Mormonism: The Postmodern Faith

June 7, 2004 | 59 comments
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First off, let me thank Russell, both for inviting me to contribute to Times & Seasons and for his flattering comments about me. After that introduction, I fear I may disappoint.

As Russell notes, I spent two years teaching at BYU, and have enjoyed dozens of email exchanges about LDS-related matters with the handful of good friends I made during my time on campus. Since I don’t have An Agenda for the following two weeks, I think I’ll start by sharing a few thoughts that have grown out of those exchanges.

One of the things that I found most interesting about the intellectual life of BYU is how many thoughtful Mormons (I assume it’s acceptable to employ the “Mormon” shorthand in this forum) understand their faith in terms derived, at some level, from postmodernist thought. This is in radical contrast to Roman Catholics, who usually appeal to some version of Thomism — that is, a tradition of philosophical reflection rooted in a holistic account of the natural world, including natural (and supernatural) ends or purposes. Mormons, by contrast, often reject such naturalism. There are, as I understand it, at least two reasons for this. First of all, there is the apostasy, which can be described, at least in part, as a debasement or distortion of authentic Christian teaching by concepts derived from the Greek philosophical tradition. This is actually just a radicalized version of an argument that many of the Protestant Reformers made about the decline of the Church in the Middle Ages. As I understand it, it means that the Church Fathers (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, etc.) created a synthesis of reason and revelation many centuries before Thomas Aquinas made his own attempt to do so. The result was, supposedly, a dismal failure, with biblical religion coming to be interpreted in terms quite foreign to it.

Then there is the second, and related, issue of the character of Mormon revelation in particular — and this is the issue that I find most interesting. According to this interpretation, God’s revelation simply cannot be contained or explicated in philosophical terms at all, since revelation at once transcends the theoretical intellect and, if you will, flies under its radar. That is, revelation comes from above or outside of the world of rational human concepts; at the same time, it is embodied in the practical lives of concrete, historical communities with their distinctive traditions, norms, practices, and beliefs — the very communities, traditions, norms, practices, and beliefs that philosophers (in the West, at least) have traditionally striven to transcend (see Plato’s classic allegory of the cave on this).

Example: Mormons believe that God is embodied. But this was declared a heresy by the “apostate” Church only a short time after Christ’s death. Why? The LDS answer is that this was because Greek philosophical concepts told them the idea of a corporeal God made no coherent sense. But why did Greek philosophy posit that only a radically impersonal God was coherent? Because when you take pre-philosophical intimations of the divine and seek to refine them dialectically using rational reflection, you come to see that the idea of a radically personal, corporeal God is absurd — when judged by the standard of other (primarily moral) intimations. After all, if God has a body, He must have sex organs — but that seems shameful. And if he has a body, must He not feel pain? And be mortal? But how could that be, since we all “know” that God “must” be perfect and hence radically other than we imperfect humans.

Another example: The Mormon notion of a “finite” God who, like his (literal) children, is even now continuing to grow, develop, and improve; in other words, Mormons reject the bedrock Greek and Christian notion of a timeless, static God. There are several reasons for this — among them the Mormon resistance to thinking in terms of the traditional philosophical concept of “eternity.” And so forth.

The point is that in my experience lots of thoughtful Mormons explicitly reject this entire line of reasoning — which in other Christian faiths is considered to be part and parcel of Theology 101. As I noted above, this is (at least in part) because the LDS believe that God’s revelation — and how it has been handed down by prophets and institutionalized or concretized in a faith community — comes first. Full stop. Reason is then allowed and encouraged, but only after the revealed truth has been allowed to set the parameters of discussion and thought. So, an orthodox Mormon would never think to say: “gee, you know, maybe God doesn’t have a body, because when I think about the concept of God, it seems to entail that he must not, etc.” That simply makes no sense in an LDS context.

How is this connected with postmodernism? Well, in a nutshell, at its philosophical peak (in Martin Heidegger’s thought) postmodernism can be seen as an effort to show that revelation of the highest truth (in Heidegger’s terms, revelation of Being) always trumps what philosophical reflection can say about that truth. Indeed, much of Heidegger’s work can be seen as an attempt to undermine reason’s claim to self-sufficiency. Reason, for Heidegger, is always already rooted in and parasitic on a prior disclosure of truth within the “horizon” of a concrete historical community. Hopefully you see the link to Mormonism now.

So what do all of you think of this? Does it seem like a problem to you? After all, postmodernists tend to be atheists and relativists of one kind or another — yet Mormons strive to be “absolutist” postmodernists. Is this possible? Or does it seem like the most natural thing in the world?

Not to worry: I don’t plan for all of my posts to be this philosophical, and I won’t even continue the thread if my comments don’t inspire some kind of response.

Until tomorrow.

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59 Responses to Mormonism: The Postmodern Faith

  1. lyle on June 7, 2004 at 5:45 pm

    Kool. Please Kontinue. I happen to really enjoy post-Modern thought; at least as it has been regurgitated to me (I tend not to read the original works). However, it does seem to open up a bottom-less pit…where nothing has any meaning unless you give it meaning: i.e. that tank is only a tank because we all agree it is a tank & a big metal truck with a big gun is dangerous; thus tanks are dangerous; however…if no humans ever killed each other, & a ‘tank’ existed…it would be called a mountain blaster or something, right?

    Anyway, I like how you place revelation as ‘outside’ of discourse. Frankly, if revelation didn’t provide ‘meaning’ to life & to action…I don’t know if I could live. Trying to give/create ‘meaning’ for all of your daily actions is just plumb exhausting.

  2. Frank McIntyre on June 7, 2004 at 6:20 pm

    The revelation and authority aspects makes all the difference. Thus instead of postmodernism’s tendency to unmoor people from believing anything, LDS theology, while similiarly disputing the primacy of reason, replaces it with something else about which people can agree. What does postmodernism replace it with? I really don’t know. But LDS people replace reason idolatry with authority and revelation from God.

    So I agree that both views can make use of similar arguments about the problems with idolizing reason, but they quickly part ways about what deserves reason’s vacated throne.

    An LDS view is, “we have this piece of information by way of revelation, so we know it to be true. Does reason etc. help us understand this information better?” But the primacy of the revelation is, as you pointed out, very apparent. Since most other faiths reject modern revelation, perhaps this path is not as open to them as it is harder to pull off with just the Bible.

    A postmodernist view (as best I can tell) begins similarly to the LDS one but is totally different in its ending. What is the “piece of information” that claims primacy in a way comparable to revelation? One rejects reason and embraces what, exactly?

  3. Ben Huff on June 7, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    Damon, your remarks are very interesting because on the one hand they explain at least one motive for Mormons to embrace postmodernism, while on the other hand they suggest an alternative.

    One reason for Mormons to embrace postmodernism is that they find various claims others make in the name of reason, unacceptable. Yet as you point out, there is another way to critique, in particular, the conclusions of Greek philosophy: to identify their culturally-bound, religio/moral presuppositions or other pre-philosophical intimations, and critique those. The Greek philosophers thought changelessness better than change, and thought of their bodies as at least in part shameful. Yet these do not seem to be pronouncements of pure reason. We might simply say they must be false, because our revelations tell us that certain kinds of change, and certain kinds of embodiment, apparently including sexuality, are actually better than changelessness and incorporeality. We might also suggest, taking a more psychological approach, that Greek distaste for change and embodiment simply stemmed from their not knowing the blessings of the redemption, which is a perfecting and ennobling change (perhaps a perpetually ongoing change, even) of both spirit and body.

    Is claiming that many philosophical claims are based in part on dubious, extra-rational assumptions tantamount to postmodernism? I don’t think so. At least, if it is, then I think Aristotle becomes a postmodernist.

    Similarly, some of the pronouncements of science (a more recent claimant to the imprimatur of Reason) that fit badly with Mormon views (e.g. big bang theory, which suggests the universe has a beginning in time) are susceptible to scientific critique.

    So, some resorts to postmodernism seem to me premature, not having exhausted the resources of (what I take to be) more or less conventional reason to counter falsehoods. While Mormons are very critical of the wisdom of the world (perhaps this refers in part to reason used in the context of fallen desires and spiritual ignorance), they are also traditionally very optimistic about the comprehensibility and rationality of the world, even the ways of God.

  4. Ben Huff on June 7, 2004 at 6:54 pm

    While there are important points of Thomas Aquinas’ theology that I do not accept, I think his overall approach to philosophical faith is a lot more harmonious with LDS faith than many think. For example, there had been many philosophical arguments offered for various claims about whether the world had a beginning in time or not. This or that party claimed to have established one or the other view by reason. Thomas showed that we must rely on revelation to establish this because none of the reasoning advanced without it is conclusive. He confronted this reasoning on its own terms and refuted it, then appealed to revelation. I see no reason for LDS to suppose that there will ever be a conflict between right reason and revelation. We do need to be suspicious of half-baked reasoning, though, of which the popular temples of reason (including the universities) exhibit no end. We should remember that life is short, and so our reasoning very often tends to be half-baked as a matter of expediency.

  5. Philocrites on June 7, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    I think you’re on to something important in your observation about the role that “the great apostasy” plays in Mormon thought. It seems to me that post-modern discourse gives some Mormon thinkers a way to leap over the intellectual dilemmas not just of Thomism but of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and pretty much every intellectual tradition with roots someplace other than first-century Judaea, fourth-century Zarahemla, and nineteenth-century Nauvoo. Post-modernism is the smart Mormon’s way to believe that the “great apostasy” drew a dark curtain across nineteen centuries of intellectual development without sounding like an anti-intellectual. It gives some people a way to think that, sure, Nietzsche said devastating things — but only about the decadent apostasy; none of it applies to us. And post-modernism offers the added benefit that, unlike the conservatism of First Things or anti-modernist intellectual movements, it seems au courant. Wrapped in post-modernism, Mormonism can be at once radical, smart, and still authoritarian and absolutist! What more could you ask for?

    Philosophically, I have no quarrel with Mormons who see resources in post-modern thought. But there’s a history-of-ideas aspect to the appeal of post-modernism for Mormons: that’s what I’m pointing to. There are reasons that some Mormons find post-modernism appealing that have little to do with the coherence of the ideas and a lot to do with a religious-cultural predisposition to regard other Western intellectual and theological traditions with extreme suspicion.

  6. Nate Oman on June 7, 2004 at 7:13 pm

    Philocrites: There is undoubtedly much truth in what you say, but I suspect that ALL thinkers find certain ideas “appealing that have little to do with the coherence of the ideas and a lot to do with a religious-cultural predisposition[s].” Such, it seems, is the nature of thinking.

    Consider, for example, Mormons who become Unitarians. Do they become Unitarians because of the attraction and coherence of that tradition’s particular resolution of the theological problems created by the collapse of Puritanism at the Harvard Divinity School in the early decades of the 19th century? Do they find the Unitarian solutions to the problems of trinity, predestination, and other Calvinist quandaries unusually compelling on the merits, or does the political and theological liberalism of Unitarianism simply provide a nice landing place for former Mormons reacting against the political conservatism of Mormon culture and the authoritarian aspects of Mormon theology without jettisoning spirituality, ecclesiastical community, and some version of the social gospel?

  7. Ben Huff on June 7, 2004 at 7:28 pm

    Just for balance, let me say that I love Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

  8. Philocrites on June 7, 2004 at 7:28 pm

    Nate, agreed! I think our intellectual lives are very strongly shaped by our cultural and individual lives. Biographically, of course Unitarianism’s theological liberalism — and its rejection of authoritarian hierarchies — had a lot to do with why I embraced it after leaving Mormonism. (The other tradition I strongly considered was Episcopalianism, but I found it was easier to go from heresy to heresy. I try to be a historically conscientious Unitarian, however, unlike many of my co-religionists who are almost as eager to disregard the past as any anti-Apostasy Mormon.)

    I should add that, intellectually, there were themes in Unitarianism that resonated strongly with my Mormon background and provided a kind of bridge: the rejection of the doctrine of original sin, for example, and the emphasis on continuing revelation.

  9. clarkgoble on June 7, 2004 at 7:38 pm

    I’d second Ben defense of Aquinas. I think the main complaints Mormons have about Aquinas are metaphysical. i.e. we have a grave distrust about immateriality. We can see this in Pratt’s The Absurdities of Immaterialism” but in many other thinkers as well. Of course with B. H. Roberts and others we have a move back to immaterial substances. (Admittedly Roberts adopted a Cartesian dualism between intelligence and spirit – but it’s not that far a jump to a Thomist reading) I’d add that Mormons often are very sympathetic to teleological views common in Aquinas. We believe that there is a summon bonum behind all this.

    I’d also disagree with revelation not fitting into philosophy. First off I think that position is found within Aquinas. There is a sense of negative theology to his thought culminating in the vision he had after which he would no longer write. Further there is the sense that Mormon theology is within “common sense” and thus less apothetic than we find in the Catholic tradition. I think there is a sense in which revelation is transcendent, but we have to be careful what we mean by that.

    I’d also second Ben in that I think Mormons distrust philosophy precisely because of Greek thought. I think this is unfortunately far too often overstated. (There were, after all, lots of Greek materialists) But I think that the oversimplified view of the apostasy as philosophy corrupting religion is widely held. I don’t know that this explains why Mormon philosophers become postmodernists. Perhaps we do worry about “logocentrism.” But it might also just be an accident of the fads of philosophy at the moment.

  10. Nate Oman on June 7, 2004 at 7:44 pm

    BTW, awhile back there was a very interesting article on this topic by another Catholic scholar in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, which remarked on the oddity of Mormon traditionalists employing post-Modern arguments. Check out:

    Massimo Introvigne, “The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 5, no. 2.

    Let me suggest an alternative intellectual pedigree for Mormon post-Modernism. Perhaps it has less to do with the Mormon attack on philosophy and the Hellenization thesis about the apostacy. (After all, this view was well articulated by B.H. Roberts and Hugh Nibley long before post-modernism had intellectual currency outside of the continent.) It seems more likely to me that Mormon post-modernism is less about the desire to vault over and ignore two thousand years of philosophy, and more about rather parochial debates about how to properly write Mormon history.

    As it happens most issues of Mormon theology and Mormon thought to the extent that they get sophisticated scholarlly treatement get thrashed out in the context of history and historiography. It seems to me that it was in this context — not in the context of discussing the notion of apostacy — that traditionalist Mormon post-modernism first emerged. I am thinking now of the Bohn-Alexander exchanges in the early and mid-1980s which probably did as much as anything to put the idea of tradtionalist Mormon post-modernism on the map. In this context, post-modernism was used to attack the assumed neutrality and invioability of the naturalistic assumptions used by some in the New Mormon History.

  11. lyle on June 7, 2004 at 7:53 pm

    So, is hellenistic philosophy universally despised in “mormon” thought? Probably just my pride, but there seems to be plenty of “gospel” thinking in the writings of plato, aristotle, etc. that could (?) possibly be traced to their having some parts of the truth.

    the ‘apostacy’ isn’t just the apostacy that occurred after the death of the Apostles; various other apostate periods have happened: with the first being after Adam taught the gospel & had it rejected by man of his kids.

  12. clarkgoble on June 7, 2004 at 7:54 pm

    If I could add an other thought Nate, perhaps Mormons are attracted to postmodernism not due to anti-rationalism nor a way to write apologetics against a particular “stance” or “distance” in history. After all one can be a coherentist without being a postmodernism. (And Kuhn is a neo-Kantian and not a postmodernist)

    My suggestion might be that Mormons come to postmodernism via Nietzsche due to his concept of the Overman or Levinas due to his approach to the problem of the Other related to the problem of God as other. With the former we have a philosopher who makes similar attacks on both Greek thought and yet has man becoming “godlike” or “transcendent.” That’s not to deny the serious qualms Mormons have with Nietzsche – his atheism being but one problem – his attacks on charity being the main one.

    With Levinas we move from the view of God as absolute other to the view of other minds as absolute other. This tends to sync very well into the theomorphic view of man that Mormonism holds. It also flows rather natural into a defense of God as more man-like as well. Most significantly it offers Mormons a way of thinking transcendence while remaining materialists. There are similar moves in the other postmodernists: Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, etc.

  13. Jim F. on June 7, 2004 at 8:24 pm

    Damon, it is great to have you as a guest blogger. Welcome. You are especially welcome if you keep posting things like this, the kinds of things that cohere with my selfish interests. But the result of me welcoming your presence and this post is that I’ll have more to say than a good respondent ought to put in one post.

    First, though I think your description of the LDS view of the apostasy accurately represents the way most church members think about the apostasy, there are a number of academics who think otherwise. For example, Siebach and Graham have an article waiting for publication that argues that the apostasy occurred before the Church Fathers worked, in other words, very early. It consisted less of the use of Greek philosophy to explain Christian ideas than of the loss of priesthood authority. That loss occurred very early on and was, for practical purposes, complete prior to 100. On Siebach’s and Graham’s view, the use of Greek philosophy after the loss of the priesthood was the natural and even admirable result of the apostasy: lacking authoritative revelation, Church leaders did what they could to deal with defending themselves against Gnosticism and other heresies and against the charges of the pagans, and Greek philosophy was a useful tool in that defense. With others, I find that explanation of the apostasy more convincing than the standard one.

    Your second point, the more interesting one, is, I believe, accurate. However, I would say that what is true of God is also true of ordinary objects: ultimately philosophical terms are inadequate to that which they desire to represent, whether divine or no. God is the most obvious case, but not the only one. (Consider “The Origin of the Work of Art” and the series of essays that Heidegger wrote on “the thing,” essays that make this point about objects in the world.) Nevertheless, I think that the most important way of putting this is that you identify when you say, “The LDS believe that God’s revelation—and how it has been handed down by prophets and institutionalized or concretized in a faith community—comes first. Full stop.” The faith community, its beliefs and practices, is existentially and religiously prior to any conceptualization of that community.

    I differ somewhat with your interpretation of Heidegger, or at least with how it applies to LDS thinking. For the revelation of the highest truth, that of God (as LDS understand him), is not the revelation of being, in Heidegger’s terms or the traditions. Heidegger’s criticism of the Western tradition is that it has confused the revelation of God with the revelation of being. That is a trenchant criticism, and I think that is one reason LDS find Heidegger interesting and useful: it is difficult to understand an embodied, developing God as being itself.

    As for Philocrates’ characterization, see my response to him at http://www.philocrites.com/archives/00103.html#956

    Finally, though the most common view is that expressed in one way another by Damon, Lyle, and Frank MacIntyre, namely that postmodernism ultimately leaves us with no moorings whatsoever, I think that is inaccurate. There is no question that has been the predominant American interpretation of postmodernism, but I think it is the consequence of either poor reading or too little background or, of course, both. Derrida adopts the notion of the trace from Levinas, who gets it from both Heidegger and Plotinus. In each of those ancestors, that notion refers, not to the groundlessness of things, but to the fact that they have a ground, though philosophy cannot make that ground appear. “The trace” is explicitly a theological term. Derrida puts it to non-theological uses, but he uses it because of its theological baggage. The result, in short, is that for Derrida reference works, but there is no accounting for the fact that it does.

  14. Steve Evans on June 7, 2004 at 8:35 pm

    I feel like I find myself suddenly in the Land of the Giants. Some great thoughts on this thread — thanks Damon!

    I’m curious as to how the element of contextuality figures into what you’re saying about how Mormons treat revelation. While it’s true that we take current revelation to trump all, there’s also a great deal of past revelation we discount/ignore because of different contexts. Does that solidify our postmodernism, in your eyes?

  15. Clark Goble on June 7, 2004 at 9:12 pm

    Steve, I think we have to keep fallibilism separate from postmodernism. Mormons are and always have been fallibilists. I think that in part is due to the facts of having living prophets. I also think it came out of the burgeoning pragmatism in the early 19th century.

  16. Dave on June 7, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    “Reason is then allowed and encouraged, but only after the revealed truth has been allowed to set the parameters of discussion and thought.”

    Damon, that sounds like a fairly straightforward description of compartmentalization. The idea that reason and and empirical testing apply to some questions (those within the allowable parameters) but not others seems profoundly contrary to the mindset of postmodernism, as well as to Enlightenment modernism right back to the close of the 17th century.

    So my impression is that the farthest Mormons who fit the description given above go down the postmodernist road is to selectively adopt postmodernist arguments when it suits their purposes. I am thinking here more of the historiographical and apologist disputes Nate referred to earlier, not so much to philosophers who I think come by their postmodernist arguments from the ground up rather than the top down, so to speak.

  17. Steve Evans on June 7, 2004 at 9:50 pm

    Clark, you’re not the first person to bring up the fallibility argument, though I confess I’m not able to really distinguish it. What exactly do you mean?

  18. Clark Goble on June 7, 2004 at 10:03 pm

    Dave, could you be more specific? I can think of a few apologists writing for FARMS who appealed to Kuhn and paradigms. But as I mentioned, that’s not really postmodernism but a variation of coherentism. Also, while I disagreed with some of the papers in question, I’m not sure it is really “selective adoption.” Rather it is the recognition that the position of a privileged position from which to criticize Mormon history is often problematic. When that position is basically positivism, this seems a very valid criticism. Afterall lots of non-postmodernists have been critical of positivism. Quine among others.

    I do agree that such compartmentalism seems rather alien to most forms of Mormon intellectualism. (Whether of the “faithful” variety or the more critical variety) Certainly some do compartmentalize such issues. But those are generally those least likely to engage in intellectualism.

    Steve, the basic issue of fallibilism is that in any position we may be mistaken. Relative to revelation it is the position that we may be mistaken in our intepretations of what is a revelation or what a revelation means.

    The contextualist position is slightly different as it criticizes the meaning of texts (whether revelation or otherwise) in terms of context it was given in. Thus we might criticize the meaning of demonic possession in the Bible due to the context of myths about mental illness. This allows the “demythologizing” or the changing of relatively straightforward texts into something far more complex. Of course the simpler matter of context is one Joseph pointed out. The revelation to build an ark doesn’t mean each of us ought to build arks. The danger is that some might argue away still applicable directives via context.

  19. Ben Huff on June 7, 2004 at 10:45 pm

    Jim, as usual, I feel a bit dizzy when I confront your postmodern remarks. It seems obvious to me that you are right. That much doesn’t make me dizzy at all. Rather, I feel dizzy because I don’t feel that requires me to change how I do philosophy, but it seems like everyone else thinks accepting your remarks would require me to fundamentally change. I think I am doing philosophy much like (at least, as far as my feeble powers allow, in a poor emulation of) Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas did. When I read them, their methodological presuppositions don’t seem alien to me at all, and yet your thoughts don’t seem very alien, either, except insofar as you express them using terms and references I don’t know terribly well. Yet aren’t Aristotle and Aquinas supposed to be the classic postmodern punching bags or something? Have I just become so self-assured in my violent appropriation of their work that I no longer even notice how un-postmodern it is? Or are they perhaps less “metaphysical” than repuration would have them?

  20. Ben Huff on June 7, 2004 at 11:08 pm

    I like the drift of Damon’s addendum. I am interested in a genuine, stark, philosophical alternative to what Western thought has made of Athens. Yet I find a great deal in Athens that I want to embrace and deploy in support of this alternative. It is really quite bizarre that people lately can refer to “Greek philosophy” as though it were monolithic. Yet to an impressive degree the Western tradition, particularly within the Western Church (i.e. mostly the Roman Catholic Church) did make of many disparate Greek ideas a somewhat unified body of thought. Or, various unified bodies of thought, each drawing creatively on a range of Greek ideas, in dialogue within and unified by the Church.

    Perhaps a philosophy built anew, in radical departure from the Athenian-Christian tradition of the past two millenia, cannot help but seem post-modern, even if it is very optimistic about the (long-term!) potential of human reason to understand the world and its creator, and maintains the authority of revelation. Perhaps a philosophy committed to a morally thick notion of human nature, and to belief in an intimately providential God, but which rejects Platonic/Aristotelean eternalism in favor of a plurality of eternal substances, all of which change and develop, and asserts that everything that exists, is material, cannot help but seem postmodern, given what philosophy has been so far.

  21. Dan Wotherspoon on June 7, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    I’ve been enjoying this thread, a lot! Thanks!

    Just to add my two cents as someone who’s played in postmodernism for a decade or so, I came to find it helpful mostly through the route of pragmatism that Clark suggested. I had/have a strong desire (Mormon-bred?) to get on with doing something useful (or that at least felt/feels that way) even as I don’t know if I’m working out of assumptions that are ridiculously off-base. In definite ways, the basic thrusts of postmodernism have forced me to be more comfortable living and breathing in a world of faith, shoring me up that it’s okay to act out of my particular place and temperamental dispositions, giving me permission to get to work now instead of being paralyzed that I don’t “know” x, y, and z are true and by gosh I’d better sort those out first lest I be wrong. (There is a critique of the Church’s current “testimony equals knowledge” culture in this comment that I won’t make more explicit.)

    Cheers, Dan

  22. Clark Goble on June 7, 2004 at 11:22 pm

    Ben, Heidegger was very influenced by Aristotle. There are quite a few books going through the connection. I’ve not read any of them, being admittedly lacking in my Aristotle skills. I know Caputo has a controversial one on the connection. I know that most discussions of God and Being bring in rather close readings of both Aquinas and Aristotle relative to Heidegger. (Kevin Hart’s The Tresspass of the Sign might be a good introduction)

    But I do agree. I think the divide between postmodernism and other forms of philosophy is more than a little overstated. I also think that Greek philosophy offers a lot. For instance quite a few people have argued that Derrida’s philosophy is not that different from Plotinus. Peirce parallels certain aspects of Plotinus and adopted his ontological fallibilism from the Epicurean notion of the “swerve.” Nietzsche and Heidegger were significantly influenced by Heraclitus and Parmenides. One can go on. I think the problem is that people have a narrow view of what Greek philosophy was. A lot of people I’ve talked to assume all Greek philosophy was idealistic in nature, apparently knowing nothing about Aristotle, the Stoics, or the Epicureans, among others.

  23. Jeremy on June 8, 2004 at 12:22 am

    A couple of years ago Stanley Fish, one of the most villainized figures in postmodernism, wrote an extremely lucid defense/definition of postmodernism (lucid, in that I made sense of it), which appeared in Harper’s magazine. His basic gist has been echoed by Jim and others here: postmodernism isn’t the rejection of absolute truth, it’s simply the recognition that the next guy might be just as sure that he’s got it as you are that you do, and that you both might think the means by which you arrived at it were utterly rational, and that you both probably think that the the means by which the other guy arrived at his hare-brained conclusion were fundamentally irrational, and, that said, why don’t we all just try to get along. Postmodernism, then, in Fish’s sense, isn’t a way of viewing the world at all–rather, it’s a way of making sense of the fact that seemingly rational people view it differently.

    For example, I personally was introduced to the idea of an embodied God through “revelation” (i.e., scripture), but accepted it because it seemed eminently rational to me. (Indeed, I associate rationality directly with materiality, in that I can’t seem to extricate the word “rational” from its mathematical sense–theoretically quantifiable and finite, as opposed to “irrational” numbers that go on to an infinite number of decimal places and exist only as symbols and approximations…). I personally can’t help but see orthodox christian theology as “constructed,” in the postmodern sense–I mean, how else would you describe what they were doing in all those councils? (Of course, I’m not engaging this topic, just using it as a personal example.) My point is that I attribute my convictions more to the rationality I percieve in revelation, rather than any trans-rational (ugh!) quality I attribute to revelation. Postmodernism, or at least the type I subscribe to, simply asks me to recognize the possibility that someone just as rational as I fancy myself to be might not reach the conclusions I do, and that by considering what I see as the “constructions” that lead them to their conclusions, I might more rigorously examine and strengthen my own convictions. (In a sense, we all already do this anyway, consciously or not; again, as Fish says, postmodernism isn’t an approach, it’s a name for a state of affairs.)

    On the other hand, I do think Mormonism is extremely postmodern in a very different sense: in the arts, the term “postmodernism” is often applied to works characterized by collage, incongruity, unexpected juxtapositions, and anachronisms (why this is a manifestiona of postmodernism is too lengthy a topic to address here). In this sense there is something that I cherish about Mormonism that is deeply postmodern: Jesus in the Americas? Peter, James, and John on the banks of the Susquehanna River? Joseph Smith’s vision of Abraham’s vision of Kolob? Sounds like something you’d encounter in Robert Wilson play, if Mormonism hadn’t beat him to it.

  24. Jeremiah J. on June 8, 2004 at 1:12 am

    Many good comments so far. There are things said here which I don’t dispute: that early Mormon thinkers (like Luther and other Dissenters) had a significant distrust of some philosophical schools, represented in the traditional creeds; that divine embodiment is a doctrine which we claim as central to the difference between Mormonism and the rest of Christendom; and that Nietzsche is discussed and praised more, and maligned less, than Thomas is on LDS-PHIL.

    But I do have an open question: While I do think that the religious thought (besides the revelations) of Joseph and other 19th century Mormons is quite interesting in itself, I’m not as sure that it constitutes a thorough engagement with the Greeks, the Christian medievals, or for that matter the moderns. So while as theologians or philosophical observers we might make the claim that Mormonism is best explained, interpreted, defended with postmodernist terms and categories (I’m not prepared to make this claim yet), can we affirm Damon’s other implied claim, that Mormonism has given the Greeks, medievals or moderns a good look and rejected them?

    Sorry, one final question: any indication why so many Mormons have commented (not on this thread, but in general) that embodiment seems so rational, even scientific, compared to the traditional Christian view of God? Some have even gone so far as to compare the Thomist account of God to a fairy tale or gibberish, of which it is neither. This view has struck me as rooted in a lack of understanding of Greek and medieval metaphysics (along with an exposure to the cruder expressions of them first). Of course this is something like a sociological, not a philosophical question, since it concerns what immediately appeals to people rather than what view is indeed most reasonable or defensible. But perhaps some of you may have some insights.

  25. Clark Goble on June 8, 2004 at 1:31 am

    Jerimiah, to answer your question really entails engaging with the question of Hermeticism in early Mormonism. (IMO) Hermeticism is famously an other “strain” of platonism, especially in its post-Renaissance guises. If as Brooke and Quinn assert, Hermeticism affected Mormonism, then there was an early engagement with Greek thought. One that has, as of yet, not really received a rigorous examination. (While Brooke and Quinn are interesting, they are anything but rigorous in this regard)

  26. Jim F. on June 8, 2004 at 2:17 am

    Ben, just time for a quick response: I don’t think postmodernism (a term, by the way, that I would rather not use, on the one hand, but can’t seem to avoid, on the other), is a rejection of Western philosophy. That’s the reading of it that I find sophomoric. Heidegger thought he was an Aristotelian, Derrida is very interested in Plato as well as Plotinus. It is not a rejection of the Western tradition, but a questioning of the latest “move” within that tradition, namely modernism (beginning with approximately Descartes–though perhaps going back as far as Scotus or Ockham–and continuing into the present). The questioning of modernism that pomo is part of began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with Romanticism. But because pomo is a questioning of modernism and modernism invented the idea of questioning periods in philosophy, pomo cannot escape itself being modern. Plato, Aristotle, and the medievals come in very handy in much of that questioning. So, no need to worry. The dizziness isn’t in you; it is in those who made postmodernism a fad and then turned it into the same old relativism. In the 50s and 60s they called their “doctrine” existentialism, but they were no more accurate or interesting then.

    For those who care: Clark mentioned Kevin Hart’s book, which I think is excellent. He talks about the connections between pomo thinking, mysticism, and negative theology. I think that Christopher’s Norris’s work is also generally good. Take a look at the footnotes of some of the things on my web site for more recommendations.

  27. Russell Arben Fox on June 8, 2004 at 2:37 am

    Jeremy–

    “[Fish's] basic gist has been echoed by Jim and others here: postmodernism isn’t the rejection of absolute truth, it’s simply the recognition that the next guy might be just as sure that he’s got it as you are that you do, and that you both might think the means by which you arrived at it were utterly rational, and that you both probably think that the the means by which the other guy arrived at his hair-brained conclusion were fundamentally irrational, and, that said, why don’t we all just try to get along. Postmodernism, then…isn’t a way of viewing the world at all–rather, it’s a way of making sense of the fact that seemingly rational people view it differently.”

    I can’t speak for Jim, but I strongly disagree with the idea that this perspective of Fish’s in any substantive way aligns with knowledgeable accounts of postmodern thought. What Fish presented in that essay was his own particular spin on Richard Rorty’s classic pragmatist/anti-foundationalist reading of various anti-metaphysical thinkers (like Heidegger, etc.). Rorty’s and Fish’s whole agenda, despite their distinct disciplinary perspectives, has always been to take what they assume to be the inevitable nihilism contained in anti-realist and deconstructive accounts of the history of ideas and morals, and redescribe it in a manner that will presumably provide utilitarian support to a tolerant way of life. (Ethics without principles, democracy without philosophy, texts without a concern for their truth.) Some think that this is a fruitful approach to the questions bequeathed to us by Nietzsche and Heidegger; I don’t. As Jim indicated, even Derrida (who, in my opinion, has been guilty of giving credence to Rortyesque interpretations of his work, perhaps primarily because he wanted to be able to distinguish himself from those who read Heidegger in a hermeneutical light) insists that “reference works”–that is, there is a meaning which inheres in things, even if philosophy cannot necessarily take the “trace” of that reality and turn it into a logical and/or normative foundation. Rorty and Fish are, ultimately, rather Humean–jovial thinkers who think the best thing philosophy can do is not get in the way of the world we’ve fallen into proceeding “normally.” Better postmodern interpreters, I think, actually want to attend to the meaning of, and the historical and ethical possibilities of, that fallenness.

  28. Russell Arben Fox on June 8, 2004 at 2:37 am

    Jim–

    “[T]hough I think your description of the LDS view of the apostasy accurately represents the way most church members think about the apostasy, there are a number of academics who think otherwise. For example, Siebach and Graham have an article waiting for publication that argues that the apostasy occurred before the Church Fathers worked, in other words, very early. It consisted less of the use of Greek philosophy to explain Christian ideas than of the loss of priesthood authority. That loss occurred very early on and was, for practical purposes, complete prior to 100. On Siebach’s and Graham’s view, the use of Greek philosophy after the loss of the priesthood was the natural and even admirable result of the apostasy: lacking authoritative revelation, Church leaders did what they could to deal with defending themselves against Gnosticism and other heresies and against the charges of the pagans, and Greek philosophy was a useful tool in that defense. With others, I find that explanation of the apostasy more convincing than the standard one.”

    I love to hear more about this article Jim, or at least when or where they plan to publish it. To what extent do you suppose such a thesis would challenge the long-standing Mormon understanding of the apostasy as a calamity which befell the early church? While it’s not much cited in official church literature, Nibley’s reading of “the passing of the church” has, I think, implicitly guided a tremendous amount of our rhetoric on the subject. (Damon: High Nibley, whom I’m sure you’ve heard of, published an influential article 40+ years ago arguing that the plain meaning of the majority of the early statements about the church made by first and second generation Christians–that is, those in the scriptural and apocryphal record–are such that it must have been understood by them that the church would not survive: that apostasy would eat away the formal church within a very short time.) However, it 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. If the priesthood authority which Christ gave to His apostles, as contemporary Mormons understand it, was disappearing from the earth even while some of those apostles were still living, might it not suggest that said priesthood authority was not in fact designed to accomplish whatever it is that the idea of “the passing of the church” assumes wasn’t accomplished? 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.

    So much our intellectual framing of the church tends to depend, at least in my experience, on the presumption of a definitive rupture or at least alteration in the history of God’s saving work; the earlier and more “low-key” that rupture 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.

  29. Russell Arben Fox on June 8, 2004 at 2:37 am

    Ben–

    “While there are important points of Thomas Aquinas’ theology that I do not accept, I think his overall approach to philosophical faith is a lot more harmonious with LDS faith than many think. For example, there had been many philosophical arguments offered for various claims about whether the world had a beginning in time or not. This or that party claimed to have established one or the other view by reason. Thomas showed that we must rely on revelation to establish this because none of the reasoning advanced without it is conclusive. He confronted this reasoning on its own terms and refuted it, then appealed to revelation. I see no reason for LDS to suppose that there will ever be a conflict between right reason and revelation.”

    I don’t think I agree with you, but I suppose much depends on what you mean by “right reason.” Aquinas was operating under basically Aristotelean teleological presumption: if something exists by nature, then there must be an at least potential end which manifests fully that naturally given thing, and such an end would by definition constitute a good state of affairs. Thus, since human beings are naturally capable of reason, the end which God (who made us what we are in nature) intends for us must be a reasoning one. Since revelation–the scriptures, the divine law–indicates that our end should be holiness and salvation, it follows that we must be able to reason out through nature the rightness of such states of affairs. Aquinas allows that the natural law won’t be able to get all the way there–that’s why revelation and the church are necessary–but he essentially believed that “right reason” was an element of our becoming holy in God’s eyes.

    All of this goes out the window, however, if you ask yourself–as Augustine, and later Luther did–whether revelation and the divine law really was and is directed towards grounding and guiding our reasoning, or whether if instead it was aimed at our (fallen, corrupt) natural hearts and wills. Augustine was the first to acknowledge that wise men can take up revelation and use it to complement their reasoning; but he insisted that if they had not made (or been led to make) the decision to love God rather than man–a decision not amenable to reason–then their best understanding of scripture and theology would still lead them to worship idols, rather than the true God. Christians in this tradition (and I think there are more than enough passages in the BoM, for instance, to suggest that Mormons ought to understand themselves as such) are not looking to reason about and thus draw closer to revelation; on the contrary, revelation–the power and grace of God–is the only thing that can make us want to be closer in the first place. Right reason, in this sense, may not be contradictory to revelation, but at least is certainly not an element of it; rather having our nature put right is prior to any “right” reasoning about it.

  30. Randall Paul on June 8, 2004 at 3:37 am

    Damon’s comments bring up the foundational method of thinking/feeling about traditional questions of human identity, ethical responsibility and the purposes of our lives. The post modern move was, I believe, a move away from first, the certainty of intelligible universal interpretation of both immediate or mediated knowledge. As McKeon would say, humans tend to move over time in cycles from questions about ontology to those about epistemology, then to semantic/linguistic questions, and then to ethics. Each tradtionally has been an attempt at a firm starting point or foundationalism. The post modern period seems, on one hand, to question questioning as a search for foundations, and to “celebrate” the game of questioning itself without the expectation of “getting anywhere.” On the other hand it can be considered a period of new awareness of the history of questing for foundations, and a recognition (here Fish would agree) of the humility best employed by those seeking or claiming to have “found it.” In this sense it is not a cynical response to the void, but a kind gesture of good faith in the possibility that one’s phiosophical/theological opponent might be right about something in a way that you do not yet grasp. This is a form of perspectivalism that allows for the possibility of foundations without either the ability to be certain of them or the ability (if certain about them) to be sure others are certain about them in the same way you are. Rather than the old existential lonliness, this can have an invigorating impetus for creative collaboration (pro-creation of ideas, forms, and people) in the “free space” open by the lack of certainty about foundations.

    As I have said elsewhere, the Mormon mode of forming some “working” foundation is social friendship/trust/covenant. We do not emphasize enough that Joseph Smith really seemed to believe that if the Mormons all went to hell, they would make a heaven of it. As mentioned above on this blog, Theomorphism of humanity makes all human individual mysteries of godliness–not in a panentheistic manner alone, but in a personalistic manner. Many Mormons would resonate with the idea that God is a Person whose power is to persuade other persons by means of love. Further, and most radically I think, the LDS claim (made explicitly to the world by the leaders in the Declaration on the Family) that God is (among other things) a married couple of a male and a female person. This is theomorphism that is social and gendered. It also shows a kind of “permanent” mystery of complimentary otherness inherent in the persons of God. It lifts the human issues of creativity/pro-creativity to the divine level. It replaces a telos of certain ultimate being with a telos of open dynamic fecundity. Levinas seems to point toward theomorphic fecundity without the “naive” appreciation the Mormons have for a couple waiting up near Kolob for their kids to grow up and come home to visit.

    Post modernity in simple terms seems to be congenial with the Mormon notion of freedom and expansion in and from interpersonal relationships–especially marriage–that might never get boring in eternity. The LDS theology allows for the possibility of competing kingdoms of divinities and purposes too. There is the possibility that eternal freedom might lead to persuasive conflicts over what the next purposes of Gods should be–not in the sense of fighting over good and evil, but disagreeing over good and better.

    If you start as J. Smith said we should, thinking that you can REALLY talk with God as you would with a friend (intimately, creatively, without absorbing one another), and you believe you have Heavenly Parents who are gods–and then you believe you might “make it” someday yourself, you end up with a unique form of religious thinking and doing that makes human persons (alive or dead) and the social relations they create the most important and interesting things to God and man.

  31. Clark Goble on June 8, 2004 at 6:01 am

    Russell, what place do you see apothetic reasoning in Aquinas if, because we are given reason we can reason our ends. I admit that while I’ve read Aquinas a lot, I’m far from well read on him. It just seems that you and others are imputing to him a rational understanding of the universe beyond what I recall him asserting. Could you perhaps be a bit more explicit?

    I’d be interested in Ben’s comments here as well. I know that Aquinas moved against many of the beliefs of say the pseudo-Dionysus on matters such as bliss, making understanding key. But I’m not sure that entails that God doesn’t act on fallen man with his law. Indeed Aquinas states explicitly that the law is for our bliss. It may be founded on reason, but I don’t think that entails that we must understand it initial for it to do its task.

  32. Russell Arben Fox on June 8, 2004 at 9:27 am

    Clark, I don’t know what “apothetic reasoning” is. Moreover, I shouldn’t pretend to be well-read on Aquinas either, as I’m not. And I don’t want reduce teleology to a purely rational-metaphysical operation; as several on this thread have observed, Aristotle was a great influence on Heidegger’s thinking, as was Aquinas (John Caputo’s best book–maybe his only good book–was on Heidegger and Aquinas). My comment was basically just an overlong response to Ben’s belief that LDS thought need not wade through the reason/revelation morass, since we–like Aquinas–believe both God and what God wants to be reasonable. I’m not sure that true, because I think LDS scripture suggests that we cannot construct an activity called “reason” (much less “right reason”) without having already received God and what God wants into our hearts. As I read Aquinas, he believed even the most fallen and depraved mind must be able to rightly reason about God at least minimally–that is, that end must be available to all–because reasoning is part of our God-given nature. But obviously, someone who really knows their Aquinas may come along and disagree with me here.

  33. Adam Greenwood on June 8, 2004 at 11:57 am

    Nate O. has hit on something. I’ve also been surprised at the post-modern turn of Mormon apologetics, though Nate is probably right that it comes less from conviction than from the principle that in a fight, any stick will do. Still, as you say, we can resort to that stick because we don’t fear its being turned against us. C.S. Lewis famously said that apologetics can’t create belief but can only create room for faith by showing that belief is not unthinkable. Yet he always seemed to be trying to prove his belief. We, on the other hand, are taking him seriously, hence the appeal of post-modernism as you describe it. In one convenient package it provides a way to demonstrate the equal likeliness or unlikeliness of any faith, secular or otherwise, to ours. But I wonder if we’re all that unique in that regard. The Christian tradition, with its emphasis on faith, seems to require at least some room for doubt. I have this really hazy idea that some of the most convincing attacks on reason came from one of your orders (the Dominicans? The Jesuits?). Of course the Catholic Church has always been Thomist to some extent, but I wonder if it would be celebrating reason less these days if the secular world hadn’t abandoned it so badly. Perhaps so, I don’t know. Perhaps one could claim that faith is still central even to a belief based in reason because one must still have faith in reason as against anti-rational attacks, or else against sub-rational attacks against the appetites like Christ experienced at the end of the 40 days. Still, I don’t think we’re alone among Christians in our eagerness to turn the tools of secular thought against secular thought itself. If it proves nothing, it at least discredits the secular.

    On the other hand you’re right that we emphasize our history and historical claims as the subject matter of faith more than we do our doctrines. This is the emphasis on history that is the background to Nate O.’s comment. But this is no accident. Like the Catholic Church, our claim isn’t ultimately one of correct doctrine but of authority. I’ve just been thinking about a world in which you theologically recognized some doctrines that are within the range of doctrines that we recognize. Say, the social trinity and whatnot. Let’s suppose that we did the same, say with Mary. Let’s suppose we added the cross to our services and you added basketball courts to yours, and so on. We could reach a point, I think, in which our practice, our customs, and our doctrines were nearly identical. But at that point our history would still be different and claims to authority would still be contrary. You might accept all the doctrines that the Book of Mormon teaches (you probably already accept most of them) while still rejecting the truth of the book. You might accept the doctrines of the Proclamation on the Family (you probably already would, most of them) without agreeing that the prophet and apostles who promulgated them had any special knowledge other than is common to mankind. For my part I might read an encyclical like Centesimus Annus, accept it, have it shape my thinking, but still not think the Pope is the Vicar of Christ or that the ordinances of the Roman Catholic Church are efficacious.

    We are not converged to the degree this hypothetical assumes, nor will we ever be. But though I doubt we will ever accept the doctrines of St. Thomas to the degree that you would like, I think we will come to accept them more. As Clark Goble points out, we are influenced by our times. Originally that meant that we absorbed some of the unthinking anti-Catholicism of Protestant America. Even if we were not actively opposed ourselves, it didn’t occur to us to go looking to you for anything of value. And as various Mormons reached a place where we could fritter away time on theorizing, Aquinas and the natural law was not what we found near at hand. Now that the various kinds of Christianities in this country are getting more worried about outside threats than in each other, I expect we’ll find more and more of interest in the Catholic and natural law traditions.

  34. Clark Goble on June 8, 2004 at 2:22 pm

    Sorry Russell. I was pulling an all nighter so not all my posts were well thought out. I mean the idea of negative theology – speaking in terms of what is not rather than what is.

  35. Nate Oman on June 8, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Adam (and to a lesser extent Dave and Clark): I don’t think that the post-modernism of critics of the New Mormon History is as opprotunistic as you make it sound. David Bohn, who provided the most extensive and the earliest pomo criticism of the NMH, is a grown up philosopher. He is a philosopher with a Ph.D from Columbia and is quite serious about studying contintental philosophy, which is his expertise. I don’t think that one can safely dismiss or categorize his papers as opprotunistic grasping at rhetorically useful ideas.

    Second, I agree with Clark that the postmodernism of the critics of the NMH is frequently overstated. As he points out, Kuhn is a more popular starting place than Heideggar, and Kuhn is making less dramatic philosophical appeals.

  36. Russell Arben Foxr on June 8, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    Nate (and others), regarding David Bohn and the weird origins of postmodern thinking in the polemics surrounding the New Mormon History: in the beginning (mid to late 1980s), this was a discussion taking place only between historians–the challenge to revisionist “objectivity” was conducted via, as you note, Kuhn and other much more analytical figures (probably the single most cited book in the first several years of the FARMS Review of Books was Peter Nozick’s “That Noble Dream,” an anti-objectivity book written by a frustrated historian). There wasn’t much philosophy around. Then along came Bohn’s interest in the debate, and to be honest, I’m not sure how many of his targets really ever understood what he was trying to say. He would write these long (admittedly, much too long) essays in Sunstone on the deeper meaning of “faithful history,” and then two months later the letter pages would be filled with responses that completely misunderstood his point, trying to fit his postmodern critique into the same old “critic/apologist” categories. (I believe Jim took it upon himself to write in a few letters to try to salvage some understanding of Bohn’s point once or twice.) It is arguable, I suppose, that in opening up a can of hermeneutical whoop-ass on Thomas Alexander, Michael Quinn, et al, Bohn somewhat derailed the original debate–but what a productive derailing it turned out to be!

  37. Nate Oman on June 8, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    Russell: I think that this is about right. In particular I recall reading Alexander’s rather flailing response to Bohn. I thought it a rather sad performance as philosophy, although I think that Alexander is an immensely talented historian. Then there were all of the fun “I-am-not-a-postivist-you-are-a-positivist” exchanges.

  38. Nate Oman on June 8, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    BTW, “can of hermeneutical whoop-ass” like Adam’s “running dogs of the imperialist west” is a phrase that should appear with more frequency in discussions of Mormonism ;->…

  39. clarkgoble on June 8, 2004 at 5:06 pm

    I somehow missed all the supposed “pomo” battles that were raging. All the reviews I’d bothered reading from FARMS focused in on Kuhn and not Nozick. (I must confess I’ve never read Nozick and know next to nothing about him so I dare not comment on him)

    Nate, I think that the “pomo” apologetics (which as I mentioned I rarely think of as pomo) really get to the blog entry here from a few days back on critical distance in Mormon history. While pomos certainly are critical of the possibility of this idea “critical distance” I believe the real issue is what is brought to this perspective. Perhaps Mormon intellectuals are sympathetic to pomo because of its frequent embrace of perspectivism. Presumably the same is true of pragmatism. (Although oddly few Mormons are sympathetic to Rorty and I’ve never heard Mormons speak fondly of Dewey or Holmes — although they are often fond of pragmatists in the analytic tradition like Putnam or Davidson)

    BTW – since I’ve read nothing by David Bohn and probably won’t make it up to campus to check old issues of Sunstone, might I suggest him as a future guest blogger?

  40. Melissa on June 9, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Clark,

    What Mormons are sympathetic to Rorty and why?

    I assume that they aren’t sympathetic to his scathing criticisms of the Chruch leadership structure and his argument that religionists make lousy citizens of a democracy and so forth.

  41. Melissa on June 9, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    That last comment is mine–not sure how why the post says it’s from Clark

    Clark,

    What Mormons are sympathetic to Rorty and why?

    I assume that they aren’t sympathetic to his scathing criticisms of the Chruch leadership structure and his argument that religionists make lousy citizens of a democracy and so forth.

  42. lyle on June 9, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    second the non-motion for Prof. Bohn as a guest blogger! As long as he promises to talk about “the condition(s) of the possibility of freedom” that is. :)

  43. Nate Oman on June 9, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    There is something Nietzcheian about Holmes that I find a bit off putting. There is a great deal of wit and joie de vie in him (Posner’s collection really brings this out nicely), and the man was a legal genius of the first order. Indeed, if you are looking for an American intellectual who has made historical and internationally important contributions to his field, I doubt that outside of the hard sciences you could do better than Holmes. On the other hand, there is an undercurrent of arrogance and nastiness in Holmes that it is really hard love. (Unless, of course, you are Richard Posner.)

  44. Nate Oman on June 9, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    A final point on Holmes: To the extent that there are Mormons who were educated in American law schools, they have had Oliver Wendell Jr. pounded into their brains regardless of whether they were aware of what was happening or not.

  45. Clark Goble on June 9, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    Nate, the book The Metaphysical Club suggests that Holmes was very anti-individual in a fashion that I suspect many Mormons would be unforgettable with. I confess that most of what I know of him comes from that book. So I’m loath to say too much about him. But I certainly came away with a negative view.

    Melissa, I actually was a fan of Rorty back in college. I though Philosophy and the Mirrors of Nature was rather interesting. As I became more sophisticated philosophically I found that he simply avoided issues by retreating into “common sense” and the limitations thereof. But I do still think that there are certain interesting parallels between Rorty and Brigham Young, especially relative to Young’s comments on philosophy during the Pratt conflicts.

  46. Nate Oman on June 9, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    If you want another, more celebratory vision of Holmes, check out Posner’s introduction to his collection _The Essential Holmes_ (Chicago UP, 1992). Albert W. Alschuler’s _Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes_ provides a much darker and more critical vision of Holmes. Alschuler thinks that much of American law is infected by nhilism and he blames Holmes.

    I actually think that Menad’s portrait of Holmes is pretty good, although I think that his discussion of some of the legal theory is a bit shallow (especially once he strays away from Holmes’s constitutional theorizing).

  47. Dave on June 9, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    Menand also did a 20-page biographical essay of Holmes in his more recent book of essays entitled American Studies (2003). He seems to draw on material from Metaphysical Club, but is less obliged to make Holmes fit the pragmatism movement. And if you manage to snag the book, don’t miss the entertaining chapter on Falwell and Flynt.

  48. Ben Huff on June 10, 2004 at 8:54 pm

    Russell, I don’t mean to say that God and his ways will make sense to us without our being transformed by him, redeemed. But I don’t think reason is ever exercised well without divine influence. Even natural law is something that God put in us. And of course natural law is not enough for us to understand God very fully at all. God’s involved in the proper expression of human reason all the way down and all the way up, but it’s still reason.

    Of course revelation and divine law are aimed at perfecting our hearts and wills, but they aim at perfecting our reason as well. I don’t think one can happen without the other.

  49. Ralph Hancock on June 11, 2004 at 10:40 am

    Is it too late to comment on the pomomo (postmodernmormon) question? (I’m always too late.) Modernity rests at bottom on a certain claim on behalf of the rule of reason – a claim that is in a way continuous with but in another way a radical rejection of the classical Greek understanding of the activity of reason as lying at the heart of the best, most fully human way of life. So the pomo question is for us a version of the question: how do Mormons stand with respect to the claims of reason. It is natural that we resonate with Heidegger’s matchless efforts to liberate modern humanity from a purely technological reason, a view of thinking that hides human being from itself. But in pursuing this liberation Heidegger was not interested in connecting thinking with those deepest human longings, the “hearts desire” of fairy tales, that Damon suggests our Mormon understanding of divinity and humanity addresses in a unique way. Here I must take Damon’s and Leo Strauss’s side against the daunting ranks of Jim and his divisions of professional Heideggerians. Heidegger’s “formalism” is not a neutral description of humanity in its various historical manifestations: Heidegger is trying to make the form of human existence its content. He knows what he’s doing when he rejects all traditional religious and ethical thinking. Rather than engaging the deepest longings of our common humanity, he intends to exaggerate the agonistic (anti-popular) elements of classical Greek thought. He uses an Aristotelian “phronesis” (practical wisdom) stripped of ethics and politics to purge the practice of thinking of all orientation towards a higher Good. Thus, although it makes sense that we should be attracted by Heidegger’s critique of a purely theoretical understanding of divinity (“ontotheology”), he is actually moving in exactly the opposite direction from what would be fruitful for us LDS. As Jim in a way suggests by tracing Levinas’s trace through Heidegger back to the neoplatonist Plotinus, Heideggerian postmodernism can be seen as a radicalization of a Platonic trajectory away from the goods of common life.

    A more fruitful direction, as others have suggested, is an engagement with the Aristotelian tradition that reached one kind of consummation in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas intended precisely to use Aristotle’s homely materialism to counter the life-hating tendencies of a certain Platonism. If Aristotle himself remained too much a Platonist to allow Thomas to complete to our satisfaction this project of embracing the bodiliness and the commonness of what is most holy, then at least we can appreciate the direction he started in – the opposite direction, spiritually, from Heidegger’s agonistic, radically elitist formalism. What was it Thomas saw in that late vision of his, that caused him to regard all his earlier philosophizing as “straw”?

  50. Russell Arben Fox on June 11, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    Ralph! So glad you’ve discovered T&S! (Did Damon altert you he was writing for us?) Thanks for contributing, especially this:

    “Heidegger’s ‘formalism’ is not a neutral description of humanity in its various historical manifestations: Heidegger is trying to make the form of human existence its content. He knows what he’s doing when he rejects all traditional religious and ethical thinking. Rather than engaging the deepest longings of our common humanity, he intends to exaggerate the agonistic (anti-popular) elements of classical Greek thought. He uses an Aristotelian ‘phronesis’ (practical wisdom) stripped of ethics and politics to purge the practice of thinking of all orientation towards a higher Good. Thus, although it makes sense that we should be attracted by Heidegger’s critique of a purely theoretical understanding of divinity (‘ontotheology’), he is actually moving in exactly the opposite direction from what would be fruitful for us LDS.”

    This puts terrifically well the (vaguely Straussian influenced) Christian objection to Heidegger’s existentialism. I wouldn’t count myself as one of Jim’s “divisions of professional Heideggerians,” but seeing as I come to Heidegger via romanticism, I think there is more affective truth to the idea of finding ethical “content” in the form of our worldhood than you or Damon think. Of course, Heidegger himself thought the romantics were dilettantes; the only one he really had respect for was Holderlin, because he was far more willing than his compatriots to stare into the abyss. But I wonder how much that wasn’t simply misplaced pride, a conviction that since he–supposedly such a wise man!–blew it so spectacularly when it came to politics, then therefore it must be impossible for anyone else working in his philosophical footsteps to do so either. (Witness his rather cheap treatment of Gadamer and Arendt, and their political and moral thinking, in the years after WWII.)

  51. Ralph Hancock` on June 11, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    Yes, Russell, I see what you mean, and that’s a good way of putting it: ethical content “in the form of our worldhood.” The openness of the content is its form, or its formalism. But Heidegger wanted to purify this (finally modern)formalism; and in this way his “pride” (truly on a world-historical scale, this) seems to me to be profoundly implicated in his philosophy, or his new “thinking.” That is, he sees himself as the only true, pure and final liberator of form from content. I agree with him that the classical positing of a supreme content (The Good) accessible only to the rarest intellect cannot be taken as final; but I regard the attempt to vindicate the scientific spirit by grasping its essence in pure form is vastly more dangerous in the modern world. And so here is where I reach my more tradition- and religion-friendly “end of philosophy”: their is no getting beyond the mutual contamination of form and content — this contamination goes “all the way down,” for philosophers as much as for poets, believers, or warriors.

  52. Jim F. on June 11, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    Since this isn’t a Heidegger blog, I’m going to resist continuing the discussion of how to interpret Heidegger. I too am glad to see Ralph join the fray, but he’s equally as wrong as Damon about Heidegger. Russell’s point is on-point. Anyone interested in my reading of Heidegger is welcome to join my Heidegger course next winter semester, assuming you are in Provo then.

  53. Clark Goble on June 12, 2004 at 12:18 am

    I’ll jump in where Jim resists. (grin)

    “Heideggerian postmodernism can be seen as a radicalization of a Platonic trajectory away from the goods of common life.”

    I’m actually fairly sympathetic to that view – although I’m not sure that is a bad thing, mind you. Probably the best example of this in Heidegger can be found in The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic.

    Ground belongs essentially to the essence of being. With concrete insight into this metaphysical connection I have only led you back to where Plato stood when he wrote the sentences in the Republic … with which I close. . . “And so you must say that knowing is not only present for and with known beings, present namely on the basis of the good (the good establishes for beings not only knownness and thereby world-entry) but also being and being-a-what [das Sein und das Wassein] is assigned to beings from that (namely the good). The for-the-sake-of [umwillen], however (transcendence), is not being itself, but surpasses being, and does so inasmuch as it outstrips being in dignity and power.” (MAL, 284)

    However I’m also not sure that this radicalization entails a “life hating” philosophy that you insinuate could be found corrected in Aquinas’ use of Aristotle. After all this is the same man who talks of a God before whom we can dance and sing. It seems life is very important, if not key, to Heidegger. (I think it is for Plotinus as well – but that’s an other matter)

  54. Jim F. on June 12, 2004 at 3:00 am

    Clark Goble: I too like that passage, at least partly because I think it shows that Levinas’s reading and criticism of Heidegger (one that takes a stance quite similar to Strauss’s stance regarding H) is insufficiently nuanced.

  55. Stuart Burycka on June 14, 2004 at 5:00 am

    I haven’t had the chance to read Heidegger yet, but I’m looking foward to doing so in the future. Most empiricists don’t really understand what Plato actually said. Plato afterall, is very similar to the German Philosopher Imannuel Kant. The Forms or Ideas are the same as the thing-in-itslef, which even Arthur Schopenhauer understood and advanced these ideas even further. Plato and Kant knew the limits of the intellect, in that we can only know what exists in the phenomenal world, but this world isn’t the real world, objectified by the senses. We could never make this inner world intelligible to ourselves. However, what I find quite interesting are the similarites between these ideas and Mormonism. Kant believed it was perfectly reasonable to accept on faith a transcendent view of the world. Faith could also be described as a strong belief supported by the will. Shopenhauer’s extremely voluntaristic description of the world denotes will as the primary force that exists in all things. He believed it was evil, but maybe the natural man posits the degenartive will and then there exists the spirit. Anyway, with the idea that the trinity is united by will would also imply that will is much more important to structure of the universe, than intellect or reason. Schopenhauer had studied buddhism and Hinduism, and even believed Christ was the byproduct of Egyptian teachings that were for the most part Buddhist. He would definetely admire the Mormon conceptions of metamphychosis and the idea that this world is basically a probationary state. We’re born into this world with the sole purpose of finding a way out by knowledge, holiness and salvation. The earth as a tribunal, where we struggle to comabat evil, gain knowlege and then return to our real home in the heavans. And the belief that compassion is the how were saved from sin and death.

  56. Stuart Burycka on June 14, 2004 at 5:01 am

    I haven’t had the chance to read Heidegger yet, but I’m looking foward to doing so in the future. Most empiricists don’t really understand what Plato actually said. Plato afterall, is very similar to the German Philosopher Imannuel Kant. The Forms or Ideas are the same as the thing-in-itslef, which even Arthur Schopenhauer understood and advanced these ideas even further. Plato and Kant knew the limits of the intellect, in that we can only know what exists in the phenomenal world, but this world isn’t the real world, objectified by the senses. We could never make this inner world intelligible to ourselves. However, what I find quite interesting are the similarites between these ideas and Mormonism. Kant believed it was perfectly reasonable to accept on faith a transcendent view of the world. Faith could also be described as a strong belief supported by the will. Shopenhauer’s extremely voluntaristic description of the world denotes will as the primary force that exists in all things. He believed it was evil, but maybe the natural man posits the degenartive will and then there exists the spirit. Anyway, with the idea that the trinity is united by will would also imply that will is much more important to structure of the universe, than intellect or reason. Schopenhauer had studied buddhism and Hinduism, and even believed Christ was the byproduct of Egyptian teachings that were for the most part Buddhist. He would definetely admire the Mormon conceptions of metamphychosis and the idea that this world is basically a probationary state. We’re born into this world with the sole purpose of finding a way out by knowledge, holiness and salvation. The earth as a tribunal, where we struggle to comabat evil, gain knowlege and then return to our real home in the heavans. And the belief that compassion is the how were saved from sin and death.

  57. Mark Wrathall on June 14, 2004 at 7:02 pm

    It was good to hear from Damon, and I’m happy to learn that he seems to be thriving.

    Coming at this exchange rather late, I wanted to make a few observations.

    1. First, I question the whole premise of the discussion. Damon writes: “One of the things that I found most interesting about the intellectual life of BYU is how many thoughtful Mormons (I assume it’s acceptable to employ the “Mormon” shorthand in this forum) understand their faith in terms derived, at some level, from postmodernist thought.”

    I have some familiarity with intellectual life at BYU, as well as “postmodernist” thought. I don’t know anyone at BYU of whom it is fair to say that they understand their faith in terms derived from postmodern thought. Perhaps Damon ran in different circles than I do, but what I think is interesting about BYU is the general resistance to any efforts to understand our faith in terms foreign to that faith. Indeed, I find Catholic schools to be much more likely than BYU to have faculty members who reinterpret their faith in postmodernist terms (I could tell some stories from my time at BC . . . ). Perhaps Damon is projecting a Catholic phenomenon on BYU?

    2. Perhaps I misunderstood; perhaps Damon means only to say that philosophers at BYU are more comfortable with postmodernist thought than other religious-minded philosophers, and he means to trace this level of comfort to certain tenets of our religion.

    If so, I would once again question the premise. Most of my colleagues in the philosophy department are, if anything, hostile to “postmodernist” thought. And I can readily think of many, many Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish philosophers who embrace “postmodernist thought”.

    If the analysis of intellectual life at BYU is to be carried out at the level of the population as a whole, rather than tracing out philosophical affinities on a person by person basis, then one ought more carefully to describe the character of the relevant populations as a whole. Whatever it takes to be a social scientist, I’m sure I don’t got it. But I’m also pretty sure that anecdotal experience is not a good foundation for such sociological theorizing . . .

    3. Perhaps Damon is simply trying to point out that we are less likely to be Thomists at BYU than comparable departments at Catholic schools (“this is in radical contrast to Roman Catholics, who usually appeal to some version of Thomism”).

    If so, then our un-Thomism might well be attributable to certain features of our religious doctrine. But it would hardly come as a surprise that a non-Catholic religion has failed to embrace Thomism. Indeed, the interesting question, it seems to me, is not why there are so few Thomists at BYU, but rather why so many Catholic Universities have philosophy departments heavily slanted toward “postmodernist” thought.

    In any event, at this point, one might argue that the prevailing non-Thomism of BYU faculty has less to do with the religious background provided by our faith, and more to do with the relative philosophical merits of St. Thomas versus, for example, Heidegger. I’m sure I’ve already tipped my hand here, but I am deeply suspicious of any effort to explain philosophical preference in such sociological terms. Better to look first at the relative virtues of the philosophical arguments and phenomenological descriptions. I, for one, prefer Heidegger to St. Thomas on philosophical, not religious grounds.

    4. As a case in point, I find unpersuasive the supposed connection between Heidegger’s arguments regarding the limits of reason to certain features of the LDS faith . On the one hand, many LDS philosophers reject Heidegger’s views on the limits of reason. On the other hand, there are perfectly good, non-religious reasons for accepting the arguments – reasons embraced by philosophers of all religious persuasions (see Faulconer’s comments regarding “The Thing”).

    5. Finally, I would second Jim Faulconer’s resistance to efforts to characterize Heidegger – the “philosophical peak” of “postmodernism” – as a relativist, atheist, and nihilist. That just ain’t true of Heidegger. Indeed, he made several beautiful and instructive attempts to think his way toward a response to the prevailing atheism, relativism, and nihilism of contemporary culture. (At the risk of betraying pride on a world-historical scale, I’d refer interested readers to my effort to explain one of these attempts: “Between the Earth and the Sky” in Religion After Metaphysics (CUP 2003)). One doesn’t have to abandon one’s religious faith to learn from Heidegger’s efforts.

    Thanks, Damon, for provoking the interesting discussion.

    Mark Wrathall

  58. Philocrites on June 7, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    Why do smart Mormons like post-modernism?
    The editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things, Damon Linker, is a guest blogger over at the Mormon blog Times and Seasons. He taught at BYU for two years, and asks a question based on that experience that I’ve…

  59. Philocrites on June 14, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    Why do smart Mormons like post-modernism?
    The editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things, Damon Linker, is a guest blogger over at the Mormon blog Times and Seasons. He taught at BYU for two years, and asks a question based on that experience that I’ve…