Making Worlds, Part 2: Worlds with Friends—or, What’s in a Name

Don Bradley threatened to lead away a third, but fortunately war was averted.Before the blog could be created, we needed a name. So we organized our noble and great contributors into a Google Group and held council to consider various plans of designation. The winner, as by now you may have guessed, was Worlds Without End: A Mormon Studies Roundtable. And the bloggers saw that they were obeyed, and that their plan was good.

The phrase “worlds without end” in the Doctrine and Covenants means simply “forever,” but LDS tradition uses it to express the idea that deified believers will spend eternity creating, populating, and governing new worlds. As one of the more unique, interesting, and appealing Mormon concepts—particularly in light of current cosmological theory on exoplanets, parallel worlds, and baby universes—the phrase makes a nice emblem for our Mormon theme.

Even more apt for our project are the anthropological valences of the name. The term “worlds” is used in anthropology to mean thought-worlds: people’s ways of perceiving reality. The distinguishing feature of religious worlds, according to Robert Orsi, is the perception that supernatural forces and entities are “present” in ordinary events. These presences, regardless of whether they exist in an ontological sense, are functionally real parts of the believer’s world. The believer experiences them, responds to them, forms relationships with them, negotiates with them. The anthropologist, says Orsi, does not seek to explain such presences away, but rather “stands alongside” believers and “joins them in the work of thinking through the meanings of their world.” Mind you: we can’t all be anthropologists all of the time. But thinking in terms of Mormon “worlds” offers a potentially rich and inoffensive way forward for work on Mormons across several disciplines.


Chris Smith:

Mormon worlds, furthermore, are “without end” in more ways than one. They embrace within their scope not only infinite gods, worlds, spirits, and potential, but also a vast number of more “temporal” things. Mormon worlds posit divine purposes at work in business, for instance, to a degree rarely seen in other faiths. This suggests not only that money is a major part of the story of Mormonism—the theme of a controversial Bloomberg article last week—but also that Mormonism is a major part of the story of the national economy. The story of the American West, similarly, is hopelessly entangled with the Mormon story. And to add another layer of complexity, Mormons were not only central characters in these stories, but have also played key roles in shaping how the stories are told. Mapping these temporal reverberations of Mormon worlds is the work of at least a few eternities.

We’re also, by coyly dimming the “L” in the masthead to turn “Worlds” into “Words,” making a playful, self-deprecating pun. As the “Teacher” of Ecclesiastes complained, “Of making many books there is no end.” The same might be said of blogs. Yet the Judeo-Christian tradition also insightfully portrays words as a creative force, bringing order to chaos. Words are tools that help us organize concepts and convey information to facilitate the manipulation of the physical world. Words also have an almost mystical power to create communities, binding us together with invisible lines of emotional and relational force. By speaking—or blogging—words without end, we embody the LDS ideal of continual creation and organization.

The subtitle, A Mormon Studies Roundtable, has important and meaningful connotations of its own.

Situating ourselves in Mormon Studies, first of all, says something not only about us, but also about the field. Our contributors bring an astounding array of qualifications, perspectives, and approaches, and in this we mirror the diversity of the discipline. One of the benefits of a relatively young field staffed almost entirely by non-specialists is its inevitable interdisciplinarity. Consider the interests and expertise of our contributors. We have people who do economics, sociology, gender studies, folklore studies, ancient studies. We have religious historians, political historians, ancient historians, Masonic historians. We’re trained in literature, linguistics, art, philosophy, theology. We do documentary editing, computer databases, rhetorical criticism. The potential for innovation and combination in such a group is nearly limitless. And the same is true for Mormon Studies as a whole.

The term “Roundtable,” finally, signifies our intended tone. A “Roundtable” connotes an equality of voices, a celebration of difference, and a conversational tenor. With contributors from across the spectrum of belief, we’ll be striking a delicate balance. We don’t want our contributors to feel they have to “bracket” their personalities here, since their personal beliefs, experiences, and voices are part of what make them interesting and give significance to the things they write. The personal touch, however, makes us vulnerable as well as interesting; it’s a risk as well as a point of style. So here’s where we need help from you, dear readers. Please feel free to engage and disagree with our contributors in the comments, but please do so kindly and be respectful of others. You, too, are invited to the Roundtable, but the condition of participation is that you help us create the constructive kind of community we want this blog to be.

That said, we welcome you and look forward to reading your comments!


Making Worlds, Part 2: Worlds with Friends—or, What’s in a Name — 4 Comments

  1. I’m going to quibble here a little Chris, since I imagine you’re aware of the point I’m going to make – but I’ll say it anyway.

    “The distinguishing feature of religious worlds, according to Robert Orsi, is the perception that supernatural forces and entities are “present” in ordinary events.”

    It should be pointed out that there is a strong basis within Mormonism for saying there “is no such thing” as the supernatural. But that it is all natural. James E. Talmage made this point in describing how miracles work. Saying that a miracle is not the suspension of natural laws, but rather – merely the presence of a higher law at work. Just like a jet plane may appear a supernatural miracle to a Kalahari bushman, so too does Jesus calming the waves on the Sea of Galilee seem to us. But it’s not Jesus negating natures laws, but merely invoking a higher law of which we are aware.

    Mormonism takes this further and is, and always has been, a very naturalistic religion. Laws of human science can be considered God’s laws from a Mormon mindset. We’re not the only ones who do this, of course. Galileo, for instance, stated that “mathematics is the alphabet, with which God has written the universe.” But it is something we tend to do a lot.

    This touches on the Businessweek article as well – which noted that temporal and even mundane things have religious meaning for Mormons. Balancing the ward budget each week, is a religious act for a Mormon, couched in religious language – and we’re encouraged not to compartmentalize religion out of the rest of our lives (“this is my life at work, and this is my life at church”).

    So to respond to Orsi – it’s not so much that we find religion in natural events or hovering over them. It’s that we view natural events AS religious events.

  2. I agree with you, Seth. Actually, there’s a strong case to be made that there’s no such thing as the supernatural in any religion, as I argued here. “Supernatural” is a fairly specious, socially-constructed category rooted in the Western tradition. But on the other hand, it does have some usefulness. It’s basically a way of marking those forces and entities whose existence rests on ways of knowing that are idiosyncratic to a particular world– forces and entities that can’t be detected through ordinary scientific processes or conventionally accepted ways of knowing. So I think it works as a shorthand.

    I suspect that if you pressed Orsi on the issue, he would agree with you, too.

  3. Fair enough, I suspected that might be the case.

    Like I said, more quibbling than anything.

  4. I may as well fully disclose that I was the sole dissenter about the new blog title. But what can you do.