(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Temporal Hours

  Let’s talk about temporal hours.

In the winter I have trouble making a good start to my day. The main reason for this is that during the time when I try to get up (between 5:30 and 6:00 am; most days I do at least manage to get out of bed by 6:30) it’s still dark. I have a much easier time getting up earlier in the summer, when the brightening of the sky makes it easier.

Well, obviously.

Yes: it’s obvious that our bodies, attuned to the natural rhythms of the earth and the length of days, should tend to follow those rhythms most comfortably. And leaving aside the requirements of some livestock, for most of human history this arrangement worked and could be followed – without shame.

Recently I read The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin and the first part of the book concerns the divisions of time that people have devised, from keeping track of seasons to days to mastering the flow of time during the day by cutting it into hours. I learned more clearly about the scheme of hours that prevailed before the division of a day into 24 regular hours of equal length, that march along mechanically with cold indifference to the positions of the celestial bodies: what state of light or dark prevails outside. The pairing of regular hours with reliable and ubiquitous means of artificial light “liberated” humanity from living in the dependency on natural day length that kept our poor benighted ancestors in lower stages of civilization…

Which means that, living at about 40 degrees latitude, during December and January I not only have the privilege of coming home from work in the dark, but of feeling guilty for lingering in bed after my alarm goes off, and shame for the weakness of my flesh that is so reluctant to keep in tune with the stricture of a regimen of self-improvement I’ve imposed -

which in turn is necessary to fit with the schedule of my paid employment, locked in along with the rest of the world to the ruthless synchronization of regular hours.

Meanwhile those who live in the arctic region are “free” to order their economic activity (and govern their bodies’ natural rhythms along with it) according to the same structure of time that would make more sense in the tropics.

I take for granted my privilege of being granted some semblance of natural normalcy: the daylight for work and leisure, the night for leisure and sleep. Of course in the earlier days of industrialization the promise of squeezing out every drop of productive capacity from a workforce independent of the old limitations of day and night was so exciting as to wholly win over the affections of the owners of the new machines and those who collected the gains from others’ toil, rolling over the gentle wisdom of humane values with the crushing indifference of a steamroller.

Boorstin:

There are few greater revolutions in human experience than this movement from the seasonal or “temporary” hour to the equal hour. Here was man’s declaration of independence from the sun, new proof of his mastery over himself and his surroundings. Only later would it be revealed that he had accomplished this mastery by putting himself under the dominion of a machine with imperious demands all its own.

Through long struggles, those who held onto humane values in some measure succeeded in restraining the hunger of Mammon sufficient to allow enough of us a package of eight or nine hour days with lunch breaks and paid time off and even for some of us yearly salary rather than hourly wage, with all sorts of additional perks distributed here and there so that we feel ourselves making up a fairly stable class of ordinary people who have it better than our ancestors could have dreamed.

And yet, after learning more about the revolution in timekeeping that laid the foundation for all of this, I found myself wishing for a lifestyle marked instead by temporal hours.

In brief, temporal or temporary hours are units of time that divide the day and the night separately. Even if you divide the periods of light and dark – between sunrise and sunset for day, sunset to sunrise for night, say – into exactly equal periods, even if you do this anew each day (and pioneering clockmakers were working towards this), this will still give you “hours” that vary in length through the seasons, if you live outside the tropics.

Boorstin:

The “hours” of their daily lives – their temporary “hour” was one-twelfth the time of daylight or of darkness on that day – were more elastic than we can now imagine.

To a modern mind this seems inconvenient, imprecise, messy. But I found myself wondering: if a civilization, if the societies of an entire world, developed sophisticated mechanized means of production, yet kept a scheme of temporal hours, would that have provided enough of a check to prevent the worst excesses of an industrial revolution?

I have staked the history of my fictional setting on that proposition. This was a crucial link to add to the economic history of Koth. Now I have a better idea of how my characters work, how they use their daylight and nighttime hours, how their institutions work, what those institutions demand -

and what they don’t. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: a review

 Out of woman comes a man,

Spends the rest of his life getting back when he can.

- Peter Gabriel, “Humdrum”


Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is the star of the LDS sex therapy scene. I first encountered her work over five years ago and was impressed by her enlightened and progressive views on human sexuality and the problem we have with it in the Church.

As a rising star, JFF as I like to call her (because it reminds me of a nickname of an ancestor of mine) has been building up an impressive online presence. If you’re curious I highly recommend browsing the ample archive of media available from her well-kept website:

https://finlayson-fife.com/

Her demeanor is both calming and vivacious, professional and patient. She radiates an aura of confidence, helped, I am sure, by her age. (I would earnestly caution people against trusting any sex therapists under the age of 40 – or who are not parents.)

JFF has helped countless women in the Church and in conservative religious cultures generally to take ownership of their sexual desire and agency, and in this I commend her for doing God’s work. But I am not here to introduce her for a lecture or interview. In fact, because so many of the interviews I have heard with her feature interlocutors whose manner too often is downright obsequious, I have written this essay here to lay out some of the sticking points I have run into as I have spent more time listening to her. Mormons amplify the human tendency to cathect to authority figures and follow them with blind devotion; this is my brake to that when it comes to Jennifer Finlayson-Fife and her philosophy -

especially as it concerns men and our sexuality.

One of JFF’s main talking points is to diagnose – and lament – a particular problem with our cultural conditioning: men feel like our wives have to validate or legitimize our sexuality by their desire. Every time I’ve heard this I’ve been confused: what does she mean? Especially since I’ve heard her launch into it hot off the standard lamentation of the ills of male sexual entitlement.

I have come up with three hypotheses.

1. Most pessimistically: this is doublespeak. She is just continuing her denouncement of the stereotypical male villain: the husband who feels entitled to slake his lusts, barges into his poor wife’s time and space and overrides her autonomy by selfishly demanding that she accommodate his “needs.” Maybe he’s a really archaic “patriarch” and expects her to accommodate his whims whenever he gets them, whether she wants to or not, maybe he’s a bit more sophisticated and thinks that her will should be subordinated to or dependent on his as an appendage (lacking her own agency) so that she should be glad to serve him thus. This is the kind of man we love to hate.

2. Less pessimistically: this is lazy language, amounting to the same meaning as the first hypothesis, but without the conscious intent to disguise it in words that don’t fit. In fact, taking the words at face value I hear the opposite:

3. Men believe that our sexuality is validated or legitimized by our wives’ desire. JFF truly sees this as unfortunate.

But why?

I confess I still doubt what she really means. Putting the “she has to” in there obfuscates, allows a plausible deniability, leaves open the quick escape of “that’s not what I meant” and keeps the previous two interpretations close at hand to step into and between when we’re not looking. But I don’t want to believe she is guilty of either of those. Let’s say that simply calls out a doctrine that a man’s sexuality is made valid and legitimate by his wife’s desire, and that she charges that it is a false doctrine.

Stop, and look closely: a man who believes this doctrine is the exact reverse of the stereotypical male villain sketched above. Instead of the man making demands, this is a man being afraid to make a move unless he gets a clear signal from his wife of her desire, because he feels that to do otherwise is an act of aggression, an invasion, a predatory threat.

Does JFF admit that this is a feminist idea?

Disapproval of male sexuality, making men’s sexual attention and advances predatory and criminal by default unless the woman clearly signals not only her consent but her enthusiastic consent – which amounts to her sincere desire – this is a cherished feminist goal which activists are trying to write into policy and enforce legally. Does JFF admit this?

Does she truly deplore men’s submission to this feminist false doctrine? I hope so. But it opens up a view of the wider issue:

What does make male sexuality valid and legitimate? Is our sexuality really valid on its own, something we should not feel ashamed of or apologize for?

Who really wants to see us LDS men throw off the shackles of our shame and guilt, stride comfortably in our resplendent sexuality without apology? I reserve a great skepticism as to how acceptable that would be: to our wives, to the women who watch our behavior, to the men who watch our behavior, to the standards we have promised to live by.

(I’ll give you a hint: you know those insufferable, creepy men in the Church who like to fantasize about the reinstatement of polygamy? Or is that only what JFF calls the indulgent state of sexuality, not the integrated state?)

I call out two false doctrines that restrict the sexuality of men in the Church:

1. Feminist insistence that men’s sexuality (henceforth by this I mean heterosexuality) can only be validated by women’s desire.

2. Romantic insistence that men’s sexuality can only be validated by depending on and reinforcing emotional intimacy.

They work pretty well together, really: men’s sexuality is made moral by serving women’s wishes. But that’s not the only yoke we men have taken on. Another one is maybe even more important, and maybe here is a cause for the misunderstanding that makes us such attractive targets for accusation.

Before getting to that, I ask: does JFF really want to rock this boat?

She sounds like she does. She has called out feminist inculcation of female hypoagency. She sounds like she does not want to let women get away with using sexual refusal to put their husbands in their place. I hope she is sincere in all this.

Still, I do wonder how many LDS sex therapists who are more or less feminist really are willing to go the distance in:

1. admitting the role of feminism in shaming men for our sexuality,

2. recognizing that as a bad thing, and

3. truly helping men free ourselves from sexual shame, if by doing so we turn away from their feminist ideas – as I have.

I think I ought not hold my breath: part of the standard doctrine of feminist LDS sex therapy is that our sex problems in the Church come from the centering of male sexual experience as the standard, against which women are seen as deficient; and the entitlement men feel to insist on our “needs” being met at our poor wives’ expense. Rigorous diagnosis of whether this is caused more by culture, tradition, policy or doctrine would not be particularly helpful to the feminist LDS sex therapy project: it would weaken the ambiguity and plausible deniability that keep therapists safe in their aura of special expertise whence they are free to throw shade while dispensing their wisdom.

Of course conservative religious culture does place shame on human sexuality, for women and men. Men’s sexual shame is compounded by feminism, but traditional Mormon culture already laid a huge burden of it on us. As an example: women rightly deplore the inhibitions placed on them by the “chewed gum” or “licked cupcake” object lesson (which still has an undeniable grain of truth in cases of extreme promiscuity.  But like so many moral directives, in trying to prevent extreme behavior this analogy catastrophizes common behaviors and human weakness.)

Meanwhile, as women face the prospect of being seen as damaged goods for engaging in certain acts with men (another need for clear and consistent distinction: acting on her own desires or giving in to his predation?), men face the prospect of being seen as damaged goods for what we do in the privacy of our rooms: indulging in masturbation and especially pornography. More than that: an LDS man who looks at porn risks being seen as unholy, an evil-doer … a threat to the safety of women. So again: yes, traditional Mormon culture, the clumsy ways that leaders, teachers and parents (in, I propose, ascending degrees of influence) have taught and tried to preemptively enforce doctrine and policy, that has given men a burden of sexual shame that is unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary.

Feminism is not the antidote to this because it opportunistically misdiagnoses it as patriarchal oppression. Feminism is not an escape route for men from sexual shame in the Church. It has presented itself as such, and I charge that many men have gone through that proffered escape hatch, only to find themselves burdened with a different kind of sexual shame, which is another of JFF’s talking points: the sense of our sexuality being damaging, destructive, corrosive, dangerous to women.

This works to feminist advantage: as men feel more shame, feminism can keep putting the blame for all of it on the religious culture with its supposedly male-centric view, and keep promoting more feminism as men’s salvation. Question this and you can be told off as part of the problem. Every sensitive and enlightened LDS man proves his quality by accepting his share of the collective guilt: until the speaking docket in General Conference has been at a solid 50/50 for a generation, every husband is an oppressor by default, and is under an obligation to solicit more ways to serve his wife in atonement.

I reject that, and I say: if women need to be freed from cultural messages that their sexuality should only serve their husbands’ desires, then men also need to be freed from messages that our sexuality should only serve our wives’ desires.

Now to the more legitimate yoke on male sexuality.

Religions are largely social mechanisms for regulating sex to prosocial ends. Safe reproduction, stable environments for child-raising: these are requirements for a peaceful society. The family (in its variations) is the basic unit of society because it is suited to provide these social needs.

Human sexuality is made moral – is legitimized and validated – by serving prosocial ends. Religious sexual repression can be understood and ameliorated only when it is acknowledged as collateral damage from religion’s essential role of making and keeping the space in which sex builds society – and therefore giving it its meaning. JFF is fond of bringing up her golden question: what are you creating with your sexuality? Societies and civilizations exist because religions have been trying to answer this question for all of human history on this wise: you should be building a family and a social order with it.

Male sexuality is made moral when it is sacrificed, or consecrated, to serve those things.

Do we want to rock that boat? The sexual revolution already capsized it. LDS sex therapists act like they can afford to talk about sexual fulfillment and satisfaction and (most irresponsibly) freedom because our lifestyle in the Church is allegedly still so backwards or insulated from the sexual revolution and its aftermath. But in the Church we do partake of and are shaped by the secular societies we live in. Comic caricatures of homeschooling and no R-rated movies obscure just how beholden First World Latter-Day-Saints are to First World culture. And look at the state of it. As tiresome as it can be for a progressive sensibility to hear about how The World keeps getting wickeder, it does not do to ignore the sexual chaos that prevails in affluent societies: norms of casual sex prevail throughout the secular First World, with a Babel of slut-walks and “rape culture,” praise and condemnation of pornography as liberating and oppressive, liberals and radicals clashing with remarkable hate under the same banner of feminism that continues to proclaim itself as The Way to equality.

Sure, our stubborn stance on sexual sacrifice to marriage has insulated us from all that to some degree. That just gives therapists all the more responsibility to analyze and understand the complexity of influences on our sexual beliefs, practices and problems. It may be only due to time limitations, but I have to report I hear a lack of that in JFF’s talks.

I repeat: feminism insists that male sexuality can only be validated by conforming to women’s desire. The romantic marriage model insists that male sexuality can only be validated by serving emotional intimacy between the husband and wife – the extra-special Best Friend relationship that should make all other friendships obsolete (especially for the husband, who should be getting vulnerable with his wife instead of contaminating himself with sexism by hanging out with the boys).

These two doctrines can and do work together quite well in LDS culture. Let men reject both.

Reject them, I say! We already submit ourselves to a yoke that our sexuality is loath to accept at first. To stay within the Church in any meaningful way we accept a heavy restraint – as JFF says, we domesticate our sexuality. To be sure, I think the guilt laid on young men for masturbating is misguided and harmful: that pressure-reducing mechanism is the most useful tool for helping us resign ourselves to living the Law of Chastity, in other words, bridling our desires to prosocial service.

There’s a third doctrine, which I think is a product of the two I named above. It finds elegant expression in JFF’s words on the romantic idea of marriage in an interview with Greg Reynolds:

“… precisely what would be disgusting to many other people to do with me, to her or him they find it exciting, that I am being welcomed, that I am being received, accepted: we all want that.”

Here she betrays astonishing credulity in subscribing to some of the most incredible wishful thinking promoted by liberal feminists: the conceit that male and female sexual desire really are basically the same, and the obvious differences are due to social conditioning.

In other words, by making her assertion in that gender-inclusive way, JFF implies strongly that normal male sexuality recoils in disgust at the prospect of casual intercourse. I find this hilarious. But the humor evaporates when reflecting on the doctrine implied: male sexuality naturally conforms to feminine reticence and romantic exclusivity. Deviation from this is pathological, a result of patriarchal social conditioning, and it can and should be rectified by feminist intervention.

Is it any wonder men feel their sexuality is dangerous and corrosive? (Is it any wonder men flock to female sex therapists to fix themselves?)

Men should not feel any responsibility to be restricted by such an outrageous delusion. Our sexuality is not validated by its conformity to female sexuality with its radically different (if not opposed) biological warrants.

But this does get pretty close to the truth.

Male sexuality (again, I mean heterosexuality) is defined by an awe of the female body, and the male fascination with the female body far surpasses the reverse. Ask a million married women how they would feel if they woke up in the middle of the night to find their husbands masturbating. Then ask the same number of men how they would feel if they woke up in the middle of the night to find their wives masturbating. I am confident in my prediction that by far the husbands would be more excited, delighted and eager to watch.

Look at the explosion of DiY porn venues in recent years, populated by enthusiastic women entrepreneurs who strip and play with themselves in the comfort of their own homes – paid for by offerings from men they will never meet. Where’s the patriarchal male-centric exploitation here? Men enrich these entrepreneurs by spending money they can’t afford. There’s a word for them: simps. Women don’t simp for men like this. And despite the scorn in the label of “simp,” this continues to grow, because it is an expression of male sexuality in its honest simplicity.

I’m reminded of a famous Patrice O’Neal comedy routine where he imagines women being tempted to throw away a marriage for a chance at Brad Pitt, versus men being tempted by a woman passed out behind a dumpster. I’ve heard a quote that men can get aroused by a chalk drawing of a single breast on the wall of a shed. I’ve got a better idea: just scrawl a capital letter Y.


Do feminist LDS sex therapists have the nerve to confront this unpleasant truth? Do they have the grace to trust any of us to figure out on our own how we can take this raw energy that is the background radiation for our lives and refine it into something that works for good?  How about you keep from pathologizing it, discourage the infamy that our love of the female body is dehumanizing and oppressive, then let us men take it from there?

This is what validates and legitimizes men’s sexuality: that we express and use it in service of loyalty and commitment to … our wives? Better said: to our marriages. We consecrate our sexuality by dedicating it to feed the marriage, as a third entity between husband and wife. This is hard work, this is ruthless pruning.  It belongs to us.  If you're not going to be of help, stay out of it.

This is not the same as subordinating our sexuality to female desire: I should clarify that I mean spontaneous female desire, or in other words, waiting until your wife is in the mood. Maybe this quote by my beloved Camille Paglia will help explain what I mean: “There is such a thing as seduction, and it needs encouragement rather than discouragement in our puritanical Anglo-American world.” (“No Law in the Arena,” 1994)

It’s not the same as emotional intimacy either. JFF acknowledges that men commonly (I dare say typically) express love through sex. “Making love” is a euphemism that turns out to be spot on here (pun intended); maybe “intimacy” as a euphemism for “sex” isn’t entirely misleading either, after all: the kind intimacy of the body's greatest pleasures is the kind we most deeply crave.

Now I believe that emotional intimacy often smothers sexual desire: I believe that the romantic sentimentalization of marriage as the Arch Best Friendship has hobbled the sexual dimension of marriage, and has especially hamstrung wives’ sexual attraction to their husbands. I believe it has set up unrealistic expectations that cause as much resentment as sexual disappointment, if not more. When therapists tell married couples that the way for the husband to get more sex is to be more emotionally vulnerable with his wife, it reminds me of one of those “Demotivator” posters: “If you’re not part of the solution, there’s great money to be made in prolonging the problem.”

Deep emotional connection? Where in the scriptures is that condemned as a grave sin outside of marriage? Think of examples of hearts knit together in love between people of the same sex: David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, entire righteous utopias. Emotional intimacy should be cultivated in several relationships to secure a person more stability and happiness. But if sexual relations are only allowed in marriage, then let’s keep them as the definitive and expected expression of the marriage commitment and covenant. Let’s honor the male act of making love through cherishing a woman’s body. Let’s encourage women to receive that desire for their bodies without laying guilt trips about objectification or crypto-prostitution.

Let me give JFF credit here: I have heard her advocate for such recognition and reception.

Instead of holding teenage boys under suspicion that they’re fantasizing about inflicting their ejaculations on their inert wives (even if we admit they might feel guilty about that), let’s encourage teenage boys to fantasize about pleasing their wives, about becoming expert in blessing a woman through his sexual attention and technique. I’m sure there’s some porn for that – probably feminist porn, in fact. So it’s good for something.

How many men in the Church have arrived at this point already? Do we care to imagine? Do we care to investigate?

A man thinks his sexuality is only validated by his wife’s desire – or her pleasure?

Is his solicitude for her pleasure really just a cloak for his own egotism? Oh, what better way to keep men on our toes than to charge us with that? And I have heard JFF do so.

No wonder men get confused at the diagnosis and advice these women give. Women are so complicated after all. Or, if that’s too patriarchal an idea, maybe it’s just that we men are deficient and need intervention by feminist therapists to think right.

What, do you men not like that? Well that’s what you get for implying that your wife is broken for not serving your selfish so-called needs.

The ongoing contention is sad to see, but I happen to believe that conflict is the natural state between the sexes. I fear it will not be assuaged unless both men and women sacrifice, or dedicate, our sexuality to serve the third party: not feminism, but our marriages.

Let men reject the manipulation of our wives saying “I feel like you only want me for my body!” Let us reject the manipulation of “I feel like sex is a chore!” Women’s right to sexual agency entails the responsibility to share their sexuality in their marriages in generosity; men’s responsibility to attend to our wives’ sexual pleasure entails the right to expect our wives’ willingness to share the blessing of the experience regularly and frequently. I call that fair.

If women feel they need to get more in touch with their authentic sexual desires in order to get better at sharing their sexuality within their marriages, I guess that’s their business. Far be it from me to tell you how to do your job, right? As for men, we learn pretty early on that our authentic sexual desires are not fully acceptable if we want to be seen as righteous, safe, worthy and eligible.

Maybe it’s different for women after all: maybe the reason women need the affirmative action of therapy is not because their desires have been kept down by social conditioning but because their desires don’t press with such natural urgency to penetrate through so many restraints on their own.

I refuse guilt for any social conditioning that repressed the sexual desire of young LDS women, and I call on any LDS man who hoped or hopes for a wife who likes sex to join me in this refusal.

In any case, I’m glad JFF and others like her are working to encourage women to accept sexual relations as essential to the marriage covenant by claiming their female birthright to sexual pleasure, which is obviously superior in the female body.

What if we do judge a man’s sexual validity by the peculiar virility of how well he pleases his wife?  Yeah, you know what? Challenge accepted!

Men thrive on challenge, after all.

JFF has emphasized that her mission is not one of succcor for those “poor husbands” suffering from sexual deprivation, and I believe her.  I remember the dismissal in her voice when I heard her say it. Our comfort is not her priority. I think men should keep that in mind when she undertakes to teach us about our sexuality. Still I applaud her work with women and hope that it prospers. I trust that she won’t begrudge any dividends of sexual gratification that happen to fall on us men. If devotion and generosity are intolerably oppressive motivations for our wives to welcome our attention, then selfishness will do. I for one will not be shocked. Come, women, let’s see just how horny your selfishness makes you. Hit us with your best shot.



Monday, July 23, 2018

First corn

This is the second year in a row that we have planted a garden in the yard of our new house - for which we are and will ever be grateful.  Last year we had some tomato plants and herbs.  This year we have tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, corn, beans, squash, herbs . . . and a cabbage.  I'm constantly making plans for improving, and since I'm doing a no-till approach for most of it, I've got cardboard boxes laid down over more land to expand.

We have two kinds of corn growing: Painted Mountain and Hopi Blue.  I timed their planting so they wouldn't cross-pollinate, and it worked: the Painted Mountain, which I planted in April, came up in the beginning of May, and its ears are ripening as the Hopi Blue is just starting to pollinate.

This evening I picked the first two ears of the Painted Mountain corn, and here are some pictures.

Thanks to my sweetie for taking this picture.






These were the early birds.  The rest of the ears will probably be ready in a week or so.  We'll hang them up to dry, use some as decorations in the fall (along with the blue), and then . . . 

We will eat it!

If you want to see a little tour of our garden as it looked about three weeks ago, you can watch the video below.  The tomatoes and blue corn have grown a lot since then.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

My first published story

I am now a published fiction author!

It's a small start, but it's a start: Warp + Weave, the science fiction and fantasy magazine for Utah Valley University, has published my short story, "Lightness," in its latest issue.

A little under 5,000 words, this story is about a 13-year-old boy who has lost something dear to him, and how he deals with that.

You can download the pdf at this link:

http://pdfsr.com/pdf/stainer-lightness.pdf



Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Magic and Religion: an LDS Perspective

I wrote these two blog posts for the Jung Society of Utah; unfortunately their website seems to have just gotten hacked and I can't link to my posts there at the moment.  Also, I had to cut the length of my second post to publish on their site.  Here I'm posting its original version.


Magic and Religion: an LDS perspective, Part 1


Far away, across the fields
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell
-Pink Floyd: “Breathe (Reprise),” Dark Side of the Moon

Christianity has an uneasy relationship with magic, to greater or lesser degrees among its branches. Mormons are some of the wariest of all, which is ironic when you consider the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The regions of North America that nurtured this faith have also hosted folk magic practices for hundreds of years. Since the rise of various new age movements, notably Wicca and Neopaganism, modern aspirants to magic have been attracted to these homegrown systems. In response to this, people who work to preserve these traditions take pains to point out that they are firmly based in Christianity, and are not to be taken for any kind of crypto-paganism. The purpose of all these charms, incantations and concoctions was to bring about miracles – usually healing – by the power of God.

Along with this went a very real belief in and fear of witchcraft: if God could give power through special rituals, then so could the Devil, and much of the work of a Cunning Person (of whatever tradition) is to protect against evil enchantments. (As a side note, the notorious “heavy metal sign” with the index and little fingers extended comes from an Italian gesture of protection against the “evil eye.”)

Mormon attitudes to magic range from dismissive to fearful, with a healthy dose of defensiveness along the spectrum. Such defensiveness is perfectly understandable: the difference between “faith” and “miracles” on one hand and “magic” on the other looks entirely relative from a psychological perspective. Much depends on what words are chosen to describe phenomena and experiences – and who chooses those words. Any given group may identify its practices and rituals as religion and others' as magic – and in so doing, project its shadow.

And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics, and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land
- Mormon 1:19

These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 76: 103-105

Church members should not engage in any form of Satan worship or affiliate in any way with the occult. ‘Such activities are among the works of darkness spoken of in the scriptures. They are designed to destroy one’s faith in Christ, and will jeopardize the salvation of those who knowingly promote this wickedness. These things should not be pursued as games, be topics in Church meetings, or be delved into in private, personal conversations.’ (First Presidency letter, Sept. 18, 1991).
-Handbook 2: Administering the Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Official teaching holds that Satanic minions do in fact roam the world seeking to do mischief, and in popular understanding, “messing with magic,” even experimenting with common divination tools like Tarot cards or Ouija boards is a perfect way to open the door to such mischief. While Joseph Smith canonized instructions on how to tell if an otherworldly messenger is trustworthy or not (Doctrine and Covenants Section 129), and the early days of the Church were noted for angelic visitations and dramatic manifestations of spiritual gifts (like speaking in tongues), in today's church that sort of thing is greatly downplayed.

Still, from a psychological perspective many rituals and practices still exist in the LDS Church that could be considered magical. The Mormon version of the Eucharist lacks the dogma of transubstantiation but is still seen as a potent renewal of baptism, itself a ritual that enacts a transformation of the soul through a symbolic enactment of death and rebirth.

Mormon fear of magic goes along with a general unease with ceremony. For the most part the really important thing in Mormon ordinances is the faith and worthiness of those taking part. As such, the working of miracles through faith in Mormon belief might not look very magical: “no foolish wand-waving or silly incantations.” Though there are points of mechanical procedure that are prescribed with some precision, in the non-secret rituals these are minimal to the point of austerity.

The secret rituals are another matter (and Mormons get touchy about the use of the adjective “secret” even though it fits). These are understood as a gift of power from heaven which enable a soul to reach its final destination in unity with God. And then there is the remarkable “Patriarchal Blessing.” The title, so unfortunate to modern ears, is a metaphor of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their prophetic blessings to their sons. The practice offers an individual a private prophecy to help direct their life, given by a man with a special calling (in the early days of the Church, such men were referred to as “evangelists").

Describing these rituals as “magic” might seem very disrespectful or offensive to those who identify strongly with the tradition. While a psychological imagination can see the kinship between magic and religion, some believers find this hard to take: Dr. Jung constantly defended himself against accusations from Christian clergy that he reduced the message of our faith to nothing more than a working of the mind.

Jung's work gets it from both sides: believers who resent their faith practice sharing any names with what they regard as devilish counterfeits, and skeptics who despise magic and religion alike as a pathology unbecoming enlightened and civilized people.


Since Jung's great work was the reconciliation of opposites, I write in service of that goal.


Magic and Religion: an LDS perspective, Part 2


In 1994 the journal Dialogue published an article by Dr. Lance Owens“Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection.” One of Owens' sources was Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn – who had been excommunicated the year before. Quinn's work had been used as source material for the popular anti-Mormon comic book The Visitors, so Owens was hitting a nerve.  The mid 1990s in the Utah Mormon culture zone were also marked by lingering fears of Satanic cults (anyone who lived in Provo at the time probably heard all sorts of urban legends about goings-on in the old Academy building before it was renovated as the new city library). The word “occult” had picked up plenty of negative baggage through popular media already, and the use of it in such a context at such a time was bound to ruffle some feathers, as Owens himself anticipated.

In 1996 William J. Hamblin wrote a footnote-laden dressing-down of Owens' article. In pointing out its scholarly shortcomings he elegantly missed the real point, because after all the purpose was not only to deflect suspicion of any “occult” connection to Joseph Smith's experience or mission but to continue deprecating and depreciating any similarities between the two at all – similarities which I for one came to find inspiring rather than alarming. It took another nine years for the Mormon establishment to come around to admitting Joseph Smith's magic background, after a fashion: in Richard Bushman's authorized biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling we read that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture” (p. 50) and there is even a frank admission of the seerstone “blending magic with inspired translation” of the Book of Mormon (p. 131). Even so, Bushman downplayed the association, casting magic as a “preparatory gospel” for Smith's prophetic calling (p. 54).

The original meaning of the word “occult” after all being “hidden,” it would behoove us Mormons to consider how often our unique scripture mentions hidden knowledge. One striking example comes from the “Word of Wisdom”:

And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments . . . shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures (Doctrine and Covenants Section 89:18-19, my emphasis)

We might consider Alma's sermon to the Zoramites, with a beautiful metaphor of a Tree of Life growing in each individual soul (Alma 32), the gnostic experiences of several Lamanite rulers (Alma 19, 22), and disciples of Christ at the time of his visit (3 Nephi 26, 28). Sometimes people shared what they learned through their experiences, sometimes they were told to keep it a secret, like Nephi (1 Nephi 14:28), Alma the younger (Alma 12:9), Mormon (3 Nephi 26:11), the Brother of Jared and Moroni (Ether 4).

Our religion is of God, their magic is of the Devil – this is too easy an accusation to make. Even in the Book of Mormon there are several instances of the true prophets being accused of deceiving people by their “cunning arts” (1 Ne 16:38), “the power of the devil” (Alma 15:15), and “the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one” (Helaman 16:21). Accusations, labels, meanings, are so easily used as weapons against those whom a group fears or distrusts, that an earnest truth-seeker can't afford to take such words at face value.

A psychological understanding, or a psychological imagination, helps us understand that magic and/or the occult is a way of engaging with the unconscious or the realm of the imaginative (one modern practitioner calls it the science of experiencing Truth). To recognize this means to admit the close kinship of magic and religion as branches from the same root – indeed interchangeable depending on one's point of view. There can be two ways of dealing with this: 

  1. a fundamentalist rejection of any religious expression outside one's own, 
  2. or a curiosity about the different ways that Truth is perceived and sought from different perspectives.

If the theologian really believes in the almighty power of God on the one hand and in the validity of dogma on the other, why then does he not trust God to speak in the soul?  Why this fear of psychology?  Or is, in complete contradiction to dogma, the soul itself a hell from which only demons gibber?  (Jung: Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works Vol. 12, p. 19)

In a series of lectures on the gnostic myth of Sophia, Dr. Owens talks about this secular age and its intolerance for transcendence. Fueled in part by absurd fundamentalist insistence on impossible dogmas as fact, a rationalist attitude has grown which pathologizes myth and gnosis (an attitude reflected by Korihor, one of the most notorious figures in the Book of Mormon). To believe in any religion or myth in light of modern scientific knowledge requires setting aside or overcoming both the rationalist dismissal of myth and the fundamentalist dismissal of fact.

When we open our mind to the possibility of revelations of something from outside the secular or even religious ego – and if we also open our minds to a pragmatic means of measuring the claims of such revelations based on the criteria given in Alma 32 – then we have the opportunity to see the dogmas of our professed creeds with new eyes: to recognize their value as myth (here I would also recommend Dr. Owens' lectures on Tolkien's mythopoeia). This means ceasing to disparage or even define myth as false distraction from truth, and instead seeing it as a way to approach Truth. This is how we can truly recognize the value of others’ myths, and our own.

No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses the great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning, and beauty and that has given a new splendour to the world and to mankind. He has pistis and peace. Where is the criterion by which you could say that such a life is not legitimate, that such experience is not valid and that such pistis is mere illusion? Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live? (Jung: Psychology and Religion - Collected Works vol. 11, p. 113)


We might evaluate the ways our neighbors engage with myth and the psyche by truly perceiving the fruits of their actions rather than relying on rumor or applying the yardstick of dogmatic correctness like a punishing rod. We may still have the option of holding out faith in metaphysical facts concerning the “ultimate things,” but even if that loses traction to a more pragmatic approach, might we not find that the humility, empathy, respect and compassion we gain in return is after all the treasure our faith enjoined us to seek?

Those who found these posts interesting might also be interested in a pagan's view of Joseph Smith in this article.