Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Joseph Spencer's Monastic Zion

In structure and style, in theme and emphasis, the law revealed to the Saints in 1831 looks much less like the charter for an economic order than--and I suspect that this claim will surprise--like the constituting rule of a monastery...Every form of living together will naturally have crucial economic consequences, but it is a mistake to think that the chief aim of what is laid out in the law of consecration is just the establishment of a certain economic order. In this respect, the law of consecration shares more with Christianity's monastic tradition than it does with the tradition of economic utopianism. Moreover, the monastic or cenobitic project began in opposition not to economic oppression but to the anchorite tradition of retreating into the wilderness as a lone hermit, retired form the world and from community. - Joseph Spencer[1]

Joseph Spencer's comparison of Zion to Christian monasteries was far from a surprise to me. In the comments thread of Nathaniel's T&S post "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Business and Theology," an individual stated that we should "study plantation economies to find out how the church economy works." I suggested that "a more fruitful comparison would be the voluntary participation in medieval monasteries," clarifying later that the analogy is better connected to the concept of Zion and not necessarily the modern church. This outlook was inspired by economist Nathan Smith's paper "The Economics of Monasticism."[2] I hope to lay out some of the practical workings of a monastery in this post and see what application these might have to our concept of Zion.

Smith describes the worship motive behind monastic orders:

If we are not to attempt to explain the worship motive, it might seem that we should treat monasticism as a black box as well, e.g., “religions just tell some people to become monks and nuns.” But this is doubly inaccurate, first because the monastic life is optional—no Christian church has declared it to be either necessary or sufficient for salvation—second because monasticism itself was not invented by Church hierarchs and imposed from above, but is an example of what Hayek called “spontaneous order.” In the emergence and spread of monasticism a sort of invisible hand seemed to be at work: each individual ascetic or monk, to paraphrase Adam Smith, “neither intended to promote [the emergence of monasticism], nor knew how much he was promoting it,” but in seeking his own salvation by fleeing the world, he was “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of intention,” though St. Anthony might have been glad to see the movement he and others like him inspired, just as a businessman might be glad to discover that his quest for gain was promoting the public interest as well.[3]

Smith points out that monastic monks "built, farmed, made machines, studied, wrote books, educated, settled new lands, bought, sold, lent, borrowed, and probably even invented."[4] And yet, this all happened in a system that would be described as socialistic: "monks were completely forbidden to own individual property, and had taken vows of obedience, so that the monastery was (is) a miniature centrally planned economy. In an age when “the magic of the market” is credited with miracles and “communism doesn’t work” is a truism, it may seem almost a paradox that entities organized internally on socialist principles were able to survive at all, let alone persist for centuries and make great contributions to civilization."[4] The "specialized consumption activity" that this commune excelled in was worship, which allowed participants to build a form of "spiritual capital." Regular markets depend on enforceable property rights by a third party (i.e. the state). Monasticism, however, was "a form of spontaneous order that did not require state enforcement of property rights." It was "a consensual, open-access order, based on a social contract...which anyone could join. Oddly enough, the political theories underlying today's most successful states, such as those expressed in Locke's Second Treatise and in America's Declaration of Independence, posit a social contract as the basis for the legitimacy of governments, but the social contract is a fiction: citizens do not really sign one, and the government rules over them anyway. Monasticism is an example, perhaps unique, of true 'government by the consent of the governed.'"[6] What Smith finds is that it is this "spiritual capital" that distinguishes monasticism from its secular socialist counterparts. "Monasteries and convents are able to get commitment from their members because they specialize in worship, for which they offer a more conducive environment than the world can. They therefore attract people with high “spiritual capital,” that is, with a strong “taste for,” or “productivity in,” worship. Not only does the autocorrelation of spiritual capital make members more likely to stay, but ‘learning by doing’ in worship increases members’ commitment over time."[7]

Smith further notes that the “life of the mind” was able to flourish in monasteries without government sustenance. In Smith’s view, modern liberalism had its roots in the medieval schoolmen. Yet, modern liberals (in the classical sense) have only aspired to what “the monastery itself embodied, from the beginning”: government by consent of the governed.[8] This is because

in the case of monasteries, the membership is self-selected, entering as adults into a community with already established rules. In that case, there are no problems of endless negotiation, since the Rule amounts to a take-it-or-leave-it offer by the monastery. Indeed, it seems clear that a real constitution of consent would have to take this form, beginning with a rule and then allowing members to self-select into the community, rather than attempting to bring a pre-existing community, e.g., based on kinship, to consent unanimously to a rule. It is interesting to contrast the real, live social contracts of monasteries with the notions of modern social contract theories.[9]

Despite the socialistic layout of medieval monasteries, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that it was the Christian monasteries that paved the way for modern capitalism.[10] With the church being the largest landowner in Europe, "its liquid assets and annual income probably exceeded that of all of Europe's nobility added together."[11] Innovation in agricultural technology allowed the monastic estates "to specialize in particular crops or products and to sell these at a profit that allowed them to purchase their other needs, which led them to initiate a cash economy."[12] Quoting Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, Stark explains that the monastic estates grew beyond "the simple religious community" and into a "vast complex of buildings, churches, workshops, store-houses, offices, schools and alms-houses..."[13] These changes led to specialization, trade, sophisticated management, credit, and a cash economy. Zion in the early days of Mormonism consisted of a relatively small community. Perhaps this outgrowth from Christian monasteries can provide a paradigm in which we can imagine a global Zion. 

"Key to the law of consecration is stewardship, a certain relationship to material things that is a matter not of having or possession or ownership, but rather and exclusively of use," explains Spencer, connecting it to
the monastic tradition.[14] While property rights were not technically recognized in monasteries, monks did rely on supernatural curses to protect what they viewed as belonging to them (though belief in God's wrath helps produce prosocial behavior on its own).[15][16] When royal and/or military protection was unavailable, divine curses became the defense method of choice. The various curses are described below:
  • Liturgical maledictio – the opposite of liturgical benedictions or divine blessings. Maledictions were “divine curses following prescribed forms that they leveled at persons they wanted to damn at times of community worship.”[17]
  • Clamor – appeals to God, apostles, saints, etc. for protection. Also took the shape of public humiliation or desecration of the supplicated saints in order to bring wrath upon the plunderer.
  • Excommunication and anathema – the cutting off of from sacraments or the Church entirely. This is akin to being "cast out" in D&C 42 as Spencer notes. 
  • Contract cursing – “curse clauses” worked into contracts that threatened to imprecate violators.
In order for curses to be effective, according to economist Peter Leeson, they must be grounded in the target’s existing beliefs. Furthermore, those casting the curse must have a monopoly on cursing. Finally, the curses must be unfalsifiable. Leeson draws a comparison between the medieval maledictions and the curses found within Deuteronomy 28, thus grounding them in the targets’ belief system (compare this with the scriptural language of Joseph Smith's revelations).[18] Religious authority among the monks monopolized cursing, just as priesthood authority in some sense would in a Mormon context, while “vagueness and other-wordly affliction” kept the curses unfalsifiable.[19] The declaration toward the end of Joseph Smith's 1831 revelation fits this vague, other-wordly affliction: "And he that doeth according to these things shall be saved, and he that doeth them not shall be damned if he so continue" (D&C 42:60). 

"My point," Spencer writes, just to make clear that there is more of the monastic than of the governmental, more of the cenobitic than of the economic, at work in the law of consecration as originally given to the Saints. A law focused as much on ensuring that the Saints "weep for the loss of them that die" as on urging the Saints to lay their properties before the bishop cannot be said to be a strictly economic affair. A law that requires the Saints to "bear" with the "infirmities of the sick with " be healed," but which never clarifies how the Saints are to support such people financially, cannot be said to be a strictly economic affair. The law of consecration was thus less about setting forth a divine system of government...than it was about setting forth a rule for the shared fellowship of the Saints...[W]e would do well to understand the law of consecration as an outline of exactly how we as Saints are to live right now, wherever we are, and in company with the Saints. The law of consecration sets out a kind of life--the common life--the Saints are to embrace, a kind of life that has unmistakably economic implications (especially for the rich and the poor!), but one that means to produce the joy of the Saints more than merely the satisfaction of needs.[20]

Perhaps I've been too economic with my analysis of medieval monasteries, but I think Spencer nails it with his analogy. Christians in monastic estates were driven by worship and "spiritual capital," which enhanced their commitment. It was an ideal form of "government by consent of the governed." Innovation, specialization, trade, and other "capitalistic" tendencies can co-exist with religious ideals (and must if expansion is of any concern). Devotion to (and fear of?) God and His covenant can drive proper stewardship. 

We would all do well to take Spencer's monastic Zion and its implications seriously. 


1. Joseph M. Spencer, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), Kindle edition. "Zion as Project."

2. Nathan Smith, "The Economics of Monasticism," ARDA/ASREC Working Paper (Sept. 6, 2009).

3. Ibid., 2-3.

4. Ibid., 3.

5. Ibid., 4.

6. Ibid., 5.

7. Ibid., 31-32.

8. Ibid., 38.

9. Ibid., 40. 

10. Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005). Stark defines capitalism as follows: "an economics system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated and actual returns" (pg. 56). 

11. Ibid., 58.

12. Ibid. 

13. Ibid., 59. 

14. Spencer, 2014, "Zion as Project"

15. For supernatural curses and property rights, see Peter T. Leeson, ""God Damn": The Law and Economics of Monastic Malediction," Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization 30:1 (2014): 193-216.

16. For prosocial behavior provoked by belief in God, see Azim F. Shariff, Ara Norenzayan, “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game,” Psychological Science 18:9 (2007): 803-809; Shariff, Norenzayan, Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21:2 (2011): 85-96; Ryan McKay, Charles Efferson, Harvey Whitehouse, Ernst Fehr, “Wrath of God: Religious Primes and Punishment,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 278:1713 (2011): 1858-1863; Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, “Beyond Beliefs: Religions Bind Individuals Into Moral Communities,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14:1 (2010): 140-150.

17. Leeson, 2014: 205. 

18. Ibid., 209. 

19. Ibid., 212. 

20. Spencer, 2014, "Zion as Project."

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