The Promethean Comedy

September 15, 2005 | 22 comments
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Prometheus would have loved Joseph Smith. Prometheus, of course, was a lesser god who gave fire and knowledge to mortals and thereby earned an eternity of having his guts gnawed out every day by a large bird. His is a character that shows up all over the place in Greek mythology; he is the man (or demi-god; the categories get fungible) who dared to struggle against the gods and gets creamed for his pains. For example, Achilles in the Iliad is Promethean in his rage after the death of Petrocolus, where his force becomes so overwhelming that it topples lesser gods and threatens the foundations of the world. Of course, the notion of human envy of the divine is hardly a uniquely Greek concern. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is a Promethean story about man wanting to become like God. So is the story of the Tower of Babel. Generally speaking these stories are plotted as tragedies, cautionary tales of the inevitable fall and divine vengeance that awaits those who aspire to too much.

I have always had a soft spot for Prometheus. I figure that to a greater or lesser extent we are probably going to basically fail at most everything that we do. That being the case, fail big. Set yourself a monstrous goal like toppling divinity and go down heroically, I say. The remarkable thing about Mormonism, of course, is that it takes the Prometheus story and retells it as comedy. In Mormon theology, no one gets their guts gnawed out for seeking to be like God. The entire traditional framework of the Fall gets rearranged. It wasn’t really a sin but a mere “transgression,” and it turns out that Eve has chosen the better course in the end. Satan becomes the villain not because — a la Milton’s Promethean devil — he aspired to take God’s glory but because he sought to destroy the agency and progress of man. The great sin turned out to be less about envy of God than of envy of his co-eternal intelligences. Perhaps most dramatically, in the King Follett Discourse, Joseph teaches that the desire to become god, far from being the sine non qua of blasphemy is actually the Great Secret of God’s plan. No small bit of radicalism that.

I wonder, however, if there might not be some value in keeping the Great Secret secret. After all, there is a certain spice in struggle and cosmic rebellion. If it turns out that ultimately there is no basis for existential envy of God, what are we to use as the grist for great literature? What will our Miltons take as their theme if the story of titanic rebellion against the divine is not available? J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of a literary device that he called ucatastrophe. This is the notion that at the very moment when things look bleakest and darkest, when there is no hope, the light breaks through and the day is saved. The armies of Gondor and Rohan standing hopelessly before the Gates of Mordor at the moment just before Sauron is overthrown is a moment of ucatastrophe. So is the resurrection of Christ after three terrible days of betrayal, destruction, torture, and death. In a sense, Mormonism is the ucatastrophe of humanity’s Promethean myth. We struggle with envy of the divine, and some of our more heroically arrogant souls set out to steal sacred fires, eat the fruit, or build towers to heaven. Then, just at the moment when the expected retribution (complete with the eternity of avian gut gnawings) is about to come, the veil is rent, we see God enthroned in yonder heaven and learn the Great Secret. Perhaps there is some drama after all.

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22 Responses to The Promethean Comedy

  1. J. Stapley on September 15, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Excellent post.

  2. lyle on September 15, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    Nice Nate. One anachronistic quibble:

    Aren’t the Myth of Prometheus & the Tower of Babel actually Adamnic, or Eve”istic” for the feminist crowd, stories? One event did come before the others after all. Although I guess there is something to be said by communicating in via an Ur legend which lacks sectarian moorings.

  3. manaen on September 15, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks for the observations. We must seem really peculiar to the rest of the world. Try explaining to them that’s how peculiar they seem to us!

    You mention Adam and Eve in the Garden. Off-thread, but their reflections upon their experience there give all you need to know about the difference between men and women:

    10. And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of *my* transgression *my* eyes are opened, and in this life *I* shall have joy, and again in the flesh *I* shall see God.

    11. And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for *our* transgression *we* never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of *our* redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto *all* the obedient. (Mos 5)

  4. lyle on September 15, 2005 at 5:40 pm

    rofl

  5. Steve Evans on September 15, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    Nate, a quibble as well – I don’t think that our salvation and progression is about our desire to become Gods. That strikes me as coveting. Rather, I view it as a matter of desiring to love and serve God, which by so doing makes us more like Him. In other words, we’re process-oriented. I don’t know how profound the distinction really is, but it seems significant.

  6. Steve Evans on September 15, 2005 at 5:58 pm

    well, of course that seems to be your point. darned those last paragraphs of yours.

  7. Nate Oman on September 15, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    Of course we can have another sort of existential envy toward God. If we, like him, are eternal and uncreated beings; and we are capable of becoming gods, the question arises why aren’t we gods yet? Why is god god and we aren’t? The answer can’t be that he has had more time…

  8. Nate Oman on September 15, 2005 at 6:09 pm

    Steve: First, it seems to me that in part our striving for salavation is about trying to become gods because we want to become gods. Second, what is wrong with coveting? The decalogue condemns the coveting of the property of others. It does not condemn coveting per se.

  9. Gavin McGraw on September 15, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    I don’t know, guys, I think most of the time my church service and self-improvement is motivated by pure greed and ambition. I’m impatient with having to work for the Man for a living and deal with indigestion and so forth. I want to skip straight to the worlds-without-number part.

  10. Max Wilson on September 15, 2005 at 8:17 pm

    Nate, a quibble as well – I don?t think that our salvation and progression is about our desire to become Gods. That strikes me as coveting. Rather, I view it as a matter of desiring to love and serve God, which by so doing makes us more like Him. In other words, we?re process-oriented. I don?t know how profound the distinction really is, but it seems significant.

    Interesting point, and the term “process-oriented” resonates with me somehow. For me personally, though, the desire to be “more like Him” really is a fundamental desire and not just a by-product of “loving and serving,” although under certain definitions of the word “love” the two become synonymous. The implications< /em> aren’t necessarily important to me–e.g. aleph-nought spirit children, creating worlds, *unlimited*power* (cue Darth Sidious voice)–but the state of being is. I can’t think of anything I want MORE than to be like Father.

    ObVlad Taltos: Of course I’m generalizing from one example. But then, everybody generalizes from one example. Or at least I do.

    Max

  11. Maximilian Wilson on September 16, 2005 at 1:31 am

    For some reason, I’ve always seen the Prometheus story as Satan retconning the Garden of Eden to make himself look good, as if he’d planned it for our benefit all along. Of course we know from Moses that he thought he was destroying the world, at the time. I don’t see any evidence that he’s since figured out why it isn’t disaster for God when people choose sin–which may perhaps be why he’s still the Accuser.

    Max

  12. Maximilian Wilson on September 16, 2005 at 1:31 am

    Sorry, somehow the < \em> em keyworld seems to have gotten stuck on.

    Max

  13. Geoff Johnston on September 16, 2005 at 12:48 pm

    The decalogue condemns the coveting of the property of others. It does not condemn coveting per se.

    Good because I covet and envy your ability to write posts like this Nate…

    If we, like him, are eternal and uncreated beings; and we are capable of becoming gods, the question arises why aren’t we gods yet? Why is god god and we aren’t? The answer can’t be that he has had more time…

    That is the question isn’t it? One can get around it in a couple of ways… Some see an ontological gap between humans and Gods (oh yeah — Mormons you know believe this… I won’t name names…). Others reject the idea that our intact spirits are eternal and opt for a variation on the Orson Pratt idea that it is the parts that make up our spirits that are eternal instead. I currently favor a variation on the latter (but that is always subject to change). Of course I’m sure there are other ways people deal with that conundrum as well – chief of which is to ignore its existence entirely…

  14. Nate Oman on September 16, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    I kind of like the idea that we are simply cosmic losers who have not been doing our homework properly for an endless span of time. Fortunately, god and the universe seem to be forgiving and we have been granted an extension of some sort.

  15. Geoff Johnston on September 16, 2005 at 1:14 pm

    Ha! Well there is something sort of comforting about that isn’t there? We aren’t as good as him but rather than leaving us in the dust he rushes back to tutor us in the cosmic classroom… I like that idea too.

  16. Ben Huff on September 17, 2005 at 5:11 am

    er, “eucatastrophe”?

  17. Jeremiah J. on September 19, 2005 at 1:34 am

    “Satan becomes the villain not because – a la Milton’s Promethean devil – he aspired to take God’s glory but because he sought to destroy the agency and progress of man.”

    Chapter 4 of Moses, which contains the agency line, is less opposed to the Milton reading that you indicate. The the Lord says that Satan was cast down “because he rebelled against me” *and* because “he wanted to take away man’s agency”. He also notes that Satan wanted God’s power.

    This an important corrective to a common–but incorrect–Mormon telling of the story of the war in heaven. On that account Satan and Jehovah each presented alternative plans. An ideological, Cold-War-like struggle ensued, with the right side championing free agency with the possibilty of failure and the other side arguing for universal salvation at the expense of agency (perhaps an understandable doctrinal mistake, and one that some of the Saints have come close to a time or two). The ones who had the wrong idea of the divine order were condemned to outer darkness forever.

    On the true telling God presented a plan. Satan wanted to revise it, and to make himself the center of it. Christ on the other hand accepted God’s plan in full and accepted the least desirable role in that plan. Some others accepted God’s plan in obedience and faith. The rest rebelled and were cast down.

    This leaves Christ and Satan neither very Promethean nor un-Promethean. Christ indeed was on the side of human agency, but in obedience to God’s plan. Satan was indeed rebellious–though not in giving anything divine to man, rather in part by wanting to take it away.

  18. Ben H on September 19, 2005 at 2:16 am

    I completely agree with your reading of the story of the rival plans, Jeremy, but it is worth noting that the account in Abraham: “I will send the first”, makes it sound as though there were simply two plans, and God picked one. You have to bring in other scriptural passages (something we LDS aren’t very good at–reading in concert!) to get it clear that God had intended from the beginning that we keep our agency.

    But I think Nate’s point that Christ calls us to aspire to perfection, to be as our Father in heaven is, is worthy of the name Promethean even though this, too, is Father’s intended work and glory.

  19. Jeremiah J. on September 19, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    Fair enough, Ben. But I think that as Mormons we can really overblow the distinction between us and traditional Christianity sometimes. That’s why I think that Nate’s comparision of Joseph Smith to Prometheus or to Greek heros is useful mainly for a kind of rhetorical effect. So yes “Promethean” in a loose, everyday sense. Same goes with the phrase “Nietzsche to me is basically a Mormon except that he didn’t know about the Book of Mormon” which one T&S blogger once said. There is a huge body of doctrine contained in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament which we basically share with the rest of the Christian world with relatively few revisions. That common Christian core sets us apart from every other ethico-religious system in world history quite radically. E.g. the Mormon view of God seems very far from the traditional Christian view. But the traditional Christian view is more anthropomorphic in the Mormon sense than any other major view out there. A Mormon and a Baptist can read Romans and embrace its teaching while a Pagan, Confucian, Hindu or a Muslim would find Paul’s message bewildering or disgusting. In most of our heterodox views we are basically on the wrong side of a debate that was already there within Christianity.

  20. Miranda PJ on September 23, 2005 at 4:09 am

    Nice post, Nate. There’s something vaguely hedonistic about your affection for failure. It gives expression to a certain sense of belonging in this failed-Promethean, post-Edan, fallen state. We all feel this odd sense of belonging in one form or another. Perhaps that’s why it took so long to get the story right.

  21. Adam Greenwood on September 25, 2005 at 9:57 pm

    ” But I think that as Mormons we can really overblow the distinction between us and traditional Christianity sometimes. . . . A Mormon and a Baptist can read Romans and embrace its teaching while a Pagan, Confucian, Hindu or a Muslim would find Paul’s message bewildering or disgusting. In most of our heterodox views we are basically on the wrong side of a debate that was already there within Christianity. ”

    Right, right, right, right. The Father didn’t pick Joseph because he was a blank slate that he could write anything on. He picked him because Joseph was naive enough to ask if a lot of scriptural teaching should be taken at face value.

    Of course, this cuts both ways. Mormons overemphasize our distance sometimes, and so do Nicean Christians. People will tell me how unsettling is our doctrine that God is a man and I think, “you ever heard of the Incarnation? And if you have, did you think it was a tributary of the Nile?”

  22. Ryan on September 26, 2005 at 1:14 am

    “Fair enough, Ben. But I think that as Mormons we can really overblow the distinction between us and traditional Christianity sometimes.”

    Interesting perspective and I’m glad I noticed it today because I was thinking about a scripture we read in sunday school:
    DC 130:19 And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come…
    …22 The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.

    I know that this section is really just a compilation of revelator items and that’s why there seems to be a disconnect between verses 18-21 and 22 – end… But I wonder if the placement was perhaps not so random and that perhaps the very concept in v. 22 provides a foundation and/or reference point for all the “knowledge” (insert: truth) we will gain during mortality. If that is true (and it’s just a theory I am floating) could there be any greater gap between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity? I might suggest that someone would be hard-pressed to ever over-emphasize this gap. Just a thought…