Like anything grown in America, Mormonism emerged in a climate of rebellion and turmoil. Springing from a backwoods boy, growing up near the spearhead of the industrial revolution in America, self-educated, proud, visionary, it lashed out against every orthodoxy in sight, it embraced the most dangerous heresies.
It this way, Mormonism seems a massive existentialist project. ‘Existentialism’ names not a way of thinking, but a group of thinker: some Christian (like Pascal, Dostoevsky, and Kierkegaard) some post-Christian (like Heidegger and Sartre), and some anti-Christ, like Nietzsche.
Walther Kaufmann, described existential philosophers in terms that are easily analogized to how early Mormons viewed themselves as religious thinkers:
Existentialism is not a philosophy, but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. . . The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism.
Swap out “existentialism” with “Mormonism” and “theology” for “philosophy” and it seems we have an observation as insightful as Kaufmann’s. As a philosophical term, existentialism is nearly useless for lack of precision, but it points to a frame of mind reminiscent of Joseph Smith’s.
Joseph responded to traditional Christianity with mythic absurdity and wine-skin-bursting ideas. Mormonism remains as conceptually hostile to traditional Christian theology as Nietzsche was to Plato. Like Nietzsche, he deconstructed traditional Christianity with wild intuitions, myths, and sweeping observations—not careful argument.
Joseph’s religion was also more primitive in the way Nietzsche’s philosophy was more primitive than what came before. Joseph reached back to “translate” biblical prophets into his own religious language with the same lack of rigor, but strength of vision, that Heidegger translated pre-Socratic philosophers. Heidegger clothed his dramatic insights in comically complicated and obscure jargon, as if he was struggling to underscore the newness of his message. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon into an idiosyncratic vernacular, struggling to underscore the sacred importance of his insight—something kept hidden from the foundation of the world.
In many ways, Joseph put absurdity front and center in religion. But, in light of the existentialist onslaught on traditional thinking, becoming conscious of the fascinating absurdity of Joseph’s claims does not invalidate them as a stand on life. As Camus pointed, we all must come to terms with greater absurdity than that found in the scriptures. As Nietzsche postulated, the conditions of life may require error.
Joseph’s theological history, the history we know anyway, models the story of Heidegger’s philosophical history. Joseph interpreted the Bible the way Heidegger interpreted his philosophical forebears, with an eye toward precision, but often a wild disregard for interpretative accuracy. Heidegger’s “philosophical hermeneutic tracks with Joseph’s new view of prophetic “translation”. Joseph used romantic prophetic images to ‘unconceal’ the path to the way of life that developed into Mormonism.
Pascal, perhaps my favorite existentialist, was as orthodox a Christian as he was brilliant. Yet his faith was not rooted in argument, but in a supernatural manifestation of God’s love. Like Mormons, he was a firm believer in revelation, he affirmed all love as a supernatural event.
I began reading existentialist philosophers at BYU, starting with Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Frankly, they rejuvenated my faith. They seemed to be on the same plane as Joseph in relation to the body of old ideas that formed traditional and systematic worldviews. Kant, the grandfather of all contemporary philosophy and the uncle of protestant theology, deconstructed knowledge to leave room for faith, existentialists deconstructed everything to leave room for life, Joseph deconstructed Christianity to make room for a radically new way of seeing God and humanity. I began to see LDS religious thought as a process of coming to terms with indefinable realities and absurdity. I started viewing modern prophets as pointers, not oracles, as theological interpreters of life, never systematic theologians.
Mormonism stands with existentialist thought as a harsh challenge to tradition. Mormon life, with its thoroughly heretical foundation, can seem like as a whole, a reductio-ad-absurdum of creedal Christianity. While Mormonism may not be in the shape it could be—massive disappointments abound– unbound by creed, thus far, it seems to weather the latter-day storms of faith, leaving room for a vibrant spiritual stand outside the confines of systematized thought.
To most, the broad strokes of religion or philosophy are much more important than the essential details. The direction we head is more important than each step on the way. Abandoning any demand for philosophical orthodoxy, as a criminal lawyer must routinely do, I tell a person’s religion by their actions, its effects, and what the person says about these actions and effects. In this way I remain very Mormon, even after abandoning belief. Viewing Mormonism (or Christianity) as an existentialist philosophy reveals the multiplicity of paths one can take to an authentic and redemptive theology. We can move in the same direction, even as we describe that direction radically differently.