Many of the world's religions find their start within a position of cultural particularity, being centered upon the idea of a chosen people, chosen land, chosen language, etc. As these religions grow and spread throughout the world, new social or economic complexities may make it necessary for participants to expand or redefine their original conceptions of what it means to be part of a chosen people or living in a chosen land.
How do we go about negotiating this transition? What does it mean to reform the original exclusiveness of a faith community while still remaining faithful to the sense of particularity to which the community owes its origin?
I hope to offer some concrete insights based on a curious transition that has occurred in the history of my particular faith community. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormon culture has undergone a fascinating transformation of attitude during the past century in terms of our attitudes toward human productivity. We have transitioned away from an exceptionalist understanding of human worth in favor of a universalist awareness of the common value and potential that exists in all communities and cultures throughout the world.
In its early years, the LDS Church created a system of easily-accessible capital called the Perpetual Emigration Fund. This was a loan system set up to facilitate the migration of low-income European farmers from their home countries to Mormon settlements in the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding areas. Though it was an expensive prospect to fund such great waves of migration, our leaders launched the program with great confidence based on the assumption that these loans would pay themselves off in short time.
This was Zion, after all--this was the Kingdom of God on the earth in modern times. Surely God would smile fondly upon those who had made the effort to travel such long distances to this blessed land. Surely the natural bounty of these mountain valleys would produce enough wealth and surplus to sustain these migrants, their families, and the general Church.
These assumptions proved to be unfounded. A great deal of the loan's recipients actually encountered great economic difficulties upon arriving in Utah's valleys (see, for instance, the plight of the farmer Steinar in Halldor Laxness' novel Paradise Reclaimed). By and large, these immigrants did not encounter the plenitude and surplus that they had anticipated.
Rather, many recipients of the Perpetual Emigration Fund loans ended up defaulting on their payments, and the LDS Church found itself heavily in debt by the end of the 19th century. The Perpetual Emigration Fund was finally dissolved in 1887 by an act of intervention from the United States Congress, and the official list of outstanding debtors that the Church produced at the time of the Fund's close contained over 19,000 names, collectively owing the Church over one million dollars before interest. CPI calculations project that this debt would be equivalent to over $23 million dollars when adjusted for modern inflation.
Fast forward a few decades, however, and in a kitschy turn of phrase, the Perpetual Emigration Fund of the 19th century has now made a resurgence as the Perpetual Education Fund of the 21st century. The Perpetual Education Fund provides Mormons in the Third World with low-interest loans whereby to fund their enrollment in programs of higher education that they would otherwise not be able to afford.
Where the intent of the old immigration loans was to encourage people to mix their skills with the supposed natural bounty of American land, modern Church teaching encourages Mormons to remain in their homelands and to use Church resources to improve life conditions in the places where they already are. Church leaders no longer teach that Zion, or the perfect utopian society, is something only to be found within a smattering of valleys in the Intermountain West.
Zion exists wherever there are people who desire Zion. Zion is the pure in mind. Zion is the pure in heart. There is nothing intrinsically superior about one mass of land in relation to another. What determines real value is the presence or lack of a personal will to move toward greater reaches of knowledge, skill, and achievement.
When the LDS Church departed from American exceptionalism and began to endorse instances of deep intellectual exertion throughout the world, it was not a distancing from or rejection of Mormon scripture that took place. Rather, it was an act of spiritual re-orientation--a beautiful transition from focus on the limiting aspects of our theology toward greater emphasis on the enabling and ennobling aspects of our theology.
Certainly, there are many justifications for geographic exceptionalism to be found within the Mormon scriptural canon. One of the earliest chapters in the Book of Mormon speaks of the American continent as one of God's most prized possessions, a land that is "choice above all other lands" (2 Nephi 1:5). Similar passages go on to state that America is a '"promised land" in its own right (1 Nephi 18:23), that Columbus's voyage was led directly by the hand of God (1 Nephi 13:12), and that God has been intimately involved in the preservation of all righteous peoples who have ever lived upon the face of the American continent (Ether 2:12).
Yet there is an equally-strong precedent within our tradition for earnest intellectual humanism of the sort that inspired the creation of the Perpetual Education Fund. An early Mormon hymn declares that improvement, learning, and progression always have been and always will be constant, eternal realities within the human family. A well-known verse of modern scripture states that "the glory of God is intelligence" (Doctrine & Covenants 93:36), and another passage promises that every whit of intelligence that a person acquires during mortal life will rise again with him or her at time of the Resurrection (Doctrine & Covenants 130:18-19).
By choosing to emphasize universalist doctrines rather exceptionalist ones, Mormons have been able to broaden the scope of their theological narrative and make it possible for more people to engage with the spiritual development that is genuinely available within this spiritual path. Not all people have the opportunity to live in Idaho or in Utah, but everyone has the capacity to think, to aspire, to plan, to dream, to self-reflect, and to reason. I wonder what it would look like for other faith communities to start to re-engage in the same kinds of conversations that have helped Mormonism to universalize and modernize its attitude toward cultural particularity.
Photo by CDGentry via Wikimedia Commons.