In Memory of the Metaphysical Elders

February 22, 2005 | 29 comments
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Lost in all of the buzz about the Bloggernacle Awards (I was tempted to make a big acceptance speech until I realized that I got only 21 of the votes cast for the category I won, meaning that the vast majority of the voting public was against me) was an interesting set of comments asking about which blog could claim the honor of first Mormon blog.

This is a tricky question, as what counts as a “Mormon” blog is difficult. If we mean blogs devoted exclusively or mainly to Mormon topics, then as far as I know, this honor goes to the now defunct Metaphysical Elders, which began posting on November 23, 2002 and had its last post on August 4, 2004. Now for the big revelation, never before even suspected by the internet-reading public. I was “the Lawyer” at the Metaphysical Elders. Here is the story of the blog.

When I was in law school, I had three very close friends in my ward. One was a graduate student in biochemistry, one was a divinity student, and one was a graduate student in literary theory. We were all interested in our own way in Mormonism. Just about every Tuesday, we would meet for lunch in the science center cafeteria, which has the honor of being a very ugly building on a campus full of very beautiful buildings. Usually, but not always, we had read some article that would serve as the starting place for our discussion. Sometimes we would use a paper that one of us had written. Mostly we just talked Mormonism.

We dubbed ourselves “the Metaphysical Elders” based on a conjunction of two historical study groups. The first was the so-called “Swearing Elders,” a group of irreverent Mormon intellectuals who met at the University of Utah in the 1950s. The second was the Cambridge Metaphysical Club which met after the Civil War and included Charles Pierce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. We never developed a secret hand shake, but the name stuck enough that my wife would say things like, “We’re going over to _____’s for dinner with the Metaphysical Elders,” etc.

The blog grew out of our weekly discussions, serving half as record and half as a continuation of what we were talking about. We were our own intended audience. In that sense, I think that the Metaphysical Elders, to the extent that it had non-Metaphysical Elders readers, exemplified what someone (I think Julie) once called the “community as spectater sport” aspect of the Bloggernacle.

The Metaphysical Elders broke up when people started graduating and moving. Without the weekly meetings, the blog died. It was always an extension of the discussions and in this sense, I suppose, it was never a “pure” blog. Only one of the original Elders is still in Cambridge. I still keep in touch with my friends, but I badly miss the weekly discussions. Looking back, I think that our meetings were among my most intellectually formative experiences in law school, and I suspect that the friendships I formed with the Elders will be among the most lasting of my life.

In modern society the life of the mind is largely institutionalized and professionalized. For those who wish to pursue it as a livlihood rather than a hobby, it requires close attention to institutional and professional norms. There is a great deal of hopping through hoops and putting in time involved in becoming a professional intellectual, and I have seen the process beat the intellectual excitment out of more than one friend or acquaintance. As I slog through what I hope are the steps that will eventually lead to a professorship someplace, I take some solace in my memory of the Metaphysical Elders and its wonderful sealing of friendship and ideas.

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29 Responses to In Memory of the Metaphysical Elders

  1. Kaimi on February 22, 2005 at 8:27 pm

    Yes, TME was the first group blog on Mormonism. And your participation as “The Lawyer” was one of the biggest open secrets of the blogosphere, since you sometimes cross-posted on Good Oman or Times and Seasons.

    (You know, rumor has it that multiple other Metaphysical Elders may have passed through T & S at one time or another, perhaps as guest bloggers . . . ).

    And TME was the source of the “onymous” in our own slogan. We couldn’t claim to be the “most concise, yet mugwumpish Mormon _group blog_ in history” — only “the most consise, yet Mugwumpish _onymous_ Mormon group blog.” Anything else would be overreaching.

    And TME was also the site of one of the early bloggernacle dust-ups, between yours truly and the Historian.

    It’s truly too bad that it’s no longer around.

  2. john fowles on February 22, 2005 at 8:32 pm

    Looking back, I think that our meetings were among my most intellectually formative experiences in law school, and I suspect that the friendships I formed with the Elders will be among the most lasting of my life.

    It really sounds like it was wonderful.

  3. Stephen M (ethesis) on February 22, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Too bad all of the comments have expired and that you, as a group, don’t still post papers to stay in contact and comment on them there.

  4. Arturo Toscanini on February 22, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    Nate Oman Looking back, I think that our meetings were among my most intellectually formative experiences in law school, and I suspect that the friendships I formed with the Elders will be among the most lasting of my life.

    This provides a perfect opportunity for Rosalynde to make one of her insightful comments about Mormon masculinity.

  5. Nate Oman on February 22, 2005 at 9:27 pm

    It was a fairly male group. We hung out as couples a fair amount as well, but our lunches were male affairs. It provided a kind of male fraternity for a group of men ranging from the hopelessly geeky to the uber-caring-sensitive-90s-kind of guy.

  6. Steve Evans on February 22, 2005 at 9:33 pm

    Ah, the good old days. Back then, I hung out with the Scatological Priests.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on February 22, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    “…to the uber-caring-sensitive-90s-kind of guy”

    And that was you Nate, right?

  8. Aaron Brown on February 23, 2005 at 12:58 am

    Not that I spent much time over there, but I do remember reading some of the entries at Metaphysical Elders with great interest, notwithstanding that its intended audience was only yourselves.

    Who were the Antiquarian, Historian and Literary Critic, anyway? (Am I forgetting someone?)

    Aaron B

  9. Jed on February 23, 2005 at 2:55 am

    I always thought the science building was ugly on the outside, campy and inviting on the inside. The cafeteria was warm with the light streaming in from the outside green. I have pleasant memories of the science building from auditing a class there in the spring of 2000: “Thinking About Thinking” was the class, team taught by the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, the theologian Harvey Cox, and the late paleontologist Steven J. Gould. My overriding memory is of Dershowitz boxing students into a corner on their faulty logic the way he might pursue a witness on a stand.

  10. Historian on February 23, 2005 at 9:02 am

    Lawyer, those were the good old days! I still wrestle with many of the questions that we discussed. I miss our time together during lunches and electronically.
    BFF.

  11. Doug Spencer on February 23, 2005 at 9:22 am

    The second was the Cambridge Metaphysical Club which met after the Civil War and included Charles Pierce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

    Might you mean Charles Peirce – notable pragmatist, logician and, dare I say, metaphysician?

  12. Nate Oman on February 23, 2005 at 9:43 am

    Historian: You and sister Historian need to come and visit us in DC. We miss you.

    RAF: The uber-caring-sensitive-90s-kind-of-guy was of course our Literary Critic who was all into post-colonial studies and various other intellectually hip and sensitve-to-voices-on-the-margins kinds of things. He -also – along with John A. Widstoe (or however the hell you spend it for Doug, Mark B and the rest of the spelling Nazis) — inspired me to grow a beard.

    Steve: I just hope that I can be as funny as you are some day.

  13. Doug Spencer on February 23, 2005 at 9:56 am

    Steve Evans Ah, the good old days. Back then, I hung out with the Scatological Priests.

    Scatological (adj)
    2 : the biologically oriented study of excrement


    Etymology:
    Greek skat-, skOr excrement; akin to Old English scearn dung, Latin muscerdae mouse droppings

    Sounds like one heck of a Quorum.

  14. Nate Oman on February 23, 2005 at 10:06 am

    Enthesis: I find it odd that I have friendships that started in cyberspace and are maintained largely by cyberspace interaction and I have real world friendships that are maintained largely by real world interaction. However, I have compartively few friendships that cross over — ie cyberspace friendships with regular real world components or real friendships with consistent cyberspace components. Interesting (at least to me).

  15. Matt Evans on February 23, 2005 at 11:13 am

    Jed, you took “Thinking About Thinking” in Spring 2000? I was in that class along with Aaron Brown, Billy Simpson and Elizabeth Pipkin. It was one of the highlights of law school.

  16. Jed on February 23, 2005 at 11:41 am

    Matt: I’ve never been the same since that lecture on kidney piracy. Sticky ethical questions.

    I was in the single’s ward then, so I’m not sure I recognize the names you mention. Pipkin sounds vaguely familiar.

  17. Jed on February 23, 2005 at 11:44 am

    Historian: Are you going to the Joseph Smith conference in D.C. in May?

  18. Nate Oman on February 23, 2005 at 11:57 am

    I love the kidney hypotheticals and try to work them into discussions at cocktail parties as often as possible.

  19. William Morris on February 23, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    Nate:

    Funny you should mention this. Look for my next ‘back in the day’ section of my Feb. 28 Bloggernacle Times column.

    BTW, I know who the Semiotician was/is, but would you be willing to reveal (via e-mail) the identity of the “Literary Critic” (and contact info if you have it). I’d love to get in touch with him.

  20. Matt Evans on February 23, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    Jed,

    Aaron Brown is the stud that commented in #8 and writes at BCC. Billy Simpson was an ex-Mormon at HLS (RM and BYU) who participated in the early days of LDS-Law, and Elizabeth Pipkin was a classmate of ours that would have been in the Cambridge singles ward. She was one of Karen Hall’s best friends. We all sat together on the left side of the auditorium, about six rows up, and debated for hours afterward.

    Sandel’s law school seminar, “Markets, Morals and the Law,” discussed organ selling enough to satisfy anyone’s interest. It too was one of my favorite classes, though the seminar format lacked the electricity of the three-professor model, which I thought worked wonderfully.

  21. Aaron Brown on February 23, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    Two of my favorite memories from “Thinking about Thinking”:

    (1) Matt Evans taking Harvey Cox to task for promoting a theology that just happened to square with every single politically correct dogma under the sun; and

    (2) Harvey Cox telling Pipkin in a lecture, with slight condescension, that she should be patient with her feminist concerns; after all, since the LDS Hierarchy finally gave Blacks the Priesthood, they’d probably eventually give it to women too.

    (End threadjack).

    Aaron B

  22. Anna on February 23, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    Continuing the threadjack, my only brush with bloggernacle celebrityhood is that I have actually met Aaron Brown (and Billy Simpson) in real life.

    In fact, the first time I stumbled upon Times & Seasons, spotting Aaron’s name in a comments thread helped pique my interest. “Wow,” I thought, “if Aaron Brown is on here, maybe all these other people are also brilliant, hilarious, and devastatingly attractive.” Yes, he was indeed my pusher .

  23. Matt Evans on February 23, 2005 at 9:38 pm

    Aaron, what is the story about me and Harvey Cox? I don’t remember anything extraordinary, but I like the idea of my taking one of them to task, even if you’re making it up.

  24. Jed on February 23, 2005 at 10:06 pm

    Matt: Thanks for the introductions. I’ll bet I know Pipkin by sight. The name does sound familiar.

    Aaron: I don’t remember Cox calling down Pipkin. How did he know she was LDS?

    Nate: I remember reading an old Sunstone article on the “Swearing Elders.” You’ve probably seen it. Ephraim Erickson, Sterling McMurrin, Lowell Bennion, those were the big three. Didn’t Dick Poll come up from BYU to join them? Do you remember some of the others?

  25. Lapsed Metaphysical Elder on February 23, 2005 at 10:16 pm

    Harvard is a decent place to do graduate work, in some respects, though the morale in some science departments (such as my own) was devastatingly low. Sometimes you have a great idea, nature says “no,” and your advisor is a complete cretin. At times like this, it’s nice to leave behind the frustrations and details of lab work and wax philosophical. After all, even if the experiment did work (which never happens), no one in the universe would care, except the 6 others in the field that read The Journal of Boring Minutiae funded by Your Tax Dollars.

    In the midst of this, enter the Metaphysical Elders: the sheer audacious ambition of Nate Oman and company, daring to cross boundaries, asking new questions, examining their own fields in the perspective of mormon thought, turning everything upside down. What a breath of fresh air! Broad, sweeping speculation about life, the universe, and everything… creativity and synthesis (even in spelling). For many of us it was the first time we’d met others with similar intellectual interests and talents. It was the first time I knew anyone who was a mormon intellectual. Not just mormon and smart, but intellectually engaged in mormonism; intellectual in a peculiar mormon way.

    I apologize for my ranting. Two take home lessons from my time with the Elders:

    1) To read without writing is to sleep. If you are learning all sorts of great things about topic X, you must synthesize, write it down, tell people about it. Otherwise you are a waste of learning, consuming it upon your lusts.

    2) Be bold, ambitious, and creative. No one else knows what they are doing either. If you have an idea, work it out and publish it. No point hashing over the same material and methods everyone else uses. Go nuts.

    On the demise of the ME site: I posted regularly on ME and followed Nate over to T&S. I am rather burned out on the blogging phenomenon and have not read T&S in some time. Part of the reason for this is the tenure clock, which is very unforgiving. Much less forgiving than, say, a law firm. More importantly, blogging is useful for throwing out ideas quickly and hearing others viewpoints. It is also a sort of social support-group for technically-minded self-styled intellectuals. But there seems to be little real conversation, just people repeating what opinions they had already formed. Opinions that people hold the strongest (emotionally) cause the most interest; hence the repeated discussions of liberal gripes and same-sex marriage.

    This forum does not lend itself to doing real intellectual work–to taking an idea and seeing where the consequences lead; to doing research to see what others have done in the past; to working out full-length papers and positions that are published in a lasting format for all to read and respond to. Imagine if a Hugh Nibley or Richard Bushman had thrown out his ideas on Mormonism into the ether (unrecorded) instead of working them into lasting public contributions. I have come to view blogging as an addictive drug–stimulating the pleasure part of the brain, simulating intellectual fulfillment, but in the end offering only hollow stylings.

    Bloggers of the world! Unplug, go the the library, and write a paper. Contribute to the budding world of Mormon thought.

    Yours,

    The Scientist

  26. Christian Cardall on February 23, 2005 at 11:19 pm

    The Scientist has discovered the sin of Omanism (see comment 12 at the link).

    I have come to view blogging as an addictive drug–stimulating the pleasure part of the brain, simulating intellectual fulfillment, but in the end offering only hollow stylings.

    Major “Amen” to the first two phrases, fellow Scientist. Not sure about about the last phrase yet, though. At least I haven’t managed to admit it to myself with sufficient frankness to make myself stop hanging around here.

  27. Aaron Brown on February 24, 2005 at 12:30 am

    Anna,

    I must confess, I don’t think that I know you in real (non-online) life. Do I? Thinking back, I seem to recall an Anna from my ward Freshman year at BYU. We might have even gone to a dance together. Is that you? (If not, please remind me how I know you, and I’m sure I’ll blush from embarrassment).

    Matt,

    No, I’m not making up stories about you. (But I can if you want me to). It’s not that your interchange with Cox was particularly extraordinary. It’s just that for some reason, it is a memory that sticks in my head from that class. You stood up and calmly made a comment to Cox about how uncanny it was that his reading of Christianity always seemed to square with whatever liberal orthodoxy had to say. I believe a comment about Christianity and homosexuality from Cox is what prompted your comment, but I don’t remember for sure.

    Jed,

    If I recall correctly, one of the professors (Gould or Dershowitz) asked the class if anyone present affiliated with a conservative religion and simultaneously held more progressive sensibilities on certain issues. The professor was soliciting a comment as to how one dealt with the tension. Pipkin raised her hand and made a comment about her feminism and her Mormonism. I can’t remember exactly what she said (something about her receiving spiritual fulfillment despite her angst, I think), but I do remember Cox responding by saying that Pipkin might have grounds for “hope,” since there was Mormon precedent for expanding the scope of priesthood ordination.

    Come to think of it … I could tell a whole bunch of other fun anecdotes about Mormonism and that class (particularly my conversations with Dershowitz), but I’ve probably already threadjacked this thread enough. Shame on me. I should really just get my own blog… oh wait …

    Aaron B

  28. Jed on February 24, 2005 at 12:42 am

    O. C. Tanner must have been a member of hte Swearing Elders.

  29. Anna on February 24, 2005 at 8:27 am

    Aaron,

    You don’t know me. I was being literal when I said that I had only “met you”–I wouldn’t have expected one brief introduction to make much of an impression on you. I’m not a very memorable person.

    It was at my brother’s wedding in May. (I can provide more hints if necessary…)