pioneer: noun. 1. one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; one who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 2. one of the first to settle in a territory.
Pioneer Day. Our day to celebrate how our spiritual progenitors followed their leaders to the Promised Land and made the desert bloom like the rose. That willingness to subjugate self-interest in the service of the common good is a legacy bequeathed to us by those forebearers. In the Mormon beehive, we’re all taught to hum the same tune.
But there’s another meaning of the word pioneer. According to Merriam Webster, a pioneer is one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc.
In this sense of the term pioneer, can modern-day Mormons also claim a spiritual heritage? If so, to what extent has institutional and cultural Mormonism kept the “questing spirit” alive? Do we hold the conviction, burning bright in Joseph Smith’s day, that the door of knowledge swings open only when someone with a question comes knocking?
This, I’ve written before, used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith was its primary advocate, resisting all attempts at reining in his expansive, even audacious, imagination. This may be seen as an embarrassment now, as Church leaders are left with no intellectually honest way to reconcile theologically incompatible teachings, or to harmonize early doctrines with subsequently taught doctrines, but it’s also the reason we arrived at a theology as paradigm-shattering as that presented in the King Follett Address.
Surely the Church is more than a museum to protect historical artifacts from breaking. Surely its leaders are more than curators, ensuring that nothing gets knocked over. The terms prophet, seer, and revelator used to signify particular roles. Are any of those roles reflected in the phrase, maintaining the status quo?
Even in religious life, a breakthrough requires a breaking through.
As I’ve been grappling with the question of how a Church once infused with the questing spirit could now view public questioners as faithless and subversive, warranting extermination from the beehive, I stumbled quite accidentally on a passage from a book* I’ve been reading that presents a cultural critique of Buddhism. The author, Stephen Batchelor, points to a general trend among religions. He explains that the founding figures, possessing a genius for imagination and the “capacity to express an authentic vision that responds creatively to the needs of their particular situation,” attract an eager following. (And surely there is nowhere a more apt description of Joseph Smith!) But once established, the new faith’s enthusiasm for new ideas soon cools. “For while the founding figures were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.”
Why not? Why doesn’t the institution perpetuate that founding spirit of innovation and creativity? The author’s conclusion is that over time, “the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.” He elaborates:
While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control imagination as a means of maintaining their authority . . . and to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.
The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of imagination conform to its doctrines…
This is what I see happening. It’s not new. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself fended off challenges to his authority, sometimes ruthlessly. But at least that Prophet was not afraid of a free marketplace of ideas. Why the insecurity now? Do we not believe, as the apostle Hugh B. Brown believed, that in that marketplace, “truth emerges triumphant?” That apostle went on to say, “Only error fears freedom of expression.”
Batchelor finishes his observation by stating that religions may find it convenient in the short term to silence those who ask what is possible,
Yet, by the suppression of the imagination, the very life of dharma practice is cut off at its source. While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify. When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation.
On this Pioneer Day, I celebrate those among us who open up new lines of thinking, who invite us to reexamine our assumptions, who keep knocking on the door of knowledge. I celebrate the bishops and Sunday School teachers and neighbors who maintain a space for people who ask questions. I celebrate the breakthroughs–the breaking through–we’ve experienced in our short history after enough people dared to raise their voices against injustice or inequality or incomplete truth-telling. I celebrate those among us sufficiently awake not to be lulled into thinking All is Well in Zion. These are Pioneers worthy of our legacy. And this is their day.
* Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (p.108)