amount of non-religious humanitarian service they are allowed to provide is very limited. And they certainly aren’t given the opportunity to learn useful skilled trades or crafts. The only “skill” they get to practice is high-pressure door-to-door sales, which I do not consider useful or even honorable.
I would love to see LDS missions become more monastic in that sense. Give young adults the opportunity to do full-time humanitarian work in the places that need it most. Let them become scholars of ancient scripture. Let them spend 12-16 hours a day studying to be cheesemongers or chocolatiers if they so choose. Let LDS youth who are artists, musicians and writers do nothing but practice their craft for 2 years, under careful supervision from masters of those disciplines.
JLM gave a pretty comprehensive list
I second Brother Sky’s comment about forgoing all sexual activity before marriage being monkish. That’s not healthy for all couples (works out fine for some though). There are sexual activities that don’t risk procreation that would help a couple learn how to communicate about intimacy. (I’m reminded of a neighbor at BYU whose fiance would not even touch her because he didn’t want to risk having impure thoughts. I felt sorry for her about the shock I rather imagined the wedding night would be.)
When my health and faith were both strong, I loved fasting and praying. It really did bring me some amazing spiritual experiences. That broke down when I had toddlers. I couldn’t fast and have the energy to take care of them. Once they got older, it seemed the spiritual rush of fasting was gone for good, though I certainly tried.
The idea that if we suffer in this life, we receive more blessings in the next life can support damaging attitudes about social programs and equality. Why try to change the world to make it more just when the people who suffer injustice will be fully recompensed in the next life? Jesus said we’ll always have the poor to be with us, so funding to help those who live in poverty is pointless. Besides, they’ll inherit mansions of glory! Imposing monkishness on ourselves is one thing, but to withhold help and decide not to alleviate suffering because God will fix it all in the next life is callous.
One minor example is Deacons physically collecting fast offerings every first Sunday. When I was a kid in a small town it made sense. I hopped on my bike an hour before church and handed people a blue envelope. My ward still does it to give the Deacons (and their mothers) a chance to serve others. So every Fast Sunday a Deacon shows up and we pay the old fashioned way even though paying online is much more sensible for everyone involved.
I’ve run probably 40 marathons and I don’t keep track anymore. Also done about 10 ultras maxing out at 100km and a couple of ironmans. My family is truly baffled about why I run, especially when the day after I’m clearly in pain, and spending half of every Saturday training seems like a monumental waste of time. AND at these distances I can’t even claim they are healthy as a couple of ward doctors have kindly reminded me. I don’t have a good reason other than I get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment afterwards. I don’t even post them on social media any more and I tell my family not to attend (watching runners is even more boring than watching golf). Honestly I love the feeling that I did something that’s dang hard and I get a confidence boost that I could do anything I wanted, if I wanted. Maybe that’s mortification but runners high is real.
Also I love my Ironman tattoo (Maybe another level of self flagellation). I feel bada$$ even though I’m a half bald 47 year old who drives a Toyota because it’s sensible.
The Word of Wisdom strikes me as especially monk-ish (good call, JLM!). That’s largely because of the way it came into its present status. First it was a gentle guideline in answer to one question with a well-defined context. Then it was included in a book that was called scripture. Then it was adopted as a more binding rule for the group. That sounds very similar to my understanding of the way monastic orders choose (or chose) their rules.
The WoW also makes me think about the way many Christians abstain from something during Lent, which arguably is another form of mortification.
While stewing on these ideas, I also landed on stories from General Conference about moments of self-sacrifice, particularly the stories that seem impractical or like overkill to me. Like the father who goes without lunch for a year in order to buy a new ironing machine for the mother, when he could have eaten and taken over ironing duties. The way I understand it, monks tend to follow rules that seem *extra* because of the virtues behind the rules.
It’s hard to say whether my mission made me a better member of society or not. On the one hand, it made me more confident, better able to talk to strangers and travel alone, and more disciplined. I learned a second language, experienced a degree of foreign culture, and bore witness to some staggering poverty. I’d like to think the experience deepened my empathy.
On the other hand, my mission radicalized me into a more insular version of Mormonism than the church of my childhood. I became laser-focused on rules at the expense of everything else, I adopted a very hard-liner view of the gospel, and my ability to flirt and date afterwards was all but ruined by the two-year hiatus. Even worse, I felt entitled to the blessings I had supposedly earned with my missionary service and when those blessings didn’t come I fell into a deep depression. My mission also damaged my relationships with childhood friends. As a teenager, I maintained wonderful friendships with non-members. Post-mission me ruined those friendships by treating my friends like investigators and all but writing them off when they told me they were happy without church in their life. When all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail, so the saying goes. A hammer doesn’t make for a very good Christian. It took me a long time to recover from my mission in that sense.
The act of reading the scriptures and praying can be good and especially when done with ones own choice and inspiration , but not as an instutional mandate. The instuition should encourage good practices but the LDS cookie cutter monk approach was Lucifers plan, if I recall.
My example… …we ask everyone to pray in the stake for 30 minutes starting at 8 AM…..that is beyond the monisk mark. Thinking there is power as everyone does it at the same time.
Also, had you forgot we do have jobs and other responsibilities, especially at 8 AM?
Or another monkish thought…….. everone in the quorum has.goal to read BOM for 30 minutes everyday….
why is not 5 minutes enough when this is my 27th time reading tbe BOM, and I know.the storyline. Or lets speed read it in 3 weeka and dor thoae who do the EQ Pres will buy you a steak dinner.
Like God can only inspire me while praying, reading or fasting………
I am also a runner, 90% of my inspirations have happened.when running in nature……why are we not commanded to run if that is when God speaks to me?
Other people are inspired fishing, reading a novel, skydiving, …….or worst of all caring for the sick and feeding tbe poor
Why LDS over emphasis of read, pray, fast and temple?
Frankly, in my TBM days I did not receive answers from the heavens during those moments. It can be good to pray, read and fast, but it should be indivualized and not instutionalized. Mostly these are self centered actions, not outreach in the community, as Christ showed the example. Christ did fast and pray, and I suspect even read, but I believe he spend more time serving people in ths community and spoke to the Father on his journeys in the wilderness (maybe even doing a 5K).
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
JLM, great list. I’m there for early morning seminary, General Conference as a ritual, the temple in general, and the way we treat the WoW. I should do a whole post about Fast and Testimony meeting. Because just “Testimony Meeting” is not enough. Somehow fasting became part of the ritual. Why?
Roger Hanson, “You forgot to mention that coupled with fasting is donating to the needy in the form of fast offerings. This is a strong reminder each month to share with those who are less fortunate.” Great positive spin on it. A good reminder.
Brother Sky on F&T Meeting as “piety theater.” That’s going in my F&T post.
Mortimer notes trek re-enactments. Yeah, definitely. I wonder which are stranger to outsiders, people who dress up for Star Trek conventions or people who dress up for Mormon Trek re-enactments?
Jack Hughes, on how real monks, latter-day monks (you see what I did there?) actually do interesting and meritorious things. I plead guilty to using monks and monkishness in a caricatured sort of way in this post.
Kirkstall recounts how a mission turned her into a laser-focused zealot upon her return. That happens to a certain percentage of missionaries. Many of them get over it after a few months or years. Glad you’re one of them, Kirkstall.
Finally, I salute Brother Sky and Toad, the full marathoners. A bit of mystery to it. Toad notes, “My family is truly baffled about why I run …. I don’t have a good reason other than I get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment afterwards.”
Not to threadjack, Dave B., but I’d also add to Toad’s comments that the reason I love running is that I’m simultaneously running towards life and towards death: I overcome my own body’s frailties when I finish a race (and I maintain cardiovascular fitness, which will hopefully help me stay alive longer) but also, at the same time, my body tells me that it’s getting older and slower and that every step I take is on step closer to the grave. That sounds really weird and maybe macabre, but I love the balance that running creates: It makes you feel immortal and mortal at the same time because you can both transcend your limits and be bound by them simultaneously and I haven’t found anything else that gives me that particular kind of wonderful complexity.