Mormonism: Nature Religion or Social Religion?

HawkgrrrlMormon 20 Comments

“God against Man.  Man against God.  Man against Nature.  Nature against man.  Nature against God.  God against nature–very funny religion!” ~Dr. D. T. Suzuki.  Is Mormonism as a restorationist church a “nature” religion or a “social” religion or something in between?

First, let’s clarify the terms:

  • Nature Religions are based on the premise that nature is benevolent (even human nature) and that mankind should strive to be in harmony with nature.  These religions usually emerge when the religious community is tied to a geographic location (e.g. islanders or others who cultivate the land).  Often these religions have a female deity because the whole world is the body of the goddess.
  • Social Religions are based on the idea that nature is evil and must be controlled.  The means to control nature is through “magic” (we would say Priesthood in our religious tradition).  These religions usually emerge when a religious community is nomadic (e.g. wandering in the desert for 40 years, trekking across the plains).  In these religions, God is separate from nature, and nature is condemned by God.  Often these are religions with a male deity because the female represents life and nature – the source of all life – while the male is elsewhere.

What happens when a Social Religion meets a Nature Religion?  Usually, the social religion tries to control the “pagans.”

Joseph Campbell described:  A local jungle native said to a missionary:  “Your god keeps himself shut up in a house as if he were old and infirm.  Ours is in the forest and in the fields and on the mountains when the rain comes.”

“In the Bible we are told that we are the masters.  For hunting people the animal is in many ways the superior.”  ~Joseph Campbell

“In classic Christian doctrine the material world is to be despised, and life is to be redeemed in the hereafter, in heaven, where our rewards come.”  ~Bill Moyer

“The ancient myths were designed to harmonize the mind and the body.  The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want.  The myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.”  ~Joseph Campbell

During OT times, there were many nature cults in which you would go to a grove to commune with diety.  These groups were condemned by the Hebrews who had a temple-bound (or mountain-bound at times) god, and both groups were constantly at war.

Clearly, as a Christian religion, Mormonism has facets of a Social Religion (anti-nature):

  1. The pioneer trek & Zion’s camp were examples of attempts to recreate the nomadic culture of the ancient Hebrews.  These types of cultures require subjugation of nature to ensure one’s very survival.
  2. Priesthood is sometimes described as the power to control nature, even to command the mountains to move.
  3. Male deity is generally associated with anti-nature, social religions.  However, the caveat to this is below.
  4. Sin, the idea that man’s nature is fallen.  Again, this is a Christian concept, so not unique to Mormonism.

So, what are some evidences that Mormonism (as a restorationist movement) has components of nature religion:

  1. Female deity.  Although there is little to no discussion any more of our Heavenly Mother, the fact that we acknowledged God to have an equal female partner is an interesting restored concept and adds balance to the male-dominated deity.
  2. Theosis.  The idea that we are Gods in embryo capable of becoming Gods.  Certainly this ennobles our human nature.
  3. Corporeal resurrection.  Although some religions have this in common, Mormonism is somewhat unique in defining the resurrected body as part of the soul (not just the spirit).  This contradicts the idea that our bodies are inherently sinful and weak.
  4. Second estate.  This is the idea that gaining a body is superior to a purely spiritual existence (like Satan & co).  Again, many religions elevate the spiritual over the physical.  We do the reverse.
  5. Eve’s choice.  Unlike many other Christian religions, our interpretation of the fall is that Eve made the better choice; she chose life and progeny (nature) over obeying the rules.  And if she had not, we wouldn’t be here.  However, the caveat to this is the notion that she was punished.  The question is whether her punishment was a punishment or a natural condition.

There are some other key links between Mormonism and nature religions.  Some of these links are very Mormon, others are common to Christianity:

  1. Sacred groves. Sacred groves were most prominent in the Ancient Near East and prehistoric Europe, but feature in various cultures throughout the world. They were important features of the mythological landscape and cult practice of Celtic, Germanic, ancient Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, and Slavic polytheism, and were also used in India, Japan, and West Africa. Examples of sacred groves include the Greco-Roman temenos, the Norse hörgr, and the Celtic nemeton, which was largely but not exclusively associated with Druidic practice. During the time of Christianisation of Estonia by German invaders starting in 12th century there was a common practice of building churches on the sites of sacred groves.  Mormon mythical connection: Duh, when JS didn’t find God in the local churches (man-made buildings), he found Him in a grove of trees near his home.  Chalk one up for nature!
  2. The “Mountain” of the Lord.  Almost all religions have some sacred mountains – either holy themselves (like Mount Olympus in Greek mythology) or related to famous events (like Mount Sinai in Judaism and descendant religions). In some cases the sacred mountain is purely mythical, like the Peak of Hara in Zoroastrianism. Volcanos were also considered as sacred mountains, such as Mount Etna in Italy, which was believed to be the home of Vulcan the Roman god of fire.  Mormon mythical connectionThe temple is referred to as the “mountain of the Lord”; when the Hebrews couldn’t build a man-made temple, they built tabernacles.  When they couldn’t build tabernacles, they went into a high mountain to commune with God.  The trek to the Rocky Mountains makes this one stand out.  Their man-made temple was destroyed in Nauvoo, so where did they head?  Once again, to the mountains.  Nature wins again!  (Of course, then they built another man-made temple, but it sure took a long time).
  3. The Spirit of God Like a Fire is BurningWorship or deification of fire (also pyrodulia, pyrolatry or pyrolatria) is known from various religions. As fire has also destructive capabilities, the worshipping of fire is necessarily ambiguous. This is indicated in proverbs such as “Fire is a good servant but a bad master”.  Mormon mythical connectionWhile there are some fire / God connections we share with other faiths (burning bush, Israelites following God who was a pillar of fire) in Mormonism, God is described as dwelling in everlasting burnings.  D&C 110: 3 says:  “His aeyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his bcountenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his cvoice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of dJehovah.”  Sounds like a God of fire to me.  Another one for nature!
  4. And the star nearest to God is called Kolob.  Astrolatry refers to the worship of stars and other heavenly bodies as deities, or the association of deities with heavenly bodies. The most common instances of this are sun gods and moon gods in polytheistic systems worldwide. Also notable is the association of the planets with deities in Babylonian, and hence in Greco-Roman religion, viz. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.   The term astro-theology is used in the context of 18th to 19th century scholarship aiming at the discovery of the original religion, particularly primitive monotheism. In contradistinction to astrolatry, which unambiguously implies a polytheism frowned upon as idolatrous by Christian authors since Eusebius, astrotheology is any “religious system founded upon the observation of the heavens.  Mormon mythical connectionWell, this certainly sounds like the Book of Abraham to me!

So, what do you think?  Is Mormonism a nature religion or a social religion or something in between?  Has it changed over time?  Discuss.

Comments 20

  1. Most of the social religion elements of Mormonism are carry-overs from the historic Christian tradition of members. Any of the uniquely restoration items are of a nature religion.

  2. The true religion would be the perfect melding of both. Since, in practice, nothing is done perfectly by humans, we have not achieved that perfect balance. Certainly, Joseph Smith tried to do that, but human nature gravitates to the known and familiar.

  3. Very interesting.

    For a literary analogy, “Heart of Darkness” or “Lord of the Flies” reflect a Social Religion, fallen-nature worldview, whereas “The Catcher in the Rye” (shout-out here to Holden!) reflects a “man is basically good, but corrupted by corrupt society” worldview.

  4. I agree with Jeff…there is a melding of the two.

    God created the earth and nature. They obey His Word (Christ), who can command the elements and walk on water and do miracles by having power over this natural world, and the Power of the Priesthood is to have faith in God’s will and power, and that nothing is impossible with God.

    I think these are balanced by God knowing all things and also adhering to the natural laws of the universe, or the eternal truths, which He must also obey or He would cease to become God.

    However, like Justin said…I think most things focused in the church are “carry-overs” of christian teachings. I would say it emphasizes the social religion, sprinkled lightly on top with natural religion…something like that.

  5. Great post, Hawkgrrrl.

    As a tremendous fan of sacred groves, I’m interested in hearing more from Justin about the restoration and nature.

    And if we do have the potential to be a nature religion, how wonderful it would be to see that become a more articulate aspect of our faith practice.

  6. The notion that nature (including human nature) is basically good, is something that informed the thinking of Pelagius. Augustine got his thinking declared heretical. While Augustine’s pessimism may have been over the top (he was living, after all, amid the collapse of the Roman Empire; frequent exposure to hairy stinky head-choppy barbarians certainly doesn’t elevate one’s view of human nature), Pelagius’s optimism, in my view, overlooks what appears to be indisputable evidence that there are some really dark aspects to human nature, which simply can’t just be socialized away. The idea that this is possible, animated the old Soviet dream of the New Communist Man, and, to a much lesser extent, the American liberal idea that given the proper opportunities, the “root causes” of dysfunction will melt away, and most everyone could do most anything. Pshaw. Some folks are just bad to the bone; other people, not quite so much, but still flawed.

    So color me at least a little bit Augustinian.

  7. RE #7
    The folks who are just bad to the bone didn’t have the opportunity of being born here on earth.

    RE #6
    My favorite story in regards to the restoration and nature is about Joseph telling members of Zion’s camp to be kind to brute creation because the snake will only lose its venom when the Saints set the example by not having venom themselves. Also, there are the elements of the mountain/grove/cosmology worship mentioned in the original post. Given the absence of set-apart meeting places — it is instructive that the Lord has always communed with His people in nature: e.g. mountains as Temples, rivers as baptismal fonts, and groves as meeting houses.

  8. Justin: if I recall Bushman in RSR correctly, after JS sermonizes about serpents, he kills one later the same day.

    I think like most Christian religions, Mormonism is squarely in the “social religion” category. I don’t see Godly manifestations on mountaintops, in groves, or in bodies of water as representative of a God who is _in_ all nature. These spaces were set apart from the rest of nature as a sacred space that could be filled with God. Temples occupy this same separated, set apart space, a celestial pinpoint in a fallen world. By contrast, from Hawkgrrrl’s definition, nature religions see Deity imbued in all of nature, and not in just one or two special places. In this, I don’t think the vague doctrinal hints of a Heavenly Mother, or reclaiming Eve from the conventional perception of her fruit-eating as the cause of all of mankind’s troubles even come close to conceiving LDS religion in natural terms. IMO, for the LDS, God and his power are very male-oriented, we are all strangers in a strange land, and Zion is always in the future and never in the present, which present is a fallen world mostly controlled by Satan.

  9. Very good questions, Hawkgrrrl, and a very interesting classification system.

    I tend to see all of nature as God’s “body”; since the CofChrist tradition views God as “taking on” human form to deal with our limitations, rather than inherently “having” that form, I start from a different point.

    However, I’ve sometimes thought a good analogy of priesthood is as functioning as part of the “nervous system” — not necessarily a unique part on cosmic scales — through which God controls His own creation.

    So I would see Mormonism in the classification of this post as controlling nature BY harmonizing with it. In fact, the integration of spirit and physical may be a lot about helping the spiritual parts of our nature truly take control of the physical parts.

  10. #8: Poetic license. Technically, I guess it would be “hard-core lower Telestial material to the bone.”

    Re: snakes, clearly the people who put a “Clobber Snake” function in “Frontierville” on Facebook hadn’t read Joseph’s serpentine moralizing.

  11. Joanna: “if we do have the potential to be a nature religion, how wonderful it would be to see that become a more articulate aspect of our faith practice” I love this notion!

    I think individuals are predisposed to be either nature-harmony types or social-mastery types. But it’s also a fine line. For example, if I like to work out, is that mastery of the body (at war with flab and atrophy) or is it becoming in harmony with the body (muscles must be flexed and stretched to release their energy and be at their peak performance)? In that example, while it seems like the same thing from the outside, it’s really a very different attitude, and a very different perspective on life. Likewise, how we look at medicine is revealing. Do we as individuals focus on staying well through a variety of means or on fighting sickness only (when it presents itself)?

    While I think I aspire to nature-harmony, it’s so easy to lapse into social-mastery.

  12. Hawkgrrrl, very nice post. I teach every few years a class called Religion and the Environment. I think in someways we’ve gotten to far from our ‘Nature-religion’ roots. I notice that NR aspects also tend to be experiential rather than doctrinal. Nature for me creates feelings of reverence and awe that I have trouble experiencing in social aspects of worship.

    Thanks for this. I think I’ll have to save this post for my class to read!

  13. RE #9

    Nature religions see Deity imbued in all of nature.
    You see nothing uniquely Mormon about that?
    “All things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God

    If it is true that, “for the LDS, God and his power are very male-oriented,” and “Zion is always in the future and never in the present,” then that is the problem of the Saints — and it speaks nothing about the nature of our worship. That we’ve made the order of the priesthood into a hierarchal order resembling Gentile kingship and that we’ve placed Zion into a utopian future, unattainable with “untempered/telestial” people does not make God’s power necessarily male-oriented nor does it make Zion never in the present.

  14. Great post Hawk as usual!

    It seems to me that perhaps Joseph’s religion was a pretty good mix, but it feels to me like we have wandered away from the nature and more to the social.

    One question that came up for me while reading the post is the dynamic between what fundamentalist Mormons still believe, vs. the direction the LDS church is headed. That is to say, are the nature and social aspects two mutually exclusive forces each trying to have their way? If we gain ground on the nature aspect do we give up ground in the social? It seems like these two might be at odds, at least superficially. Can they even co-exist in one religion without one extreme taking over?

  15. Re Natasha & Thomas’ point in 16 & 17, Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning that he was continually surprised to find that the same mix of good and evil that existed superficially in man existed side by side at the deepest levels too. People always had the opportunity before them to be great humanists or montrous terrors. It’s a fascinating idea.

    I do think that nature and social are at odds within each of us individually, and within the church at large. You’ll hear a very “nature” GC talk about God being evidenced in the glories of nature around us, followed by one on the sinful, carnal nature of man and our need to overcome our baseness. And yet I’m not sure they aren’t both partly right. Surely part of becoming our best is overcoming our worst impulses. We have to both play to our strengths and strengthen our weakness.

  16. I really think we’re speaking to topics with which we might have little understanding (myself included). I maintain that although JS’s teachings reoriented some traditional Christian notions of the Earth and mortality as inherently evil, his teachings are a far cry from what I understand to be the orientation of so-called “nature religions”, and that most of these natural and quasi-magical tidbits in the theology have largely disappeared over the course of the last 150 years.

    Perusing the literature, perhaps one of us has read one of the following books? They might help understand nature religions and the place of nature in the American religious consciousness. Cheers.

    Nature Religion In America : From The Algonkian Indians To The New Age / Catharine L. Albanese (University of Chicago Press, 1990).
    Nature Religion Today : Paganism In The Modern World / Joanne Pearson, Richard Roberts, Geoffrey Samuel, eds. (University of Edinburgh Press, 1998).
    Reconsidering Nature Religion / Catharine L. Albanese (Trinity Press International, 2002).
    The Nature Of Magic An Anthropology Of Consciousness / Susan Greenwood (Berg, 2005).
    Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present / John Gatta (Oxford University Press, 2004).
    The Sacred Depths of Nature / Ursula Goodenough (Oxford University Press, 2000).
    Wilderness and the American Mind / Roderick Nash (Yale University Press, 4th ed. 2001).
    A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion / Catharine L. Albanese (Yale University Press, 2008).
    This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment / Roger Gottlieb, ed. (Routledge, 2nd ed. 2003).
    Nature Worship / Hargrave Jennings (1891).

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