Monday, June 15, 2015

Groundhog Day: Salvation in the Mundane

I recently finished political scientist Charles Murray's short book The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead. The book contains a lot of practical advice, but I read it more out of curiosity than anything (given Murray's often controversial academic work). Perhaps the most satisfying element of the book was his ending tip: Watch Groundhog Day Repeatedly. Murray describes the film as "a profound moral fable that deals with the most fundamental issues of virtue and happiness."[1] For him, it acts as an excellent substitute for Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.[2] And I can't really argue with his reasoning:

Director and cowriter Harold Ramis estimates that the movie has to represent at least thirty or forty years’ worth of days. We see only a few dozen of them, ending when Bill Murray’s character has discovered the secrets of human happiness. Without the slightest bit of preaching, Ramis shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of his protagonist from a jerk to a fully realized human being—a person who has learned to experience deep and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole even though he has only one day to work with.

Ramis’s own understanding of the story he is telling is sophisticated and subtle. That’s why you need to watch the film more than once. You are sure to pick up subtexts the second time that you didn’t get the first time. And you’ll see even more when, after giving yourself a rest, you watch it a third time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Groundhog Day, but I’ve always seen something new.

Why is it a good thing to understand this movie so well? Because it will help you live a good life. Absorbing the deep meaning of the Nicomachean Ethics will also help you live a good life, but Groundhog Day will do it with a lot less effort.[3]



This recognized genius of Groundhog Day reminded me an essay by Adam Miller in his book Rube Goldberg Machines. In it, he makes an incredible insight particular to Mormonism:

In general, the complaint about Mormonism is that it is all too mundane.[4] God, for Mormons is not supra-mundane. God has a body? Fingers and toes? He's married? He must, everyday, tie the sash on his white robe? His immortal lungs perpetually expand and contract? Heaven, too, for Mormons, is not supra-mundane. Heaven? Where people are still married, still work, still have children, still change diapers, still share casseroles? Heaven, for Mormons, is what seals our union with the mundane rather than terminates it. Leave it to Mormonism to see the nihilistic claim that there is nothing but the aching specificity of this repetition and raise it to the power of infinity. Leave it to Mormonism to claim that even in heaven we'll have to button and unbutton our shirts, show all our work, suffer papers cuts, and--of course, forever and ever again--breathe.

In the end, Phil Connor turns out to be the Mormon hero par excellence. Let it snow, Phil finally says. Let the weather rain down. Shucked bare of hope for something else, he is able to invert the nihilism of life's repetition into compassion only after its rough-edged iteration has worn his heart smooth. Deprived of reward and consequence--of any hope that his works could save (or damn) him--he, in the end, comes back to the work for its own sake. He attends. And by the time February 3rd arrives, it is clear that Phil has not been saved from the mundane but for it.

"If we go to hell," Joseph Smith claimed, "we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it." If life is repetition, I am claiming, then we must turn our daydreams out of doors and fashion a heaven from it...No one is coming to save you from the grace of the mundane. Jesus came to give this grace not take it away.[5]

Finding salvation in the mundane (and ultimately being saved for it) should change the way we look at both it and the nature of the Divine.




NOTES

1. Charles Murray, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 141.

2. As he says to the reader, "But let's be realistic: You won't [read] it" (Ibid.).

3. Ibid., 141-142.

4. "Only taken in the collective do the assaults on Mormonism's heresies reveal their common theme: the disintegration of that distance that separates the sacred and the profane, that defines religious experience as unfathomable mystery, that constitutes religious feeling int he presence of the ineffable, that renders such terms as holiness, worshipfulness, and reverence as constituting the very essence of religion. Such distance comes close to being the sine qua none of all Western religious faith and practice" (Terryl L. Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 82).

5. Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), Kindle edition, "Groundhog Day."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mowing the Lawn of Eden

I'm always excited to see people recognizing the profound notion of happiness, fulfillment, and purpose being found in the mundane. From The New York Times:

Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane...I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.

...I am less interested in the inspirational hero than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic; less interested in the exhortation to “live your dream” than in the obligation to make a living wage.

...In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, battles pestilence day after day. It is a Sisyphean task. At one point he says, “I have to tell you this: This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
 
Asked what decency is, he responds: “In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.” Later, he adds, “I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”
 
In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.

The more I look at it, the more I'm convinced that Joseph Smith's elevation of the mundane--and consequently the everyday tasks that come along with it--was one of his most inspired doctrines and deepest insights into the human condition. It is within the boring that we discover, as the article puts it, our "personal sliver of the divine."

I suppose even Eden will need its lawn mowed.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Labor Is Worship": Building the Material and Spiritual Temple

My last post looked the possible Masonic influence on early Mormonism's view of work. I offer this post as Exhibit B: Albert Mackey's 1882 The Symbolism of Freemasonry. In the chapter titled "The Symbolism of Labor," Mackey argues that "the Masonic Institution...teaches not only the necessity, but the nobility, of labor." Noting that the Trestle Board is the "symbol of the Divine Law," Mackey declares that "to labor well and truly, to labor honestly and persistently, is the object and the chief end of all humanity." This decree "was originally instituted as the common lot of all," alluding (I take it) to Adam's original command in the Garden of Eden. "To work out well the task that is set before us is our highest duty," he writes, "and should constitute our greatest happiness." God is described as "the
Grand Architect, the Master Builder of the world, [who] has labored from eternity" and "inscribes his plans upon illimitable space, for the universe is his trestle board." The Creation follows the Creator's example:

Earth works with every coming spring, and within its prolific bosom designs the bursting seed, the tender plant, and the finished tree, upon its trestle board. Old ocean works forever--restless and murmuring--but still bravely working; and storms and tempests, the purifiers of stagnant nature, are inscribed upon its trestle board.

While embracing the Benedictine motto of laborare est orare--labor is worship [1]--Mackey was still quite critical of the "old ascetics" because they "went into the wilderness, and built cells, and occupied themselves in solitary meditation and profitless thought. They prayed much, but they did no work. And thus they passed their lives, giving no pity, aid, or consolation to their fellow-men, adding no mite to the treasury of human knowledge, and leaving the world, when their selfish pilgrimage was finished, without a single contribution, in labor of mind or body, to its welfare." While rather harsh and historically inaccurate,[2] the comment nonetheless demonstrates the Masonic commitment to labor and toil. Mackey followed up his criticisms with his most emphatic statement:

Now, this doctrine, that labor is worship, is the very doctrine that has been advanced and maintained, from time immemorial, as a leading dogma of the Order of Freemasonry. There is no other human institution under the sun which has set forth this great principle in such bold relief. We hear constantly of Freemasonry as an institution that inculcates morality, that fosters the social feeling, that teaches brotherly love; and all this is well, because it is true; but we must never forget that from its foundation-stone to its pinnacle, all over its vast temple, is inscribed, in symbols of living light, the great truth that labor is worship...Freemasonry is, it is true, a speculative science, but it is a speculative science based upon an operative art. All its symbols and allegories refer to this connection. Its very language is borrowed from the art, and it is singularly suggestive that the initiation of a candidate into its mysteries is called, in its peculiar phraseology, work.

Mackey interestingly distinguishes Masonry from the philosophies of old, drawing attention to the fact that the institution's phraseology does not draw on the language of the university: "There would have been the sophists and the philosophers; the grammatists and the grammarians; the scholars, the masters, and the doctors. [Masonry] would have had its trivial and its quadrivial schools; its occupation would have been research, experiment, or investigation; in a word, its whole features would have been colored by a grammatical, a rhetorical, or a mathematical cast, accordingly as it should have been derived from a sect in which any one of these three characteristics was the predominating influence." Instead, the highest grade of Masonry is Master of the Work. "Its places of meeting are not schools, but lodges, places where the workmen formerly lodged, in the neighborhood of the building on whose construction they were engaged. It does not form theories, but builds temples." God is not "a divine power" or "a controller of all things...but a Grand Architect of the Universe. The masonic idea of God refers to Him as the Mighty Builder of this terrestrial globe, and all the countless worlds that surround it...[A]nd hence our labor is his worship." According to Mackey, a Mason's duty "as such, in his lodge, is to work."

The question arises as to the kind of work. Mackey is emphatic in his belief that "temple building was the original occupation of our ancient brethren. And to this is added the fact, that after a long lapse of centuries, a body of men is found in the middle ages who were universally recognized as Freemasons, and who directed their attention and their skill to the same pursuit, and were engaged in the construction of cathedrals, abbeys, and other sacred edifices, these being the Christian substitute for the heathen or the Jewish temple. And therefore, when we view the history of the Order as thus developed in its origin and its design, we are justified in saying that, in all times past, its members have been recognized as men of labor, and that their labor has been temple building." Mackey then compares the tasks of modern Masons with those of ancient times, explaining that the modern work of Masonry is largely abstract: "But our ancient brethren wrought in both operative and speculative Masonry, while we work only in speculative. They worked with the hand; we work with the brain. They dealt in the material; we in the spiritual. They used in their labor wood and stones; we use thoughts, and feelings, and affections." It is here that Joseph Smith seems to differ, instead fusing the material and the spiritual together. The building of temples and the building of a moral society (a "moral temple" according to the German masons Mackey quotes) became intertwined. Joseph's Zion  and the German Masons' "mystical Solomonic temple" could be said to share the same utopian description: "the high ideal or archetype of humanity in the best possible condition of social improvement, wherein every evil inclination is overcome, every passion is resolved into the spirit of love, and wherein each for all, and all for each, kindly strive to work." And thus the German Masons call this striving for an almost millennial result labor in the temple."

This return to a more ancient form of Masonry fits with Smith's notion of restoring a more ancient form of Christianity and, ultimately, Judaism.



NOTES

1. This may actually be a mistranslation.

2. See Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005); Thomas E. Woods, Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2012), Ch. 3: "How the Monks Saved Civilization."