Welcome to the eighth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover: “The New Mormon Mysticism”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark discusses a turn in Mormon discourse during his life towards more of a focus on the Holy Spirit and letting it guide your life. He interrogates and teases out the “series of fascinating paradoxes” as well as some “serious questions” and “significant strengths” that result from a “theological/spiritual emphasis on the Spirit.”
Best Lines: We Mormons have always gloried in our individuality (as distinguished from individualism). Yes, we are all sons and daughters of God. We sing in the joy of relationship. But we also glorify whatever it is that makes us different from one another, differences that we trace back through eternities and forward into eternities: we have always had our separate and unique personalities, and we will always have them. (110)
Why: Because it’s a concept that’s uniquely Mormon, but one that we too often ride roughshod others with in our zeal to get everybody into the kingdom. It also has brings with it much stronger implications, including responsibilities, than the adolescent individualism (that always leads in the end to conformity) that is so prevalent in American culture and discourse. It’s also existentially terrifying and comforting. And I find myself drawn to such concepts.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: this one pretty much picks itself. If the topic is Mormon mysticism, then the obvious recommendation is Steve Peck’s Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats.
Other Recommendation: I recently read The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning by Justin E. H. Smith. Other than a couple of weird (very online) references near the beginning, it’s very good. It’s a work of intellectual history and so it’s more about the metaphors we use for minds, computers, and communication over distance and how those aren’t quite as new as we make them out to be in the Internet era. Among other things, it very much demystifies the techno-utopian claptrap (especially around AI) that is being spouted nowadays.
William Update: I’ve been working on AML (Association for Mormon Letters) stuff. I’ve also been immersed in learning how to create electronic music, which is a hobby I took up a bit more than a year ago when I realized that I needed a creative practice that isn’t writing criticism and fiction, but I’m just not someone who is going to do woodworking or knitting (even though I’d like to be). It’s been very helpful as a break from writing even though it also ends up being writing in the end. I’m someone who loves to learn—voraciously intake information might be the better phrase—and the beauty of electronic music is that there is so much to learn, from music theory, composition, and sound design to how to use digital audio software to the science and art of mixing and mastering. It’s fun.
I’m also carefully, slowly blowing on the sparks of the next novel I hope to write. And I think I’m getting to the point where I’m ready to revise either The Unseating of Dr. Smoot (novella I finished in May) or The Courtship of Elder Cannon (short novel I finished last year) or both.
On the Paradoxes
As someone who was very young when this transition in discourse Clark describes was taking place, it’s hard for me to treat them as serious as new as Clark does. To a certain extent, these paradoxes are less paradoxes for me and more truisms that so often fall apart in practice—just like all truisms do when they meet the complex welter of mortal life and society. That is, having lived my entire life with this set of tensions, they come across as less dynamic and more mundane to me than they perhaps are for Clark even as they are likely also more present. Less the philosophical engines that drive my creative work, than the oxygen that fuels it and the carbon dioxide it emits.
I mean, I once wrote a story (“Release”) where the Spirit operates as pheromones rather than being consciously present as thoughts and identifiable feelings (granting, of course, that often it’s difficult to tell if the source of the thoughts and feelings is, indeed, the Spirit).
Which brings us to the challenges these paradoxes of Clark’s new Mormon mysticism present.
“Such a system of paradoxes could hardly help raising serous questions, most of them already suggested: When is it really the Spirit talking? What do I do if or when the Spirit at different times seems to be giving me differing, even opposing, responses? What happens when the Spirit speaks differently to you than to me? What if I don’t —or you don’t—hear the Spirit at all or hear it only so still and small that it doesn’t really tell me anything? Is whether I hear it or not primarily a matter of worthiness? Of surrendering myself wholly? Hod do I really go about giving myself up to the Spirit? Wouldn’t such yielding simply make me something of a puppet of the Spirit? Or make me, at best, part of a homogenous larger group?” (111)
He then goes on to note that the stock answers to such questions are generally “an indirect argument ad hominem” (111), but also offers up as a counterbalance to the questions above, a series of strengths for those who seek to live a religious life.
On The Challenges
I think the challenges are significant. I also think they’re meant to be. Which let’s God, and sometimes the Church, off the hook to a certain extent, but also implicates both—and all of us—in the messiness of life.
And to pick up a thread from earlier emails, this is where I think a small dose of postmodernism could have been useful to Clark and might be useful for us: the issue is not one of whether absolute truths exist or not but of their translation into a system of signs that makes perfect communication impossible. A realization which could make us more comfortable with ambiguity and delight in the work and failures of translation if we can let go of the idea that the ideal is something that can be achieved in mortality while at the same time realizing that the effort to communicate the deep truths and feelings we hold to and our experiences with this strange life is always worth undertaking.
Certainly, such an awareness can lead to embracing relativism or even an existential despair. But that’s the adolescent way out. I mean, shouting into the void (and secretly hoping that someone will come along and pat us on the head and validate all of our feelings and soothe all our fears and tell us we’re special) can be cathartic at times. But the work of life requires us to listen and speak with as much patience and precision and attentiveness as we can muster even though it’s difficult and impossible to accomplish perfectly.
On the Strengths
These deserve more attention than I can provide here and even more than Clark teases out in his essay because they lead to more questions, complications, and opportunities. But I do want to address his second strength in relation to the fifth one. I haven’t fully thought this through, but there’s this thing where humility, inspiration, ego, and the creative process interact in a way that is astoundingly delightful and effective. I don’t think giving yourself wholly up to the Spirit—or whatever you believe to be the source of creative inspiration—means being swallowed up and overwritten by the Spirit or the Muse. Rather, it’s a peeling away of insecurity and impatience and false pride and self consciousness.
What appears to be gifted to you, the perfect line that drops from the ceiling (as Annie Dillard describes it in The Writing Life), is hidden in you all along. The Spirit is an engine of revelation and what is revealed or rather the way it is revealed and then translated into whatever medium you’re working in comes from your truest self. Not an impervious always existent never-changing self, but the self in communion with the world you exist in at the time of creation. That’s the beauty and horror of the transitory nature of life. Of being in time.
It’s true that this essay—and the list of paradoxes in it—exists because Clark is determined to work out his Mormon thought within the context of the authority (and community) of the LDS Church and that the tensions he describe have become shores that many members have broken themselves against (or swum away from) in the decades since. And yet, they get at core issues of individualism and inspiration (whatever the God, Spirit, impulse, ideology, or muse that provides our inspiration) that neither staying in the Church nor leaving it fully resolves. Who are we and what influences how we experience the life and the decisions we make in it?
But what if we revised our understanding of the Spirit a bit? And maybe this can also apply to all of the other influences in our life and make them both more powerful and have less authoritarian, totalizing sway over us.
What if the Spirit isn’t revealing to us a God’s will (or the Muse the truth from the heavens) that is a direct laser beam into our being that inscribes the 100% correct groove into our being, but rather is creating a field of possibilities—of the most able to be accomplished towards the most likely amount of good—within which we, as beings with agency, choose a word, a path, a reaction, an action, a feeling and proceed forward with? And what if that field of possibilities is always changing based on the thoughts, ideas, people, and sensations we encounter? God (or truth or nature) is always the same in the larger physics that govern the shape of our universe but is in a dynamic state, always expanding and changing just a bit as it expands.
A good, achievable goal, then, might be less to seek the one right answer, but rather to seek for what we should read, watch, listen to, eat, do, say, think about, what to accept and reject or muse upon further to get us into a more constantly available (but never perfectly consistent), humble state of readiness to experience life and make choices from within the most optimal field of revelation we can conjure. To move (somehow—I’m not saying it’s easy) gracefully, thoughtfully, creatively, and dynamically within the independent sphere of truth in which we’ve been placed.
Thanks for reading!
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