Monday, September 10, 2007

The Center Place

Romney raised some eyebrows a few months back when George Stephenopobopobopolous asked him about the Mormon belief that Jesus, at some point during his second coming, will end up in central Missouri. Romney responded that no, he believes, just like all good Bible-belt evangelical Christians, that Jesus' second coming will be in Jerusalem.

In reality, both Romney and that journalist with the hard-to-spell Greek name were hedging a little bit. It is true that Joseph Smith and others have taught that the Savior will be in Missouri when he comes again. However, he and others also taught that the Savior will come to Jerusalem. It is generally assumed that he will initially appear at Jerusalem, and then come to this continent, but the exact chronology is not a defined point in Mormon doctrine or theology. The problem for some was that they felt like Romney was being less than honest, and trying too hard to look like a typical Southern evangelical Christian (i.e. Republican voter).

But whatever you think about that, the idea that Joseph Smith taught is intriguing in its own right. Essentially, it is that Adam-ondi-Ahman, or the place where Adam and Eve went when they were kicked out of Eden, is near a farm in Northwestern Missouri. It is also taught that this place will also be the place of a great reunion meeting attended by Jesus, a resurrected Adam, and others. (See Doctrine and Covenants 116). It is extrapolated that since the place where Adam and Eve ended up was in Northwestern Missouri, than the Garden of Eden was also nearby. Recently, this article chronicled the quest of one non-Mormon to find the Garden of Eden. The tone is somewhat flippantly glib, but the article itself is interesting. (The one thing I find odd is that the author seems compelled to include the hair color of every sister missionary he meets).

Yes, the Mormon beliefs about Adam-ondi-Ahman seem strange. But I love them. What I think is so cool here is the idea of center places. The Holy Land---Jersualem, Mt. Moriah, Arauna's threshing floor, Sinai, Eden---was considered in early and medieval Christianity and Judaism to be the center of the world. Early mapmakers, influenced by this idea, called that area the "earth's middle" or medi-terranean. It is said that Jerusalem was "the navel of the world," the place where humanity would receive constant nourishment from the heavens. (Incidentally, the term "navel of the world" is not unique to Jerusalem. The same term has been used to describe temples, altars, and significant cities throughout the world, including, the Temple and Oracle at Delphi, the Incan Temple of Cuzco, the ancient city of Rome, and even Easter Island.)

When most Christians lived in the near east, proximity to these ancient sites was a fact of life. But as Christianity became a western European phenomenon, it gradually removed itself from its past and in the process became less and less literal and more and more ethereal. As Christianity moved from Europe to America, some Christians tried to recover the past. The pilgrim fathers were obsessed with overlaying their present on the pattern of the Biblical archive, comparing their journey across the sea to the Exodus, and calling themselves God's people---the "shining city on the hill," even taking some of their penal codes right out of Leviticus. The Salem Witch Trials were at least in part, precipitated by a desire to literally obey Exodus 22:18. You see the same attitudes early in the book of Mormon, where Nephi constantly compares himself and his father's family to Moses and Israel, and Laban to Pharaoh.

In the Book of Mormon, the importance of recovering the past is illustrated by the fact that even after traveling quite some distance, Lehi's son's were asked to go back for the historical record. They probably knew the stories, at least the most important ones, and probably could have written them down themselves. After all, Nephi did have to learn himself how to make metal records. It was apparently important not just to have a written record, but to maintain some physical connection to the past itself. The necessity of this connection comes into focus when Lehi's family runs into the Mulekites, who had failed to recover their past and as a result, their language had become corrupted.

The cool thing about Joseph Smith's Adam-ondi-Ahman teachings, though, is that they recover the past---or perhaps restore the past---much more completely than these earlier attempts. In addition to the restoration of authority, doctrine, ordinances, etc., Joseph also restored the proximity to antiquity that was enjoyed by early Christians. Consider the juxtaposition of cosmic center place and quotidian courthouse in this revelation: "Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse" (Doctrine and Covenants 57:3). Instead of placing Eden at the center place of what was the known world a few millenia B.C., Joseph placed it at the center of his world, the new world, which is also my world. And that is cool.


Cabeza said...

Judging from that picture of the Dome of the Rock, I gather that the world has an outie.

Good post, and good points. One thing that sustains our friendship is our mutual fondness for obscure historical traditions.

The Shark said...

And a love of the $57 Billion Man.

JKC said...

Amen on both counts.

Jason said...

Hi, I'm a journalist at Reuters. Is there any way I can e-mail the author of this post?


JKC said...


go ahead and post your e-mail address. I' be glad to send you a message.

Jason said...
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