Geertz: Mormonism and Theories of Religion VII

Clifford Geertz is the last thinker discussed in the series here. This is not necessarily to imply that his approach is the best. However, his understanding of religion as a cultural system may be especially useful for understanding Mormonism and Mormon identity.

Like many of the thinkers featured here, Geertz was also an anthropologist. One begins to wonder of the study of religion is just a subset of anthropology, like economics, family, or medicine. However, Geertz sees religion as something more foundational. Religion, he insists, is a part of a cultural system of symbols that conditions people to think, feel and act in certain ways. It is both a world view and an ethos that combine to affect emotions, morals, beliefs. Thus, religions form a system of meaning.

What would Geertz have to say about Mormonism? Certainly, our history and theology have combined to create a peculiar Mormon culture. Frequently, we hear criticisms that aim to separate the “gospel” from “Mormon culture.” Can this actually happen? If religion is a cultural system, can aspects of that culture be easily discarded, especially in a centralized religion such as our own? See this earlier discussion. What is Mormonism as a culture? Is it the religion itself, or is it separable?

This is my last post. I have enjoyed the time I spent here, though regretably I didn’t make the most out of it! Thanks to the T&S powers that be for allowing me to spend some time here.

6 comments for “Geertz: Mormonism and Theories of Religion VII

  1. God speed. It would be interesting to hear you return to the theme in a year or two, after you’ve studied these matters more.

  2. Hmm, nothing to provoke a Nibley, socialism, etc. take on philosophy of religion.

    Well, rather than let this empty comment space go to waste, here is a collection of starts for such a discussion.

    sanity, humanity and science

    post-autistic economics review
    Issue no. 26, 2 August 2004 back issues at
    Subscribers: 7,384 in approximately 145 countries

    Subscriptions are free. To subscribe, email “subscribe”. Send to: [email protected]

    In this issue:

    – Shaun Hargreaves Heap
    Living in an affluent society: it is so ‘more-ish’

    – Lewis L. Smith

    Complexity Economics and Alan Greenspan

    – Gautam Mukerjee
    Capabilities and Indeterminacy

    – Matthew McCartney
    Dynamic versus Static Efficiency

    – Ian Fletcher
    A Neoclassical Hole in Neoclassical Free Trade

    – Rajni Bakshi
    Gross National Happiness

  3. Yikes! I didn’t mean to suggest that you are uninformed. I only meant that I would enjoy hearing the product of a year’s reflection.

  4. This is a really good point. We assume that there is some “truth” independent of culture yet that seems impossible. Consider when we read the Bible and we deal with Jewish culture. Yet so much that was restored with Joseph Smith wasn’t just some abstract assertions about God (a “God of the philosophers”) but a lot of Jewish culture. (Up to and including the temple which is very much at home in the ancient near east or even Renaissance but very much out of place in the modern world)

  5. One way to read the passages that says God speaks to us according to our language, is that he speaks to us in and through our culture, religion, etc. (something more than simply through English, French, Tongan and so on). I think Geertz is right in seeing religion as giving a framework of meaning. I also think one doesn’t get away from culture. The mistake would be to take either the framework or the culture as comprising the totality of a given religion. So Mormonism, for example, is a framework and a kind of culture, but the framework and the culture are not all there is to the truth of Mormonism. Though culture and frameworks seem necessary, Mormonism is not only those things.

    But then I have to ask myself, given that there is culture and a framework, whether there is something independent of culture. I’m not certain of that, though I do think there must be something to the truths of the gospel that cuts across world cultures. Or perhaps we can trust that in teaching and administering the gospel we can set up enough of a framework in any world culture that can allow one to understand the fundamental, necessary things of the Gospel–and to be reasonably certain that we are following the same gospel in one place and another. In some ways this held fast by a few basic teachings and a foundation of orthopraxy (especially ritual).

    Best wishes in grad school, Taylor. (Sometime we should discuss how to keep your faith intact in a religious studies program.)

  6. One way to read the passages that says God speaks to us according to our language, is that he speaks to us in and through our culture, religion, etc. (something more than simply through English, French, Tongan and so on)

    That sure fits with things Brigham Young said.

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