Theology and culture

I’ve been reading a lot about the tenth and eleventh centuries lately.  Research for a play, but also, it’s just a really interesting period in history.  Because my play is about European politics in the period, I’ve been reading about Europe, but of course, 11th century Europe was, by almost any standard, a backwater. The 11th century was the high point of the Song Dynasty in China, for example. So while the Chinese people had magnetic needle compasses, Bessemer steel processes, and spherical trigonometry, the most educated European pope, Sylvester II, was generally thought to be trafficking with the devil because he knew how to use an abacus. The greatest cities in the world were Moslem, especially, Cordova, in Spain, with a population that approached a million people, and boasted the world’s greatest universities, librarys, and running potable water. The Toltecs were ascendent in the Americas, and Japan’s Fujiwara clan ruled benevolently and promoted literature and music and drama.  Europe, in contrast, stank.

Europe was savage, primitive, violent and filthy.  Rome, once the greatest city of antiquity, had fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, living like rats in the ruins left behind after the sacking of the city 500+ years earlier.  Commerce was minimal.  Emperors and kings had their hands full just fighting off Magyar, Viking, Saracen and Slavic pirates and bandits and raiders.  The ramshackle, jerry-built feudal system provided some rudimentary governing stability, but small-scale warfare was constant.

The Catholic Church could have, and was supposed to provide some moral boundaries and some pastoral care. But the Church itself lurched between corruption and over-jealous reform.  The Dominican monastic order was the closest thing they had to a stabilizing influence, but it too ranged in influence and virtue from the Cluniac reforms in France to utter debauchery and vice elsewhere.  What I’m basically saying is that life sucked in the 11th century.

And everyone knew it.  And so Catholic theology responded by building an entire world-view around the idea that life was supposed to be awful.  Hardship, violence, filth and disease were endemic to the human condition.  We human beings had chosen a world of corruption and death and illness and pain when Eve tempted Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit (i.e., sexual intercourse).  We shouldn’t expect any happiness in life.  We shouldn’t expect anything good at all.  Every hope, ever dream, every ambition was based on some expectation of the next life.

And so the holiest and best people practiced self-denial and self-mutilation.  They starved themselves in lengthy fasts, they wore clothing that tore the flesh, they flagellated themselves with whips; they built lifestyles around the mortification of the flesh.  I used to love teaching the plays of the great 10th century nun/dramatist, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim.  We would read her play Pafnutius.  Thais, a prostitute, is called on to repent by the righteous monk Pafnutius.  She locks herself in a cloistered cell, where she lives for a year, mortifying her flesh, not eating, with (as the play takes pains to mention), no place to relieve herself.  At the end of the year, she’s half dead, but holy.  She lasts long enough to say a final prayer, then dies and angels greet her, taking her soul to heaven.  As I would remind my students, that play’s a comedy, and that’s a happy ending.

But it makes sense.  If life is unrelievedly grim and awful, violent, short and painful, the theology people might find comforting would be one that focuses on a better life to come.  The saddest figure of the period, I think, was Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, who fought bravely to preserve the Church and Empire, but became appalled at the misery his wars caused people.  He began the usual mortification routine, with long fasts and hairshirts and the rest of it, and died at the age of 22.  But he died in hopes of a better life to come.  And while I can look back at medieval history and see a talented, brilliant and capable young man who could well have done a lot of good in his time here (as his grandfather, Otto I, had done), and see as well a young man succumbing, tragically, to clinical depression, well, that’s not how they saw it. He was in a better place.

Okay, so fast forward 500 years or so, to the early seventeenth century, and our American forbears at Plymouth and Boston, the generation of John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. By that point, of course, European life was a lot happier, generally.  Europeans knew how to build boats that could cross the Atlantic.  Better roads, better carriages, better rigging for horses. It was still a violent period, but much much less so than had been the case in previous centuries.  We human beings now exercised considerable control over our environment.  We could built reasonably safe and comfortable homes for ourselves.  Cleanliness had become wider spread.

But while we did have safer and more comfortable lives than previous generations had enjoyed, it was something of an illusion.  Infant mortality was around fifty percent. Childbirth was tremendously dangerous for women.  So the really important issues–will my children be safe, will my wife survive childbirth, will we be able to raise our families safely–still must have seemed completely random and arbitrary.  It may have been easier to transport goods to market–better roads, something approaching rule-of-law–but everything else must have seemed out of our control.

So theology, again, echoed culture.  The theology of the day was almost entirely predestinate.  God had, for His own reasons, chosen a few folks to be in his Elect.  We mortals had nothing to say about it.  We couldn’t influence His decision in any way.  You were either going to heaven, to live in eternal bliss, or you were going to hell, where demons would torture you forever, and there wasn’t a darn thing you could do about it. You’d think this would result all manner of debauchery.  If nothing you do can make the teensiest difference in your salvation/damnation, you may as well live it up, right?  But no.  The Separatists who founded New England believed that the Elect could be seen as such by their particularly blameless lives.

Anne Hutchinson was condemned, excommunicated and exiled, not because she questioned predestination, but because she questioned whether living an externally exemplary life proved anything.  She believed that the Spirit of God communicated with her, and that any Christian could feel God’s Grace within.  This made her, in John Winthrop’s mind, a heretic; specifically, an antinomian. It may strike us as a trivial theological dispute, but they didn’t; to them, this was crucial stuff.  But if you think about it, it fit their culture.  You can’t exercise any control over the really important events in your life.  But you can control some things, like what you wear, or how long you sit on a hard bench in Church on a Sunday.  Those actions are meaningless, and you know they’re meaningless, but you cling to them anyway, because maybe, just maybe, they offer a tiny window into God’s thought processes regarding you.

When we Mormons read the Joseph Smith story, we read about the theology controversies of the Burned Over district in upstage New York ca. 1820, but we don’t think about what the issues were.  What were all those churches contending over?  More of the same.  The intricacies of predestinate theology.  Was baptism essential to salvation?  Obviously no, it couldn’t be. Baptism is a thing people can do for themselves, so obviously it had to be irrelevant to the question of Grace.  But there’s that pesky scripture in John 3:5; where you have to be born of water and the spirit.  So you have to be baptized, as a sign that you were elect.  No, you didn’t!  Yes, you did!  And back and forth and back again.

So along comes Joseph Smith, and right there, Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, what does he say?  All sorts of blasphemy.  Vs. 2: God’s message is to everyone, everywhere.  Vs. 3: what you do isn’t going to stay secret anymore.  Vs. 4, it gets bad: God’s going to send out missionaries, who will, vs. 8, have the power to seal people unto salvation or damnation.  This is seriously Catholic stuff–people, human beings, having the power to send people to heaven.  Or, you know, t’other place.  And then, the biggie: vs. 10:

Unto the day when the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.

In other words, what we do matters.  Our actions count.  We can actually do things–like try to be a good person–which will make a difference in our salvation.  Predestination, in other words, is no longer central to Christian theology.

And yes, I know; that verse (and a whole bunch of other verses a lot like it) has led us to a modern Mormon cultural world of unrealistic expectations, and self-righteousness, and judgmental attitudes.  To ‘modesty standards’ and ‘body image issues’ and an epidemic of perfectionism and clinical depression.  A theology of works, it turns out, is essentially impossible to live up to entirely.

But what’s the alternative?  Because American culture today fundamentally rejects predestination.  In the marketplace of competing theologies, anyone who preaches that our salvation is entirely arbitrary and that we can’t affect it any way whatsover, well, that theology is going to look weird and be very quickly rejected.  We live in a time when we expect to control our environment.  If our kids get sick, we take ’em to the doctor with the expectation that she’ll prescribe something that will make the kid better.  Over and over, popular culture preaches that everything is awesome, that you can and should dream, that you can do anything you want to with your life.  The fact that none of that is particularly true doesn’t matter.  If we believe in God, we kind of do have to believe in one who cares who wins the Super Bowl. Our theology reflects our culture, for better or for worse, just as theology reflected 11th century culture, and 17th, and 19th.

And if you think about it, the Mormon theology of works may set up unrealistic standards for us, but it surely has a considerable upside as well.  We have to pay attention. We have to try to do good things.  We have to ask our friends constantly ‘did I do that right?’  We have to send water and blankets to countries nailed by tsunamis.  We aren’t free to just pursue happiness.  We see ‘pursuing happiness’ in social terms.

Of course, when I say ‘a theology of works,’ I mean Mormon theology but also world-wide, mainstream, people-who-believe-in-God theology. And also world-wide, mainstream, atheist and agnostic theology.  We don’t divide the world up into ‘Elect’ and ‘Damned,’ but we do divide it up into ‘People Who Care’ and ‘Selfish Bastards.’  We do think we should all be trying to make a difference, and when we think of a ‘good person,’ we don’t think of Otto III, poor kid, beating himself up for being a bad person, and starving himself to death.  When we think of a ‘good person,’ we think of Bono.  Or Angelina Jolie. Or Mother Teresa.

In short, we reflect our culture in our theology. As people ever have done.


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