Religion Today

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Errand into the Wilderness

The observation that Mormonism is the quintessential American religion has long been a scholarly commonplace. One way this statement holds true is with regard to Mormonism’s parallels with the Puritans, the first religious movement of America’s European settlers. Although the Puritans’ goal was religious reform, their exodus to the New World laid the basis for a new nation. Since the Mormons were already in the New World, their religious reform became a new religious tradition. If Puritan belief provided an American model for interpreting new religious ideas, then the early Mormons used that model to understand the meaning of their movement.

Decades of college students have studied Perry Miller’s portrayal of the early Puritans in his book, Errand into the Wilderness. His key point is that Puritans saw themselves not merely as a Christian reform movement, but as God’s re-creation of the people Israel, as a “new Israel.” Their flight from persecution in England reenacted the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Just as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and entered into the Wilderness of Sinai, the Puritans sailed the Atlantic Ocean and settled in the American Wilderness. This parallel was not accidental, the Puritans believed, but came from God’s guiding hand. In America, they would built a new Zion, a light shining out to the world to lead it to divine renewal. The difficulties of the voyage and their life in the New World gained meaning as they drew strength from their belief that they were God’s new Israel.

In the two centuries after the Puritans, many American religious movements envisioned themselves as the new Israelites. Although Puritan belief was left behind, their model provided a means for understanding religious revival and renewal. In most cases, the religious movements that survived simply became one more Protestant denomination in the increasing variety of the American religious scene.

In the 1830s and 1840s, Joseph Smith and his followers likewise drew upon the Puritan model as they preached their new message. Their creative use of that model lifted Mormonism beyond mere religious reform, however, and helped to establish the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a new religion, as a new stage in God’s divine plan. While this difference helped them win converts, it also brought about antagonism and persecution.

The main difference between the Puritans and the Mormons lay in their understanding of the early Christian Church. The Puritans’ symbolism of ancient Israel was shaped by the New Testament’s use of the Old. Matthew’s Gospel and other New Testament writings provided the interpretation through which they understood Moses, ancient Israel, and the Old Testament. Although they revered Moses as a leader, he was a leader like Jesus. The Puritans were Israel, but they were like Israel as the early church—Jesus’ followers—were like Israel.

By contrast, early Mormonism took a different route to Jesus and his message. As the religious historian Jan Shipps has shown in her book, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, instead of seeing themselves as ancient Israel through the lens of the New Testament, they understood themselves as the direct recreation of Israel. In their movement, for example, God restored the ancient Israelite priesthoods of Aaron and Melchizedek. Their Council of Twelve followed Jacob’s twelve sons. The prophecies given to Joseph Smith and other early leaders carried forward God’s prophetic interaction with Israel, while the divinely revealed Book of Mormon had important parallels with the Torah God had revealed to Moses.

It was out of this self-image as Israel that Mormonism became a church. Out of the soil of Israel, it blossomed forth, recreating itself as parallel to the early Christian church rather than its extension. In this way, it used the New Testament as a guide to build upon its Old Testament foundation rather than to limit that foundation. It was this reshaping of the Puritans’ model that led Mormonism down a different path. Although it began as a typical American religious movement, its difference prevented it from fitting among them. This led them ultimately to embark upon a new errand in the wilderness.

Note: Dr. Jan Shipps will be speaking at the University of Wyoming on October 5th, 2006 on “Locating Mormonism on the American Religious Landscape.” It will be at 7:00 pm in the College of Education auditorium. All are invited.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

What Students Need to Know

High school geography and world history textbooks lay the foundation for students’ life-long understanding of the world in which they live. Since the anniversary of 9/11 coincides with the start of the school year, this is a good moment to take stock and consider what our students should know about the world that was not in their textbooks prior to 2001. Since the events of 9/11 highlighted Islam as a religion we did not really notice, let me identify what we now realize our students should know about it.

Students need to know that Europe is home to millions of Muslims. Given Europe’s centuries-long history as the center of Christianity and then as the cradle of the Enlightenment, we have overlooked the large numbers of Muslims who have immigrated into European countries. Immigration has been so large that France may now be 10 percent Muslim, while Holland is 5 percent, and Great Britain 3 percent.

Similarly, students should know that an increasing number of United States of America citizens are Muslims. Islam in the fastest growing religion in the United States and it will shortly become, if it has not already, the second largest religion in the country (after Christianity). In the USA, like Europe, Islam is not a religion out there, but is increasingly “in here.”

Students should learn that successful integration of immigrants, especially Muslims, requires planning and careful thought. As a nation of immigrants, the United States has long known that settling large numbers of newcomers is difficult and that they go through a long period of adjustment, sometimes over two or even three generations. Part of this integration is economic--many of the rioters in Paris last winter and many of the home-grown terrorists recently arrested in Britain are unemployed young Muslim men. But part of the integration is cultural. The Muslim desire for religious and economic freedom often is not matched by a desire to live in a society that promotes individual freedom in cultural and moral spheres of life. In fact, much of the Muslim revulsion against the West (the revulsion that feeds terrorism) is due to our societies’ refusal to require “proper” ethical behavior. This is especially true of the sexually enticing character of Western popular culture.

Students should know that the Muslim world has not undergone an Enlightenment as we understand it. Although the adoption of Islamic mathematical, medical, architectural, and scientific techniques brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, the last three centuries has put such knowledge on a new foundation. During this time, the Enlightenment altered the West from a culture based on religion to a culture based on the application of human reason. This change enabled not only modern science, technology and medicine, but also the social science and humanities, where reason is used to analyze human creations, from art to automobiles, and human activity, whether as individuals or in groups. Indeed, our entire educational system, from K-12 to graduate study, derives from Enlightenment principles of reason.

Students should realize that although many Muslim individuals are excellent scientists, engineers, doctors, and educators (indeed, they will probably be taught by some of them), most Islamic societies have not yet undergone this Enlightenment process. They do not have the social structures in place that mediate between religious and scientific domains of experience. They have not experienced the decades, even centuries, of struggle between the two types of knowledge, religious and scientific, that the West underwent. While such struggles constitute part of the adjustment problems Muslims immigrants have had with Western society for decades, they are also being felt in the Middle East. Iran, for example, has recently called for the expulsion of “liberal professors,” that is, those educated in Western Enlightenment-based thought, from its universities. As Islam seeks to find this balance, its struggles will surely affect the rest of the world.

9/11 brought to the West the recognition that Islam, the globe’s second-largest religion, plays a major part in the world, both in far-away countries and here at home. Our high schools and universities should be preparing their students to live in that world.