This is the third and final post on Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2012; publisher’s page). This post covers the short (two pages) and easy-to-discuss essay “Shipwreck.” It’s about what happens when you discover that you are Mormon. What does that mean? How does it change your life? As theology goes, this is a very accessible question. I expect everyone (this means you!) will weigh in with a comment because we have all at some point made this momentous discovery of Mormonism and grappled with the consequences.
In line with Adam’s claim that theology tackles serious and relevant topics, not trivial ones, this question comes right from the heart of Continental philosophy (formerly known as Existentialism and sometimes known as Phenomenology). Rather than seeking some metaphysical foundation as a point of departure for questions about life (“I think, therefore I am”), 20th-century Continental philosophers start right in the middle of lived human experience. We don’t get reflective about our own lived human experience until we are in the middle of a human life, our own. For us, it’s a realization that we are in the middle of a Mormon life and reflection on what that means. It’s not your average life, is it?
Adam sets up this inquiry with a reference to the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Dante claims that we each awake, if we wake at all, to find ourselves already midway through life. We, each of us, are shaken from feverish dreams to find ourselves already promised to bodies we did not choose, to families we did not elect, to times and places we did not will. Or, to borrow a similar image from Jonathan Swift: we each wake, if we wake at all, to find ourselves like the hero of Gulliver’s Travels, smack in the middle of Lilliput, shipwrecked, bruised in the head, and already bound by ten thousand gossamer threads of circumstance.
Children are not reflective: they are too busy living an energetic life of one thing after another. Teenagers, same thing. Young adults are busy getting independent life started: get through school, get married, get a job, get a career started, and deal with those energetic children. When did you first stop, look around, and seriously reflect on your life, your Mormon life? At 25? 35? 45? The essay is a personal essay, and here is Adam’s personal reflection:
I am convinced that not only did I wake to find myself bound to Mormonism but that it is Mormonism … that has done the waking.
That’s a bold and surprising claim for a Mormon philosopher. You’d think it would be philosophy that did the waking, not Mormonism. I don’t think Adam is making a universal claim. For other people and for other Mormons, it might work differently. Maybe philosophy or doing serious science or reading great novels or deep personal crisis can be the catalyst for examining one’s life. But we do spend a lot of time in church reading the scriptures, talking about life, and discussing serious questions. Yes, Mormonism can do the waking. And we’re all familiar with Joseph Smith’s canonical account of being moved to serious reflection on his own young life:
During this time of great [religious] excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness …. I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? (JS-History 1:8, 10)
Joseph didn’t exactly awaken to Mormonism — it didn’t exist yet. As Joseph recounts his story, he awakened to a calling, and the Book of Mormon, the LDS Church, our doctrines of salvation, and LDS temple theology is what resulted from him pursuing that calling. One consequence of Joseph Smith is that we, you and I, can awaken to a Mormon life. Of those ten thousand gossamer threads of circumstance, for us several thousand are Mormon threads. Perhaps we don’t just awaken to Mormonism but, like Joseph, we also awaken to a calling. What’s your calling? You have one, I presume.
Let’s consider a question that arises from Adam’s essay but was not directly addressed: If we waken to Mormonism or a Mormon life, what did we awaken from? Pre-reflective busyness? Ignorance? Babylon? The world? Selfishness? Pride? Sin? Childhood? Think about the best-known reference to awakening in the popular culture of our day: “Wake up, Neo. The Matrix has you.” What was your matrix? Before you woke up to Mormonism, what had you? If, like me, you are a convert to Mormonism, that’s a simpler question. Waking up to Mormonism was a conscious choice. If you’re a convert, you have a pretty good sense of what had you before you chose Mormonism. Every convert has a story about waking up to Mormonism or they wouldn’t be here. But if, like Adam, you were raised within Mormonism, waking up to Mormonism is not a prerequisite of being here, it is not so well defined, and the matrix of a pre-reflective Mormon life is perhaps more problematic. So I’m guessing converts read Adam’s essay differently than lifers. Lifers don’t choose Mormonism, they’re just thrown into a Mormon life from the beginning and have to figure out what that means as they live it.
I’ll give Adam the last word, his characteristically striking description of his Mormon awakening.
Mormonism has indeed been marrow to my bones, joy to my heart, light to my eyes, music to my ears, and life to my whole being. Thus lit up, I woke to find Jesus leaning over me, smiling wide, with the Book of Mormon snapped like smelling salts beneath my nose.
Dave, I think I know exactly the experience you and Adam are describing. For me, the moment (which may have emerged over a year or so, but which did include some definite incidents of sudden insight) took place while I was in my first visiting academic position, when I discovered that I actually enjoyed my chosen career, and could be decently successful in it – and I finally recognized that I hadn’t drifted into it accidentally, but rather that I was where I was because of the choices I had made and interests I had prioritized. At the same time, I had started reading T&S (where I introduced myself by insulting the people who would later be my fellow co-bloggers), and for the first time I found the kinds of discussions of Mormonism that I wanted to participate in. All of that was in the background when one day I realized, with some surprise, that I was a Mormon, and a scholar, which made me a Mormon scholar, which had not been part of the plan at all.
Terrific post (and of course, terrific series).
I’m of course looking at things from a disaffection standpoint…but I think that any sort of “crisis” can really cause one to wake up. And it’s not that I’m saying that “to wake up” means that you leave or whatever…but even for those who are in the church (and have always been in the church), it means becoming conscious of what one has always taken for granted.
I think when we realize that we are peculiar people — like…this is not just a saying — that’s the start of such awakening.
Thanks for the comments. Jonathan, I forgot to add “reading T&S” to the list of things that can wake someone.
Andrew, I like the phrase “becoming conscious of what one has always taken for granted.” That is generally such a positive development. Incidentally, Adam does mention the open possibility of disaffection in his short essay, just before explaining why he personally finds Mormonism so compelling: “To find oneself bound [to Mormonism] in such a way does not mean that, upon waking, one is powerless … to upend such fragile anchors. Certainly many have done it, and certainly it continues to be in my power as well.”
It reminds me of the kite analogy where the string is both the thing that binds us as well as allows us to soar.
Thanks for this series, David — very nice.