Monday, January 20, 2014

Mormons and Captain Underpants: A Story about Intellectual Freedom

When I was a first-year at Chicago, I took a required class on Augustine’s Confessions, which was filled with bored undergrads complaining about Augustine’s repetitive praises of God. One day, the professor, realizing that we might not understand the Manichean philosophy that Augustine rejects, decided to give us a summary. “The Manicheans,” she said in a matter of fact, somewhat ironic tone, “believed that substance itself was evil. So they decided to purify themselves by only eating divine foods, like lettuce.” [Incredulous laughter.] “No, that’s actually what they believed. If you were an elect priest, you would make sure that you only ate the right foods and not the wrong ones, because good foods had particles of godliness that could bring you to heaven.”

I understood nothing. My professor had said nothing false. But she missed the most important part of Manichaeism: the part that moved the souls of millions, the part that actually offered wisdom and a godly life on earth. (What was it? I still don’t know.) What could she have done better? The best, I think, would have been to speak, at the very least, in a reverential tone of voice. It’s not just words that carry an idea. It’s an entire human context, and to take a religious precept out of its natural habitat makes it die for lack of air.

Another first-year class I took, this one on philosophy, was taught by one of my favorite teachers ever. He had an unnerving talent for disguise: when we read Plato, he was an ardent Platonist, charismatic enough to make my skin tingle. Then, suddenly, he was a level-headed Aristotelian, then a cynical and atheist Machiavellian. Only later, when I got to know him personally, did I learn he was a devout Catholic. John Ellison is one of the few people I’ve met who’ve actually made me understand something. He made me see how an idea exists in a person’s heart as well as his brain, and that you can’t explain a way of life without showing its movements in a real human being’s soul.

Most people I know, including myself, know nothing about Mormonism.

Of course, many can tell you the bare facts: Joseph Smith, magic plates, Nauvoo, exodus westward, polygamy, no more polygamy. Some can even summarize the book of Mormon: Lehi’s flight from Judea, Nephites and Lamanites, the great war, and the burial of the plates on the hill of Cumorah.

That’s not enough. Because most of the time, these facts are only brought up to make a laughingstock out of Mormonism. Can you believe it? Magic spectacles? In upstate New York? Once in a while, of course, Mormonism gets a scrap of respect east of the Mississippi, in the following sentence: “Everyone always mocks the Book of Mormon, but the New and Old Testaments are just as ridiculous. The Mormons are just unlucky that they don’t have the cushion of millennia to soften their skepticism.”

And the result is that we don’t grasp anything, and find ourselves mocking a shadowy belief-system that a seven-year-old could have invented literally in his sleep. This is what we miss: regardless of whether we think it’s true, Mormon belief has been enough to attract millions of happy believers and keep them together in a community. If we can’t understand why a smart or normal person would be a Mormon, we must be screwing up somewhere. Understanding Mormonism means understanding the reverence that the religion is treated with by Mormons, and that takes either an active imagination or a talented teacher. Or spending time in a Mormon community, or spending time on By Common Consent, an excellent community blog.

These pictures show different things.
This is partly a fault of geography: I and most of my friends live in a part of the country where Mormons have next to no cultural influence. But it’s also our own fault: Evangelicals also have very little influence on the Upper West Side, but most people in Zabars can least imagine what it’s like to love Jesus and be born again. Because of our own prejudice, our understanding of the Mormon religion is restricted to no coffee, simple-minded but kind people, and that South Park episode.

But in a country which is the birthplace of Mormonism, and in a world in which Mormons outnumber Jews, we would do well to enlighten ourselves. Not by reading John Krakauer or even the Book of Mormon without a teacher, but by looking at the ways in which Mormon belief can actually shape a person’s life.

More importantly, there’s even a selfish reason to educate yourself; not just about Mormonism, but about Judaism and Atheism and Platonism. (For a similar reason, about pot and Prozac, but that’ll be another post.)

The reason is freedom. It just might be, by doing a little mental wandering, by really taking foreign ways of thinking seriously, that you’ll find something that you think is really good, even worth living by. In my family, we call this a Captain Underpants experience. My brother and I vehemently protested as little boys against our dad, who wanted to force us to listen to a trivial book about a bald idiot in briefs. And were were pretty wrong about what we liked. (Of course, my parents had me try a lot of books that didn’t stick, like Harold and the Purple Crayon and A Philosophy of History. But now I know.)

College is an excellent place to do the kind of experimentation I’m talking about. People come from all over the world in a place where there are very few consequences for getting things wrong. That’s an excellent recipe for mental freedom. At the University of Chicago, to date, I’ve spent time—and sympathized in various degrees—with atheist activists, Orthodox Jews, nudists, utilitarians, Episcopalians, and some sensible people. I’ve been in love with Plato, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Calvin. I met John Ellison, as well as Constantin Fasolt, who taught me what I’m writing down now. I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and a lot of smart things, none of which I could dreamed about when I was eighteen. If I hadn’t poked around a little bit, I would have been stuck by default with the worldview I started with.

In brief. By definition, you can’t make serendipity happen, but you’ll never find it if you never leave the house.

1 comment:

Julie Huang said...

You write beautifully. And with such clarity. I started with your post about Buck vs Bell and worked my way here and was not going to say anything but the thing you wrote about not really understanding something until you see how it moves (moves in?) a person's soul...incredible. The sense of compassion you convey is almost palpable