Russell and Damon have asked some challenging questions, and answering them will take me more space than is appropriate for a comment, so, since three and one-half single-spaced pages goes too far for any response, I’m going to respond to their questions (and say something about enchantment) as my own post. I’m not sure what that does to the other discussions going on under Damon’s posts. I hope I’m not making it completely impossible for someone to follow the various discussions.
Rather than try to integrate my responses into one coherent essay, I’ll just respond to points more or less serially. I’ll try to provide links to the places where Russell and Damon raise their questions so that readers can see the questions in context.
Russell asked about Siebach’s and Graham’s piece. To be honest, I’m a little nervous about the characterization I’ve given of it. I heard them present it about a year ago and I’ve talked briefly about it with Siebach since, but I could be way off. It should be published soon. It is coming out as part of a volume edited by Noel Reynolds on the apostasy, and the manuscripts are being prepared for publication at this moment. Also, I’ll ask Siebach if he will respond to the question.
Russell’s concern was “such a thesis would challenge the long-standing Mormon understanding of the apostasy as a calamity which befell the early church. . . . [I]t seems to me that to claim that an ‘apostasy’ was underway before even the generation immediately after Christ was dead and gone would seriously beg the question of exactly what kind of ‘church’ was extant that could go into apostasy. . . . That is, it seems hard to conceive of a loss (and thus a need for a recovery or ‘restoration’) when there is scant evidence that anything ever managed to get built in the first place from which doctrines or practices in need of being recovered had been forgotten or taken away. . . . [T]he earlier and more ‘low-key’ that rupture [of the apostasy] is made, the less enormous (doctrinally speaking) restoration becomes, and the more it seems to me that Mormons must understand themselves as at least partially part of, even shaped by, the history of Christianity which actually was.”
Assuming that the Church had been fully established with the forty-day ministry and the Day of Pentecost, it seems to me that the only change to LDS understanding that Siebach and Graham’s thesis makes is that the early Church was shorter lived than we thought. Their thesis still allows for the belief that Christ established the Church in its fulness and that fulness was lost. It was lost, according to them, as priesthood leaders died or were killed and were unable to be replaced rather than as intellectuals twisted the doctrines to suit their own interests. The cause of the loss is different, on their view, but the tragedy of the loss is equally as great. It seems to me that their thesis fits what we see in the documents better than the usual LDS interpretation of the apostasy, and it does so without giving up anything essential. But perhaps I’m missing something, Russell. I’d be interested in your critical response.
I said Damon is “on to something when you say that the LDS Church ‘demands that believers resist fundamental tendencies of Western thought that go all the way back to the Greeks — and that are considered to be indistinguishable from common sense for Catholics and most Protestants today and quite possibly have been since the second or third century.’” Russell asked about the content of that “something,” and he wondered whether it is a matter of our theology, perhaps our belief that God is embodied.
I think the belief that God is embodied is an important symptom, if you’ll allow that metaphor, of the something. But I think the real answer is the one that Damon suggested later: for Latter-day Saints, the world is thoroughly enchanted. Not surprisingly, given our ordinary use of the word “enchantment,” I think a number of respondents misunderstood his comment, so let me add to it (though he has already done so here. D. Fletcher’s question and the discussion that follows illustrates well, I think, that LDS do live in an enchanted world, a world in which the spiritual is as real and accessible as the physical and intellectual, which is why they don’t make the distinctions that others expect them to and feel no need to reconcile what others think should be reconciled. As Russell pointed out, Terryl Givens’s work and LDS understanding of the way our religion shapes the world are examples of this enchantment.
Damon agreed with me that discursive statements cannot get at the object they describe, but he pointed out that “Mormonism (as I understand it) proposes to stop the dialectical ascent [to theory and theology] very early — very close to the ground of our most basic commonsense, pre-reflective opinions and intimations.” In contrast, traditional Christianity “stops the ascent at a ‘higher’ level — at least by the time of the founding Creeds. Hence God is understood in terms roughly consonant with Greek philosophic categories (like “eternity” and “substance”).”
I think that’s right, which explains the LDS emphasis on ordinance, covenant, practice, etc. rather than theology.
Damon also agrees that Heidegger and the thinkers who follow him make a radical turn to the given rather than a turn away from it. However, he says, “the content of this ‘given’ that postmodernism affirms is radically indeterminate (indeed, I wonder, with Stanley Rosen, whether Heidegger would have allowed himself to be satisfied with ANY determination of truth, as opposed to insisting on endless, open potentiality that never culminates in any actuality),” and he concludes that “postmodern thinkers really don’t provide ‘moorings,’ beyond vague gestures toward there being such moorings out there, somewhere (Levinas is arguably an exception to this rule, but even his mooring is as vague as can be; the ‘Other’ is pretty empty, is it not?).” Based on that assessment of postmodernism, Damon concludes, “So, the Mormon embrace of postmodernism that I alluded to in my post is a purely negative embrace: Heidegger, et al, clear the ground for a richer awareness of and absorption into the pre-reflective revelatory experience of the LDS community.”
It may be that for many LDS academics the embrace of Heidegger et al. is a purely negative embrace, one that clears the ground. If so, that would be good enough reason to engage with those thinkers. However, since I disagree with Damon’s and Rosen’s understanding of Heidegger, I find the situation more complicated. (Rosen was one of my teachers and I have enormous respect for him, but I think he’s quite wrong about Heidegger.)
Let me first say something about why their interpretation of Heidegger is wrong. I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that the question of the given is the question in contemporary European philosophy. It was an important question in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work, though only implicitly. Paul Ricoeur has made it more explicit, as has Jean-Luc Marion. The literature on the topic is enormous and keeps piling up quite rapidly, making it difficult to apprise well. Nevertheless, my conclusion from what I know of it is that Damon’s and Rosen’s criticism of Heidegger is fundamentally mistaken. That criticism implicitly requires that the content of the given be conceptual/propositional. If that isn’t assumed, if “content” doesn’t mean “propositional or proto-propositional content,” then the criticism doesn’t work. For the given is the “stuff” that we encounter constantly. On Heidegger’s view, the mooring of our thought and experience is the stuff we encounter. It is the world (using the term “world” with its Heideggerian meaning, the social, lived world, including the physical objects and persons within it). The world for Heidegger and the other for Levinas are not empty. They are infinitely rich. They give themselves (Heidegger); they are there (Levinas); they make demands on us (Levinas—and as I read him also Heidegger). The American reading of both Heidegger and Levinas turns infinite richness into a kind of arbitrariness, the arbitrariness of simple-minded relativism. It turns infinite richness into the infinity of nothingness. But both Heidegger and Levinas were at some pains to insist that the richness is not a richness in us, but in the things and persons we encounter. (For an essay in which I undertake to think about the given in Heidegger and Levinas—but do not do so as clearly as I should have—see my “The Uncanny Interruption of Ethics: Gift, Interruption, or . . . ,” The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol. 20 no. 2 and vol. 21 no. 1, 1998. 233-247.)
How, then, does that complicate matters for me? Because I’m sympathetic to the idea that a ground-clearing is needed, an opening for LDS thought. At the same time, however, I don’t think that philosophical thought occurs without antecedents. I find myself torn between looking for a new philosophical beginning and believing that there are none.
Finally, Damon disagrees with my understanding of Heidegger. On his reading, it is misleading to characterize Heidegger as an Aristotelian, for “Heidegger’s Aristotle is a radically Heideggerianized Aristotle. And yet he ultimately seeks to go behind even HIM, to find the primordial origins of the West that precede Socrates, the pre-Socratics, and even (one presumes) Homer. Yes, things went badly wrong with Descartes, but this error was prepared by Christian theological errors, which were prepared for by Aristotle’s and Plato’s, and Parmenides’ error before them. All of them flinched in the face of Being; only Heidegger himself (and maybe Hoelderlin) could withstand the violent emergence of truth, which set the West out on its ‘first beginning’ and might, if he and we are up to it, prepare the way for ‘another beginning.’ So, yes: the tradition is there and it’s useful as a means of helping us to think rigorously and to think our way out of our current debased world, rooted as it is in decayed philosophical desiderata. But we can’t learn anything from it in a positive sense.”
There isn’t sufficient space or interest on this blog for us to thrash out our interpretations of Heidegger, but I think this, too, is a mistaken, even caricatured reading of Heidegger. It is a common caricature, to be sure, but I think it is one nevertheless. Heidegger sees each thinker, including the bogeyman Descartes, as taking up again the question of being—and as doing so faithfully and fully. But we have to do what they did. We cannot be satisfied merely to repeat what they did, for to do so is not to take up the question of being. It is not to do what they did. (If readers see connections between this and another of my responses, they are right.) The other beginning occurs over and over again in the history of philosophy. As a result, I think it is too simple to say that for Heidegger “we can’t learn anything from it [the history of philosophy] in a positive sense.” If “in a positive sense” meant “taking what another has posited and repeating it,” that would be right. But the history of philosophy gives us any number of thinkers with whom we can engage in order to think the “same” thing they thought. Because they give us the material for thinking, they give us a great deal that is positive. There are a number of places to see that this is what Heidegger is doing. Perhaps one of the best is The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. But one can also see it in the essays on the Greeks, the books on Aristotle and Kant, the book on Leibniz, that on Hegel, . . . . In each of them we find him reading thinkers in ways that no disciple would countenance, but in ways that are remarkably true to the direction of the philosopher’s thought, ways that use the thinking of a predecessor as a ground from which to draw fresh insights.