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.