“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
“Citizenship in a Republic,”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
There’s something admirable about Communist Russia. Well, at least to the idealist in me. Yes, it pretty much ended in horrible, miserable failure and millions lost their lives. But at least at the onset, the serfs once ruled by the Czar were free, and they used that freedom to trust in humanity, their leaders, and the Glorious Future. They took the opportunity to try and stamp out greed in indolence, to maximize efficiency, to create a worker’s paradise and a utopia for the common man.
I feel the same way about the failed commune living attempted by the Church in the early days. A good portion of members I know take a very condescending, scoffing attitude whenever the idea of consecration applied in reality comes up as a topic. “Of course it would fail,” they say, “Because humans aren’t perfect. And because of that, we have the law of tithing to compensate.” To them, consecration was a doomed endeavor from the start, and that disdain for the idea of applied consecrated living stems from the pessimism they hold towards their fellow man. Had it been any other man, the story of a self-proclaimed prophet trying to apply commune living and failing disastrously would be met with smug, patrionizing smiles. “How naive,” the naysayers in the Church would say. “He should have known better.”
In effect, they’re saying God should have known better.
The Church in the early days were obsessed with the idea of building Zion, the Kingdom of God. This kingdom was not a spiritual kingdom; it was a literal, physical kingdom established to herald in the last days. Zion wasn’t a place you carried in your heart; Zion was the New Jerusalem established by the Saints, a place of gathering and refuge where the laws of God rose higher than the petty laws of men. Because of the Church’s inability to perfect themselves like Enoch’s people did, however, God drove them into the wilderness until they could repent, and the core of American Mormons haven’t left Utah to this day.
Sometimes I wonder if the Church acts incredibly conservatively because of the incidents in the past. Many times, the Church reached for incredibly lofty goals – relocation and colonization of the Western frontier to create a vast Mormon territory (the Jell-o Belt today), the Kirtland anti-bank, the United Orders and the Orders of Enoch. If people think that the free market is implied within the Mormon doctrine of agency, they need to reconsider the economic history of the Church – such an idea so squarely rooted in the exploitation of human greed and vice to balance out the aggregate of transactions holds no place in an early theology which so resoundedly rejected the influence of mammon.
I can’t help but look back at those days wistfully like I do at the early days of the Soviet Union. How inspiring that must be, a gathering of workers and everyday men and women who have decided to live differently, to rise above the petty squabbles of society around them, to literally build something from the ground up bigger than themselves individually. Even if those endeavors failed, I can’t help but say to myself, “At least they tried.”
At least they tried, unlike us today. They believed in the Glorious Church of the Future, a church which would continue to propel itself into the horizons everyone else failed to think about. Joseph Smith introduced a cosmology that expanded into the inifite reaches of space, worlds without end, people without number. He introduced a theology which expanded the Trinity into the Godhead, revealed the idea of a the Feminine Divine as Heavenly Mother before most Christians even thought of it, a narrative for man where he could become exalted above the angels. The early prophets forsaw a people at the forefront of art, history, sciences, mathematics, scholarship, and technology. They continually pushed the boundaries of what people felt was possible, challenging the Saints at every turn.
Our Church today, however, is the Glorious Church of the Past. I can understand; it’s human nature, and it also comprises the paradoxical nature of this post. I pine for the days of old when it seemed like the Church didn’t care whether their projects succeeded or failed – the important thing was that they tried time and time again to live the law. And so, I can understand that every General Conference, the Brethren bemoan the state of the world, how terrible it is, how incredibly noble and virtuous society used to be, how we need to reject the advances of man in the future. They are unfamiliar, unsafe, untested. Joseph Smith believed in his followers, claiming that all he had to do was teach correct principles and the Saints would govern themselves. Leaders today tell us exactly what we can and cannot wear, for perhaps even the flash of female shoulder skin would drive men into a sexual frenzy. But, of course, that’s because humans will ultimately fail, and we should account for that. Better to be cautious and avoid any compromising situations rather than shoot for the heavens and potentially embarrass ourselves. After all, only a fool would charge in, hoping that ideals will trump reality.
Unfortunately, this often translates into horrible backwardness, with people claiming they don’t “believe” in evolution (as if you could also disbelieve gravity or the germ theory), a church that invests millions of dollars into a high-end shopping mall next to their Mecca instead of investing in something more humanitarian-oriented like schools or hospitals in poor areas, who remain scared and superstitious of the recent leaps we’ve made as a society. We have become like the people in the Book of Mormon who cry, “We already have a Bible and have no more need for more Bible!” Our leaders more often work to build a hedge around the law like the rabbis of old rather than push the boundaries of theology, or clarify old doctrines in light of new knowledge. Revolutionary ideas that we used to be proud of like Heavenly Mother are played down, eventually almost discarded. The new Gospel Principles manual has almost been scrubbed free of all references to Her. Ironically enough, the rest of Christian theology has finally recognized the deficiency in the concept of God without the Divine Feminine concept and have worked to incorporate it into their own schools of thought, while we (who once pushed the boundaries with this idea a hundred years before) quietly sweep it under the carpet.
As we break the cusp of human limits, I wonder how Joseph Smith would have felt about our times today. Would he have marveled at the beautiful simplicity and flexibility of evolution, the magnificence of human philosophy considering the equality and individual rights of humans? Would he have read our tracts on philosophy and theology and history eagerly, devouring all of the information we’ve built up over the years? Would he have continued to prod the psychologists to yield what they’ve learned concerning the human brain, studied about our knowledge in human behavior, no matter how incomplete our knowledge is today? And would he have taken this vast corpus of learning we have acquired, and began to incorporate it all into the framework of Mormon theology, reinterpreting advances as they come in the light of the Restored Gospel, ever looking forward for the future when more light and knowledge will be revealed?
I would like to think that he would, and thank his lucky stars that he lived in the Glorious Future.