Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mormons, God & Mammon

Today I taught the lesson in Elders Quorum, and it drained me. It was the Pres. Kimball lesson on having no other gods before God (#14). I framed it in terms of Christ’s teaching to choose between God and Mammon, as one can only have one master. Then I wanted to go through Pres. Kimball’s thoughts to figure out how to live a life devoted to God in a world where subsistence depends on Mammon.

As some history, I stopped going to church for a year, and was only half-active for a few years before that, because I couldn’t see how this church related to Christ’s teachings or Joseph Smith’s project any more. Christ clearly taught to take care of the poor and never taught anything close to seeking riches. Joseph constantly strove to establish Zion, or at least societies without poor.

For the past many years, I’ve seen modern Mormonism as being thoroughly polluted and dominated by cold war philosophies that have nothing to do with the teachings of Christ or Joseph Smith. We are so afraid of ‘socialism’ that any talk of helping the poor on a societal level makes people nervous if not reactionary. Our current rhetoric concerning the family is also thoroughly infused with cold war ideas (completely unrelated to the teachings of Christ and only tangentially connected to any of Joseph’s teachings).

Thus, we are able to believe that it is the poor’s fault for being poor, it is evil to want to do anything about it on a large scale, and all we have to do to be disciples of Christ is create a comfortable, bourgeois existence for ourselves and our kids. Then we marvel that other groups in the Christian right happen to believe the same things we do, not recognizing that our current religion comes from the same source as theirs.

Anyway, this is what I came to be convinced of, and it is why I couldn’t stand to be around Mormons for a long time. I’ve since realized that my view was too dogmatic and that there is clearly more going on in the church than this. Since I’ve been back, I’ve seen a lot of truly Christian beauty in Mormonism.

Nevertheless, the stereotype of the Mormon cold warrior who thinks that focusing on the strictly-defined ‘nuclear’ family protects him from any leftist tendencies to consider the poor is not without some basis in reality. My EQ consists almost entirely of grad students. Some of us are in academic disciplines, but the majority of elders are in programs that will provide them with fantastic incomes and that don’t require them to really question or analyze too much.

Well, today I tried to prepare a lesson for everyone. Here I have quotes from Pres. Kimball saying that we shouldn’t focus on money, that we should help the poor, that wealth (capital) is dangerous. I thought I could use them and some passages from the scriptures to gently nudge the more fiscally-minded members of the quorum to consider what will be a truly Christian use of the considerable wealth they will one day enjoy.

But then my academic buddies kept wanting to expose the machinery of capitalist thinking and the protestant work ethic within LDS thinking. I didn’t disagree with anything they said – I’d already taken a break from Mormons as one firmly believing it. But was this the way to reach the members of the EQ who probably do believe that Jesus actually taught that men need to make a good living (which He didn’t), that women need to stay home and nurture within a comfortable bourgeois home (which He didn’t) in order to raise a righteous, ‘blessed’ family – and that this is the sum of the ‘gospel’?

Is EQ the place to expose all of the philosophies of men, clung to during the cold war, that still have such a negative effect on LDS thinking? Should one (teacher or participant) charge directly into all of the ways that such thinking contradicts the NT, D&C, BoM and other scripture? I opted to take a gentler approach, but I think I only managed to anger my more analytic friends while still alienating the future wealthy of America. My goal was to bring in the spirit and create quorum unity as we explored how to use the great wealth we all have to do God’s will.

How do you teach this lesson, or approach this topic in a church class?


Dave M said...

If you don't aggressively and directly show what the scriptures say about our obligation to help the poor and the evils of amassing wealth, then you will only end up with a lesson that says "It's ok to be rich as long as you pay tithing and take the youth out on your boat once a year."

Not that I'm saying that your lesson was like that. :)

D. Largitor said...

K - I commend you for taking on this assignment. I know you have taught this lesson before several times (albeit in a secular/academic setting). However, this is a tough lesson for several reasons.

While Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13, and 3 Nephi 13:24 are very clear about the diametrical relationship of God and mammon, I'm really not clear on the eternal message. On the one hand mammon = money, and Jesus is pretty clear where he stands on money (e.g. eye of the needle, widow's two mites). Plus, the Book of Mormon is full of stories where missionaries are turned away from evil rich people, only to find humble, poor people on hillsides looking for the truth. (Modern comparisons to Europe and South America only fuel this notion). One look at our modern, capitalistic, industrially-advanced community where even the poorest of your analytic, humanities-inclined colleagues lives better than many of Egypt's most powerful Pharaohs and it's impossible to not be cynical.

But what of God's great power and wealth? Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence. Worlds without number, power without end. "In my Father’s house are many mansions (KJV), rooms (NIV), dwelling-places (NRSV)…" The goal of this life is to become like God, and yet we’re instructed to be intentionally poor? No comprende. Shouldn’t we replace the lead-crystal chandeliers that adorn our celestial rooms with kerosene lamps? Shouldn’t we closet our $800 business suits for Levis and free Bank of America t-shirts? What, exactly, does a gospel that preaches poverty tell us about a society trying to eradicate poverty, full of people that are trying to become like the richest being we can comprehend? It seems like one big misunderstood intersection of metaphor and literal commandment. And I don’t claim to have a clear understanding.

Your question about the appropriate venue to explore cold war philosophies in LDS thinking is very good. There’s no doubt that our focus on the nuclear family, gender roles, and emergency preparedness for unthinkable destruction was fostered and developed by Eisenhower-era public policies. However, that doesn’t make them wrong ipso facto. Encouraging people to think about these ideas, however, and the implications that arise given the circumstances sounds like the work of a good EQ teacher. Because the gospel is so (attractively) individualistic, I think we’re all turned off by lessons that try to convince us what is right and what is wrong. In my opinion, a good lesson hinges on "discovery." The successful lessons I have seen (meaning higher rates of participation and a sense when I get home that I didn’t waste my day) usually focus on a plurality of methodologies for gospel practice, or interesting correlations or historical facts. They allow me to discover something new about the world, but allow me to draw my own conclusions. Overly-confident teachers or observers are annoying, whether at church, in a class, or at a political rally. There are only a few people in this world whom I trust enough to really listen to their candid opinions; people who really have an influence on how I think at the end of the day. Not one of them resides in my EQ.

Kikuchiyo said...

It seems to me that the imperative is not "Be ye poor!" but "Be ye generous!" I think we are to learn to attract as much wealth as easily as possible in this life that our dominion may without compulsory means flow unto use forever and ever (see D&C 121:46). In this life, the fullness of the earth is ours (59:15-21). We need to learn what to do with it (including acquiring it) in order to be trusted with much greater wealth in the next life as Christ teaches in Luke 16, and in the parables of the talents and of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.

This is how I understand the idea of gaining riches "to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted" in Jacob 2.

Our problem is that we hold on to it like the fool in Luke 12. We saints too often use our family as an excuse to limit our generosity forgetting that Joseph taught that "A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world anxious to bless the whole human family." We can also rely too much on the arm of flesh and think we need to hoard the goods that come to us. We may also just be giving into our lusts in hanging on to all that the Lord puts in our hands.

I'm comfortable with idea of learning how to become more wealthy as I learn how to become more generous. I just hope the former doesn't out-pace the latter.

I like your suggestions for an EQ class, DL. I should have talked to you before I taught.

D. Largitor said...

Okay, so “intentional poverty” is probably overstating it (although if you follow some of Jesus’ teachings through to their logical conclusions, it’s not that big of a leap). I guess I’m just a bit weary of the Puritanized Christianity that enters the room anytime somebody starts quoting from "God Wants You to be Rich."

In this vein, I think your "gentler approach" was the way to go. No need to rag on riches, but capitalist haters shouldn’t hog the spotlight either. It sounds like you did a great job. I just wish you were a teacher in my EQ.

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