Why is the concept of holiness so closely related to self-denial? This isn’t just a Mormon thing, or even a Christian one. We see it in the Buddhist monastic tradition, the yogis of India, and the shamans of many cultures. The holiest people are the ones who can undergo the longest tests of endurance.

Most of us are more familiar with what holiness isn’t than what it is. For us, the essence of holiness is “not me”. I would guess that this is the reason we associate “holiness” with the ability to endure trials — we expect to find holiness in something greater, stronger, or more powerful than ourselves. When we find a person who demonstrates great longsuffering, we don’t understand that person, but we instinctively revere her or him.

I think that this instinctive divide between “me” and “holy” is the root of the professional clergy class. From ancient times, the priests or shamans of a society have set themselves apart with distinctive dress, habits, forms of communication, and associations. Intentional or not, these clergy obtain power by becoming “not me” or “not human”. They become unrelatable transhumans, and it is by virtue of their unrelatableness and transhumanity that we revere them.

Much has been made of how Joseph Smith’s work blurs, or even erases, the line between the mundane and the divine. One great example of this is in our system of rotating lay clergy. Bishop Clark was Brother Clark down the street last year, and he’ll be Brother Clark again in a few more years. In a sense, this let’s us peek behind the curtain of divinity to discover that it’s really just more humanity behind it — “it’s turtles all the way down.”

To me, this system strikes at the heart of priestcraft. Priests can only “glut themselves” on the labor of others to the extent that they can convincingly present themselves as possessing secret knowledge, power, or abilities. In contrast, a lay clergy system demonstrates that heavenly power is available to every one of us.

Of course, it doesn’t really work out this smoothly in practice. Some bishops becomes stake presidents, and then general authorities. At this point, our clergy becomes inaccessible and professional to the rest of us. They become transhuman, invoking the same reverence and despair for their ascribed secret knowledge as any other professional clergy.

Is it inevitable in any religious organization that people start worshipping people? I imagine it must be. The same thing happens with bishops in the local wards. We, aware of our fallibility, desperately hope to find a foundation that is infallible, and when people don’t make themselves transhuman, we make them transhuman for us.

We understand that Christ is the only sure foundation, but He’s inconveniently absent. So, rather than depending on ourselves to find and know him, we depend on others to do it for us. We are so much more sure of them than we are of ourselves. It’s so much more comforting to make them the stewards of our agency and salvation, and so frightening to take that kind of eternal responsibility with it’s grave consequences for ourselves.

19 comments for “Transhuman

  1. “Is it inevitable in any religious organization that people start worshiping people?”

    I don’t think so. Revering a leader’s virtuous attributes is not the same thing as worshiping a person. I do appreciate that we are strengthened by watching the examples of others, but that includes grandmas and all sorts of people, LDS or not. Their examples are useful because we recognize them as human, like ourselves.

    Since I’m accustomed to the word “transhuman” appearing in the physical context, calling a group of leaders transhuman seems like a stretch. Why would I even want to make this stretch? Would you call politicians transhuman too? And doctors? What about lawyers?

  2. Why is the concept of holiness so closely related to self-denial? This isn’t just a Mormon thing, or even a Christian one.

    True, it seems to be a fairly universal human sentiment.

    Here’s my theory: Self-indulgence is ultimately not satisfying. When you eat rich foods (for example) at every opportunity, you just cultivate that as a taste or habit. And when you over-indulge, you can end up feeling kind of gross and disgusting.

    Self-restraint (telling yourself “I don’t need this indulgence”) feels good too — but in a different way. And it somehow seems intuitive that rejecting unnecessary indulgences would make you feel pure and clean.

  3. ” It’s so much more comforting to make them the stewards of our agency and salvation, and so frightening to take that kind of eternal responsibility with it’s grave consequences for ourselves.”

    Dane, you’ve neatly summed up the appeal of authoritarianism.

  4. Very thought-provoking post Dane. I like it. It is a new and interesting spin on the ancient problem of idolatry.

    As for the question of why holiness so closely related to self-denial; if we really are dual beings — spirits inhabiting physical bodies — then one definition of holiness is the process of the spirit overcoming “the flesh”.

  5. christopher, I guess it depends on what you mean by “worship”. To me, worship is evident through obedience. I respect my dad, but I worship my God. If my dad gave me an absurd commandment, I’d ask for a reason. If God gave me an absurd commandment, I’d say, “Well He’s God, so I’d better do it.” The question, then, is do we treat our prophet (and other general authorities) with respect or with worship? If we believe that every word given by the prophet reflects the will of God, then we effectively worship the prophet (whether or not we call it “worship”, it functions the same as worship) — he becomes “transhuman” to us. Speaking of which, I’m not sure what you mean when you say you’re “accustomed to the word “transhuman” appearing in the physical context”. Can you give me some more detail on that? But, as for the second part of that, doctors, lawyers, managers, politicians, plumbers, etc. all gain from appearing transhuman. Democracy and a caste-free society makes it harder for individuals to successfully present themselves as transhuman, but if you think to the noblility of five hundred years ago, I think you’ll see that they both acted and were treated as transhumans.

    chanson, good point. It feels good to be free from the bondage of impulses. That said, my feelings have shifted on that over the years. I used to believe that happiness was to have no desires, but now I’m more inclined to say that happiness is to possess the ability to sustainably satisfy your desires.

    Course Correction, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but authoritarianism and transhuman-ness are tightly correlated. I suppose that a tyrant can only rule a people if she or he convinces them of her or his unique specialness, beyond the ken of the common person.

    Geoff J, thanks :)

  6. Why is the concept of holiness so closely related to self-denial?

    I would say that is because holiness is intimately related with the idea of working together as a group. Charity, selflessness, loyalty, integrity, and so on all require self-denial. And those are precisely the attributes required to be a spiritual person, which spirituality to me is coming into communion first with the heavenly community, and then with the one on earth. Living on a mountaintop works up to a point, but seclusion and separation from the world defeats the purpose after that.

  7. Hmm…guess it would be good for me not to make up words that have already been made up to mean something else… :)

  8. I’ve definitely seen this trend from the other side. For reasons unknown to me, I’ve always been glorified by my peers. Perhaps some of it has to do with my zeal and passion for the church and for teaching the gospel. Being that vocal, people subconsciously put me in the category of “transhuman”. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume this, but rather have been told by several of my friends that they struggle with wanting my approval. It becomes troubling to them when I do something they see as not consistent with their view of me as some holy man. Perhaps I let my impatience out in words that are less than kind and uplifting, or perhaps a slide into cynicism. I have a lot of faults, and it always worries me that my stumblings might cause others to also stumble.

    That being said, I don’t do anything to purposely engender these feelings from others. I don’t want people’s faith to rely on me, but on Christ. So what, then, is the true root of the issue?

  9. Gdub, that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Expecting people to be “more than human” is a problem from both sides. How do you respond when people express those kinds of views or expectations about you?

  10. Dane,

    I try to express as honestly and sincerely that I love them and that they shouldn’t worry about their standing with me, but rather with the Lord. I usually question them about why they feel that way, and if there are things which I could change about myself in order to avoid that.

    Generally, I try to be as self-deprecating as possible, acknowledging my faults openly. Still, these things still do happen, and I suppose the best tactic for me is to live in such a way that I never give an excuse for offense or alienation.

  11. Gdub: Generally, I try to be as self-deprecating as possible

    That will only make things worse. They’ll see you as being inhumanly humble.

    I recommend you tell them to piss off. That will remind them you are just a dude like the rest of us. (I kid, I kid.)

  12. If you’re playing us, Gdub, two thumbs up. But if you’re really saying this seriously, even better. Three Motie thumbs up.

    Dane L.,
    excellent post with food for thought.

  13. Thanks Adam :)

    GDub, good luck. If you’re a charismatic person, there may not be much you can do. I find that people ascribe kindness, righteousness, and intelligence to attractive people.

  14. I find that people ascribe kindness, righteousness, and intelligence to attractive people.

    Finally! An explanation why people think I’m kind, righteous and intelligent in real life… but not so much online…

  15. “The question, then, is do we treat our prophet (and other general authorities) with respect or with worship?”

    We should respect them. When their words are confirmed by the Holy Ghost, then we worship God. When we successfully connect to the will of God through a General Authority, then we can feel God’s love and devote ourselves to Him. We can connect through other people too. Some people might not understand the source of the experience, and so some people might then worship a human being. But that worship would be a mistake.

  16. When I joined the church 30 years ago, I would go to Priesthood session and feel like garbage leaving. Was it because I was rotten to the core? No, not really. I was trying hard and sometimes trying too hard. I was attempting to force growth rather than enjoy the journey and just…grow. I left seeing out leaders as stoic guys who met every challenge with resolve and temptation with no problem. I remember when Elder Hinckley became president of the church. Him and others came off as human beings trying to do their best to live the gospel and faced adversity and temptations just like the rest of us. It was wonderful to know and gave me hope that if they, who are very spiritual men, could do it, I could do it. Was it a strange sense of worship I had for these men previously? Man, I hope not, but it kind of sounds like it. I think it happens to a lot of new members as it did to me.

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