Sterling McMurrin said in his classic little Mormon theology book that the the Mormon view of reality has a “humanistic quality unusual in theistic philosophy”. Humanism and Theism do indeed seem to be unusual companions — especially in recent centuries. But in the early days of the the humanism movement it was not so unusual to combine the two.
I few years ago Kristen and I took a trip to Italy and the highlight of the trip was a walking tour or Florence (Firenze). Part of the tour was spent pointing out the unattractive and entirely utilitarian buildings erected in the Middle Ages versus the gorgeous, aesthetically appealing buildings constructed during the Renaissance. Our guide mentioned that one of the reasons for the difference was the rise of a humanism among the Florentines. The basic idea she presented was that in the Middle Ages the pervasive idea in the culture was that this life was mostly something to be endured in hopes for a paradise in the next life. The rise of humanism in Florence shifted the popular philosophy about this life and people started believing that they could and should work hard to build a paradise out of their lives here and now. (If you’ve ever been to Florence you know that the world is a richer and more beautiful place because of this philosophical change among those 15th century people.)
The Renaissance humanism wiki says this:
Renaissance humanists believed that the liberal arts (art, music, grammar, rhetoric, oratory, history, poetry, using classical texts, and the studies of all of the above) should be practiced by all levels of “richness”. They also approved of self, human worth and individual dignity. They hold the belief that everything in life has a determinate nature, but man’s privilege is to be able to choose his own nature.
It is not hard to see the shades of the philosophies of the early Mormons in that quote. Here are a couple of related quotes from the Community entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
For Latter-day Saints, community is an essential and eternal part of life in this world and in the world to come. From the time the Church was established (1830), its teachings have placed emphasis on principles of unity, cooperation, mutual assistance, and beautification of one’s surroundings. The community of believers envisioned by the Prophet Joseph Smith continues today, based essentially on the principles he established.
Third, the duty of the Saints was to care for, and beautify, the earth (Nibley, pp. 3-29). The belief that the earth could be improved through the efforts of an industrious and dedicated community of Saints was of particular importance as the Church migrated to the arid Great Basin.
Another way that Mormonism and humanism overlap is in the value both place on human flourishing. In The Book of Mormon a central theme is that keeping God’s commandments leads to prospering in the land. Further, the BoM states that “men are that they might have joy”. While this can be interpreted in lots of ways one feasible way to read it is that the entire purpose of our earth life is for us to seek human flourishing for ourselves and fellow travelers here on earth.
I am also reminded of the tale of Abraham digging wells in his travels — wells he never would use himself but that he knew others after him could use. It seems to me there is some lesson for our purpose in life in that…
This subject was brought again to my mind by the last post Jacob put up. I was struck by the discussion of the interaction between Celestial persons and Terrestrial persons and Telestial persons. I wonder if we can’t choose which kingdom of glory we will reside in while we are here on earth. Can we live in a celestial “kingdom” right here and now? I suspect so. Maybe it just takes us living the celestial law now and associating with other people who are willing to do the same. Wouldn’t that allow us a certain level of oneness with God and with others even before we die?
And for those who aren’t yet willing or ready to live a celestial law maybe we dig proverbial wells for them anyway (including making the world a more beautiful and pleasant place).
Seems to me that is a good recipe for human flourishing. I can imagine myself and my family and friends flourishing and having revelatory interaction with God and loving serving all people the best we can… to me that sounds like a celestial life here and now.