Space and Time in Mormon Thought

December 13, 2006 | 22 comments
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One of Einstein’s great discovery was that time and space were intimately related concepts. It is an insight that one ought to keep in mind when thinking about Mormonism. I believe that there is much in Mormonism that is genuinely unique — “fire out of heaven” to borrow Terryl Givens’ phrase. On the other hand, I think that too often Mormons view themselves and their history as occurring in some hermetically sealed universe unconnected with broader political, economic, or intellectual currents. I think that we would understand ourselves and our past a lot better if we recognized the way in which Mormonism emerged from the confluence of lots earlier streams of history.

Once you start looking at Mormonism in this way, what you will rapidly find is a time lag. For example, if you want to understand the intellectual world of Mormons in the 1860s, you probably don’t want to look at the intellectual developments of the 1860s, but rather those of a generation or two before. There was always a time lag between the generation of new ideas and their penetration to the frontier and the hinterland where Mormonism has spent so much of its life.

For example, during the 1860s the cutting edge questions for science and religion were all biological, particularly those flowing out of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The leading Mormon intellectual of the period — Orson Pratt — is basically uninterested in biology. Rather, he occupies an 18th century intellectual world in which Newtonian physics represents the cutting-edge of scientific thought. Accordingly, his most ambitious theo-scientific speculations are related to Newtonian questions of gravitation and aether, which he tries to solve with an elaborate theory of a universal spirit fluid. Another example is Mormon constitutional thinking in the 19th-century. In United States v. Reynolds, decided in the 1870s, the Mormons deployed a series of legal arguments based on 18th century assumptions about natural law and pre-Civil War assumptions about federalism. In short, their jurisprudential thinking was a generation or more out of date.

To a certain extent this trend continues. It generally takes about a generation for a new intellectual fad to penetrate Mormon thinking. Hence, for example, Leonard Arrington offered an economic history of Mormonism in the 1950s that was essentially based on the progressive economics of the pre-war years. Hence, we get a vision of Brigham Young as proto-New Dealer written as the economics the supported the New Deal was being systematically knocked to pieces by the leading economic intellectuals. (Go Milton Friedman!) Likewise, post-modernism of various forms became very hot within Mormon studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s just as its influence was beginning to wane elsewhere in the academy.

Unless the flow of intellectual production is reversed, so that ideas developed within Mormonism colonize other fields, I don’t think that this time lag phenomena is going to go away. Furthermore, I am not sure that such a reversal of the flow of ideas is possible, and in any case it will be some time before Mormon thought has the experience and ambition to reverse the flow. In the mean time, looking at Mormon thought is like looking at the night sky; you are gazing back in time at ideas that are just now reaching you from distant stars.

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22 Responses to Space and Time in Mormon Thought

  1. Ardis Parshall on December 13, 2006 at 12:39 am

    Somebody has to make the tired joke; might as well be me: “What time is it in Utah?” “Twenty years ago.”

    Interesting ideas to think about, especially when considering figures in our history who seem to have been more plugged in to contemporary thought than the ones you have used as examples. I’m thinking of Josiah Francis Gibbs, who went to England as a missionary in the late 1860s, came back enamored of the synthetic philosophy of Herbert Spencer, and spent a great deal of the rest of his life trying to convince his fellows that everything in life was explained by Spencer. I’ll have to think about how his being out-of-sync with Mormon thought might have contributed to his leaving the church.

    A lot of missionaries went into the world and would have been exposed to cutting edge thought. Many of those missionaries were from the so-called best families with access to money and travel and church leadership positions. Didn’t these young modern men have any impact on updating Mormon intellectualism? If not, why not? (Not that you necessarily have the answers — your ideas catch my fancy and I’m thinking of the questions I need to ask in relation to some projects I’m working on.)

  2. ed42 on December 13, 2006 at 12:49 am

    Does the lag increase as the average age of the Apostles increase?

  3. a random John on December 13, 2006 at 12:53 am

    While this seems like a great opportunity to plug my recent post at MM, I’ll instead point you to the Mormon Transhumanist Association which is putting a distinctly Mormon spin on things that haven’t even happened yet, and proposing that this Mormon aspect is important.

  4. Jonathan Green on December 13, 2006 at 3:23 am

    Ardis, I’d guess that those missionaries were an important part of the Mormons plugging back in to the rest of the world in the late 19th century. Nate might see things differently, but I don’t think intellectual trends usually propagate quickly; being a generation out of date outside of one’s own field is probably the standard state of affairs for most people. In the narrow specialty I know best, for example, there has been some very good work published recently, while the older standard works from a generation ago range from annoying to dreadful. Yet you still find new articles that ignore recent advances, probably because the old standards are available in every library while the more recent work is not yet as well known.

    (The archaisms that annoy me are when the lesson manuals fail to note when a prophet is not proclaiming something new, but repeating a well-known teaching from 500 or 1500 years ago!)

  5. Tatiana on December 13, 2006 at 5:42 am

    As far as physics goes, most laypeople’s ideas are at least a century out of date. As for mathematics, the situation is not much better. I think most ordinary people are 18th century thinkers when it comes to math and physics. Biologically speaking, I think most intelligent, well-educated people have absorbed Darwin by now, so that’s again about one hundred years’ lag. Could it be that advances in the softer sciences are easier for people to absorb? I think being only a few decades behind is remarkably good.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on December 13, 2006 at 9:23 am

    “For example, Leonard Arrington offered an economic history of Mormonism in the 1950s that was essentially based on the progressive economics of the pre-war years. Hence, we get a vision of Brigham Young as proto-New Dealer written as the economics the supported the New Deal was being systematically knocked to pieces by the leading economic intellectuals.”

    Is this something which can be gleamed from Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, Nate? I’ve never read that book, so you may be right. But if so, then its an interpretation he abandonded when he wrote, with May and Fox, Building the City of God, unless my memory of that book is completely off-base.

  7. Nate Oman on December 13, 2006 at 11:38 am

    RAF: You ought to read Great Basin Kingdom, particularlly Arrington’s discussion of Zion’s Central Board of Trade. Arrington is never explicit about anything, but I can’t help but thinking that as an economic historian trained in the 1940s he inevitably presents Brigham as a kind of proto-New Deal bureacrat. It shows up mainly in little apologetic asides by Arrington which take the form of some variation on the claim that Mormons were a head of their time, etc. etc. It is important to remember that in the intellectual mileau of Arrington’s early work central planning was the wave of the future, perhaps especially among economists. Friedman and Hayek, who were the early economic critics of this approach, were treated as pariah’s within the academy. (Both eventually got Noble Prizes.)

    It is also important to realize that much of _Building the City of God_ was not written by Arrington. The core research and text of that book was done by Fox, some of it as early as the 1930s, I believe. Furthermore, on some of Arrington’s co-authored books my understanding is that his contributions were distinctly secondary.

    I think that

  8. Nate Oman on December 13, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    BTW, I think that you see time lags in lots of places other than among Mormon intellectuals. Law is notorious for this. Intellectual trends generally become “hot” in the legal academy about ten years after they have been “hot” elsewhere.

  9. Matt W. on December 13, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    For what it’s worth, I think there are a few examples of Mormon intellectual thought spilling out into society. Stephen R. Covey’s 7 habits seems to be the most prominent, with his popularization of “paradigm shifts.” I hope the Arbinger Institute has the same sort of success.

    On another front, the LDS tv commercials have inspired the “Foundation for a better life group” into existance, so that is positive.

    Of Course, there’s the whole Philo Farnsworth type of activities too.

  10. Ardis Parshall on December 13, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    Another example of time lag is the “discovery” in the late 1990s by a few men in Mormon studies (not historians themselves, but with prominent platforms so their views were loudly trumpeted) that absolute historical objectivity is an unattainable goal. Historians had faced that problem and hashed out resolutions in the 1950s, but Mormon historians have had to endure some bitter and unhelpful attacks from inexpert experts in the past few years.

  11. KLC on December 13, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    “On the other hand, I think that too often Mormons view themselves and their history as occurring in some hermetically sealed universe unconnected with broader political, economic, or intellectual currents. ”

    This would be my biggest disappointment with Rough Stone Rolling. I think a distinguished professor of American history should have presented a more thorough analysis of Joseph Smith in the context of the larger American and Western European culture and thought that existed in the early 1800s.

  12. Jim F. on December 13, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    I agree with Jonathan, “being a generation out of date outside of one’s own field is probably the standard state of affairs for most people,” and I would add as a factor that when we are out of our own field, we almost always must rely on popularizations of some kind, which are usually not up-to-date.

  13. The Wiz on December 13, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    ‘Biologically speaking, I think most intelligent, well-educated people have absorbed Darwin by now, so that’s again about one hundred years’ lag.’

    And yet, the scientific community is finding that the fossil record does not support Darwin. - Species are randomly showing up and disappearing, some features on animals appear without slowly evolving first. Darwinian

    Will it take 100 years for that to trickle down to the rest of us? Maybe just 20? How long before it even fully penetrates the scientific community? Who knows?

    I think a large part of the problem (although not Mormon specifically) is in the use of old textbooks which are still being sent, full of inaccuracies, to third world countires, to educate the people. Great. Educate them wrong.

    Also, people believe what they were taught, even when it’s proven wrong, which is why you still get doctors prescribing medicines that are outdated.

  14. Clark on December 13, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    To be somewhat fair to Pratt, he was influenced by vitalism from what I can see. And also to be fair by the time Darwinism was making a big splash the Saints were already west and fairly isolated from intellectual trends in the rest of the world until the railway was established.

    The whole postmodernism in Mormonism bit I’ll quibble with as well since most of those labeled as pomos don’t consider themselves such, only a few really have written of pomo, and I don’t consider Kuhn a pomo. Although I do find the whole discussion of post-positivism weird as that definitely was a very old debate long ago resolved. (Even if I’ll concede that most misrepresent what the positivists actually believed)

  15. Clark on December 13, 2006 at 11:13 pm

    The Wiz, this isn’t the place to debate Darwin, but I think you’ll find answers to your question at Panda’s Thumb and Talk.origins. Evolution is as close to a known tenet of science as relativity and quantum mechanics are.

  16. RayB on December 14, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    One of the knocks against Mormondom is that most of us are simply not engaged with the broader community out there and, as a result, are usually lagging in various kinds of awarenesses other than of our own faith. I suppose I always felt the academics and scholars among us were different, but perhaps you are right and they are not. I grew up in a community where, rumor had it, certain clothing manufacturers liked to try things out because the LDS social network tended to let them know very quickly if something was a hot item or not. I don’t know what that proves, if true, other than that we might be good at finding the cutting edge of superficial things. One would think that believing we have a great deal of truth on our side would be constantly pushing us forward. On the other hand, I suppose there is always the possibility that our certainty about so many things is actually holding us back. At any rate, you’ve certainly provoked some good thought.

  17. Matt W. on December 14, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    here is some more relevant date where members of the church have been ahead of the curve.

    Are you talking specifically about accepted social norms? It seems that your examples focus mainly on social ideas, and not on actual intellectual product.

  18. Brenda on December 14, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    Re: comment #11 (KLC): “This would be my biggest disappointment with Rough Stone Rolling. I think a distinguished professor of American history should have presented a more thorough analysis of Joseph Smith in the context of the larger American and Western European culture and thought that existed in the early 1800s.”

    This reminds me of a book that I am reading: The Challenge of Jesus, Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, by N.T. Wright. I believe somebody on T&S referenced this book.

    Wright’s contention is that we interpret the history of Jesus Christ through our own modern cultural context. Right asserts that to fully understand Christ’s teachings, we need to understand the historical and social context of not only Christ’s time period but also the time period leading up to this Christ’s period. Right calls attention to some important differences in how Christ’s generation interpreted his teachings and the interpretations that our generation applies (these historically-recent interpretations being well represented in our own Sunday school classes). He also notes how several teachings have been understood differently based on different historical contexts between Christ’s time and ours.

    For me, this book has illuminated some of the politics around the opposition to Christ’s teaching that ultimately lead to his death. It has also caused me to reflect more deeply on some of Christ’s teachings where I perhaps applied overly simplistic interpretations.

  19. Herodotus on December 14, 2006 at 6:34 pm

    This post doesn’t make a bit of sense to me. Now admittedly, I’m extremely jet-lagged right now so the fault could be mine. If it’s actually me that doesn’t make sense just ignore this.

    Regarding Orson Pratt and physics:
    First of all, I don’t understand why Darwinism is considered to be any more worthy of Orson Pratt’s attention than aether. It may be hard to fully understand this without a degree in physics, but aether was equally controversial as evolution in its day. It was partly in response to the idea of aether that Einstein developed the theory of relativity that you reference in the title.
    If the objection is to his attention on Newtonian physics generally then this makes even less sense to me. Newtonian physics is still the best description of our world with the exception of the very small (atoms) and very large phenomena (the cosmos). Criticizing him for engaging Newtonian physics strikes me as analogous to declaring that a constitutional lawyer’s pursuits are less worthy than that of a corporate tax lawyer because they originated earlier.

    Regarding intellectuals representing the intellectual activity of religions:
    The idea of the “big bang” was actually spawned by a Belgian priest named George Lemaitre but I doubt anyone considers it to be any kind of outgrowth of Catholic doctrine. Similarly, Galileo described a heliocentric solar system, but we consider Catholicism’s response to be more representative of their contemporary intellectual state rather than his rebellion. Frankly, I’m not sure I can think of any “scientific thought” that “developed within” a religion and subsequently “colonize(d) other fields.” The social sciences may hold examples, but I’m a bit out of my league there.

    I have a feeling that I’m probably misunderstanding your post on some level. Feel free to let me know.

  20. MLU on December 14, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    I like that you referred to the trends as fads. It gives the post a proper sense of irony, I think.

    It seems the issue may not be so much Mormons lagging as it is the inevitable lag it takes for ideas to influence other disciplines than the one they developed in. How could it be otherwise?

    Practicing law professors aren\’t likely to be incorporating the latest work on the influence of quantum physics on neurobiology, for example, into their lectures. Or maybe they do. I guess I don\’t know what I\’m talking about.

    The thought that kept nagging me as I read this thread was a comment attributed to T.S. Eliot (that I couldn\’t find just now) that in a culture going the wrong way, one who advances will appear to retreat. I feel little pressure to be up-to-date, but in the field I know best, literature, most of the more recent stuff seems a serious decline from the heights reached by, say, Wordsworth. And speaking as a lay person, it\’s very hard for me, judging by such crude works as Supreme Court decisions, to think contemporary understanding of the law has advanced since Madison.

    Oh. But we\’re only talking about scholarly production.

    I paused here: \”Unless the flow of intellectual production is reversed, so that ideas developed within Mormonism colonize other fields, I don’t think that this time lag phenomena is going to go away.\” Isn\’t that quite a Marxist way of seeing? Isn\’t that a bit dated?

    Just noodlings in the margin. I\’m sorry I can\’t really advance the discussion. I\’ve been going backward for some time.

  21. Edward on December 16, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    If there is a lag between western academia in general and Mormon thought, I think it will begin to close as more Mormons matriculate in Universities while the enrollment at BYU and other church owned schools fails to even keep close. As this happens more sheltered Mormons like myself will not meat the ever increasing bar of admissions at the BYU. (Before some of you laugh at that, when I first tried to transfer to BYU they wanted to see a 3.5 GPA before they would grant me admission, the very next semester they wanted to see 3.72.) I am not suggesting that this makes BYU an elite school, but id does mean that the rank and file that might have mindlessly gone there in the past will be diverted into to other more diverse … diverse institutions, like me I ended up at ASU. Eventually, BYU educated people will be in the minority of college educated members of the church that the gap will close (Unless an ambitious building program finds its way into the CES.)

  22. Jim F. on December 16, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    Edward, your response seems to imply that students who attend BYU get an education that is somehow more out-of-date than that received by those who attend other institutions. I doubt that anyone could make a credible case for that assumption.

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