In his brief history of India’s geography, Land of the Seven Rivers, Sanjeev Sanyal describes how India’s maritime prowess fell into decline beginning at the end of the twelfth century.
Indian merchants had once been explorers and risk-takers who criss-crossed the oceans in their stitched ships. They could be found in large numbers in ports from the Persian Gulf to China…Suddenly…they almost all disappeared.
…there appears to have been a shift in India’s cultural and civilizational attitude towards innovation and risk-taking…foreigners who visited India at that time…commented that contemporary Indian scholars were so full of themselves that they were unwilling to learn anything from the rest of the world.
He then describes a similar decline in the Chinese domination of the seas, concluding that:
Like India, China turned inward and slipped into centuries of decline. Technological superiority could not save China from the closing of the mind.
As I go to church and listen to correlated messages from correlated manuals bolstered by correlated thinking derived from carefully approved sources, I worry that the Church is also in decline, the daring outriggers of Joseph Smith’s adventurous theological voyages coming aground, once and for all, on the reef of regimented thought that may be “safe” but is neither invigorating nor inspiring. We have well-meaning leaders who carry dog-eared copies of the Church Handbook of Instructions, highlighted everywhere in multi-colored Sharpie, and members who carry Kindles loaded to the brim with every Deseret bestseller, but our collective Mormon mind feels–to me, anyway–dangerously closed.
Our music is lovely–Come, Come Ye Saints is an awe-inspiring anthem–but it remains untouched by the drums of Angola or the sitars of India or the exuberant strains of Gladys Knight’s Saints Unified Voices. Our canon is powerful–King Benjamin’s sermon, Mormon’s faith, hope, and charity, Enoch’s walk with God, D&C 121’s treatise on interpersonal relations–yet to quote from the Bhagavad Gita or the Tao Te Ching or even Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr., is culturally if not ecclesiastically verboten in most wards.
Above all, we seem unable to hear and learn from voices that are not white, male, and heterosexual. We are so sure of our revelatory rightness that the inputs that could open our minds to the deepest and most lovely truths of God are stymied, turned away and never allowed to enter our hearts, small sparks that are snuffed out before they can light our souls on fire. As a result, we do not criss-cross the oceans of life and love but instead are content to splash in the puddles of orthodoxy, making our self-congratulatory Mormon mudpies.
And I am as guilty as anyone else. I seek for safety and comfort. I long for certainty and rightness, however spiritually dulling it may be.
But, as they say, a ship isn’t built to sit in the harbor, and there is no reason that Mormonism must carefully creep into decline, oblivious. For India, one of the antidotes to the civilizational malaise, according to Sanyal, was the support from many of the reformist Indians for education in English.
This preference for a foreign language is not as strange as it may appear at first sight. The early reformers were very conscious that Indian civilization had been in decline for a long time and correctly blamed it on lack of technological and intellectual innovation. The knowledge of English was seen as a window to the world of ideas emanating from Europe.
So too, we Mormons can seek an antidote by learning to speak foreign tongues–not the MTC grammar of missionaries heading out to proselyte, but the cultural and spiritual languages that remain foreign to us. For straight, white, American males like me, this means listening to and internalizing the stories of women, persons of color, LGBT individuals, non-Americans, non-Mormons, even (gasp!) atheists.
If we wish to carry on the vibrant community of the early Saints, learning to listen seems like a great place to start. The best stuff of Mormonism is beautiful and creative, inclusive and inspiring. It has the strength to stand on its own, like the hulls of those early Indian and Chinese ships. We simply need to keep scraping off the barnacles of certainty that keep us from venturing out into God’s great unknown.