Mormonism and Capitalism

Yesterday I submitted a post comparing and contrasting Communism with Mormonism.  Today I’d like to do the same with Capitalism.   In doing so, I attempt to explore where it is Mormons might stand between these two opposite poles of the political and economic landscape.  Capitalism is easier for most Mormons to sympathize with, because it happens to be the most successful and transformative economic system in human history, and naturally, we want to be associated with winners.  Communism of course, is a big loser, and it’s easy to hate.

Capitalism is More of a Science than an Ideology

Ironically, it’s harder to compare Capitalism to Mormonism because, unlike
 Communism, Capitalism is not so much an ideology as a set of scientific
 principles used to analyze economic behavior when individuals are 
given autonomy.  There are no articles of faith, no 
beliefs to enforce or encourage, nor is there any ultimate vision or
 utopian goal.

  But the fact that Capitalism is an expression of scientific 
truth is the number one reason why Mormons, as truth collectors, 
should embrace and accept it’s reality, just as we should accept all demonstrable 
science.  Just because the science of capitalism expresses truths about some of the more base and competitive instincts of mankind doesn’t mean we should ignore those instincts.

Capitalism demands certain basic parameters and conditions in 
order to operate effectively; and these parameters are very consistent
 with many of the basic beliefs of Mormons: individual freedom, and 
basic security from crime, war, or government interference, like
 excessive taxation and regulation.  These same values are highly 
regarded in The Book of Mormon, where the 50% tax of the Lamanites was 
viewed as a burden almost equal to slavery.

But freedom and security are just the parameters necessary for 
Capitalism to flourish.  The fundamental law that powers capitalism is
 called “the profit motive.”  It states that humans are most 
highly motivated by their own self-interest, and self-interest is 
the most powerful motivator for economic growth and prosperity.  The
 profit motive works in harmony with competition among individuals or 
groups for economic resources and dominion.

The Problem of Self-Interest

Hugh Nibley argued that Mormonism is incompatible with Capitalism because of these “natural,” profit motivated instincts.  The Book of Mormon says that the “natural man is an enemy to God.”  Christ invites us to become saints, reject self-interest in favor of selflessness and charity, and reject competition for unity in 
the body of Christ.

  However, it’s important to note that The Book of Mormon also continually appeals 
to our own selfish interest:  “If you keep my commandments, you shall
prosper in the land…if you do not, you shall be cut off from my
presence.”  Brigham Young claimed that everything he had ever done in 
the church, he had done for his own self-interest:

“What object have I in saying to the Latter-day Saints, do this, that or the other? It is for my own benefit, it is for your benefit; it is for my own wealth and happiness, and for your wealth and happiness that we pay tithing and render obedience to any requirement of Heaven.  We can not add anything to the Lord by doing these things.”

It might be said that our self-interest, while an understandable motivation, is not the highest and noblest of human instincts, and that it should eventually be replaced with pure, unselfish love.  But as we live in a fallen world, God and has prophets have continually appealed to our self interest to motivate us, and thus Capitalism is no great evil, but simply a pragmatic solution to the situation we find ourselves in.

The Problem of Competition

The principle of competition is more problematic.  It produces winners
 and losers.  The strong thrive and the weak flounder.  While 
weaknesses and strengths are sometimes the result of individual choice 
and merit, more often they are distributed among people by virtue of 
their birth: through DNA, monetary, educational, or upbringing 
advantages.  Through competition, Capitalism often becomes an unequal form
 of government, where the poor, lesser educated, and the less astute tend to get poorer, while the smart, educated, and rich tend to get richer.  These gaps grow over time when capitalism is left unfettered.

Proponents of pure capitalism argue that this is the natural order of
things.  This idea is called “Social Darwinism,” because it mimics the theory of evolution, wherein strong species thrive, and weaker ones
 become extinct.  This theory was popular in intellectual circles 
around the turn of the century, and many of the horrors of the
 Industrial Revolution were rationalized by this idea.  While thousands
 were dying in poverty and terrible working conditions, the rich were 
creating an unprecedented amount of money and power.  People like
 Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan built America into the great world
 civilization it is today, but they did it at extraordinary cost in 
terms of cheap, expendable human labor of those too weak to become
 like them within the capitalist system.  I can think of nothing 
compatible in Mormon doctrine with this kind of ruthless competition.

Bridling our Passions: Regulated Capitalism

However, this kind of pure Capitalism is not what is practiced today.
 While Communism was overthrowing Imperialism in Russia in the early
 part of the 20th Century, in the US, the excesses of Capitalism were
 creating a backlash as well.  This led to a rise in government
regulation that control capitalist phenomenon like monopolies, and the rise of
workers rights and labor unions.  Two world wars, and a depression led
 to a reawakening of religious values, over the secular ideas of Social
 Darwinism.  Thus what we have in the US today, is a capitalism 
bridled by government regulation, with some basic social safety nets put in place for those who fall behind in the Capitalist race, and a highly religious populace, that moderates through charitable giving.  This mixture of socialism, religion, and
 capitalism has led to the rise of the middle class, wherein a much 
greater percentage of the populace enjoys prosperity, education,
homeownership, and opportunity.  It has been the most remarkable and
successful form of economy in the history of the world.

This bridled form of Capitalism fits well within Mormon doctrine.  The 
Book of Mormon teaches us that we should “bridle our passions.”  We
 don’t deny that we have passions and instincts, rather we bridle them 
through obedience to basic laws and commandments. Likewise, we don’t
 deny that Capitalism is the true and natural expression of human 
passion and instinct.  But instead of squashing that instinct, we 
bridle it through appropriate government regulation and religious 

  I think that what Mormons should find most compelling about
 Capitalism, is that it expresses basic truths about human nature.  As 
Mormons, we are to collect all truth, whatever the source.  And 
inasmuch as Capitalism expresses a fundamental truth about human
 nature, it should be something we embrace and come to understand and
 appreciate.  God made us human.  He made us Capitalists.  That is our 
nature.  But he also gave us laws and commandments so we wouldn’t 
become like the children of Lord of the Flies.

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Mormonism and Communism

Sure, Communism is evil.  But like many of Satan’s “glass imitations,” it has some powerful truths mixed with its errors, and Mormons share many of those same truths. These similarities might make us uncomfortable, given Communism’s terrible reputation.   It’s tempting to casually dismiss Communism as “Satan’s plan,” while ignoring the many similarities between it and the Law of Consecration.  We often dodge the issue by claiming that the Law of Consecration was not forced upon people as Communism was, and that makes all the difference, since in Satan’s plan, there is no free-agency.  But I’d like to take a closer look at the similarities and differences between Communism and Mormonism, with the intent of understanding both traditions in a more nuanced way.

The Zeal of Converts and Work Ethic

Before Communism became authoritarian, it was a grassroots collective of millions of zealous adherents, recruited in the same way any religion gains recruits.  It’s converts had tremendous passion, evangelical zeal, and absolute obedience.  The faith of early Communists rival the faith of our early saints and martyrs.  They were incredibly hard workers. Work itself was the supreme value, their first article of faith.  They believed they were part of a revolution, a new world order that would require incredible sacrifice, discipline, and endurance.   They would have been shocked and dismayed to hear that their cause would later be associated with free handouts and collective lethargy.  For the first decades of Communism, its numbers grew not out of compulsion but out of individual free will and the courageous commitment to it’s cause in the face of great opposition.

Doctrinal and Cultural Similarities

The doctrine and practices of early Communism are similar to those of Zion and the millennium: no poor among them, all things in common, faith, obedience, loyalty, education, unity, industry, progress, and above all, the dignity and worth of the individual, the lost sheep, the least among us.  Both Zion and the Communists valued traditional morality: anti-adultery, pro-family, etc.   In both ideologies, pure doctrine was tightly controlled and overseen. Over time, in both traditions, complicated doctrines and theories were simplified so as to appeal to the masses and be understood by all.  In both ideologies, children are the most important of all: the rising generation is the greatest ever.  Children are the future!   The simple and pure nature of Communist and LDS doctrine could be understood and articulated out of the mouth of babes.  As in Zion, early Communists had their prophets, their scriptures, their tracts and literature, testimony meetings to inspire obedience and faithfulness to the cause, their call to evangelize political action to pursue their righteous causes.   And while consecration was not forced upon the LDS people in communities where it was practiced, people who didn’t practice it were still subject to chastisement in the form of revelations from the prophet, if they did not obey.  Most of all, there was the absolute knowledge that this was best way, the only way.  All other ideologies were corrupt and apostate.

If you examine LDS and Communist media and arts, you will find there
are many significant similarities.  Both created there own new
 collection of music and hymns which were championed and sung by the
people in primary schools and other meetings, which contained utopian
visions of their doctrines.  They removed references in their hymns 
and sermons to previous ideologies which were apostate.  They both had
 numerous parades, celebrations, and loved to have big spectaculars and
pageants, designed to inspire wonder and awe in the audience.  They
 both made lots of sentimental films and other media featuring lots of
joyous tears, pictures of happy families, and inspiring admonitions to
faith in the ideology.

The Problem of Agency

Early Communists didn’t think they were taking people’s freedom away:
”Satan’s plan.”  They weren’t enslaving the people, they were freeing
 them.  For centuries, 99% of the people were poor and had been
 ruthlessly ruled by the 1% of the rich and elite. Communism was designed to overthrow the 1% and empower and free the 99%.   The poor people were
 already in desperate straights, with zero opportunities, and Communism
 represented new freedoms and opportunities for them.  Once this happened, Communists assumed that people would naturally work hard and be industrious, collectively believing in a new world of progress and prosperity for all.

 Communists didn’t expect to have to “force” their will widely upon the
 people, as in Satan’s plan.  They thought that once the selfish and 
degenerate 1% of elite were removed, with all their evil and unnatural
 books and ideas, that everyone else would naturally accept the
self-evident true principles upon which Communism was built by their 
own free will and choice.  This is similar to the millennial belief that one day 
the wicked will be burned, and that everyone left will all be obedient
 and righteous, not out of compulsion, but of their own free will.
  While all the evil books and apostates were hidden away in Communism, 
so also in the Millennium, Satan will be bound, and with his influence
 no longer present, people will naturally be righteous.  Communists 
didn’t expect that their revolution would cause widespread 
bloodshed and decades of economic depression and eventual ruin.

The Blindness of Faith Leading to Bloodshed

We think of the leaders of the Communist parties as monsters and
 murderers.  While this is certainly this is the case for some, it is a gross exaggeration for others.  While they knew that their New World 
Order would require some bloodshed to free the people from the wicked, 
evil elite, they never imagined it would usher in decades of brutal
 terror.  As time went on, these great apostles of Communism started to
 see that the battle would require more blood than they thought, but 
they still believed that utopia was just around the corner, so they 
continued.  Their faith was unshakable.  But after awhile, it became 
clear that their dream was a nightmare, and many of them, like Trotsky
, branched off and tried to find more workable approaches.  Many of 
these early Communist apostles were killed, and the ones that remained 
were left with terrible blood on their hands, and nothing to show for
 it, so they became seen as murderers and criminals.  But that doesn’t 
mean that they didn’t do start out with the most righteous and pure of 

When I look back at my zeal as a young missionary in the MTC, I think that
 probably, I would have been a diligent young Communist at that age, were that the culture I was born into.  Hopefully, I would have stopped as soon as it became clear that the bloodshed and revolution would never cease, but I can’t be sure.  It would depend on how strong my faith in the cause was.  The fact that we have our own Mountain Meadow Massacre, is reason enough to question the power of our own faith and determination, when venturing out onto thinner and thinner ice.

Atheism: Communism’s Greatest Mistake

While it’s true that Communism was atheistic, one has to remember 
that the religions of the day were 
corrupt, intolerant and
 hostile to the ideology.  But even as they rejected the idea of God,
 Communists pursued their ideology in the same fashion as proponents of a
 religion would.   They also adopted science and technology as a kind
 of pseudo religion.   This is similar to Mormonism.  We also saw all
 religions around us as corrupt and hostile. Joseph Smith and many 
of the early apostles were intellectuals and free-thinkers, with very
 modern ideas about science and true religion being compatible.

Ultimately however, the rejection of God was probably the greatest mistake of Communism.  They were unable to see how closely Communism’s own values resembled true Christianity.   Had the founders of Communism accepted God and religion, it might have saved them from blood and horror, and found a more workable and enduring form.

In the US, what has saved Capitalism from being a depraved hole of Social Darwinism, is the fact that it’s practitioners also believe in Christian principles, and have set up churches, charities, and numerous social services that work beside
 Capitalism, moderating and taming it’s more base instincts.  This combination of Christian 
values, with the powerful social instincts of Capitalism, have made it 
the greatest and most prosperous form of government ever known to man.

Concluding Thoughts

While pure Communism no longer exists, more moderate forms of Socialism do, and have been incorporated into almost every economy on earth today.  Our own economy is a mixture of Socialism and Capitalism.  However, finding a workable balance of these two forms, is becoming increasingly difficult, as proponents of both Capitalism and Socialism become more extreme, continually painting the opposing side as “evil.”  I agree with most Mormons that Communism is an unworkable system of government that had to be scraped.  However, elements of Socialism can play a positive and moderating role in an effective
 Capitalist government.   I believe that understanding the roots and initial similarities of both our traditions can help us see our current political situation in a more nuanced light, leading to greater understanding and progress.

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Mormonism: Monastic, or Pragmatic?

The LDS church is very unpopular with homosexuals these days.  I work with several gays and it’s been difficult to find ways to explain my beliefs to them and others who sympathize with the gay agenda.  I myself have also struggled with my own beliefs on the topic.  While there are no easy answers, the following paradigm has helped me to define the issue in a way that offers some perspective:

All religious traditions can be described as having either monastic or pragmatic elements.   The LDS tradition includes both.  Understanding how the two interact can help us to put some of the problematic and complicated elements of our faith into greater perspective.


Monastic traditions, in their broadest sense, are characterized by their peculiarities.  A group of participants willingly submit to various commandments and practices that serve to separate them from the world, set them apart, make them a peculiar people, saints, “a chosen generation.”  Monastic traditions are characterized by ritual: practices which may have no specific pragmatic purpose, but allow the participant to demonstrate humility and obedience in return for spiritual benefits.  Examples include the Sabbath Day, Temple ritual, prayer, meditation, baptism, sacrament, etc.

Within monastic traditions, the practices and commandments may vary, from Old Testament circumcision, to New Testament celibacy, to Mormon polygamy.  What the practices are is not necessarily as important as the humility the participant demonstrates by submitting themselves to the peculiarities of the particular order, as revealed by God to the prophet for the order.

The practices may be invigorating and inspiring, but on the surface, they may seem “unnatural,” pointless, or even impossible.  But this doesn’t mater, because the purpose of the monastic tradition is not to promote mortal efficiency and self-fulfillment.  The point is to deliberately separate oneself from the world in order to spiritually attune oneself with the kingdom “not of this world.”

Jesus began his mortal ministry with a call that was purely monastical, “come follow me…leave your nets…let the dead bury the dead.”   It may sound like insanity to some to abandon family and work, but when you hear the voice of God, you follow, no matter where it may lead you or what it might ask of you.

Pragmatic Religion

In a pragmatic religion, participants obey commandments and engage in practices which they believe are specifically designed to make their lives more fulfilling, and that will protect them from the evils of the world.  The purpose of all these commandments and practices is to promote the most basic of all human desires: happiness.  This is the spirit of the Proclamation on the Family: “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  The Book of Mormon’s cardinal law is pragmatic: “If you keep my commandments, you shall prosper in the land.

Pragmatic religions claim to be based on universal principles which apply to all mankind.  Prophets of pragmatic religions are not merely prophets for a specific “chosen people” but are prophets for the whole world.

The God of a pragmatic religion is a God of reason and order, who lovingly provides principles and prophets for their protection in a dangerous and uncertain world.  His laws are reasonable, rational, and self-evident.

Mormonism: A Mixture of Pragmatism and Monasticism

Mormonism incorporates elements of both traditions.  Individual commandments can be defined in both ways.  For example, the Word of Wisdom is a “pragmatic” word to the wise, designed to protect the saints from the “evil designs of wicked men in the last days.”  But it also can be interpreted as a sign which sets Mormons apart from the world, and offers a test of humility and obedience to God’s latter day church and his prophets.

Homosexuality in the Pragmatic View

One’s attitude to homosexuality will be entirely different whether you approach your religion pragmatically or monastically.  A completely ideologically pragmatic Mormon will likely consider homosexuality to be unnatural to the reasonable and self-evident order of God.  As Paul described it in the New Testament, it is “against nature…unseemly.”   In the pragmatic view, homosexuals are expected to abandon these unnatural perversions and embrace the universal, natural, and self-evident order of creation: monogamous heterosexuality.  Homosexuality, because it is “against nature,” must have necessarily developed through sin, and therefore, by repenting, and coming to Christ, one can overcome it, and obtain all the wonderful blessings of marriage and family that God so generously offers us all, if not in this life, then the life to come. A Pragmatic Mormon embraces the principles of marriage and family as universal and ordained of God, and cannot conceive of a God that might deliberately create people unfit for heterosexual marriage, or justify some people in forgoing marriage by giving them an incompatible sexual orientation.

Thus a purely pragmatic Mormon finds himself opposed to the scientific and sociological consensus that some homosexuals are indeed, “born that way,” and that homosexuality is sometimes irreversible.  A pragmatic Mormon therefore, must either consider the science to be wrong, or else confront the frightening idea that perhaps his own beliefs are wrong.

Homosexuality in the Monastic View

A monastic Mormon has no such problems.  Already committed to the idea that the “natural man is an enemy to God,” it doesn’t bother a monastic Mormon that homosexuals were perhaps “born that way.”  The arbitrary nature of a God who would create a religion which denies the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage to some and not to others, is consistent with the God of a “peculiar people” who demands sacrifice from His saints in uneven ways throughout the ages: martyrdom for some, polygamy for others, tithing for some, complete consecration for others.  Additionally, a monastic Mormon will not see homosexuality as an issue outside of Mormonism, because monastic commandments are peculiar to our particular order, serving to separate us, and do not apply to those outside the order.

Monastic Mormons, like pragmatists, will insist that Homosexuals who want to be fully participate in the LDS church only engage in sex within a heterosexual marriage.  But not because this is the “universal natural order,” but because this is the commandment of God for this particular order of Mormonism.

Concluding Thoughts

I think most Mormons may view their religion a bit too pragmatically, without enough understanding of the monastic element.  A typical Mormon with a profile on will claim to be a normal guy, with a wife and kinds, who works hard, plays hard, and finds fulfillment in his church service and the good, honest principles it encourages.   Yet in Gospel Doctrine class, this same man will talk frankly about the extraordinary and unnatural sacrifices expected of saints in former dispensations, trying a bit awkwardly to “liken scriptures to himself.”  He will talk about “trying to become like Jesus” but perhaps without fully considering the question Jesus asked Peter, when Peter said he would follow Him: “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Which Peter actually did drink of, because he also was crucified.)  He may not have truly considered what it might mean to “deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me,” because the sacrifices of this dispensation are much more mild than they have been in the past.

Confronting the reality of irreversible or inborn homosexuality offers this typical pragmatically oriented Mormon a chance to confront what it might truly mean to “deny yourself and pick up your cross” in today’s world, a true monastic commitment.  A gay man, trying to be a Mormon is most likely living a sacrifice of Biblical proportions.  If we can perceive this, we can see that God is the same today, yesterday and forever.  For even in our day, He tries his people in sometimes extraordinary and incomprehensible ways.  We can begin to abandon the arrogant assumption that His ways are always self-evident, and instead embrace the truth that His ways are higher than our ways.  As Jacob says in the Book of Mormon:  “How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways.”

Homosexuality offers us a chance to explore the purely monastic elements of our faith.  As we do, I think we will find greater love and acceptance of our gay brothers and sisters, and appreciate in a profound way the sacrifice they are making to be counted as one with the saints, the peculiar Mormon people.

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Paul Gaugin and the Beauty of a Fallen World

I went to the National Gallery in DC and spent about 5 hours there.  My current favorite artist is Paul Gauguin, replacing Monet at least for now.  Monet is obsessed with finding the metaphysical essence of the nature around him, and seeing his paintings is literally for me a spiritual experience.  But this time around, even though I could feel the spirit in his work, I felt like I didn’t connect with it.  I just don’t see nature like that anymore.  I see darkness in nature, and even evil.  More than ever, I see this earth as a fallen world, and I don’t think God wants us to escape into the “purity” of nature or temple or whatever to get away from this fallen world.   I don’t think Jesus saw the world around him through the eyes of Monet, in it’s perfection and pristine spirituality.

That’s why Gauguin resonated with me so much more.  In his Polynesian paintings there is great spirituality evoked through color and composition, but also darkness, sensuality, and a lot of mystical symbolism.

One painting I starred at for a long time was “Words of the Devil.”  In the painting, an Eve-like Polynesian woman encounters a spooky woman with a mask, looking into a brilliant, blood red pool, surrounded by dark woods.  I don’t know why, but that painting feels like life, and like my dreams, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  The museum had a couple more Gauguins and in each one, the colors were resplendently beautiful.  I felt like Gauguin, more than any other artist in the entire museum knew how to use color to full advantage.

I left the museum with a new appreciation of the power of color.  I unfortunately have little taste when it comes to color coordination, but I would like to learn.  I’m going to look for a good book about it.  I’ve already learned some good principles, like the fact that opposite colors look good together, like blue/orange, or red/green.  I try to pair brownish or orange ties with blue shirts, stuff like that.  As I’ve started to think more about color, I’ve started to recognize adroitly combined color combinations, even though I wouldn’t know how to create those combinations myself.

I think that designers and photographers may have an advantage over the rest of us, in that they are more richly affected by the colors, textures, and compositions that surround us.  I think this may help them live more in the moment, with greater awareness, and less disconnectedness.

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Embracing Evolution With the Help of William Blake

As a young Mormon missionary, I remember seeing a Cro-Magnon man on the cover of National Geographic.  It filled me with terrible doubt and dread, because at the time, I was under the misconception that Mormons could not embrace evolution and retain a testimony.  Since I’ve discovered that many faithful Mormons, even some apostles and prophets accept the idea of evolution, and this gave me great comfort to know that true Mormonism embraces anything that can be demonstrated to be true, whether in science or religion.

But for a long time after I accepted the theory of Evolution, I found it
 impossible to accept the idea that Adam could have been formed by 
evolution.  On my mission I had read about Brigham Young’s theory that 
Adam was the literal, physical offspring of God.  I found this idea
 intoxicating.  I would look at my hand, and think, “Wow, God is
 literally my grandfather!  I’m related to him, I’m the son of a God,
 not only in spirit, but in flesh!”

Abandoning this beautiful theory was difficult for me, but I started realizing there could also be great beauty in the idea of being a child
 of evolution.  There is a powerful feeling of romantic oneness with
 nature that comes from the realization that we are related to all 
living things.  The idea of a physical God with parts and passions is
 something very few have experienced, like Joseph Smith and the Brother 
of Jared.  But Nature, the expression of God’s creativity and 
greatness, is something everyone can relate to.  Being a product of 
evolution makes us one with Nature, and thus one with this incredible 
expression of divinity fully manifest all around us, at all times.  (And Brigham Young’s Adam-God Theory can be adapted to include evolution, and be used to explain the mechanism by which the God we worship, the one seen by Joseph Smith, is in the form of a man.  Just speculation of course:)

I read this beautiful poem by William Blake the other day called “The Book of
 Thel.”  In it a young girl named Thel talks with a character called “the
 clod of clay” and “the worm” about the meaning of life.   Clod of Clay expresses a profound truth to Thel.  I think it takes on special
 meaning if we believe that God “fashioned us” from the dust of the
 earth, and that we are literally are the offspring of worms.

“O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves;
Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed;
My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,
But he that loves the lowly, pours his oil upon my head,
And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,
And says: ‘Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee
And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.’
But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;
I ponder, and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love.”
The daughter of beauty wip’d her pitying tears with her white veil,
And said: “Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.
That God would love a Worm, I knew, and punish the evil foot
That, wilful, bruis’d its helpless form; but that he cherish’d it
With milk and oil I never knew; and therefore did I weep,
And I complaind in the mild air, because I fade away,
And lay me down in thy cold bed, and leave my shining lot.”
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Swedenbourg’s Heaven and Hell: Resonances with Mormonism

A friend of mine recommended Emmanuel Swedenborg’s classic Heaven, it’s Wonders and Hell, and I’ve been slowly working my way through it.   Swedenborg’s 18th century revelations about heaven anticipate many of the claims Joseph Smith would later make, including three degrees of glory, eternal marriage, and eternal progression.

Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, mystic, and theologian.  His early work as a scientist provided groundbreaking work on the anatomy of the brain and nervous system. Later in his life he began to have dreams, visions, conversations with angels, and various other psychic experiences.  He wrote many books on theological and mystical topics, of which Heaven It’s Wonders and Hell is the most famous.  He approaches his topics in a kind of rational, didactic way, as a scientist might.

His theology is beautiful and rich, and so much of it seems to fit naturally within the context of Mormonism.  Here are a few insights that resonated with me.

Heaven is within

The Book of Mormon says “you would be more miserable to dwell with a just God under the consciousness of your filthiness before him, then you would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.”  Swedenborg takes this concept a step further, suggesting that the spirits in heaven are free to go to whatever degree of heaven or hell they would like, but that they are truly miserable if they try to enter a heaven higher or lower than what they are prepared for in their spiritual interiors.

“These were permitted to enter among such angels.  But when they were there they could see no one, however much they searched, although there was a great multitude present; for the interiors of the newcomers not having been opened in the same degree as the interiors of the angels there, their sight was not so opened. Presently they were seized with such anguish of heart that they scarcely knew whether they were alive or not. Therefore they hastily betook themselves to the heaven from which they came, glad to get back among their like, and pledging themselves that they would no longer covet higher things than were in agreement with their life.”

“It can in no sense be said that heaven is outside of any one; it is within him.  For it is in accordance with the heaven that is within him that each angel receives the heaven that is outside of him.”

Facing God/ Facing each other

Among the angels in Swedenborg’s world, there is an idea that they are continually facing God, and receiving from Him, all good that is in them.  “They refuse all thanks for the good they do, and are displeased and withdraw if any one attributes good to them.”  As Jesus said to the rich young man, “why callest thou me good.  There is none good but God.”   All the good in the angels comes from God, from facing and receiving that good from Him, as heat and light from the sun.  Swedenborg says angels are called “gods” inasmuch as they have received God in them.

Likewise, all communication with other angels is done facing each other.  They do not hear the words in the form of sound vibrations from speech, but rather through receiving from the “aura” of the angel facing you, the nature of their “affections.”  It sounds to the listener like human speech, but in actuality, it is your own mind receiving the thoughts of another, and translating them into your own language.  I thought this was an interesting way to think about revelation.  When someone hears an audible or inaudible voice from heaven, how is that message exactly received?  Swedenborg’s analysis seems convincing.  Light and intelligence is directed into your mind, and your mind “hears” it and automatically puts it into it’s own language.

Auras in Heaven

“There are spiritual spheres of life emanating from and surrounding every angel, man, and spirit, by which their quality in respect to the affections of their love is known, sometimes at a great distance.  For with everyone these spheres flow forth from the life of his affection and consequent thought, or from the life of his love and consequent faith.  The spheres that go forth from angels are so full of love as to affect the inmost of life of those who are with them.”

This idea of “readable” auras in heaven also explains why hypocrites, or those who do good deeds and say good things, but don’t have good hearts cannot dwell in heaven: because the heart is an open book, and the ugliness of their aura is immediately perceived.  Everyone would immediately see them as hypocrites.

The presence of these auras constitute the reality and personality of each angel, in the same way that our physical appearance does here on earth.  In heaven, those with beautiful auras will be the most beautiful.  This also corresponds to the scripture “man looks on the outward appearance, the Lord looks on the heart.”

Good versus Truth

In Swedenbourg’s heaven, there are three degrees of glory: Celestial, Spiritual, and Natural.   The Celestial Kingdom corresponds to “good,” and the Spiritual Kingdom corresponds to “truth.”   Another symbol he uses: good=heat, truth=light.

“Truths apart from good are not in themselves truths because they have no life; for truth have all their life from good.  Thus truths apart from good are like a body without a soul.”

I find this a sobering indictment of my own emphasis on rational argument over kindness and love.  If Swedenborg is correct, I will eventually need to reorient entirely my approach to truth and good if I am to find myself in the Celestial Kingdom:

“The celestial angels do not reason about truths of faith, because they perceive them in themselves; but the spiritual angels reason about them whether they are true or not.  As soon as the celestial angels hear Divine truths, they will and do them, instead of storing them up in the memory and afterwards considering whether they are true.  They know at once by influx from the Lord whether the truth they hear is true; for the Lord flows directly into man’s willing, but mediately through his willing into his thinking.”

“The angels in the Lord’s celestial kingdom, from their more interior reception of the Divine of the Lord, far excel in wisdom and glory the angels that are in His spiritual kingdom; for they are in love to the Lord, and consequently are nearer and more closely conjoined to Him. These angels are such because they have received and continue to receive Divine truths at once in their life, and not first in memory and thought, as the spiritual angels do.  Consequently they have Divine truths written in their hearts, and they perceive them, and as it were see them, in themselves; nor do they ever reason about them whether they are true or not.  They are such as are described in Jeremiah: I will put my law in their mind, and will write it in their heart.  They shall teach no more everyone his friend and  everyone his brother saying, Know ye the Lord.  They shall know Me, from the least of them even to the greatest of them.  And they are called in Isaiah: Taught of the Lord.”

Anyway, I’ve written down many other things I’m learning from the book, and I’ll share more as I go along.  I’m about half way through.

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Nathan Hale, the Blundering Patriot

I’ve been listening to David McCullough’s book 1776 to and from Breckenridge, and was happy to learn more about Nathan Hale, the famous patriot and martyr of the Revolution. He was always someone I was proud to share a name with. We all know that he was a spy, who was caught at age 21 and at his hanging said something like “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Apparently, he was a reckless and blundering spy, quite out of his league, and hopeless to truly accomplish the audacious mission he set out upon. He was just a kid after all.

Knowing that Nathan Hale was in fact, naive and careless in his mission lends his last words even more pathos: “only one life to give.” Most men understand that this life is the only one they are going to get, so they do everything they can to protect and extend it. If an average man was caught by the British, their final thoughts might be, “I only wish I had been more careful” or “why do these British have to come over here and ruin everything!” or “life sucks.”

There is a German expression: Einmal ist Keinmal, once is never. What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. “If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all,” as Milan Kundera expressed it. Quite a depressing philosophy, but a reasonable one if you consider just how small one lifetime is dwarfed by the vast expanse of eternity, never to be repeated.

But Nathan Hale had a different take on life. His own life was worth nothing, unless it was as a sacrifice to something greater, something eternal. For him, his country was that eternal cause, which he freely and willingly cast upon the alter, wishing only that he could do it again and again.

Nathan Hale’s poor, pathetic life vanished away, without posterity, without any real or lasting accomplishment, same as many other men, to be lost in oblivion. But, in sacrificing his life on the alter of his country, Nathan Hale’s identity suddenly transcended his pathetic life. It became part of something greater, morphed into the ideal and dream of America, a dream that would be eternal.

The Nathan Hale we honor is not the real Nathan Hale, the blundering spy. Our Nathan Hale is the dream of American freedom, and that freedom is greater than any of us individually. And anyone who casts their fate with America, or with an ideal greater than themselves, may also find transcendence from “einmal is keinmal.”

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