The Christianity of Anthropology*

By Cannell, Fenella | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Christianity of Anthropology*


Cannell, Fenella, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


A map of Mormon heaven

It's an October day in Utah, and I'm sitting in a Ford service station in Taylorsville, one of the less wealthy southern suburbs of Salt Lake City. In the background there are continuous tannoy announcements paging the mechanics. I am sitting on the lawn in front of the service station with Patricia Johanssen, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (henceforth LDS), or 'Mormons'; the grass is rather wet because it's watered by the sprinkler systems which are used everywhere in the city to keep the desert at bay. Typically for Salt Lake, beyond the lush green turf is a view of freeway intersections, strip-mall developments, and the dusty grey-brown of the sage brush and desert on which the city is built. To our left (as we face south) are the Wasatch Mountains, already capped and gleaming with snow, forming a barrier along one side of the city. Patricia and I are waiting for her elderly car to be serviced, and talking about heaven.

There's a pause in our conversation before I ask, 'How do you imagine heaven? How do you imagine the Celestial Kingdom?' 'Ha!' says Patricia, right away: 'Busy!' and she gives a rueful laugh. 'Um, we're told, there's a prophecy at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants that we'll still be teaching and doing. I figure I'm stuck. I'll be a teacher all my life ...!' Then she looks around, beyond the service station, towards the mountains, and adds: 'For me, I picture it,... there's got to be beauty ... I figure there's got to be! Christ wouldn't have invented all of this stuff for us only to enjoy it a little while ... I'm sorry but [that mountain] will still be around!'

A few days later, I'm sitting in the comfortable and pretty kitchen of another active member of the Church, Ruth Byrne, in a small Mormon town south of the city. After admiring the layout of Ruth's new house, I ask the same question: 'How do you imagine the Celestial Kingdom?' 'I think it'll be just like this world, only more wonderful,' answers Ruth, without hesitation, adding 'because ... I don't think there'll be any heartache ... but everything that we enjoy here,... we'll enjoy there, I know we will!'

Now, the responses of Patricia and Ruth were typical of Church members both in emphasizing the ceaseless activity which Mormons expect to characterize their heaven and in stressing its closeness to this mortal and physical world. Different individuals look forward to enjoying different things from this life in the next life; for Patricia, a teacher, mathematician, and musician, there will be music, colour, beautiful landscapes, and the opportunity to talk Relativity to Einstein. Ruth remarks light-heartedly, but still meaning it, that there will certainly be chocolate, but no struggles with weight, in the Celestial Kingdom. Such thoughts are not mere wishful thinking for Mormons, but are individual readings of a doctrine which fully justifies them; for in Mormonism, the Celestial Kingdom will literally be this world, our world, but it will be our world perfected, or, as Church members say, 'transfigured'. As such, Mormon heaven will acquire new qualities as yet only partially known to us, but the only qualities which it will lose are those of suffering and adversity; chocolate, therefore, may quite possibly remain. (1)

Whatever the particular qualities they hope for in the Celestial Kingdom, all Latter Day Saints are quite certain (2) about what they must do to get there. To gain heaven, Mormons must 'endure to the end' the trials of mortality, lead a Christian life, and obey God's commandments. In particular they must attend sacred rituals held in Mormon temples, imposing and beautiful structures which only worthy Church members may normally enter. (3)

The reward will be 'exultation' in the Celestial Kingdom, the highest state of the Mormon multi-tiered heaven. Here, married Mormon couples will be possessed of Celestial Bodies of super-refined matter, and will use them to 'have eternal increase': that is, to conceive, birth, and raise children forever. …

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