Confronting Modernity

March 18, 2009 | 25 comments

I recently finished up Hans Kung’s Great Christian Thinkers, which reviews the work of seven theologians (Paul, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Barth). From an LDS perspective, the most interesting of the bunch is Friedrich Schleiermacher, who Kung terms “the paradigmatic theologian of modernity.” The question he presents to LDS readers is how our approach to religion and doctrine deals with modernity. Is our approach premodern, modern, or postmodern (which in theology generally means some version of neo-orthodoxy)?

In what sense does Kung think Schleiermacher represents a new paradigm, a modern approach or perspective on religion and doctrine?

Schleiermacher no longer lived like Martin Luther …, still largely in a pre-Copernican mindset, in a medieval world of angels and devils, demons and witches, borne along by a basically pessimistic and apocalyptic attitude, intolerant of other confessions and religions. … Nor did he have difficulties with modern science, with Copernicus and Galileo, as did the Roman popes imprisoned in the medieval paradigm …. No, Schleiermacher, who even as a professor still went to lectures on science, remained convinced by Kant all his life that there is a thoroughgoing regularity in nature, which allows no “supernatural” exceptions. A supernaturalism in theology? That was not Schleiermacher’s affair.

In religion, I think the postmodern dilemma is that we want to have our science — and our supernaturalism, too. This seems particularly relevant to Mormonism. Liberal Protestants come down in favor of science, minimizing or rejecting supernaturalism. Evangelicals come down in favor of supernaturalism, bracketing or simply rejecting modern science. Mormons want both, and I think we have been surprisingly successful in the attempt to have them both, at least from an insider’s perspective.

And that, I think, is the question to discuss. How successful is the Mormon solution to the dilemma of postmodern religion? How workable is our position affirming both science and revelation, our view of a universe ordered by natural law but also teeming with angels and demons?

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25 Responses to Confronting Modernity

  1. Frank McIntyre on March 18, 2009 at 10:35 am

    “we want to have our science — and our supernaturalism, too.”


  2. aloysiusmiller on March 18, 2009 at 11:32 am

    See this years Templeton Prize winner:

  3. Rob Perkins on March 18, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I’ve never thought of Mormonism as having much of a stake in arguments like this. With stuff in the D&C like, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter,” or, “All spirit is matter… more fine or pure,” combined with other statements like, “We saw Him,” it seems to me that our fundamentals could transcend the argument.

    That is to say, there is no reason to call something we don’t understand, “supernatural,” just to be able shoehorn it into frameworks which are more likely to make Mormonism insensible.

    For that matter, I don’t think it’s even necessary to characterize the universe along a natural/supernatural dichotomy. Thus, no dilemma; instead, a rejection of the dilemma as a useful question.

  4. Sterling Fluharty on March 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    I think most Mormons compartmentalize their scientific and religious worldviews, or at least minimize the former. I can think of a lot of findings from the social sciences that are never incorporated into the worldview of most Mormons. If they are exposed to these findings, most Mormons file them in obscure corners of their mind or dismiss them if the findings seem at all incompatible with how they understand the gospel. My review of recent church publications gives me hope that these findings are increasingly making their way into the church curriculum. However, so many of the older church publications, which often conflicted with the findings of social science, are still in print and making their mark on the worldview of most Mormons. In addition, as most Mormons have shifted in their politics over the last half century, most of them have become more like evangelical Christians in the extent to which they incorporate scientific thought into their worldviews.

  5. bfwebster on March 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Well, our “angels and demons” are not that at all, at least not by most other religious standards; we’re all of a single species, either embodied or not. As someone whose professional background is in science and technology, I find the LDS gospel far more consistent, rational, and easy to accept than most other religious traditions and beliefs that I’ve investigated. ..bruce..

  6. aloysiusmiller on March 18, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Here is another timely view. You’ll be jumping into a stream that started at a small spring many days ago but for what it is worth:

  7. BHodges on March 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm


    I think it has also been argued, though this is kinda peripheral, that the Galileo thing has been inaccurately represented in popular thought as a sort of science vs. Church issue, when that is not entirely accurate.

    See Stephen M. Barr, “From Myth to History and Back,” review of Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius, by William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas, and Galileo’s Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church, by Wade Rowland, First Things 139 (January 2004):
    and John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 77. Both cited in Dan Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: Of ‘Galileo Events,’ Hype, and Suppression: Or, Abusing Science and its History,”

  8. BHodges on March 18, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    And parenthetically I think Mormonism is wonderfully poised to handle current though, postmodernism, etc.

  9. TMD on March 18, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I think it’s absolutely the case that Mormonism depends on supernaturalism–that is, of substantial occurences far outside the normal and replicable, like the delivery of the Gold Plates, and then their withrawal from us.

    But I don’t think we are a really scientifically oriented people–we don’t look to science as a means of providing an understanding the world. Rather, our orientation is to techne; we are a craft-minded people.

    This is not trivial: epistemologically, the findings and ideas of techne can’t reach our ontology–they will be at best curious puzzles to be explained by revelation.

  10. Douglas Hunter on March 19, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    In some ways cultural postmodernism is helpful for religion. Walter Brueggemann’s (not completely successful) book Texts Under Negotiation looks at how the cultural shift into post modernism has sympathies with aspects of Hebrew thought. He doesn’t pose PM as a return but as a useful relation to the hebrew.

    Mormons have some specific theological issues that prevent us from really embracing a (post)modern world view. For example important aspects of our doctrine rely on a literal understanding of Genesis. This is a pretty weak stance textually, historically, and in terms of contemporary understandings of how the world works.

    What’s interesting though, is that the kind of Biblical literalism that has been an important part of Mormon theology from the beginning obviously, arose in the early modern period; and at the same time it rejects modernism it advances an understanding of scripture and revelation that is dependent upon modern forms of understanding of history and the nature of the prophetic voice. So I think for Mormons we have this interesting form of folding the modern and the pre-modern that is not easy to sort out.

    On a different note, another example that I personally love is found in 1 cor. 27 & 28.

    ” But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are”

    This passage is fun for those familiar with postmodernism and poststructuralism for a number of reasons. Obviously the inversions of hierarchical dualistic pairs such as wise / foolish, mighty / weak, being / non-being are striking for their similarity to a certain type of deconstructive working through of metaphysical structures. But as striking as this verse is how many Mormons are really going to embrace the theological and philosophical implications found there in? Maybe 6, tops. Since conventional Mormon though tends to value a level of theological certainty the kind of radical disruptions offered by postmodernism will always keep large numbers of Mormons rejecting elements of modernism and all of postmodernism. This despite their great potential for enriching our interaction with scripture and theology.

  11. aloysiusmiller on March 19, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    So what literally are we forced to accept of Genesis? The only thing that I am aware of absolutely (100%) is the God created the heavens and the earth. Perhaps at 99% is that there was a literal Adam and Eve but I haven’t seen the question on a temple recommend interview so I would grant someone their own insights into the subject.

    I have seen a lot of geologists in the temple.

  12. Jim F. on March 20, 2009 at 12:29 am

    Douglas, I’m with aloysiusmiller on this one: I don’t see that “important aspects of our doctrine rely on a literal understanding of Genesis.” Can you explain?

  13. DavidH on March 20, 2009 at 10:20 am

    A recent piece in the FARMS Review arguing along the lines of comment 10 that evolution is very difficult to square with Mormonism’s scripture and worldview; the author would be “surprised” if it turns out God used evolution in the creation. Less dogmatic that Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie and more sophisticated, but arguing along somewhat similar lines.

  14. Richard on March 21, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Of course Genesis is literally true for Mormons.

    Only to take the most obvious example for a non-Mormon: Adam and Eve lived in Missouri right? Numerous Mormon prophets said so. The paper trail on this is long.

    Or am I wrong?

  15. Steve on March 21, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    No, Richard, you’re not wrong, in the absolute logical sense–although to be clearer, it would be better to insert the word “some” in front of “Mormons” in your first sentence.

    A discourse from the pulpit does not a “doctrine” make. The LDS Church isn’t half as authoritarian as its critics like to pretend.

  16. Steve on March 21, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    There exists some physical process by which water can be turned to wine. I don’t know how it’s done; perhaps it’s incomprehensible to the human mind. Nevertheless, Jesus proved that it can be done, right here in the rock-solid Real World.

    I don’t believe in the “supernatural” (depending on how you define the word). My God is a REAL person, who operates according to means and laws. I acknowledge the existence of concepts and processes beyond my current comprehension, but my own mental limitations do not make these phenomena (walking on water, ascending into the sky without an aircraft, resurrecting the dead, etc.) any less “natural.”

    The natural/supernatural dichotomy is an arbitrary human invention. Who started it, the ancient Greeks?

  17. Richard on March 22, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for your response.

    It would seem from my outside perspective that Mormons have a great deal more invested in the literal historical truth of Genesis than other churches.

    Having done a bit of reading in this area, it is overwhelmingly clear that the LDS church taught that Adam and Eve were historical persons. Joseph Smith even pointed out the altars that they used in Eden/Missouri, only to call to mind the silliest (sorry) example.

    My question is: Do rank and file Mormons believe this? Are they taught this?



  18. Rob Perkins on March 22, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Richard, we allow that it might be true, but it doesn’t really have impact on the facts of day to day religion or day to day living. Genesis is not understood to be literally true in Mormonism, but we don’t kick people out of the Church who prefer to think that way.

  19. Richard on March 22, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks, Rob.

    From the outside, it is difficult to understand these things as Mormons do.

    As a (highly) amateur scholar on these matters, I do not see how Mormons continually ‘erase’ such ‘authoritative’ positions made by your leaders. It happens across the board, over and over.

    I suppose from the inside this looks like the continuing guidance of the Spirit made possibly by prophetic leadership. Fair enough. But from the outside it looks patently ridiculous and it makes it difficult to take your claims with intellectual seriousness, insofar as they are always open to revision as situations require.

  20. DavidH on March 22, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    While, under the 8th Article of Faith, Mormons only believe in the Bible to the extent it is translated correctly. But the majority of Mormons do believe in Adam and Eve as literal persons and disbelieve in evolution. I suspect is the same with respect to whether there was a worldwide flood, whether Job was a real person, when Jonah was really swallowed by a whale.

  21. aloysiusmiller on March 22, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Excuse us Richard for not holding still and conforming to your highly amateurish scholarship. Perhaps if you squinted just so you may get the illusion that we are the strawman that you want us to be.

  22. Richard on March 22, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks, David.

    I’m also particularly interested in a topic another commenter noted: how Mormons understand evolution, given their belief in that the deity is of the same “species” as human beings.

    Is there an official church teaching on this subject?

    Thanks in advance.

  23. T. Greer on March 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

    @Richard: The closest you are going to get is the 1909 statement by the First Presidency on the matter of “The Origin of Man”:

    If you are looking for the long-term position of the Church on the matter, I suggest you grab one of the several published anthologies of statements by General Authorities between Joseph Fielding and Gordon Hinckley.

  24. Colby on March 26, 2009 at 12:35 am

    The defining feature of Mormonism is its literalism, which is antithetical to the dominant trends of continental philosophy (hermeneutics, deconstruction, etc) although in its insistence on finitude, it may have something in common with Heideggerian existentialism.

    In my judgment, the absence of metaphor in LDS theology leaves no possibility for the competing claims of science and religion to be resolved or even discussed. The result is an absurdly contradictory metaphysical system which uses the most ordinary canons of truth to assess the likelihood of the most unbelievable events (how can anyone even claim to “know” the truth of Mormonism’s founding events in the same way they know what they had for breakfast that morning?)

    With the so-called “theological turn,” post-modernism has taken up the question of faith in earnest but Mormonism has no category of faith comparable to that found in any of the other world religions — in fact the “traditional” concept of faith seems weird and repugnant to Mormons, because it posits something beyond a horizon that Mormonism assumes is just the boundary of the physical universe, and therefore meaningless.

    And whereas post-modernism offers at least the potential of a phenomenological critique of capitalism (Milbank, et al.) Mormonism simply deifies material progress, which means that it is less of a religion than a metaphysical movement within the history of American capitalism.

  25. DavidH on March 26, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    “The defining feature of Mormonism is its literalism”

    No question that most mainstream Mormons subscribe to literalism. But I would argue that another, perhaps overriding feature of Mormonism, is its lack of an official creed or formalized, systematized theology. Along those lines, there is in Mormonism a powerful implicit or explicit strain of embracing all truths or good or ideas from whereever found.

    Thus, while literalism is dominant among most members, and perhaps in correlated materials produced by the Church, the absence of a creed or systematized theology allows us to explore all sorts of alternative, free wheeling discussion and explanations of life and reality and meaning. See, e.g.,


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