Monday 3 June 2013

Christianity as a mystery religion


In practice, although seldom in theory, most Christian denominations are 'mystery religions' with a two-level structure: an outer part for semi-adherents, and an inner part for a higher-level elite.


In Eastern Orthodoxy, the monastic life is highest (and monks are not usually priests); in Roman Catholicism priests are an inner circle, higher than laity. This is obvious.

But even among Protestants, the church organization is often - in practice - two layer. In evangelical churches it seems there is usually a wide outer circle which engages with the unconverted, and contains the recent converts and semi-attached.

This layer is all that outsiders and those who attend only public services perceive; but there is an inner circle of those who have leadership positions, with preaching privileges including leading home groups.  (The mystery element in this is prayer, of a qualitatively higher intensity and duration. )

Mormonism makes the distinction explicit - with a wide circle of Ward 'church'-attending Mormons, and an elite of Temple Mormons selected from among those active and obedient, and for whom the potential level of theosis (accesed via Temple 'ordinances') is higher.

(Much as in Eastern Orthodoxy the potential level of theosis is higher - i.e. Sainthood - for those monastics who engage in ascetic disciplines.)


I suspect that all long-term successful religions require this basic structure of an outer and public aspect; and an inner, secret mystery life for the elite.

Christian churches often emphasize the opposite, the absolute 'equality' of all believers, but ultimate spiritual unity is compatible with many forms of proximate hierarchy and specialization in organization.

Sometimes the distinction is explicit and celebrated, sometimes it is implicit and denied - but I think it is always there. 



Anonymous said...

Interesting. I had discussed this with a friend, although we thought of it somewhat differently.

In his estimation, Catholicism, with its explicitly two-tiered structure has an advantage analogous to division of labor in economics. The laity are expected to fulfill certain criteria in their behavior, but at the same time they are not much required to wrestle with theology on a personal level.

Catholic adherent numbers are often criticized because they include a large number of people who couldn't tell you the first thing about the writings of Aquinas. This is true, but it's also sort of the point. The Catholic Church emphasizes that they can accommodate everyone.

Wm Jas said...

I think this is a somewhat misleading representation of the status of temple-attending Mormons. All Mormons who meet certain minimal standards of worthiness are expected to attend the temple as a matter of course. Calling them an "elite" is like calling those with university degrees an elite in Western society; it's true in a sense, but it gives the wrong impression, making it sound like their status is higher than it actually is.

The true Mormon elite would be those who have received the temple ordinance known as the "second anointing" -- a ceremony so exclusive that most of the temple-attending rank-and-file are only vaguely aware that it even exists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I hesitate to disagree since you probably know a lot more about this than I do - but my main (not only) source is Davies DJ (2000). The Mormon Culture of Salvation - the author is a (non-Mormon) Theology/ Religious Studies Professor at the nearby Durham University.

And I know that quite a lot of Mormons do not ever have their marriage sealed in the Temple (about a half, I recall - I looked at this distinction in some of my surveys of Mormon fertility) - meaning that the highest levels of exaltation are not open to them in mortal life - plus there are very few Temples in some areas (e.g. only two in England).

So, I stand by my original point - but a distinction between Ward and Temple Mormons certainly does not exclude *more than* these two levels of devoutness combined with differential access to mysteries.

Adam G. said...

An insight just clicked.

I've often wondered what the point of theology is. You've just explained it. It allows the formation of an 'inner ring' of folks who 'really understand' the religion.

I'd have to disagree some with WmJas. The % of Mormons who go through the temple isn't really the point. The point is that the temple is clearly and undeniably set up as a mystery experience, as an 'elite' experience. Just as with most Mormon men getting the priesthood, the temple being available to most committed Mormons is probably a bonus for Mormons, not a negative.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - "The point is that the temple is clearly and undeniably set up as a mystery experience"

That's what I meant to say.

And, of course, an increasing emphasis on the Temple has been perhaps the major trend in Mormonism over the past generation - so Mormonism is now *more* of a mystery religion than it has been since the very early days.

I think this is what is missing from the public image of Mormons - we outsiders see the worldly behaviours of hard work, self denial and good ethics; but we do not see (and certainly do not *feel*) the underpinning un-worldly, mystical, transcendental life.

MC said...

"but we do not see (and certainly do not *feel*) the underpinning un-worldly, mystical, transcendental life."

Because in the mind of the media there can be no such thing, of course; since God plainly does not exist, no one can choose to follow Him except through blind and unconsidered conformism.