Fetish of the Here and Now

When asked whether schoolchildren should be taught in Spanish as well as in English, a former governor of Texas famously replied that if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for anyone.  Logical errors aside, this statement revealed something important to me.  How could anyone make such a remark?  It struck me that at the root of this sentiment about English and Jesus was a deep provincialism: an overwhelming emphasis on the here and now.  Surrounded by other English-speaking Christians, the governor projected these “natural” qualities through all time and space.  Jesus, despite living before the invention of English, became an English-speaker.  Everyone around the world, despite practicing other religions, naturally became followers of Jesus.

I am not writing this because some governor in the 1920s was pigheaded, but because provincial thinking remains rampant today.  It results in our minds privileging the present above varied pasts and possible futures.  We forget that what is was not always so, and thus stop believing that anything different is feasible.  Take our presidential system (please!).  Over time this quite arbitrary mélange of institutions and procedures has come to seem fixed, unified, and somehow “normal.”  Any change one might propose to improve the system seems utopian.  We forget that our political institutions have already undergone significant changes over the past two centuries.  The history of democratic governance is not fixed, but rather, believe it or not, overflowing with alternatives, deviations, recombinations, and mixed systems.  Elements of presidential and parliamentary systems can and should be combined in novel ways.  The only thing stopping us from institutional experimentation is the idea that these two systems are only interchangeable as indivisible packages of natural institutions.  But history shows that this just isn’t so.

In fact, history tells a story of endless change to the political and religious institutions we hold sacred.  Religious people today fight tooth and nail to defend traditions found nowhere in the original forms of their religions.  Christianity is one such story of constant change: endless reinterpretation of the Bible and God-given values, the appropriation of unrelated political and social systems like capitalism and feminism, and the continual splitting and restructuring of sects.  The American Christianity of today, with its support of democracy, capitalism, and human rights, would seem outright heresy to Christians hundreds of years ago.

There is as much support in the Bible for communism as there is for capitalism.  The only reason that seems like a radical statement is that American Christians have naturalized the here and now, in which Christianity and capitalism go hand in hand.  Mormonism is a perfect example of this provincial thinking.  Wanting to blend American nationalism with Christianity more completely, the Mormon faith re-imagines Jesus as some kind of early American explorer.  Then, with no self-consciousness at all, Mormons proselytize this newly invented history as an “eternal truth” for all mankind.  The truth is, our eternal truths change.

Fortunately, there is a way forward against the fetishism of today.  Our starting point should be to accept as fact that political institutions, religions, and all the structures that control our lives are reshaping themselves in subtle ways all the time.  Trying to defend “tradition” is futile when tradition is a recent invention.  There is no going backwards in history; nothing ever happens again.  Today, we are either caught up in trying to hold on to a past that never was or watching as the chariot of history lurches uncontrollably.  We have no choice but to accept change and seize the reigns.

Consider, by way of example, the Hui people of China.  The Hui people have a long and rich history of ethnic unity and distinct cultural traditions.  Or at least, they think they do.  The truth is more instructive.  Basically, the Chinese government made up the Hui ethnicity about 60 years ago, throwing together people from a dozen different backgrounds inside and outside China.  The Hui exist because the Chinese Communist Party finds it easier to control people by organizing them into manageable chunks.  Nevertheless, Hui people, like people all over the world, believe themselves to be truly distinct from others in deep cultural ways.  But let’s face facts.  The Hui is a relatively arbitrary group today and in a hundred years it will probably be a significantly different arbitrary group.  The social structures that govern our lives are similarly flexible and profane.

We must embrace change.  If identifying as Hui makes people happy, I think they should do it.  But if people wish to change the meaning of Hui and change the Hui lifestyle, absurd notions of “Hui tradition” should not hold them back.  Likewise, our institutions should conform to our wishes.  We created political and social institutions to serve us.  Let’s not worship them when they should worship us.  History shows that gods will change their minds, if we ask them to.

  • Josh

    It is thinking like this that causes the bulk of the strife in our world today. Change can be a benefit, but change in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. There are hundreds of examples throughout history of ideas and theories that were tried and failed due to the fact that they were bad ideas or just plain evil. Hitler and Nazism is a great example. Many traditions are traditions because they are good and should be looked at as good.
    Your comment about Mormonism is very ignorant and I would be embarrassed to make such an un-informed comment within an article supported by a reputable institution.

  • MrNirom

    You stated: The Mormon faith re-imagines Jesus as some kind of early American explorer. Then, with no self-consciousness at all, Mormons proselytize this newly invented history as an “eternal truth” for all mankind.

    Nice statement but just what does it mean? When was Jesus an “explorer”? Did he arrive by boat or an airplane?

    Based on what I see of your article.. I am either going to start your article with the words.. in my opinion… or end it with the same.

  • Andrew Miller

    “Mormonism is a perfect example of this provincial thinking. Wanting to blend American nationalism with Christianity more completely, the Mormon faith re-imagines Jesus as some kind of early American explorer. Then, with no self-consciousness at all, Mormons proselytize this newly invented history as an “eternal truth” for all mankind. The truth is, our eternal truths change.”

    Your understanding of Mormonism is pretty flawed, for what it is worth. The Mormon faith re-imagines Jesus as some kind of early American explorer? Are you serious? Thanks for a good morning chuckle. :)

  • Phillip C. Smith

    It is true that some members of my Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, equate the Church with Capitalism. Some may even see the need to push this perspective through Church programs.

    A careful reading of the prophets and the opinions of most LDS leaders, however, would suggest that this is not the Church’s strategy, but rather what is most important is to work through whatever system there is in place to foster the spirit reflected in a very important statement from the Book of Mormon, that is to “…be…free with your substance, that they (meaning all others) may be rich like unto you.” Jacob 2:17.

    We believe very much in helping the poor and those less fortunate, through financial offerings and humanitarian efforts. We have also an extensive help network for those suffering disasters.

    In addition, we believe that one of the most important things we can do for others is to help them develop those attitudes and skills that will allow them to take themselves out of poverty. It is like that wonderful old expression that goes something like “If you give a man a fish you feed him one meal. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”

    I appreciate individuals being aware of our Church. I hope that what I have written here is taken in kindness. You may wish, however, to look more carefully next time you or anyone else attempt to characterize the Church.

    Phillip C. Smith.Ph.D.

  • John Colton

    “…the Mormon faith re-imagines Jesus as some kind of early American explorer.”
    –> This is not at all an accurate statement of Mormon belief, at all. In fact, it took me several minutes to even figure out what you were talking about with that statement. In the end, I decided that what you are likely referring to, is the Book of Mormon’s account of the visitation of the risen Jesus to the Nephite people. A miraculous visitation of a resurrected being to people living somewhere in the Americas is hardly viewing Jesus as an “early American explorer”.

  • KT Nelson

    Next time, before you trash other people’s beliefs, please be respectful enough to understand them clearly. Mormons do not believe anything even vaguely similar to your description. Not even close. You have used that classic technique, the straw man. This is lazy thinking masquerading as scholarship (and sent out to a readership that you assume doesn’t know any more about the subject than you do). Your main point may or may not be valid, but using poorly researched “examples” undermines the whole. As a philosophy teacher, I’d give this essay back to you with lots of comments in red and hope for your sake that this wasn’t your final draft.

  • Andrew Hendrickson

    This article is not worth comenting. The author is full of himself and his intellectualism. Just a lot of nothing!

  • Bill Bardin

    Wow! When it comes to truth, you are truly challenged! When I saw the word Harvard, I actually expected to read something intellingent about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


  • simplethinker

    To clarify, Mormons don’t view Jesus as an American explorer. In the Latter-day Saint faith, we believe Jesus to be the literal Son of God, born of Mary, taught in Jerusalem and Galilee, provided a perfect example, and suffered and died for our sins so that we can through faith obtain salvation. After three days he exercised His power and overcame death so that we can one day do the same.

    Mormons do believe Christ came to America after His Resurrection–but not as an explorer. He was the Creator of all we know, and is omniscient; thus He already knew of America and those who lived here. He visited the people in America out of love. He taught them just like He had taught His other sheep in Judea. He cared for them as a perfect father would care for his children.

    The eternal truth that Mormons teach is not about exploration. It is that God loves all of His children, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.

  • StephenDD

    Your statement, “our eternal truths change”, reminded me of a recent speech given at the Harvard campus by Elder Dallin Oaks of the Mormon church, wherein he said “moral absolutes are being marginalized. ”


  • Zach

    Great article, Chris. I think humans are generally deferential to tradition because (a) life is exceedingly complicated and mysterious and we crave an authority possessing esoteric knowledge that can ease our mental confusion and (b) we desire group acceptance and thus align with a community and embrace and conform to their traditions and assumptions in order to receive that acceptance. Because members of the community desire to maintain that cohesiveness, dissenters from the group are shamed and shunned.

    Mormons are especially resistant to reforming American political institutions because Joseph Smith preached that God directly inspired the founding fathers (which is surprising given the fact that most were deist or agnostic) and that the constitution has near-scriptural authority. Thus, reforming it would be like adding or removing one of the ten commandments, (which again, is surprising considering things like the three-fifths compromise). This explains the hysterics of Glen Beck, who converted to Mormonism after a life of alcoholism, and has embraced the far-right fringe tendencies of Mormon culture. Although free-thinking Mormons reject this view, the majority are quite sympathetic.

  • Scott Barr

    Your characterization of Mormonism as a “perfect example of this provincial thinking” is flawed as is your statement regarding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ motives. If the Mormonism’s prime motive was to promote Christianity blended with American nationalism, how would you explain that more than half of LDS Church’s members reside outside of the United States and in such exotic places as mainland China, Russia and India? On the contrary, the appeal of Mormonism is that its promotion of family, civic responsibility and personal sacrifice speaks to faithful people across the political spectrum of the world.

    The story of Christ’s appearance to the inhabitants of the American Continent, as reltated in the Book of Mormon, has nothing to do with exploration but rather to do with teaching the Gospel as Jesus did in the Bible. The event did not even claim to take place within the current geographic boundaries of the United States let alone North America, so any re-imagining of Christ-as-early-American-explorer takes place in the author’s fertile imagination and not as a tenet of Mormon doctrine. Taking pot shots at Mormons seems to be highly fashionable among the self-impressed intellectuals of today; however, if you plan on having your limp generalizations stand up under scrutiny, you’d better do your homework.

  • Maria C. Costa

    Dear Chris Carothers,

    In our view, this is a very interesting and challenging article. From what we have perceived… tradition can, and also should integrate/embrace some change.
    I think that we might even say that much of what is taken as “traditional” has necessarily to be adapted, adjusted into innovation, following some requirements, after all changing.
    And we all, citizens of the world, are responsible for it.
    Thank you very much.

  • Chris Carothers

    Thank you all for your comments. I hope we can continue a substantive dialogue about tradition and change in society.

    I am puzzled that everyone is up in arms at my relatively innocuous comment about Mormonism’s beliefs about Jesus’ missionary travels in America. On reflection, I suspect it was my casual dismissal of Mormonism that aroused so much ire. I suppose if more Hui Chinese had read this posting, I would have similar complaints regarding my comments about them.

  • Chris Carothers

    Scott Barr,

    With respect to Mormonism, I do not see the contradiction between something being intrinsically American and its promotion abroad. President Obama, an American patriot, probably has more supporters abroad than in the US right now.


    Thank you for your comment! My commenters are about 80% negative, so it is nice to have some support.

  • Anonymous

    A more recent creation of an ancient people are the Palestinians who did not come into existence until after the Six Day War when Israel took over the West Bank from Jordan.

    Before WW II, there were millions of Arabs all over the old Ottoman Empire, but when the British and then the UN started dividing up the lands after WW II, some people became Jordanians, others Syrians, and still others became Israelis. There could have been a new group called Palestinians, except those Arabs rejected the UN Partition.

    While Jews had never completely left these parcels of land, the new nation did not call its people Israelites. The term Israelis recognizes both the historical ties going back 4,100 years and the modern reality.

    In the 1948 War, the area we call West Bank was taken by Jordan and from 1948 until the Six Day War, Arabs were not demanding that Jordan return the West Bank to the Palestinians. During this 20 year period, Jordan could have set up an independent nation of “Palestine” in the West Bank, but as far as I know, none of the people who now claim that they are Palestinians even asked that Jordan cease to occupy the West Bank. There are in fact no Palestinians since they rejected the 1948 Partition and did not attempt to set up an independent state during all the years that Jordan occupied the West Bank.

    If these Arabs wish to have a state now, they may have one. The Israelis have one request. Stop trying to kill us.