Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

Previously in Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week:
Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”

Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

While I was occupied with learning to make friends, preparing for the onset of puberty, and terrorizing the other little girls of Nairobi's international schools with the help of my never-defeated under-elevens netball team, my mother was confronting an adult's demons. After losing a lot of sleep over the abject poverty on our doorstep, she quit her job and devoted several years to the founding and running of a charity to feed and educate kids living on the streets.

One day, some of these kids started asking Mother about life in her country. “Does everyone in your country have a place to live?”

“Almost everyone. The government tries to provide housing for everyone,” she explained.

“Does everyone in your country have enough to eat?”

“Almost everyone. If they can't work, the government gives them money.”

“Does everyone in your country go to school?”

“Almost everyone. The government provides free schooling for everyone.”

“So everyone in your country is happy?”

I'm reminded of this story by “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”, in which a young Ugandan woman sings of her desire to go to the promised land that Kevin and Arnold described for her. With a devastating combination of humor and pathos, she conflates the Salt Lake City of the boys' description with the Paradise of her mother's stories:

I can't imagine what it must be like,
this perfect happy place:
I'll bet the goat meat there is plentiful
and they have vitamin injections by the case.
The warlords there are friendly:
they help you cross the street,
and there's a Red Cross on every corner
with all the flour you can eat.

Her new-found faith in “a land where evil doesn't exist” is predicated on the realization that “if I want to get there I just have to follow that white boy”; before long, she asks to be baptized. You could call it a mercenary faith: faith motivated by the prospect of gain.

Take, for example, Pascal's Wager. You'll recall its argument that choosing to believe in God is rational because, if God doesn't exist and you believe, you have nothing to lose; but if God does exist and you don't believe, you lose everything. The problem I've always had with this idea is its intellectual dishonesty. In the same vein, people have argued that an ethics born of genuine concern for others' wellbeing is somehow a nobler, more ethical ethics than one that relies on the reward of eternal life.

However, before sneering at Pascal's Wager and mercenary faith as intellectually dishonest, we have to take into account two important theories: the just-world hypothesis and Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

The just-world hypothesis suggests that humans have a psychological need for an appropriate reward/punishment system. I think we can all agree that we have this craving for justice, and that it's not satisfied in this life; that's why we have Law & Order: SVU, the idea of karma, and the concept of God's ultimate justice. (It's also, sad to say, why we have victim-blaming and a champion rationalization mechanism.)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a pyramid categorizing and ranking human needs: from physiological needs, through safety needs, love/belonging needs, and esteem needs, to self-actualization at the top. The intricacies of this ranking are dubious, but it's fair to say that someone who has neither food nor a piano is not going to prioritize finding a piano. Which is to say: is worrying about the intellectual honesty of our faith not the privilege of the breaded classes?

Yesterday, I wrote that it's easy to say that souls are what matters when your body is comfortable, healthy, and safe. Similarly, it's all very well to debate the ethics of mercenary faith when the goat meat is plentiful. When you lay the innate human yearning for fairness over the lower rungs of Maslow's pyramid, belief in something better is often the result.

“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” asks the question of all missionaries: is your success perhaps less to do with the Lord's message and more to do with the wealth, health, and power you clearly enjoy?

It asks the question of sneering intellectuals: how can you in good conscience tell people they need to have “noble” reasons for their faith?

And it asks the question of everyone in the west: would you like a little perspective with those first-world problems?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti:
the most perfect place on earth,
where flies don't bite your eyeballs
and human life has worth...

Tomorrow: The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Three – Cultural Relativism, Interfaith Relations, & New Religions: “Making Things Up Again”


  1. As you say, it's important to keep things in perspective. A speaker (whose name I've forgotten, alas) once came to my college and gave a speech in our big chapel. Standing up before the pulpit in front of a crowded congregation in the middle of our Wednesday-morning chapel service, he said something to the effect of:

    "While you sit here in this beautiful, air-conditioned building, there are people all over the world actively starving to death right now, and most of you don't really give a shit. Further, most of you are probably now mostly upset about the fact that I just said 'shit' in a church."

    Nervous laughter ensued, but he's right: placed in proper perspective, most of the stuff we love to whine about here in the West isn't really that big a deal. We ought to realize how unusual the things we take for granted truly are.

    So, while I appreciate the fact that we want to hold ourselves and others accountable when it comes to intellectual honesty, let's try to keep things in perspective, and not judge people for not perhaps being brilliant philosophers when every day is primarily a battle for survival.

    In other news, as the third part of your tripartite title is "Geek," you might be interested in the Ontological Geek, a games-as-art blog I edit and write for. We try to do serious, intellectual discussion of games-as-art (without hopefully getting too pretentious), and it struck me that might interest you. So, if you're feeling bored, maybe check it out, and if you feel particularly inspired, I'd love to have you write an article for us.

    At any rate, I enjoy reading your blog, which often provides excellent food for thought.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Bill! If I think of anything to write that might suit your blog, I'll be sure to get in touch.