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Cargo Cults and the Mormon Conception of God
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I’d like to start off this week by drawing your attention to an interesting story, a story you may have already heard, the story of the Melanesian Cargo Cults. This story is so interesting that it’s been used by such luminaries as Feynman, Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. Though each has drawn a different lesson from the story. But in order to understand these lessons you need to understand the story, so I’ll start there.
During World War II, the islanders of Melanesia, many of whom had never seen an outsider before, suddenly ended up on the front lines of the most massive war the world had ever seen. As part of that war, they saw and took part in an enormous logistical chain which girded the planet. But they only saw the last few links in that chain. And from this limited vantage point, and having, for all intents and purposes, missed the industrial revolution with all its consequences, the islanders developed a religious interpretation for how “cargo” arrived on their islands.
The Cargo Cults were birthed out of this religious interpretation. Seeing numerous marvelous goods arriving on their islands: food, jeeps, medicine, you name it, but being able to only see the last leg of things. For the Cargo Cultists, the control towers, and runways weren’t components of a vast logistical chain, they were religious artifacts, temples and churches, if you will, not just one component of an infrastructure built up over decades, relying on technology which had been in development for centuries.
At this point, those of you familiar with Dawkins, may have already guessed what lesson he wants us to draw, and since he does give a great description of things, I’ll let him take over for a minute:
The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:
Dawkins then goes on to quote David Attenborough:
They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down - and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.
As Attenborough relates, the islanders came to the conclusion that the activities of the Americans constituted a religion, thus when the war ended, and cargo stopped coming, they decided to try summoning their own. Thinking, as I said, that the runways and the control towers were the key bits, they built their own, and on top of that they built fake wooden earphones, and attached them to fake radios. They also built wooden planes, and they even marched around with weapons made of wood in mimicry of the soldiers they had seen.
Of course, it didn’t work. Because the islanders could only mimic what they saw, and even then they couldn’t do it very well. They were completely unaware of the vast industrial base which lay behind all the cargo. They were a victim of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Or as I often say, indistinguishable from a miracle. And, assuming it was miraculous, the islanders tried to duplicate what they took to be the religious rituals of the Americans.
Dawkins points out this connection to Clarke’s Third Law and concludes by saying that cargo cults:
...provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing.
In other, words, as you might imagine, now that you know the background, Richard Dawkins uses the story of the cargo cults to bash religion. Our other Richard, Richard Feynman, derives a different lesson from the story, and uses cargo cults as a metaphor to help explain how some people go through the motions of conducting science without actually getting scientific results, coining the term cargo cult science. And, finally, Jared Diamond makes use of it in the central question of his book Guns, Germs and Steel, which opens with someone from New Guinea asking Diamond.
Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?
Diamond goes on to spend the rest of the book answering that question, and by extension explaining what the cargo cults missed about the modern world. However as interesting as all these lessons are, the lesson I want to draw from the story is not one of these three. And you may be wondering why I brought them up if I’m going to then just cast them aside. Well to begin with, at this point the various meanings which have been applied to the cargo cult story are as much a part of the story as the original events, and you only get the full sense of things by including them. Second I do it because my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just mentioned. And it really only makes sense against the backdrop of the more mainstream explanations I just reviewed. Also it’s important to occasionally be reminded that all stories are open to a wide variety of interpretations, and that these interpretations are inevitably skewed by the biases of the individual doing the interpreting. Something to keep in mind as I proceed to offer up mine.
As I said my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just talked about. All of them focused on the same things: how wrong the islanders were, how far away they were from the truth, and how unlikely they were to succeed in getting what they wanted using the tools available to them. By contrast I want to focus on how right and how close they actually were. Most people focus on the gulf between Melanesia and the industrialized nations. But I want to focus on the opposite. I want to focus on how small the difference is. And I want to do this because I think it illustrates something important about theology, especially LDS Theology.
Part of my inspiration for this topic came from my anticipation of the upcoming General Conference, which should be playing as I publish this, and part of it came from a discussion I had recently with a friend who had decided to leave the Church. What both of these things have in common are prophets. The prophetic connection to General Conference is obvious, but the prophetic connection to my friend may need some explaining.
As I said this friend had decided to leave the Church, and as I talked to him one of the things which kept coming up were statements by earlier prophets, particularly Brigham Young. He found some of these statements to be indefensible, but, only when paired with the idea that Brigham Young was a prophet. He readily admitted that other people of the same era could and did say the same things, without necessarily being a bad person, but no one could be an actual prophet and say those things, ergo the Church couldn’t be true. This is not to say that statements by Brigham Young were the only reason he decided to leave, there were other things as well, but these statements played no small role in his decision.
This is the prophetic connection to my friend’s decision, but you are probably still wondering how all of this connects to the cargo cults. As I said, unlike everyone else who has used the cargo cults as a metaphor, I want to illustrate how close the Melanesians and the Americans were, not how far away. While it is true, that from the perspective of the Melanesians that the Americans appeared to have God-like powers, they were still just men. If you had taken an islander and dropped them in the middle of New York, they would have initially been awestruck and overwhelmed, but with some hand-holding and a little time, I imagine no more than a year, they’d have been fine. The biggest problem, of course, would have been the language, not cars or electricity or indoor plumbing.
All of this is to say that there’s less distance between a Melanesian and an American than the Melanesian imagines. And in a similar way there’s less distance between an average member of the Church and the Prophet. I know that the Prophet seems like he should have all the cargo, or in other words that he should have all the answers, know exactly what’s moral and what’s not, never say anything offensive (not even 150 years later) and in general conduct himself in an unimpeachable manner. But just as Americans and Melanesians are both still just humans, your average member of the Church and the Prophet are also still just humans, and just as having planes and jeeps and bombs didn’t make the Americans omnipotent, being prophet doesn’t make the man who holds that office perfect.
Though at this point it might be worth it to look at how perfect they have been, particularly compared to the control group of other church leaders. None of the Prophets have been involved in a sex scandal (unless you count polygamy, which I certainly don’t) none have embezzled money. In fact they live pretty simply, when compared to the control group. I know some might argue, that if you discount the more distant past, that the Pope has had a pretty good run, but I think if you do much digging into the Vatican Bank, you’ll find that on the financial side of things, everything has not been as rosy as it appears. Does this make the Mormon Church an anomaly? Should this fact by itself be counted as some kind of proof for the truthfulness of the Church? Probably not, but it at least illustrates that when you’re evaluating anything you have to evaluate it not in absolute terms, but relative to everything else in the same category. And I think on that count Brigham Young and the rest of the prophets look pretty good.
Of course, I’m not the first person to make the point that there’s nothing in Mormon Theology which asserts that Prophets are infallible. And while this point is important enough to stand by itself, my true object is to aim a little higher. As you may be able to tell from the title, I’m not stopping at prophets.
However, if I’m going to proceed, eventually I’m going to run into the question of whether Mormons are Christians. And for all those people who get extremely annoyed everytime someone asserts that we aren’t, I have some bad news for you.
We aren’t… or at least we aren’t under certain definitions of the word.
Okay, calm down, and allow me to explain. As I may have mentioned, I’ve been working my way through Eliezer Yudkowsky’s exceedingly long book on rationality (only available on the Kindle, but it’s estimated to be 2,393 pages) and there is actually some interesting stuff in there. He spends quite a bit of time talking about the confusion which arises when you use one word to mean two different things. The classic example of this is the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest does it makes a sound? Which relies on using the word “sound” to mean two different things (auditory experience and acoustic vibrations). We see a similar thing happening with the word Christian.
The primary meaning of the word Christian (at least according to dictionary.com) is “of, relating to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings”, and under that definition we are certainly Christian, but there is another more technical definition of Christianity which involves professing belief in the Nicene Creed, and by extension the Trinitarian conception of God, which holds that the Father, Son (Jesus) and the Holy Ghost are the same individual. By that definition we are not Christian. If we had been around in 6th century they might have classified us as belonging to the Arian Heresy, but given that the Arians were mostly wiped out or forced to declare their allegiance to the Nicene Creed by the end of the 7th century, that’s not a term that’s in common usage anymore.
Technically, though, it’s worse than that, we don’t just merely view Jesus as being subordinate and separate to the Father, we believe that there are is more than one God, and that we will eventually achieve Godhood. (Though as the article I just linked to points out, this does not make us polytheists, at least not in the way the word is commonly understood.) All of this means that, as my friend the Catholic Priest likes to point out, we both believe in Christ, but we have very different ideas about who Christ is, and what his qualities and attributes are.
To this list of our differences from “classical” or orthodox Christianity, I would like to use the story of the cargo cults to illustrate other, perhaps less well known, differences. These differences are kind of on the edge of Mormon Theology. And I think some members might even take issue with some of them. In other words I’m going out on a limb, but I think this way of looking at things not only brings many significant insights, I also happen to think that it’s true.
As I said already, the change I wanted to bring to the discussion of the cargo cults was to emphasis how close the Melanesians and the Americans are, not how far away. I extended that to a discussion of the gap between your average member of the Church and the Prophet and now I want to extend it one step beyond that. To the idea that it’s useful to view the gap between us and God in a similar light.
If we choose to go down this path, what can we learn from comparing the islander’s relationship to the Americans to our relationship with God?
To start with, let’s get one thing out of the way, though the Americans seemed to operate on an entirely different plane from the islanders, I don’t think the islanders viewed them as actual divine beings. You may think that this fatally undermines the comparison, but I still think we’re close enough. It is clear that the American’s had “powers” the islanders considered miraculous, and, furthermore, that there existed a huge gulf in understanding. And yet, as I pointed out, the actual gulf separating the two was not really so great. Certainly we can easily comprehend it from our side of the gulf, it was just the Melanesians on the other side who thought it was miraculous and incomprehensible.
In a similar fashion there is a gulf between us and God that appears unbridgeable as well, at least, from this side, but I’m going to assert that once we’re on the other side it will be entirely understandable. And just as with the Americans and the Melanesians, smaller that we think.
Claiming that, after death and resurrection, we will understand things, hints at the next topic I want to discuss. I’m not saying we will understand everything, I’m claiming that we will understand the gulf between where we are now, and where we are after exaltation, in the same way that the Americans didn’t understand everything they just understood a lot more than the islanders. But wait, haven’t we reached the point where the Americans (very loosely) represent God? And God understands everything right? That’s one of his key attributes, he’s omniscient, right? Well are you sure about that? Are we really even sure we know what omniscience means?
This is what I was referring to when I said that some members might take issue with what I’m saying, and I would urge those of you who are in that camp to be patient. Assuming I haven’t lost you, the problem is that once you are truly dealing with Infinity, with a capital I, things get really weird, really fast. For example some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Or there’s the issue of free will, many people arguing that if God knows everything that there is no free will, since we’re already predestined to do everything we’re going to do. Or, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that the human mind can’t truly grasp infinity. I mean, we can understand it as a concept, but when you start to get into how impossibly large things can get, and then realize that infinity is infinitely beyond even this impossible largeness, you realize you can’t grasp true infinity.
Let’s for the moment assume that God is more in the “impossibly large” category than the infinite category. I don’t think anything actually changes about our relationship to God. As far as we’re concerned he’s effectively still both omnipotent and omniscient, just like the American’s were effectively omnipotent when compared to the Melanesians. But from a philosophical standpoint, as I’ve already pointed out, it does solve problems like free will, and as I have mentioned elsewhere it goes a long way to solving the problem of evil as well. And finally it leaves us with a God, and by extension a religion, which is not only less vulnerable to being undermined by the ideology of progress and fruits of technology, but actually ends up dovetailing quite nicely with them (a theme I also frequently write about.) In other words from an intellectual standpoint I think this view gives us a lot of useful information, but for those worried about heresy, from a day to day standpoint I don’t think it changes anything.
To conclude I’d like to briefly touch on two examples of how this theme ties into subjects I’ve covered in the past.
First, Fermi’s Paradox: I have laid claim to being the first person to put forth a divine explanation for the paradox. (Feel free to dispute that, if you dare.) And the theme I’ve been expanding on in this post is one of the reasons, I assume, why I am the first and only person to propose this explanation. If you view God as something ineffable, but also all-powerful and all knowing, it’s difficult to also put him in the category of “extraterrestrial as defined by Enrico Fermi”. It’s only when you put him in the category of impossibly advanced, but not infinitely so, in a position comparable to the one the Americans had with the islanders, that this explanation for the paradox becomes conceivable. Yielding, as I said, not only a religion which fits in better with scientific progress, but which actually, in my opinion, provides a more compelling answer than science to one of the enduring mysteries of our day.
Second, the Mormon Transhumanist Association: As I have said, I have a lot of respect for them, and I think they’re right about a lot of things. They understand that God is not some ineffable and infinitely powerful spirit. That the difference between us and God is more on the order of the difference between the Melanesians and the Americans, than the infinite gap imagined by most religions. And most crucially, that in the long run the similarities are far more important than the differences. That said, as the final lesson of the story of the cargo cults, I think the MTA, rather than reading the science and math textbooks left behind by the Americans, spend too much of their time listening to a fake radio, using their fake headphones, perched in a control tower above a runway on which no plane will ever land.
Something we all need guard against...
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