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In The VillageMormon Materialism
by Orson Scott Card
More than once, I have met with religious people from outside the LDS tradition who assume certain things about me.
They assume that because I am an active participant in a church, or because I am an avowed believer in God, in Christ, in revelation, in a purposed creation, I must therefore be a "spiritual" person.
To them, this means that I seek mystical experiences, profound emotions, deep insights that are too powerful to put into words. They think my life is spent in search of Truth and Beauty, for this is how they think one goes about seeking to know God.
I try to be polite to them, but as they try to put words into my mouth or find attitudes in me that I do not have, I invariably have to disappoint them by explaining the profound materialism of Latter-day Saints.
"Materialism" has two positive meanings, and I think both of them apply to us.
The more common meaning is practical materialism; materialism in action. We focus our lives on things of this world.
I am not referring to the way we call a person who seeks wealth and possessions a "materialist" -- though that is, alas, a frequent affliction of Latter-day Saints at some stages of life.
Our practical materialism is that we don't measure our lives in feelings, in deep private insights. We do not value most the person who makes gnomic comments. We are impatient with transcendental God-talk.
We value most the people who show up to help arrange chairs and tables for the ward supper, or go out of their way to give someone a ride, or take time to listen to someone who is lonely and needy.
It is as if we read a second meaning into the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite who passed the suffering stranger on the road might not even have noticed him, because their minds were so centered upon lofty ideas and spiritual feelings.
The Samaritan, however, not only saw the wounded man, but also knew himself to be responsible for the outcome of his situation. A wounded person could not be left behind. Something must be done, and the Samaritan saw that he was the only person who could do it now.
In short, his eyes were open to things of this world, and the action needed now took precedence over all other plans and appointments. He lived an interruptible life.
We, also, lead interruptible lives. We set aside education for a mission; we set aside pure focus on our studies in order to start a family. We work hard at our jobs, for the sake of a job well done and in order to provide for our family -- but we also accept callings at church that almost invariably require that we devote markedly less attention to our careers than our colleagues and rivals might be giving.
So it might seem that, because we sacrifice money-earning potential or career-advancing opportunities, we are not materialistic.
But our practical materialism is obvious in the things we are actually doing in our church service.
We do not retreat from the world. On the contrary, our callings require that we prepare lessons, teach classes, do service projects, put on events, help people in need. When Mormons are being Mormon, we are doing something material, something observable.
Our revelations rarely come because we work ourselves into a fervor of seeking. They rather come to us when we are in the midst of practical, material service. Someone needs something and so the Lord gives us the knowledge that will allow their need to be met through us.
This is not a surprise to anyone who has read the Gospels and taken Christ at his word. I am the Way, he said. What manner of man ought you to be? Even as I am.
What manner of man was he? He went about doing good. People needed things. He gave them the help they needed. He taught them the principles which, if they followed them, would lead to happiness.
He did not gather his disciples together to have deep metaphysical discussions. His instructions told them what to do. And where would they do it? In the material world, among living people.
The second meaning of "materialism" is from the realm of philosophy, and here our materialism is radical indeed. "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes" (D&C 131:7).
To anyone familiar with the history of philosophy, this statement tears us completely out of the Platonic tradition, in which the material world is regarded as an illusion, while the only reality is the "ideal" or "form" of which any object or experience is merely a weak shadow.
The Neoplatonic God cannot exist in any one place, because that limitation would imply incompleteness and imperfection. But we know that the real God exists in space and time, and progresses and grows, creates and learns.
Instead of our physical bodies being a temporary limitation on our perfect spirits, we believe our spirits are tragically incomplete without the wholeness that comes from being eternally united with flesh and bone.
That is why, even when we use words like "spiritual" and "revelation" and "vision" and "immortal" and "eternal," we cannot have a meaningful conversation with people outside the LDS community until we can teach them what we mean by these words.
To us, a religious life, a spiritual life, is not one of contemplation but of action in the material world. If we would have revelation, then we must be actively engaged in a good cause, for we will not be given revelations until we have a practical need for them in order to bless the lives of others.
The revelations we receive are to tell us what to do. Not to tell us what to think or how to feel.
When King Benjamin describes the life of righteousness, he speaks materially: "I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you" (Mosiah 2:14). "When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (2:17). "Ought not ye to labor to serve one another?" (2:18).
What is the good life? Get along with each other and avoid conflict (4:13). Provide for your children and teach them to live righteous lives (4:14-15). Help any who ask you for help, as far as you are able, without judging them for their misfortunes (4:16-25).
This is the philosophy underlying almost all the work we do in the Church. Live in peace, teach the children, be open-handed with the needy.
When leaders have a calling that needs to be filled, they pray, of course, and sometimes the Spirit will give them a name they would never have thought of.
But most of the time, they come to the Lord with names already in mind, and whose are those names?
They are all taken from list of those who, when they say they will do a job, show up and do it. They do more than is required. They help other people without criticism or credit-seeking. They give up a calling when they are released and support and encourage their successor. They are as reliable in an obscure or humble calling as in a prominent or prestigious one.
They go about doing good.
That is the Christlike life. It is not monastic. It is not ascetic. We study and pray, but even our study and prayer are interruptible when someone needs us. Just as Christ stopped what he was doing when a woman silently touched his robe, or when people brought little children to him, or when a man with palsy was lowered through the roof, we also drop everything to minister in his name to people in need.
When we Mormons admire and praise a fellow-Saint, we rarely say that he or she is "spiritual."
(Usually when a Mormon is known as "spiritual" it's because they claim authority they do not have by saying that they got a "feeling" or "impression" which coincides with their private will. In my experience, at least, those who actually have revelations do not make any such claims. They simply do what the Spirit instructed.)
In fact, we don't usually spend much time thinking about which Mormons we admire or who is praiseworthy.
Rather, our judgment is about whom we can trust, whom we can rely on, who has shown us by material action the interruptibility of his or her life.
When Jesus tells us the standard by which he will judge us at the last day, there is not a breath about our spirituality, our feelings, our contemplations, our mystical experiences, the revelations or deep thoughts we have had, our search for Truth and Beauty.
His standard is: How did you treat the people entrusted to your care? What did you do in the material world? (Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 12:42-48).
It is not that we Mormons are not spiritual. It is that we recognize that the goodness of our spirit is revealed, to others and to ourselves, by the actions we take in relation to the people around us.
We are spiritual to the extent that we master our bodies and turn them into instruments to carry out the good works of Christ in that portion of the world where we live.
But if we withdraw from the world and seek to live a "spiritual" or "non-materialistic" life, have we not buried the talent entrusted to us?
Latter-day Saints seek to know God by rolling up our sleeves and doing his work. We start in our homes and then move outward to our Mormon village and the non-Mormon community around us.
We believe that if we wish to emulate Christ or become perfect like our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:48), then we must do as they do, and take action to help others find happiness. It is no paradox to say that the only way we can find happiness is to bless the lives of others. We bless their lives by helping them learn how to serve others as we have served them, as Christ has served us.
Only thus can the villages we live in become Zion. For our eyes are only single to the glory of God when we turn them outward to see how we might do his work in the world.
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