Religion is Art: Mormonism after Morals

By David V. Mason

Maddison Colvin


IN HIS RECENT work, The Good Book, philosopher A. C. Grayling has challenged us to consider life without god. After all, it is a fact that no two human cultures have imagined god(s) in the same way, and yet have consistently comported themselves in such a way as not to have caused the extinction of the human race. People seem to be able to live happy, kind, and charitable lives without being told to. Thus, humanity does not necessarily derive morality and goodness from a singularly conceived, transcendent, super-being. God seems dispensable.

Though Grayling gives us an articulate and compelling book, it is not a revelation. Religious philosopher Paul Ricoeur conceded the death of the moral god more than forty years ago. “I think that we are henceforth unable to return to a form of moral life which would consist merely of submission to the commandments of a foreign or supreme will.” For Ricoeur, the skepticism of the modern age, a condition we can neither escape nor deny, banishes the moral god, and undermines morality as the basis of religion’s raison d’être. Writes Ricoeur: “[We] have learned to question the authority of a weak superego too easily identified with the will of God and to recognize that the commandment which gives death but not life is merely a projection of our own weakness.”1

But does the death of god demand the death of religion? Some of the past decade’s spate of popular books defending (or promoting) atheism have pushed the implication of Grayling’s reasonable distinction between god and the human capacity to act morally to assert that with god goes religion, altogether. After all, if religion’s primary purpose is to serve as a conduit through which god can deliver codes of morality to otherwise amoral people, but the capability of human intelligence to reason out perfectly sound moral codes is demonstrable, then, proceeds the argument, religion is, indeed, useless, and we may as well discard it as a set of training wheels for which humanity has grown too old.

In response, we might argue, on the one hand, that great numbers of humanity have not yet grown out of the need for the moral training wheels that religion often provides. But there may be another, more compelling response. Perhaps religion does not exist, primarily, as the means of transmitting transcendent moral codes to humanity. If religion matters in our post-postmodern condition, which is so fluid that we no longer build structures but gather in boats, it must offer something besides moral instruction. The argument about god’s existence is one thing. But the argument about religion’s place in the world may be something else.


AS I WRITE this, I am sitting in a cramped, windowless cave of a room burrowed under the roof of the Basilica dei Servi in Siena, Italy. It smells of thirteenth-century wood in here, and the grit on the brick floor may, indeed, be from the thirteenth century. When the basilica’s bells ring, there’s a distinct thumping in the walls that crowd me, as though the bells are actually hitting against the wall (they aren’t, but that doesn’t explain the thumping). Most mornings, I clamber down the narrow staircase and sit in the grand church above which I sleep, in a pew between the Gothic columns, beneath the stained glass and the looming paintings by Manetti and Lorenzetti. In the mid-morning, I’m usually alone there, and the vast space whispers to my bowed head something I sense would clarify everything if it were intelligible. When I leave the church to go about my day, which includes doing laundry, teaching class, writing, and eating gelato (not infrequently, twice), the mystery is deeper, not less so, and I luxuriate in the experience of a yawning, bottomless chasm of being beneath me.

There may be many legitimate ways to characterize my experience here, but, undoubtedly, the best two are artistic and religious. Something in me seems to respond to the intentional, human stylization of my environment, to the artistry of basilicas and bells and pews and paintings, and the way in which they all combine in a cohesive, complimentary whole that focuses all that is grand about living on the space around me. And something in me responds to the religion in my environment, too. I may understand, rationally, that I am not the subject of the cosmos, but in the warm point of this focus I, nevertheless, sense, dimly—perhaps fearfully—the attention of existence, the religion of basilicas and bells.

And I am not Catholic. In my world, the Roman Catholic god is dead. My morality, whatever it may be, does not depend on such a being. Nor, apparently, does this religion I feel, which, regardless of the Catholic god’s absence, permeates my world, even while I am in this paradigmatically Catholic context. Religion, here, is the color, tone, and taste of the reality in which I live, the world imbued with specific qualities that are themselves conditioned by the circumstances in which I live—a medieval basilica, stained-glass saints, cobblestone lanes, and the music of a language I barely understand. But if there is a “religious spirit” that arises so naturally from the circumstances in which I examine myself, that spirit is not the propositional demands of a moral code. The ennui that emanates from Lorenzetti’s Slaughter of the Innocents, suspended above my silent pew, is not a moral premise derived from ten divine commandments, or even, only, from one commandment (thou shalt not kill—as though only by obedience could we know not to kill). The spirit of Lorenzetti’s work is an experience that settles on my shoulders, not from a proposition, but from the painting. So, too, the air of the mass, conducted in this same chapel, charged with angst and wonder that I feel even as an outsider, does not circulate from ethical pronouncements, but from the movement of the rite, and the careful way in which its sound and shape proceeds.

Religion might be best understood, as Rudolph Otto understood it, as experience—the kind of experience that clings, like the malaise of an empty basilica, or the awful tone of a fugue, or the arrogance of a sculpture. Because religious experience arises in the material context in which we are embedded, it is no wonder that, very often, religious experience accompanies art—that uniquely human endeavor to form and re-form the elements of our material context. No wonder, either, that religious experience always presents itself as a tone or quality in life, and is always located in the unique, insoluble complex of specific individuals. Catalyzed by whatever device, our unique experiences hold—like vessels—tones and tastes that give not only the experiences themselves their character, but give us, too—as the media of those experiences—our character. So, too, the tones and tastes of experience give the world in which we each live, individually, the identity by which we know it.

God’s death changes nothing about religion, because religion coalesces around the tones and qualities our modes of living engender. It is certainly true that the religion to which we subscribe may be founded on the notion that a moral god has delivered to us a transcendent code of conduct, by which we might always know in what way we are accused and in what way we take refuge. But it is also certainly true that the religion to which we subscribe isn’t essentially the repository of such a code. Remove the code entirely, and the reverence, the dread, the awe of living remains, the awe in which we hope to find the god that, otherwise, has left the world. It isn’t that religion never consists of codes and beliefs. It’s that religion doesn’t have to consist of codes and beliefs. Religion comes from circumstance, from environment, from community, from ideas, from doctrines, from books, and from the natural condition of reflecting on the predicament of living. It may even come from a moral code that we fancy has been inscribed on the world by god’s own finger. But not necessarily. The premise that religion exists primarily as a moral guide—whether intended to criticize religion or to defend it—flatly ignores the broad, complex, and often beautiful field comprised of the multitudinous religious traditions, the myriad religious individuals, of the world.


LEE HALL’S AND Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film Billy Elliot gives us a boy who jumps. The movie opens with a quick-cutting montage of Billy’s body in bouncing, clumsy flight: gangly legs jutting at grotesque angles, arms flailing, feet churning in the air, and a face wrapped in the boy’s pure pleasure in motion. When asked how he feels when he dances, Billy—like a devotee confronted to account, propositionally, for his belief—can produce nothing more articulate than “Like electricity.” Never mind the rational justification. The value of dancing is in dancing.

In another medium, a memoir of a brief but earnest jaunt around the Orthodox monastic communities of Mount Athos, we find Scott Cairns—professor, poet, and Guggenheim Fellow—engaged in another kind of leaping and gliding dance. Cairns describes his search among the monks of Mount Athos for someone to help him learn prayer. Although he fails to find someone to fill this role, Cairns learns something firsthand about prayer, nevertheless.

As midnight prayers blended into the orthros, and then into the Divine Liturgy, I said the Jesus Prayer under my breath, more alert than ever to the powerful sweetness I felt here at St. Anne’s. Off and on, I noticed I was weeping and was not sure why—no sobbing, no choking up, just a steady flow of tears down my face, wetting my beard. The uncommon beauty of worship—the intimate closeness, the frankincense, the simple chanting, the sense that I was part of a centuries-long prayer—became an apprehensible ache in my chest.2

The religion in Billy Elliot’s dancing and evident in Scott Cairns’s praying is not essentially a code, nor something one thinks or even believes, but something like art that one does. And in the way that dance draws Billy’s curiosity and grips him, satisfying some peculiar yearning of his soul, religion often appeals to people not so much with propositions as it does in qualities that resonate with their own longings. The principal characteristic of religion is experience itself, which engages us as do dance, music, sculpture, and the other arts. Like the body that dances and feels the shameless pleasure of motion and energy and of itself, the body that “religions” senses its world and itself in ways that codes, intellectual propositions, and beliefs seldom attain. Religion, here, is an activity, a doing through which a person perceives the world.

Wherever it is found, art consistently draws its subjects and objects from the religious discourse of its environment. And similarly, religion, wherever it is found, relies heavily on art for articulation and expression. But the relationship between art and religion is even closer, more intimate, than subject matter and form. Art not only borrows from the lexicon of religion, and religion not only leans on art as its mouthpiece. Art and religion rely on the same human instinct for creation. Just as we can equate waltzes and rhumbas on account of the way they both organize and beautify human movement, we can equate religion and art as similar transformations of human living. For many, religions are art: part of the lovely dances, exquisite paintings, and irrepressible music that make the world more brilliant.

It is religion as art that goes on quite comfortably after the death of god, and quite collegially alongside the progress of humankind as it reasons out perfectly sound moral principles on its own. The suspicion that art and religion share a common impetus is at least as old in Western thought as Kant, who also—perhaps ironically—methodically articulated a logical premise for good behavior. Kant argues that the essential character of art is its purposelessness; or, rather, that our aesthetic experience (of the beauty of a dance or of dancing) derives from a “disinterest” in practical use and application. If we find something aesthetically valuable, or beautiful, says Kant—for instance, a hammer—it is not our appreciation of the fact that we could drive nails with that hammer that inspires our aesthetic judgment. If we find the hammer beautiful, it is because we perceive—we experience—some aspect of the hammer that does not have anything to do with hammering nails. Kant could see, at least, that necessity does not exclusively produce the subtle, fulfilling impressions of the human condition. Furthermore, Kant’s argument that beauty is not a quality of an object (in the way, for instance, that “hardness” would be an objective quality of a usable hammer), so much as it is a judgment that we derive from our experience, opens Western thought to the possibility that we might experience all sorts of things aesthetically, and value them, legitimately, quite apart from their practical use. We might experience the basilica, not as a tool—the cradle of a moral program—but as a manifestation of beauty, as we sense something that has almost nothing to do with the building’s practical, functional elements. Kant’s distinction between the aesthetic and the practical also means that we might experience religion, itself (and god, too, if he is concomitant), as beautiful, rather than as hortatory or didactic.

Kant’s legacy is evident in a variety of Western theories and theologies. Jonathan Edwards, the great, first evangelical voice of the United States, equated god and beauty, and regarded the experience of beauty as the experience of god. Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was crucial to the response of Protestant theology to the Enlightenment, famously characterized the essential quality of religion as “sensibility and taste for the Infinite.”3 As the modern spirit married itself to the technology of science in the passage of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, phenomenology and pragmatism insisted that human experience, unmediated by instruments, and undetermined by philosophy and science, still matters. Gerardus van der Leeuw, one of the early phenomenologists, tried to keep art and religion distinct, but, in the end, conceded:

there is no particular art which can be designated as religious. Still less is there a religion which we can call aesthetic. There is only a single art, and it is first of all, art. There is only a single religion . . . . But again and again we discern an essential unity between art and religion; again and again holiness and beauty appear to us in the same guise.4

Back in the United States, in his late-nineteenth-century treatise on aesthetics The Sense of Beauty, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, who described himself as an “aesthetic Catholic,” asserted, “[It] is indeed from the experience of beauty and happiness, from the occasional harmony between our nature and our environment, that we draw our conception of the divine life. There is, then, a real propriety in calling beauty a manifestation of God to the senses.”5

Inheriting from Santayana the tradition of American pragmatism, John Dewey, in the twentieth century, argued both famously and infamously that “things are what they are experienced to be.”6 Whatever Dewey may have meant about the nature of reality, his postulate inherits the Kantian attitude that distinguishes between the mundane object and our experience of it. Dewey acknowledges the legitimacy of experience per se, as a real “thing” all its own, which implies that the experiences that we have of the world do not have a priori meanings, and are each subject, after the fact, to qualifications and interpretations. We have experience of a medieval church. After the fact we might characterize that experience as religious or as aesthetic. In either case we’re right, because both possible characterizations together demonstrate one, common, phenomenological source. Hence, William James, writing a half-century before Dewey, declares that religious experience “has no intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its peculiar emotional mood.”7 The concept of religion that can emerge from Kant’s aesthetics is not dependent on a practical function, such as determining meaning and morality. The filter of nineteenth-century phenomenology screens out meaning and reason from the essence of religion in favor of an essential flexibility that comes from religion’s nature as activity and experience—as opposed to propositions. James, Santayana, and Dewey, et al., provide the foundation for a twenty-first century religion that has no reason to hide from what Grayling, et al., have shown us about human reason and morality.


IT MAY SEEM that my reading of religion as an art robs religion of its own peculiar character, and, by conflating it with other similarly affective phenomena—architecture, music, dance, and the like—I banish religion as a unique phenomenon from the world, after all. But understanding religion as an art, as opposed to the conservator of a transcendent moral system, does not make of religion merely another art form. Rather, understanding religion as art sees religion (if you will pardon the redundancy) as an art. The basilica is art, but not ‘the art’ that produced it. A dance recital is art, but the art that produces it is a creative act. Art objects, the kinds of things we hang on walls, proceed from art—an ingenuity and its application in the world of forms that are not, per se, the objects they produce. Art is a creative mode, a doing, that ever searches for more effective means of expression. We may think of “religion” as a mode of creative activity, one which might produce objects such as theologies, moralities, and prophecies, but which is not, per se, the objects it produces.

Though religion might, indeed, produce art-objects such as theologies, moralities, and prophecies, its creativity is even greater; for religion, like art, has the capacity to create reality itself. We want to escape life, wrote Albert Einstein, “with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness.”8 In that drive to escape, Einstein perceived as well as anyone humanity’s peculiar impetus for creativity.

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best, a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative scientist do, each in his own fashion. He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”9

Einstein saw that art, at least, moves spontaneously toward the making of an alternative to the drab condition of mundane living, and he might have added “prophet” or “devotee” beside “the painter, the poet, the speculative scientist” as roles that strive to construct a cosmos beside itself. Religion, like art (and, incidentally, like science, if one follows Einstein here), surely is that creative activity by which we set what might be beside what is.

In pursuing what might be, art and religion (and, I suppose, science) run at the limits of what is—what we do, what we think, what we know, what we believe—and because they push at the boundaries, beyond which is only darkness, these creative activities provide little or no peace and security, contrary to what Einstein supposes. Religion scholar James Carse provides a smart distinction between “religions” and “belief systems” as the difference between spirituality that lives in a modern world and the custodians of moral codes that can only resist ongoing life. Religions, Carse tells us, always look to open holes in the boundaries of knowing and believing that surround us, so often with the painful crudity and hopeless dreariness of Einstein’s lament. But what lies beyond those holes, religion cannot say. It is only there to make it possible to look into the darkness. Hence, Carse avers, “religions provide no answers at all.”10 When religion is merely dogmatic or moral, it may imagine some realm of tranquility to which we might aspire by obedience. But the aesthetic religion that survives the death of god resolves nothing. It sees too clearly that resolutions are fantasies—and uninspiring, at that—for shrinking the horizon of possibility. Aristotle understood that great poetry deals not with what is but with what may be, and great (which is to say, living) religion resists the inclination to settle for the answers that lie in what is.

It is religion’s almost reckless drive toward the unknown that best identifies it with art. Thomas Martland insists on a fundamental relationship between religion and art that is neither in the development of fantasies nor in the establishment of dogma.

My thesis says that art and religion do not so much express fundamental feelings common to mankind as determine these feelings; they do not so much provide explanations for phenomena which men cannot otherwise understand as provide those data which men have difficulty understanding; they do not so much provide security or ways of adjusting to phenomena which men cannot otherwise handle as interpret the world in such a way that phenomena are delineated which men seem not to be able to handle.11

Living religion and living art do not define the world, but reveal it, however uncertain, however intolerable it may appear. Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot does not give us peace and security, and neither does the Book of Job. Neither Beckett nor the anonymous author of Job try to saddle their audiences with platitudes and principles intended to resolve the great mystery of living. Beckett gives us no comfort, and Job gives us no answer. If we follow both Waiting for Godot and Job, we find them leading us to the boundary that marks off the territory of what is bathed in the secure and comforting light of human reason, known and knowable, to thrust our eyes at what lies beyond: dark, ineffable, and treacherous. Trembling there alongside the poet and the prophet, we have no peace or comfort; we have only the mighty experience of the beauty and holiness of existence.

It might be said, as Einstein said it, that at the edge of the great unknown, art works to create a world that can fill the void. And, if religion works as art does, perhaps religion does this, too. Perhaps religion is like art with respect to its vast imagination and its inexhaustible inclination to employ it to paint the darkness. But we know more about art than this. As far back as Plato, Western minds saw art not merely as a representational activity that could only recreate in flimsy, unreal, ways what existed otherwise, independently. The father of Western philosophy panicked that art, left to its own devices, would transform what had been created, would even create anew things that had not been created, and, thus, would throw existence into disorder and ruin. Two-and-one-half-millennia later, Derrida articulated the logical end of semiotics to argue that art makes reality. In between, we can find innumerable examples of despots, demagogues, and the oppressive powers of the world that hope to sustain a singular, monolithic reality by suppressing or banishing art, because art naturally changes things. John Dixon, a specialist in both art history and religious studies makes the case, simply: “Art is not an ornament to an existing world; it is the primary means of forming that world.”12 We have known for ages that living art creates.

Perhaps most importantly, art creates us. Derrida derided the thinking of the earlier, Modernist generation that proposed that our real identities lay in pieces in the unconscious, hidden even from ourselves. Rather, we might say, we are exactly what we see, the conspicuous product of what we do. Hence, wrote the philosopher, echoing the fundamental principles of existentialism, “we are written only as we write.”13 Art’s contribution to the post-modern world, which has stripped us of our metaphysical (or, maybe, hypophysical) meaning, is the creative impetus by which we fashion ourselves. Not only by each act, but by each experience, we construct our selves. For Alfred North Whitehead, among others, the experience of art infiltrates identity, ineluctably, changing its nature and direction and, thus, contributing to the creation of a new creature. Whitehead understands the very idea of aesthetic experience as the phenomenon in which the artwork “lures the subjective aim of that occasion of experience into recreating in its own process of self-creation the proposition objectified in the prehended performance.”14 Perhaps more succinctly, Columbia University philosopher Richard Kuhns asserts, “A person’s identity . . . is formed slowly and decisively, through the interaction with objects of art.”15

The living religion that walks beside art also creates—not fantasies or dreamworlds to obscure our gaze into the infinite—but the things we are, in very fact. The non-propositional experience that arises in religious activity structures a religious person’s reality, so that the real world, as the religious person knows it, emerges from the force that his or her religious experience exerts on the material environment. After being drafted into the army in 1941, distinguished historian William McNeill spent much of his time marching in military formation in the hot, Texas sun. For McNeill, the experience was visceral and grand. “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved,” writes McNeill. “A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life.”16 Rather, we might say with Billy Elliot, like electricity, indeed. And, like Billy’s dancing, McNeill’s experience of marching was not trivial nor a fantasy, but real experience of a real quality of life. The world that was evident to William McNeill was benevolent, expansive, “bigger than life,” as a consequence of the experience that his unusual, strenuous, and structured activity fostered (and not as the consequence of a moral code). McNeill’s experience—social experience that we can certainly also describe as religious—shaped his reality, and imbued it with a particular tone and quality.

Neuroscientists Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg tell us that what they call “hyperlucid experiences”—the kinds of intense experiences that people like Scott Cairns and William McNeill report arising in the circumstances of religious practices—are neurologically as substantive as the experiences we have of eating buttered toast on a Tuesday morning. “Hyperlucid experiences,” these neuroscientists tell us on account of looking at images of human brains produced by fMRI machines, “must be said to be real or the word reality has no meaning whatsoever.”17 The neuroscientists only confirm, technologically, philosopher John Dewey’s postulate of empiricism: things are what they are experienced to be, and every experience is some thing.18

More importantly, that real, religious experience shapes a person’s reality in an ongoing way. The religion that lives on, after the moral god, continues to create and to fashion from our encounters with the fluid world passing us and carrying us along. In the place of the moral code that often strangles faith—and which, in any case, can be developed independently—lasting, living religion gives us poïesis, a creativity that escapes the childish modes of punishment and reward on which the morality that thinks itself superior to human reason depends. Not at all unlike the force of poetry, religious experience takes of the ground and the sky and all things in between and shapes them, casts them as things both as they are and as they could be. Religious experience re-news, in a very substantive, literal way, a world that, increasingly these days, confuses novelty with newness.


RELIGION DOES NOT die with god. But only those religions that accommodate themselves to the creativity that has sustained them thus far will go on living. Perhaps the great contribution that the religion that comes to the world through Joseph Smith has to make is its creative impulse. More than the other many new religious movements of the nineteenth century, Mormonism valued creativity as an essential element of religious life. Embedded in the very nature of early Mormonism was the sense that living religion moves on waves of ingenuity, that the religious spirit that will not freeze and expire in the dreary tomb of what is or must be leaps and dances in its own creative joy, exulting in what may be. In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and elsewhere, Richard Bushman presents the case that Mormonism was not unique among religious movements in the 1800s that claimed to be restoring Biblical Christianity. But, as Bushman points out, Smith uniquely dispensed with the recovery of tradition in favor of inventing Christianity all over again. It was the audacious creativity in Mormonism that led literature scholar Harold Bloom to call Smith a “genius.”19

Bloom also perceived, perhaps, the valuable legacy of Smith’s audacity to the religion that continues from his day. Smith’s claim to the editor of the Chicago Democrat that a fundamental characteristic of Mormonism was the search for all things that might be lovely revealed that Smith did not conceive of this religion as an answer (or a creed or a dogma or a law), but as a pursuit. The Mormonism of Kirtland, Independence, and Nauvoo did not write a new moral code. If a code had been its object, Mormonism would have smothered in its own discipline as did so many of its nineteenth-century cousins. Mormonism created, with a distinctly artistic élan, new thoughts and practices, new conceptions of god and humankind, new visions of the earth, its meanings, and its ends.

Mormonism’s creativity is, perhaps, more evident in its scripture than in anything else. Nothing Smith produced has more creative audacity than the Book of Mormon. When it had an opportunity to advance a moral code, Mormonism wisely demurred. Instead, the great first contribution of Mormonism to American culture was not a religious manifesto, a plan for a new community, nor a moral screed, but a tale, in which radical imagination and creativity circulate almost unchecked. The fundamentally narrative character of the Book of Mormon is not incidental. It is this quality that most clearly speaks to readers, to each reader in the voice that he or she alone most clearly hears.

Art, because it does not succumb to the inclination to explain or to prescribe, but rather reaches after something no time or people grasp, keeps apart from the moments of human caprice, and the religion that survives god’s death artfully expresses itself in query. No wonder that storytelling has been religion’s most propulsive force, inasmuch as a good story is never satisfied with the answer of a moment. Carse, again, privileges storytelling as a medium for religion that lives. “Storytellers do not convert their listeners,” he writes in Finite and Infinite Games, “they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail. A story cannot be obeyed.”20 The Book of Mormon’s genius for storytelling invests it with the particularly religious and artistic quality that can rise and touch a reader by resisting the temptation to succeed.

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents” is as gripping and affective as any opening sentence in literature, and introduces a fable that is nothing short of epic. In the world I inhabit, this beginning chimes in my soul beside other similarly spare and infinitely suggestive first lines: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree,” “It was the best of times,” “Mother died today.” The words seem coated in thirteenth-century dust, and mark a great, hollow space below. Like a medieval basilica, or a Lorenzetti, Mormonism’s genitive scripture may be most effective, most purely religious, for asserting so little in the way of moral codes or systematic theology. Before all else it might be, the Book of Mormon is a story—a big story, a weird story, perhaps even a preposterous story, but a story, and, hence, a call to the imaginative faculties of its readers in a voice that eludes The Berean and other forgotten nineteenth-century tracts. I am alone, the book concludes (or nearly), My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go. With a miserable grace not at all unlike the existential dread of an empty church, this book lies between me and oblivion, not as a bulwark, but as a passageway.

Mormon scripture survives for inviting collaboration with its readers from which living religion can grow. Like great music and sculpture, literature reaches after creative readers prepared to imagine along with all that an author might conceive. We encounter visions and fancies in the world’s books, and when they are compelling we find places for them in the world of our selves. Sometimes, the visions we encounter are so robust, we change our selves to see them. That literature we sometimes call scripture rarely tells us what we are and where, but calls to us to imagine, brazenly, vigorously, what we might be in the world we might inhabit.

So, we find, even in the less narrative Mormon scripture, proposals, which are not the same as propositions. “The glory of God is intelligence” tells me little, but insinuates all I can presume, and neither denies nor demands what these words and I fashion together to concoct a peace with the cosmos. “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” The words make nothing, but urge me to dream with them and to make, myself, some new end for the world. More productive, still, than bits borrowed out of whole pieces—as though the finger of Michelangelo’s god, as exquisite as it is, could speak in place of the whole—the full chasm of Mormon scripture, sublime and silly at the same time, gives gravid space to my own, awkward dance, my rude move to occupy and enliven a cold, spare stage.

With peculiar vision, Mormonism invests new value in individual, human experience. Mormon theology, writes Bloom, “has been left incomplete, which encourages Mormons . . . to invent for themselves, in some respects.”21 Indeed, Mormonism has not turned Smith’s bold creativity into a constellation, to be admired or even revered as pretty but untouchable. Rather, Mormonism insists that Smith’s visionary life provides a model for genuine, spiritual living. Bushman makes the claim that Smith “democratized” charisma, partly by insisting that “every person could speak a kind of scripture.”22

The quality that has kept Mormonism alive, even after god’s own demise, has been its insistence that the creative endeavor that is religion does not end at the boundary of dogmatic, institutional, or cultural prescriptions. Certainly, Smith saw not only that we don’t need a divinely delivered dogma to ensure that we do good, he saw that we don’t even need Aristotle, Cicero, or Kant to ensure that we do good. The god that talked to Smith acknowledged the competence of even the least of humanity to do good of their own will and by way of the power naturally in each of them. What Mormonism offered, instead, was an art: an ongoing, earnest, creative engagement with the world, by which we all might shape the world in which we live. Because of the creative quality that Smith’s audacity embedded in it, Mormonism may yet fulfill its promise to succeed Islam as the world’s next great, global religion, regardless of god’s death, slumber, or apparent disinterest.




1.  Alasdair Macintyre and Paul Ricoeur, The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 68.

2.  Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 103.

3.  Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 23.

4.  Quoted in James Alfred Martin, Jr., Beauty and Holiness: The Dialogue Between Aesthetics and Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 88.

5.  George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896), (accessed 11 October 2012).

6.  John Dewey, The Essential Dewey, Vol. I. Larry A Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 118.

7.  William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 333–34.

8.  Albert Einstein, Essays In Science (Mineola: Dover, 2009), 2.

9.  Ibid., 2–3.

10.      James Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief (New York: Penguin, 2008), 210.

11.      Thomas Martland, Religion As Art: An Interpretation, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), 12.

12.      John W. Dixon, Art and the Theological Imagination (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 12.

13.      Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, Alan Bass, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). 226.

14.      Quoted in Martin, Beauty and Holiness,120.

15.      Richard Kuhns, “The End of Art?,” in The Death of Art, Berel Lang, ed. (New York: Haven Publishing, 1984), 50.

16.      Quoted in Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (New York: Penguin, 2010), 79.

17.      Eugene G. D’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, “The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual, and Mystical States,” Zygon 35.1 (2000): 50.

18.      Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander, eds., The Essential Dewey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 118.

19.      Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Touchstone,1992), 99.

20.      James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 133.

21.      Bloom, The American Religion, 113.

22.      Richard Lyman Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 26, 27.



  1. Robert Christian says:

    “After all, it is a fact that no two human cultures have imagined god(s) in the same way,”

    Is this a fact?

    “People seem to be able to live happy, kind, and charitable lives without being told to.”

    Just ask Thomas Hobbs. This guy makes one sweeping simplistic assumption after another. There is so much more to say but I don’t have time right now. Thanks.

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