Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and Absolute Truth

June 7, 2009 | 28 comments
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I recently read Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (Basic Books, 2003), in which Eagleton manages (in a very entertaining way) to be critical of just about everything, including fundamentalism and “Utah” (a term he seems to be using as a proxy for Mormonism). He makes an interesting argument about fundamentalism, suggesting that it is rooted in how certain people (“fundamentalists”) read texts. His references to Utah suggest he sees Mormonism as practicing a fundamentalist approach to truth. I think I disagree with both points. Some fundamentalist movements might be based on how certain texts are read, but not all, and Mormons don’t really employ the fundamentalist approach that Eagleton seems to attribute to us.

Fundamentalism

Eagleton first rejects some popular conceptions of fundamentalism. It is not just holding fundamental commitments or basic beliefs. It is not about narrow-mindedness or a desire to foreclose debate using censorship or simply holding one’s opinions dogmatically. Using the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example, he states his own view.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are fundamentalists because they believe that every word of the Bible is literally true; and this, surely, is the only definition of fundamentalism that will really stick. Fundamentalism is a textual affair. It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of words, seeing God as the final guarantor of meaning. It means adhering strictly to the script. It is a fear of the unscripted, improvised or indeterminate, as well as a horror of excess and ambiguity. Both Islamic and Christian versions of fundamentalism denounce idolatry, yet both make an idol of a sacred text. [Emphasis added.]

Eagleton sees fundamentalists as engaged in a quest for refuge from the uncertainties that characterize the modern world. “It is a neurotic hunt for solid foundations to our existence.” He later backtracks a bit on the textual point: “Fundamentalists want a strong foundation to the world, which in their case is usually a sacred text.” Usually.

So is fundamentalism all about texts? Other scholars take a different view. Here’s a definition summarizing a scholarly study by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, which I posted on elsewhere and that ties fundamentalism to a religious tradition but not to a mode of interpretating sacred texts. The key here is a reaction to modernity:

A fundamentalism is defined as a counterattack in the name of religious tradition against the forces of modernity, a reaction that selectively recovers portions of the tradition in question while at the same time utilizing modern techniques. It is acknowledged to have a true religious spirit, and to forge a firm identity amidst crisis and change. In its nature, say the editors, a fundamentalism seeks a comprehensive system for human life and so is hostile to isolating religion from social and political life.

Here’s another general definition, this one pulled from The Angel and the Beehive. This definition is directed more at Christian fundamentalism than at a more general conception, but does make a link to scriptural literalism:

In its fullest form, fundamentalism is characterized by such beliefs as scriptural inerrancy and literalism; salvation by grace (sometimes through a born-again experience); authoritarian leadership; and strict obedience to pastoral injunctions. Along with this general theological outlook there is also a certain austerity in dress and personal style, traditionalism in gender roles, prudery in sex, and hostility toward “modernist” influences like “secular humanism,” biblical criticism, and scientific theories such as evolution (p. 158).

The bottom line, I think, is that we are dealing with two different categories here, (1) fundamentalists, and (2) those who follow a conservative, literalist reading of scripture. Eagleton plainly doesn’t like either group, so merging them serves his rhetorical purposes, but they are still two different categories. Where the two groups overlap, we might use the term “textual fundamentalists” for the subset of individuals who fit into both groups, but it’s a stretch to say that how this subset reads texts is a key to resolving the disputed definition of fundamentalism in general. Still, the idea is clever and probably motivates us to pay more attention to how we (and others, those fundamentalists) read texts.

Utah and the Mormons

Eagleton makes two rather gratuitous mentions of Utah in the book. In the first chapter, he describes postmodernism as “spend[ing] much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress,” and questioning “the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexual norms, and belief that there are firm foundations to the world.” He notes, however, that the worldview characterized by these values is losing ground in the contemporary world; few now hold the positions postmodernism is fighting against. But: “This is not to say that these beliefs do not still have force. In places like Ulster and Utah, they are riding high.”

So Utah and Mormonism stand for objectivity, fixed moral values, scientific inquiry, and a belief in historical progress? We’ve been called worse. That’s not really pinning the fundamentalist label on Mormons, but he clearly thinks we don’t have a seat at the postmodernist table.

The second Utah reference occurs in Eagleton’s discussion of truth and objectivity in the fifth chapter, which starts off with this blunt sentence: “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth.” After reviewing the confused thinking of postmodernists on the concept of truth, Eagleton tries to salvage something for the postmodernists.

Absolute truth is not truth removed from time and change. Things that are true at one time can cease to be true at another, or new truths can emerge. The claim that some truth is absolute is a claim about what it means to call something true, not a denial that there are different truths at different times. Absolute truth does not mean non-historical truth: it does not mean the kind of truths which drop from the sky, or which are vouchsafed to us by some bogus prophet from Utah. On the contrary, they are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation. A lot of what is taken as (absolutely) true at any given time will no doubt turn out to be false. … But it remains the case that it cannot just be raining from my viewpoint.

This raises a more interesting point than the first reference. What sort of truths do “prophets from Utah” announce? Non-historical truths which offend historicizing postmodernists? Surprisingly, no. The two truly prophetic moments of our dispensation were terminating the practice of plural marriage by members of the LDS Church (in 1896 or 1904, depending on how you read the history) and ending racial restrictions for being ordained to the LDS priesthood (in 1978). These announcements fit nicely into Eagleton’s postmodernist definition of absolute truth: “Things that are true at one time can cease to be true at another, or new truths can emerge.” These LDS revelatory events didn’t drop from the sky, they bubbled up from history. So what’s bogus is Eagleton’s reference to prophets in Utah, not (at least as Eagleton would measure it) the style of prophetic truth they practice.

So Are Mormons Fundamentalists?

A final point: Using Eagleton’s definition, are Mormons fundamentalists? Eagleton’s definition quoted above was that fundamentalists “believe that every word of the Bible is literally true” and that they “make an idol of a sacred text.” Had Eagleton addressed the question (recall his Utah references were made in passing) I’m guessing he would assume Mormons are as conservative and literalist in reading scriptures as are the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

If he made that assumption, he would be wrong. We are not biblical inerrantists or dedicated literalists. The “as far as it is translated correctly” qualifier in the 8th Article of Faith makes it clear we don’t follow the “every word is true” version of inerrancy that Eagleton ascribes to fundamentalists. Even a cursory reading of D&C 77 shows that some Bible terms are deemed “figurative expressions,” some are “representations,” and some are direct or literal. I’m not sure what label to put on Nephi’s “liken all scriptures unto us” approach to interpretation (see 1 Ne. 19:23), but it is plainly more like restating or updating scriptural principles and truths in terms that apply to the contemporary world of the reader rather than stating the original writer’s intended literal meaning.

I guess this post is a short exercise in reflecting on the categories and descriptions used to discuss Mormonism. Which are correct or useful and which are flawed or misleading? I realize this is not a new topic, but it is certainly a more pressing topic today than it once was. Given that there is more and more discussion of Mormonism in the press and academia, this seems like the kind of thing we should be doing more of.

28 Responses to Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and Absolute Truth

  1. Jonathan Green on June 8, 2009 at 12:16 am

    I like Eagleton’s introduction to critical theory, and I’m predisposed to agree with his defining of fundamentalism in terms of textuality. But it wouldn’t be the first time that I like something by somebody who has only the vaguest notions of Mormonism, but talks about it anyway.

  2. Dane on June 8, 2009 at 12:36 am

    I was recently reflecting on this topic. The conclusion I came to is that the essence of fundamentalism is an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for one’s moral choices. This results in externalizing one’s moral compass, blindly following the directives of some other authority. (My thoughts in more depth here: http://marshcousins.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/fundamentalism/ )

  3. Mike on June 8, 2009 at 3:41 am

    This reminds me of what I learned from Spiral Dynamics, which is an outline of social consciousness first described by Dr. Clare Graves. It uses a color system to categorize groups of people into differing layers of social awareness and discusses ways to promote full development along the spiral. I have found it a fairly useful guide.

  4. Danny Haszard on June 8, 2009 at 4:21 am

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are hard core fundy with cult-like features.
    The title of this blog is on ‘absolute truth,interesting that this is what JW call their sect the ‘truth’.
    Jehovah’s Witnesses are noted for their chief doctrine that Jesus had his second coming in 1914 and going door to door with Watchtower magazines.
    Because they do go door to door and cold-call at our homes deserve special scrutiny!
    Jehovah’s Witnesses creed:
    A) They are at your door to recruit you for their watchtower corporation,they will say that “we are just here to share a message from the Bible” this is deception right off.
    B) Their ‘message’ is a false Gospel that Jesus had his second coming in 1914.The problem with this is it’s not just a cute fairy tale,Jesus warned of the false prophets who would claim “..look he is here in the wilderness,or see here he is at the temple…”
    C) Their anti-blood transfusion ban has killed hundreds if not thousands
    D) once they recruit you they will “love bomb” you in cult fashion to also recruit your family & friends or cut them off.

    Danny Haszard (I use to be in the ‘truth’)

  5. Bamboom on June 8, 2009 at 5:28 am

    What sort of truths do “prophets from Utah” announce? Non-historical truths which offend historicizing postmodernists? Surprisingly, no. The two truly prophetic moments of our dispensation were terminating the practice of plural marriage by members of the LDS Church (in 1896 or 1904, depending on how you read the history) and ending racial restrictions for being ordained to the LDS priesthood (in 1978). These announcements fit nicely into Eagleton’s postmodernist definition of absolute truth: “Things that are true at one time can cease to be true at another, or new truths can emerge.” These LDS revelatory events didn’t drop from the sky, they bubbled up from history. So what’s bogus is Eagleton’s reference to prophets in Utah, not (at least as Eagleton would measure it) the style of prophetic truth they practice.

    David, your objection here is only partially valid, in that it shifts the goalposts somewhat. Eagleton is clearly conflating the entire LDS prophetic legacy from Joseph Smith onwards when he says ‘bogus prophet from Utah’. Admittedly this conflation is historically sloppy and sweeping, but the real target of the comment – and one more to the point in terms of his discussion of ‘fundaments’ – is nevertheless and quite obviously the formative prophetic practice of the church, not the revelations on polygamy and the racial restrictions on the priesthood.

    The revelations to Joseph Smith did more or less essentially ‘drop from the sky’ (in the general relevatory sense of direct and privileged communication from heaven that Eagleon implies). Or at least we have to prefer that descriptor over the alternative of saying – as some critics do – that the Restoration merely ‘bubbled up from history’ because the Restoration can be argued to be entirely derived from a combination of sources in Protestant and early American religious history in most of its features. Moreover, some key aspects of the Restoration are eternal truths and not “Things that are true at one time can cease to be true at another”. I don’t think the Church can be made ‘postmodernist friendly’ in the most crucial ways without jettisoning its foundations, and we only wind up sounding disingenuous and fawning when we attempt to do so.

    I think your discussion is pretty good and I’ve really enjoyed it, except at this one point where you should possibly tackle Eagleton’s actual target head on when he says ‘bogus prophet from Utah’, rather than the easier straw man target you’ve substituted.

  6. Jettboy on June 8, 2009 at 8:48 am

    “He notes, however, that the worldview characterized by these values is losing ground in the contemporary world; few now hold the positions postmodernism is fighting against.”

    If this is really what he says, I can’t take much of the rest seriously. This is a statement that I continue to hear from the atheists of the Western world, and it is bogus. It makes them sound ignorant and not “enlightened” as they like to perceive themselves. For them, significant populations of India, Israel, the Near East, and pockets of other places in the world just don’t exist. For a long time I have wanted to see an author like this go on an “atheist” mission to the above places. Problem (?) is they will most likely never come back unless in a body bag.

  7. Chris H. on June 8, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Wow Jettboy, that you relish the thought of this “athiest missionary” coming back in body bag is a bit disturbing

  8. Steve on June 8, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Give Jettboy a break, Chris. He called it a “problem.”

    Dealing as I do with “atheist missionaries” on a daily basis, I still don’t want to see them in body bags. Can’t say I wouldn’t chuckle to see them get tarred and feathered, though…

  9. Chris H. on June 8, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Steve, “problem” was followed by a question mark. However, I was probably overreacting. My apologies to jettboy. Having watched yesterday the tar and feather scene in HBO’s John Adams, not sure if that image helps me.

  10. BHodges on June 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Interesting stuff, Dave, thanks.

    Bamboon: I agree that the author seems to be speaking of LDS prophets generally and judging what they say based on a general impression he has of how Mormons view texts. The problem is that Dave is actually keeping the author to his word more than the author knows (perhaps Dave would have pointed this out himself but elected to keep the blog post a bit shorter, or maybe he didn’t think of it).

    Either way, I think you rightfully note the author is sloppy and that’s his main problem. If it is a textual issue he would be confined largely to the canonized revelations, which
    Dave notes are the manifesto and the lifting of the ban. On the other hand if he is referrign to prophetic statements in general, referring to conference addresses and church manuals and the like, I think there is a stronger fundamentalist-like strain of thought in the Joseph Fielding Smith/Bruce R. McConkie school of thought, but on the other hand there is a school of thought that contains more elements of postmodern thought than the author is even remotely aware of. Dave notes the strange “likening” that Nephi speaks about in the Book of Mormon. Following Joseph Smith, Brigham Young had a lot of interesting things to say about the relativity of certain revelations based on context and language limitations.

    To be brief: my biggest complaint about the references in the book is that the author does damage to the actual complexity of the issue in a way that doesn’t seem to further his own practical purposes of the book in the first place. (I think his thesis, if Dave explained it correctly, deserves much more nuance, for instance Dane’s “authority” idea in comment 2 seems more useful).

  11. Dave on June 8, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll second BHodges that Dane’s post (linked in comment #2) is worth reading. Fundamentalism is a much more complex notion than is generally admitted. There are lots of different perpspectives that add some understanding to the phenomenon.

    I’m not really trying to take Eagleton to task for not having a deeper understanding of Mormonism. I have no doubt that if he read a few books (try Givens, Mauss, and Bushman to start with) he could write a very insightful (and no doubt critical) essay or book about us. It’s just that the glib academic stereotype of Mormons as typical conservative Christians — while the real conservative Christians can’t stop telling everyone that Mormons are NOT conservative Christians! — does us such a disservice.

    The chatterers write like there are two (or more) sides to every question or issue … except Mormonism. We’re one dimensional. We bring forth new scripture and a new religion, settle the Great American Desert, transform ourselves from exiles into quintessential Americans, maintain a thriving religious tradition while most others are literally falling apart … but we’re still one dimensional stereotypes to most observers. Just a one-hour stroll through the MA blog list should disabuse people of that notion.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Since I have not read this or any other book by Eagleton, I will ask a question of those of you who have: Would you say that his ignorance about the many ways that Mormons are distinct from “fundamentalists” reflects a typical ignorance among other academicians in the humanities? My own sense is that, while there are many Mormons in academia (according to one survey I saw, at about twice our proportion in the US population), my sense is that they tend to be in “practical” areas of study, such as medicine, science, engineering, business, history, and foreign languages and cultures, so the likelihood that anyone in Eagleton’s academic area would ever meet a Mormon colleague who could recalibrate his understanding is very low.

  13. ronito on June 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    I just feel like this “blog post” needs more “double quotes” .

  14. Mark A. Clifford on June 8, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    This is a great post. I just finished Eagleton’s delightful Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It is ultra fun. He makes several swipes at my people therein, but clearly without any real knowledge of Latter-day Saintism, and therefore without real malice.
    However, the relationship he posits between text and fundamentalism is an excellent insight. I have noticed that the Mormons who seem to me to be at greatest risk for losing their faith are precisely those that ground it exteriorly. One way to do that is in the literality of the text.
    Joseph Smith’s approach to text, on the other hand, was considerably more creative. For example, he writes in D&C 128:18 (after reciting a variant of Malachi 4:5-6): “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands.” If the text does not fit the need, we will remake it. The prophetic gift is not vested in uncovering some ur text. Rather, it is in making it a worthwhile text, in uncovering the divine in the text for us.
    Mormonism is a story before anything else. We humans, for all that we want to pretend to know the real world as it is, actually cannot and do not know it. And we do not want to. Rather, we live in stories. There are good ones, and bad ones, and part of the human call is to craft a good one to live in.

  15. Vader on June 8, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I find screeds against Jehovahs’ Witnesses as distasteful as screeds against any other religious group, including my own.

    No, Mormonism is not fundamentalist, though some Mormons are fundamentalists. I think the Tanners started off as this kind of Mormon fundamentalist, and the discovery that not every syllable uttered by modern prophets is inerrant truth was too much for their faith.

    I don’t believe Joseph Smith ever taught that he was either impeccable or infallible. Neither is needed in a Church guided by *continuing* revelation.

  16. Dave on June 8, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Mark, I was actually after Reason, Faith, and Revolution, but my library didn’t have access yet, so I settled for After Theory. I’m glad you enjoyed his latest and I look forward to another set of LDS references when I get my hands on a copy.

  17. BHodges on June 8, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    I figured the Jehovah’s Witness screed was prompted by a google alert to that persons email or something. I think it seemed so out of place as to not merit much discussion. Whacky!

  18. Mark D. on June 8, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    I think there is a stronger fundamentalist-like strain of thought in the Joseph Fielding Smith/Bruce R. McConkie school of thought, but on the other hand there is a school of thought that contains more elements of postmodern thought than the author is even remotely aware of

    I agree – however there is probably considerably greater currency for the modernist Talmage/Roberts/Widtsoe school of thought than for anything recognizably postmodern, unless you count not doing systematic theology as a postmodern approach. By that standard much of the fundamentalist world is postmodern, in which case it is hard to see what the tension is.

  19. Mark D. on June 8, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    I should add that the real issue here seems to be that the sources quoted above are trying to classify too many disparate approaches to theology under the rubric of “fundamentalism”, so much so that it would be hard to find an actual thriving denomination that is not fundamentalist by one or more of the definitions listed here.

    I think it is a bit ambiguous to be asking the question “Are Mormons fundamentalist?” when there is so little consensus on what the term means. To most people it is whatever collection of traditional beliefs or practices one thinks are outdated. We might as well just use the term “reactionary” instead.

  20. BHodges on June 8, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Indeed, Mark, it really deserves a closer examination. I think an investigation into early LDS thought that anticipates elements of postmodernism would be quite fascinating. (Not to advocate a revisioning of the historical positions of various LDS leaders, but a responsible look at various trends and schools of thought in the Church).

  21. Mark D. on June 8, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    BHodges, If postmodernism is what we are after, I believe the via negativa of the Eastern / Orthodox Church anticipates much of what we call postmodern theology by 1600 years or so. In my opinion. postmodernism in Mormonism theology is on the rise for exactly the same reason as it was for the Eastern Church back then – namely you have a collection of fundamental precepts that are valued more highly in and of themselves than any attempt at systematization, so the tendency is to say that systematic logical reasoning about God is beyond mortal comprehension, if not beyond comprehension period.

    I don’t think this effort got seriously underway until the Church was back-pedaling on some of Brigham Young’s more curious doctrines, plus polygamy of course. And then with the “neo-orthodox” resurgence of several attributes common to classical absolutism, there was a desire to maintain those classical precepts in more or less the traditional way without going the rest of the way down the road to where all those “apostate” theologians had gone before. The easiest solution is the effective denial of mortal capacity to do systematic theology.

    The alternative, among other things, means emphasizing a bunch of things that could make Mormonism look even more heretical to conventional Christianity than it already does. Stuff that could make Open Theism look like a relatively conservative innovation. That doesn’t appear to be very popular for political reasons, practical reasons, and most of all the fact that centuries worth of Arminian theology is much easier (and less controversial) to rely on than attempting to do Mormon theology from scratch.

    Many commentators (post modern especially) speak as if systematic Mormon theology is impossible. Maybe so, but it would seem a far more coherent place to hang our hat than the near wholesale re-adoption of classical Arminian theology, as convenient as that may be. And I say that recognizing that systematic theology is never going to have precedence over revealed doctrine, nor should it.

  22. CCNZ Old Boy on June 9, 2009 at 3:25 am

    If you ask me, Eagleton has religion envy. Fundamentalist religions are the only one’s even close to doing what he wishes he could. His introduction to literary studies is still one of the best in the field. He writes clearly and forcibly in a field where clear communication is not always the goal. The problem, however, is that while his real target in After Theory is the postmodernists, what he truly wants to say is that the real alternative is … wait for it … Marxism. You see, Eagleton believes in his own brand of Godless religion, one without ultimate answers or metaphysical beliefs, but with a lasting commitment to political change, and he is one of the last true believers.

    In Eagleton’s latest work his target his Dawkins and Hitchens and what he sees as the other Atheistic fundamentalists. What he offers again as an alternative, without ever really saying it, is his own brand of Godless religion. What he hates about Dawkins and Hitchens is not that they might be wrong about the evidence for God, but that they do not share his politics. The point for him has never been whether you believe in God or not; it is whether you are involved in the cause or not. He can’t stand the idea of a Dawkins sitting back in Oxford sipping tea and laughing about the stupid believers when there are so many bigger problems in the world. In an age of religious fundamentalism, what the political left sees in religion is not right beliefs, but right action. What they see are the last group of people who are truly willing to fight the status quo.

    In my view, this is why he has to mockingly dismiss Mormonism. He is just clarifying the point that this is not what he has in mind when he argues for the need for something more self-assured to stand up to the flimsiness of postmodernism. For Eagleton, Mormonism and other forms of what he sees as right-wing fundamentalism in the United States are just the reverse problem of the postmodernists that rule the academy—too much certainty (but with just as much investment in the status quo of America’s late-capitalist system). He doesn’t have to belabour the point because he knows most of his readers will already agree with him.

    Eagleton’s charm for many religious readers is often that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Eagleton is more than happy to lay into the Dawkins of this world or others of the intellectual elite, but don’t think he is doing so in order to defend your right to believe. He would just as heavily lay into you if he thought it was worth his time. Rather what Eagleton peddles is a Godless religion which is committed to social change at all costs. What’s that I hear … I think it might be Ezra Taft Benson rolling in his grave.

  23. BHodges on June 9, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Mark D.:

    I think I understand where you’re coming from to an extent. I’m not arguing that salvation is found in postmodernism, but that there have been interesting postmodern-like ideas in early Mormon thought. Broadly speaking this is a generalization that could be applied to many traditions. I was saying it would be interesting to trace currents in LDS thought specifically.

    As far as systematic theology for Mormonism is concerned, I am in the camp that isn’t fully convinced that it is needed or possible. It may very well be. We all tend to construct little systems anyway, why not try to take it all the way? Well, that’s a good question, and one that deserves further thought. Element has had some interesting articles in that regard recently.

  24. Mark D. on June 9, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    BHodges: I think there are basically two kinds of Mormonism – one that holds that God can be judged according to a standard external to himself and another that holds that he is the author of all moral standards.

    Unless you insist on divine timelessness, aseity, etc. (which Mormonism generally doesn’t) the latter approach is not that different from post Modernism – i.e. there is no possibility of a truly objective judgment.

    The prior approach (if less popular these days) is amenable to standard modernist / Enlightenment approach on a long list of social and moral questions precisely because it pre-supposes that an objective judgment pertaining to the virtue of various moral and religious precepts is in fact possible.

  25. Kent (MC) on June 9, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Blair,

    I was speaking to Terryl Givens about writing an intellectual history of Mormonism and he said that he and Bushman actually did write an outline for the project. He said that he was considering it for a future project. As you can imagine, I heartily encouraged him to do it. Until we have a book that addresses the different schools of Mormon thought we will continue to have to defend our personal views in an ad hoc manner without referencing or attributing what came before. In other words, without intellectual history I have no where to ground my ideas without appearing to be an anomaly and non-representative of Mormonism.

  26. Douglas Hunter on June 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    #24 writes

    “BHodges: I think there are basically two kinds of Mormonism – one that holds that God can be judged according to a standard external to himself and another that holds that he is the author of all moral standards.”

    This should be the case in all versions of Christianity since this distinction is the distinction between the Greek and the Hebrew notions of the good and the true as they relate to the divine, both of which exist within Christianity. Kierkegaard understood this brilliantly.

    from the OP

    “It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of words, seeing God as the final guarantor of meaning. It means adhering strictly to the script. It is a fear of the unscripted, improvised or indeterminate, as well as a horror of excess and ambiguity.”

    Its too bad that you didn’t address this part of TE’s statement, I think exploring these areas would be more interesting. We Mormons do have a tendency to stick to the script. It seems pretty clear to me that the continuous use of stock answers to stock questions every sunday might have something to do with an attempt to fix meaning, or a fear of what is indeterminate, ambiguous. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, its hard to do such a discussion justice without going into the history of metaphysics. Further, I think that some (perhaps many?) Mormons do basically accept a pre-modern essentially fundamentalist notion of truth that nonetheless can be opened every now and again by a prophet mediator who speaks for God. Can Mormon thought can really be well described in the modern / anti-modern paradigm? After all JS clearly saw the Biblical text as something that needed to be brought into conformity with prophetic speech. So to a greater extent than in other forms of Christianity the role of speech in relation to the written word remains classical as long as its not just any text or any speaker. The link to ultimate logos has to be institutionally established and accepted.

    I have not read Eagleton since the 1990′s but the Eagleton I was reading was a better thinker than described in the OP. Is the OP setting up Eagleton as a straw man, or is Eagleton lacking in critical rigor in his latter work?

  27. Mark D. on June 9, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    This should be the case in all versions of Christianity since this distinction is the distinction between the Greek and the Hebrew notions of the good and the true as they relate to the divine, both of which exist within Christianity. Kierkegaard understood this brilliantly.

    Douglas H., I would love to hear you expand on this. My familiarity with this issue is primarily related to the classical theistic arguments for divine atemporality, particularly in the context of the theological debates of the late medieval period – namely that the Thomists were suspicious of arguments for divine temporality (or ordinate power) because the very stability of world created of out nothing, the ability to reason about it, and divine character itself were subject to question if God changed the rules midstream.

    You have writers as recent as Richard M. Weaver (quoted by LDS authorities no less) who trace the entire decline of Western Civilization to William of Ockham, who was actually quite a moderate on the issue, any reputation to the contrary.

  28. Fenevad on June 10, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Not to wade into this too far, but Eagleton’s definition of a textual fundamentalism is not an uncommon one in the academy. It is often used as an operative distinction to distinguish between (fundamentalist) evangelicals who hold to the idea of Biblical inerrancy and more theologically liberal protestant groups, even those that are culturally quite conservative.

    When you get into religious studies departments, the general consensus is that Mormons are, with a few caveats, a generally fundamentalist group because of our attitude towards scripture. The “as far as it is translated correctly” caveat is a red herring that we use to argue we aren’t fundamentalists but which doesn’t hold water with scholars, because it doesn’t change the default assumption that we have that the Bible is the word of God (versus being, for example, a book written by men in an attempt to approach the divine, or a collection of stories about the divine). Our use of that bit is something like a get out of jail free card, for we often claim things are mistranslated when they actually aren’t mistranslated, but just points that we disagree with. So we still maintain the notion that there is a fixed text that was altered that we are trying to get back to. All the talk about plain and precious parts being removed reinforces the notion that there was a pure text that become corrupted.

    If you doubt that we are essentially fundamentalist, try suggesting in Sunday School that Job wasn’t a real person, that there were multiple authors of Isaiah and Genesis, that Adam and Eve may not have been specific individuals, that there may not have been a world-wide flood, or that Jesus may not have done or said everything stated in the Bible, and see what happens. These would be rather mild assertions in some Christian circles, but the response in Mormonism is the typical fundamentalist response of denial or attempts to somehow shoe-horn everything in (Cf. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, which uses a typical fundamentalist strategy to harmonize the Gospels).

    Note that I’m not advocating a particular answer to any of those issues, but, as a group, we tend to be pretty uncomfortable with those sorts of questions. Now many readers here will say “I’m not uncomfortable with those issues,” but are you really typical in that regard?

    This all leaves the other issues Eagleton raises aside, but here at least, most scholars (including specialists in American religion) would tend to agree with him.

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