Friday, January 27, 2012

Encountering Ancestors: a vital part of religion

In recent days, there seems to have been an uptick in the media coverage of Mitt Romney and ceremonies performed in Mormon temples for deceased relatives. As per standard, the articles at Gawker and the Huffington Post assume a kind of odd secularist perspective whereby interaction with ancestors is one the one hand ineffective, but also somehow necessarily creepy, disrespectful and manipulative. 

LDS Vicarious Baptismal font, Atlanta GA temple

Yes, LDS church members who hold temple recommends do in fact perform various ordinances for the deceased, in order that in the post-mortal realm they will have an opportunity to be missionized and thus be eligible for higher levels of spiritual progress and heaven. They claim scriptural precedent for this, as they also do for some of their other distinctive Christian doctrines. Consistent with their essential doctrine of freewill, these are not automatic 'conversions.' Freewill is very important in LDS doctrine, and this is no less true here.

Yet the telling problem here in the articles has little to do with the LDS, although the articles betray a fundamental ignorance of LDS theology in multiple ways. The problem lies in not being aware that interaction with the deceased is a fundamental component of much of religion, whether Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Amerindian religion, Vodou or other traditions. Furthermore, sizable populations of Americans across different traditions already claim to have encountered or interacted with other-than-human persons.

Pew Research, December 2009

In Catholicism, the laity historically has been regularly asked to unite their prayers with the both the priests and the saints, holy men and women who have moved to the heavenly side of the mystical body of Christ after death. In fact the modern process of sainthood in Catholicism and Orthodoxy depends on Church officials holding priesthood powers to 'work between the worlds' in establishing beatific status. In the LDS community, where the intention is that all worthy men should hold High Priesthood keys and anointments, this power works to offer (not compel) ancestors a chance at Exaltation. In Hinduism, regular prayers and offerings are made on behalf of deceased ancestors (across generations, even). In that scenario, the deceased may either influence the birth of future progeny or even reincarnate themselves within the family--thus its a good idea to be on good terms with them!

A Hindu prayer for ancestors during an auspicious festival time
In Judaism, specific beliefs concerning afterlives vary considerably, but it is standard practice to say the Kaddish prayer on the behalf of recently deceased, and in folk Jewish pop culture, as in many traditions, dream visits and interaction with the deceased is quite common and even celebrated, as in the film Fiddler on the Roof. As for Ojibwe funeral hymns, the scholar Michael D. McNally has written eloquently and convincingly about the use of such hymns as a way of keeping the deceased within the bounds of the community as a whole.
Fiddler: Sarah retuning from the Dead in Tevye's fake dream
One of the great enduring themes in religion, whether American or otherwise, is kinship. The maintenance, healing and repair of kinship relationships is course part of our everyday lives with those in this world--why should it not extend beyond it as well?

1 comment:

David M. Crampton said...

Did you send this also to the news outlets that were covering this "story"?