Dance of Legitimacy
by P. Orin Zack
I was only twelve at the time, but the closer I got to the ceremony that was to have ushered me into the millennia-old tradition underscoring our extended community’s identity, the more I felt that it was not the path I ought to tread through life. Over time, I picked my way through the forest of ideas and answers offered, not only by the various religions I encountered, but by books on seemingly unrelated topics, and by the people I met along the way, until I gradually developed a spiritual path of my own.
But walking between the faith-based pigeonholes that sidestep the tedious process of actually learning who someone is also meant that I needed a way to satisfy some people’s need for order with an easy answer to their potentially explosive question. Not that they really needed to know my religion, but my answer, inaccurate though it was, enabled them to fill in a sheaf of blanks in their internal interview questionnaire.
So, naturally, I was curious about the two Mormon missionaries we had invited into our home. How would knowing my background affect how they presented their other Gospel of Jesus Christ?
I admitted my curiosity openly. After all, it would be a far easier task for them to introduce their newer testament to someone already familiar with the cast and the precepts, even if the details diverged or sections of canon were added or omitted, than to someone with no common ground whatsoever. The Elders, as Mormon missionaries are called, agreed, but noted that most of the people they speak with do have this contextual overlap. They recognized the need to understand the world that their prospect comes from, but could not provide examples of how they had done it. I offered myself as a guinea pig, to see how they would approach the problem, but they declined, opting instead to invite me to simply read their gospel and come to my own conclusions.
After we had begun our series of Sunday evening chats, I paged through a copy of the Book of Mormon that we had in our library, a book that shared shelf space with the scripture, analysis and explorations of various other paths to enlightenment. In perusing the index, I noticed that there were a few references to Witchcraft, and paused to read them. What I found was an exhortation to eliminate such people from the face of the Earth. This didn’t strike me as a friendly way to treat fellow travelers on the path to truth. It was also why I was curious about how our guests would react to knowing more about me.
Before broaching the subject with our guests, I had plowed the Web, looking for commentary on how Mormons dealt with those who might be called Pagan or Witch, and chanced upon a rather interesting piece on their founder, Joseph Smith. According to its writer, the gospel that Smith claimed to have translated from a set of golden plates he dug up in the woods of upstate New York was remarkably similar to that told in a manuscript of historical fiction stolen at about that time from a courthouse in the same area. Having had access to neither source, I had no rational way to judge the truthfulness of either claim. It did start me thinking, though.
That shelf in our library also contains several books about the rivalries of biblical scholarship swirling around the Dead Sea Scrolls. I even have one about schisms within the archeological community, and how they determined the scientific acceptability of artifacts. Questioning the authenticity of received wisdom is nothing new, of course, but this was the first I had encountered regarding Smith himself.
In carving out my personal path through the hinterlands of enlightenment, I had noted a recurring pattern. Some schools of thought arise through the words and deeds of a charismatic or insightful individual, while others build their credibility on a base of pre-existing history. This distinction was highlighted centuries ago, when European scholars were scandalized by the suggestion that wisdom might come from anywhere other than the great civilizations of the past. Imagine the audacity of conducting your own experiments. After all, the answers have been known for eons. Just ask Aristotle.
Smith, our guests explained, merely revealed a portion of a much longer history that had been hidden. The validity of his translated scripture was claimed by a statement in the manuscript itself, and that was all those whose faith lay in faith needed to know. For them, I guess, faith was an end in itself.
But I needed more, so I thought about the pre-existing history that LDS scripture was grafted onto.
The Mormon version of history began, “In the Beginning,” so I revisited the path my family had started me down, and found a blending of the two patterns I had noted. The Jewish Bible, those five books that Aaron transcribed for Moses, tell the story of what came before his people’s encampment in the desert after he led them out of Egypt. What I wasn’t so clear about was whether Moses’ people were slaves or artisans during their 400 years along the Nile. After all, even the much shorter history of the US is rife with misrepresentation in the service of storytelling. Moses, however did not become the central figure in Jewish lore. That role was reserved for Abraham, who, like Akhenaten, the heretic Egyptian Pharoah who came a millennium later, spoke of a single god. Abraham’s following survived, while Akhenaten’s did not.
This blending of patterns repeated, after a fashion, in the New Testament. Several stories told about a Galilean teacher in the time of Herod were the basis for a new religion, or rather for a variety of new religions with a common theme. In this reversed version of the pattern, the pre-existing teachings that arose from Moses’ books were used as the basis from which the new revelations sprang, and the background against which they were set. And it is this teacher’s story which is central to the paths which grew from his original circle of disciples. For me, this family of religions then derives its standing from following a charismatic leader. This same pattern reversal has been used countless times in literature, accounting for an awful lot of sequels.
Islam takes the pattern through another reflection, but because Mormon scripture claims to have followed directly from the events in the Christian canon, I’ll not consider it here.
But what of Mormonism?
The golden scripture that Smith claims to have found and translated told of things that can not be corroborated. Those who subscribe to these teachings accept the story of the resurrected Galilean teacher’s visit to North America as written, and their missionaries implore prospects to accept it on faith alone. But there are other aspects to their path, too.
As I have found with numerous other paths to enlightenment, there is much of value to be gained from those who subscribe to the Mormon faith. Notably, the idea that there is legitimacy in personal revelation. It is this which gives the Mormon Church its name, as those who claim to have received such experiences are dubbed Latter Day Saints. It is also a claim that gives me pause, because they assert that only those with a confirmable lineage may espouse such revelation, even though they cannot confirm the lineage implied by the Christ’s supposed travels to North America after his crucifixion.
Personal revelation also offers another complication, in that it is an intensely subjective experience. This is a double-edged sword. Anyone on a personal spiritual path is obligated to ascribe value to their own experiences, yet there is no way to know whether someone else is being truthful about their experiences.
Which, of course, brings me back to the matter of how Mormons feel about Pagans, and about me in particular. As synchronicity would have it, the week I wanted to revisit the question with our guests was the same week they brought with them a member of their church who was willing to co-exist with anyone but a Wiccan. Laying low to draw out more details, I learned that he believed Wicca was Devil-worship. Clearly, our new visitor subscribed to the sentiment in his scripture. The possibility of introducing Mormonism to someone he wanted no dealings with would clearly never come up.
Curiously, one of our two regular guests was reassigned shortly after that. I agreed to a visit by his replacement, but was quickly put off when he retreated to the ploy of inviting us to attend their church. I’d rather find out about someone’s world by speaking with them than by immersing myself in their world’s trappings. It’s protective, I guess. I’d long since learned how powerful the psychological effects of religious ceremonies were. The thought of using that power to influence a young person on the verge of choosing their own path unnerves me to this day.
But my exploration of this issue was not quite over. A week or so later, I chanced upon a web page analysis of the work of Gerald Gardner, the progenitor of Gardnerian Witchcraft, which he presented as the modern day expression of a far older tradition to which many other people subscribed. It seems that Mr. Gardner cribbed much of his prose from the early 20th Century occultist Aleister Crowley, and fabricated the rest. Even so, Gardner developed a following, people who took his claim of historical continuity as fact.
And that’s the chance you take when you follow anyone’s lead but your own. It might be real. It might be woven from whole cloth. But if your path is illuminated by what you find to be valuable insight, it doesn’t matter whether the source was a millennia-dead pharaoh, the dog in a comic strip, or God Herself. What is important is what it means to you. It’s been said that magic is simply a matter of symbolism and intent. Both of those things are personal. So is truth.
Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack