Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Pagan Faith

February 1, 2011 | 21 comments
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StonehengeMormons are metaphysical heretics, backward pagans, country bumpkins, who claim that the world, rather than being one, is fundamentally many.

We’re metaphysical pluralists and so break with the creeds. Unity is a product, not a starting point. God the Son is not God the Father and (moreover!) all intelligences are uncreated and co-eternal with God. As a result, rather than being reassuringly antedated by the simplicity of a Divine Will or the uniformity of a Providential Reason, we’re preceded by the mystery of a material plurality that is always already given.

In this scenario, faith is a different kind of thing. Unlike many versions of creedal faith, pagan faith is no temporary, stop-gap measure. Pagan faith is eternal and, in a pagan universe, even the Gods must have and keep faith. Faith is not the foil of a (lost or future) knowledge, but the ageless bedrock of any trusting, active, and moral engagement with an uncreated world.

Pagan faith originates in response to the plurality of calls that precede it. The world calls out and faith responds. It trusts and answers the world’s calls to be responsible for itself.

Pagan faith attempts to faith-fully respond to the people, worlds, and Gods that call it to account for its existence and actions. Out of this attempt to give a faithful account, reason is itself born. Responding to these calls, offering an intelligible account of its reasons before the bar of a shared and plural world, reason gives voice to a primordial faith that it cannot supplant.

Here, reason is not the boss of faith, but its perennial amanuensis.

In Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer gives an subtle and penetrating account of faith and reason that, in this vein, draws on both the orthodox Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, and that arch-pagan, Martin Heidegger. Recognizing with Levinas that saving faith opens in response to an ethical call that precedes it, Jim nonetheless argues that, as Mormons, we ought to ultimately side with Heidegger’s “pagan” account of this call to responsibility as complex rather than simple:

Levinas’ understanding of matters is more in line with traditional theology and its supposition of the creation of the world from nothing. The consequence of such an understanding is that the world itself and the things in the world do not have their own existence, so they do not have power to show themselves to us, to reveal something. If the world is created ex nihilo, then revelation comes from God in toto and, ultimately, he is the only supplement of reason. But Latter-day Saint belief rejects the notion of ex nihilo creation and, so, implicitly includes the idea that the things of the world have power of their own to reveal themselves. Though all things are dependent on God for their existence in the organized world as what they are and, so, all point to his existence (Alma 30:44), each thing also has an aspect of independent existence and, so, the power to show itself (D&C 93:30). The appearing of the world is not reducible to will, neither to that of the Divine nor to that of human beings. Heidegger’s so-called pagan understanding of the world as existing, in some sense, in itself, is more useful to Latter-day Saint thinkers than is Levinas’, though the latter does much to help us understand reason as a response. (45)

From pagan faith, there is no relief. Intelligences, existing partly “in themselves” rather than simply “in God,” forever withdraw from our attempts to totally know them or totally control them. It is this general reserve that calls us to be both faithful and trusting. And it is this reserve that, forever and forever again, calls forth reason as a supplement, however meager, to our pagan faith.

21 Responses to Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Pagan Faith

  1. Brad Dennis on February 2, 2011 at 2:11 am

    Comparing Mormonism to paganism. Brilliant! Favorite quote: “[in Pagan faith] reason is not the boss of faith, but its perennial amanuensis.”

  2. Aaron R. on February 2, 2011 at 5:51 am

    This profound and insightful. Thanks Adam (and Jim).

    Adam, how would your discussion of humility and faith (from the Mormon Theology Seminar) relate to this vision of faith? Does the humility you referred to there correlate with the material plurality that is already given? How does the account of being ‘faith-full to the word’ given in the Mormon Theology Seminar relate to the faith-full response that is called for by the other people, Gods and worlds which suuround us?

  3. Adam Miller on February 2, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Good questions, Aaron. Which seminar have you got in mind? Probably the Alma 32 seminar? If so, there is a strong resonance between what we proposed there and what I’ve written about above. In Alma 32 faith gets defined as a kind of “humility without compulsion.” This willing humility amounts to being “faithful to the word” because “the word” is, in turn, explicitly defined as our dependence on and responsibility to that which exceeds us – namely God. Thanks for noting the connection.

  4. Dane on February 2, 2011 at 8:24 am

    I’ve been pondering on the lack of a clear “afterlife” concept in the Old Testament, my question being, “What is the value proposition of a religion that doesn’t claim to prepare one for the next?” Of course, the question is made possible only by my own place in time and geography. I live in a world where religion primarily justifies itself by offering information about the next life, and that is sensible, since our concerns about this life are now largely covered by science, government, and civic responsibility.

    Your post here is, I think, the answer to my question. What did the ancient Israelites get for their faith? An explanation of this life, of the things they couldn’t explain on their own. Mormonism, to me, makes eternity a contiuous extension of time, and heaven an extension of earth, and so, to me, fits your model here. There are nomadic solutions.

  5. Dane on February 2, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Nomadic = no magic … Thanks, iPad

  6. Adam Miller on February 2, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Dane, I think this is on the right track. And I agree that there are no magic solutions – though, I’m tempted and intrigued by the idea that there may be nomadic ones :)

  7. Adam Greenwood on February 2, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Mormonism is big enough for comparisons to paganism and to traditional Christianity to find some justification. The comparison tells us more about what the comparer wants than it does Mormonism.

  8. Britain on February 2, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I actually think “nomadic” works well too!

  9. BHodges on February 3, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Great post, Adam, thanks. It helps crack Faulconer’s paper open a bit further for me. Incidentally, it resonates pretty well with some stuff I was reading today about Royce. His thoughts on creeds and community resonate:

    Doctrines and creeds may change; the particular institutions that identify themselves as churches may or may not actually be communities of grace. What matters in the end is the process of interpretation — the process of communicating and understanding one another in actual, imperfect, finite communities of grace bound together by loyalty and striving toward the ultimate and ideal Beloved Community.

    His idea of the Beloved Community seems to accord well with this ongoing faith in process sort of thing you are talking about here.

    Peripheral is Royce’s approach to theodicy:

    Royce maintained that evil is a real fact of the world…Royce embraced a theistic process metaphysics that recognizes evil as a real force and suffering as an irreducible fact of experience…If we consider that God is not a separate being, then “When you suffer, your sufferings are God’s sufferings, not his external work, not his external penalty, not the fruit of his neglect, but identically his own personal woe. In you God himself suffers, precisely as you do, and has all your concern in overcoming this grief.” Grief is not “a physical means to an external end,” but rather “a logically necessary and eternal constituent of the divine life”…

    Like grief is ongoing in Royce’s eternity, so is faith, as maintained in the Beloved Community (although Royce might have called such faith “loyalty.”)

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/royce/

  10. Adam Miller on February 3, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    #9, BHodges: “Like grief is ongoing in Royce’s eternity, so is faith, as maintained in the Beloved Community.”

    Nice. I agree.

    #7, Adam Greenwood: “Mormonism is big enough for comparisons to paganism and to traditional Christianity to find some justification. The comparison tells us more about what the comparer wants than it does Mormonism.”

    Thanks, but I don’t see what the first claim has to do with the second. You disagree that, simply as a matter of a general consensus, Mormon metaphysics are pagan in character? And if not, then why not just engage the discussion on its own merits?

  11. Lincoln Cannon on February 4, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Amen, amen and amen, Adam! God bless the neo-pagans — real Mormons.

  12. Ayla on February 7, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    You may be interested in this blog

    http://motherwheel.blogspot.com/

    LDS Families Celebrating the Wheel of the Year

  13. kcn on February 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    This essay is more willing to talk about the content of the supplement than Faulconer is. Jim is careful to say that he doesn’t have any method for determining the nature of the supplement, only that what you call pagan faith might be a candidate. The only thing that the word “supplement” denotes is that which lies around the chain of reasons which can have no end.

    This post seems extremely exuberant when one considers the essay which inspired it. I understand the mistake – Faulconer makes his faith clear throughout the essay. Unfortunately, his statements of commitment cause him to conflate two very different definitions of faith: religious belief and dependence on some supplement to reason. If dialectical materialism or feminism or Islam could furnish supplements which are incommensurable, then from pagan faith there can be much relief.

  14. Jim F. on February 14, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    kcn, help me understand what you say. I’m interested in your criticism that I’ve conflated two meanings of “faith.” I think I disagree with you, but I’d like to be sure one way or the other. So let me respond and see what you say.

    First, I don’t think that “religious faith” and “religious belief” are the same. Devils believe (James 2:19), but I wouldn’t ascribe faith to them. To have faith in something or someone, is to rely on that thing or person, to trust it. Religious faith is a particular case of that general phenomenon. Specifically, it is reliance on / trust in God.

    Second, as you point out, I say that something like “pagan” faith may also be part of what Mormons take to be supplemental. As you’ve noticed, I don’t have a philosophical argument for why the supplement of Mormonism rather than some other. I doubt that there is one. But if, for the sake of argument, you grant the possibility, I don’t see how that claim conflates religious faith with dependence on a supplement to reason.

    Don’t I instead say, “Religious faith is a possible supplement to reason, and the Mormon form of religious faith is not only faith in God and others, but also faith in the stuff of the world”?

  15. Jim F. on February 14, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    By the way, BHodges: thanks very much for introducing Royce into the conversation. More Mormons should read his stuff. The World and the Individual was very influential for my dissertation. I was, at the time, immersed in Hegel, so Royce was an obvious connection when I started thinking about community.

  16. Mark D. on February 14, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    I don’t know about the word “pagan”. I like to say that (libertarian) free will is the ultimate philosophical dividing line. In many forms of classical theism, God has it and no one else. To many scientists, it doesn’t exist – no one has free will, it is just an epiphenomena. And then you have those you believe that it is the primary defining feature of spiritual existence. Not just Mormons, but Arminians in general.

    Every Arminian is a pluralist. The only difference is that classical Arminians believe that God created this libertarian and agentive plurality whereas Mormons generally believe it is self-existent in some sense.

  17. Adam Miller on February 14, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Re #16: Mark says: “Every Arminian is a pluralist. The only difference is that classical Arminians believe that God created this libertarian and agentive plurality whereas Mormons generally believe it is self-existent in some sense.”

    Yes, I think the defining feature here of a metaphysically pagan view is the anteriority and self-existence of this plurality. My use of the word “pagan” here is a bit cheeky, but metaphysically it is entirely accurate.

  18. kcn on February 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Clearly no one is a better authority than you on this issue, but I’ll try to explain what I think you say. Fools rush in…

    I would say that the conflation is not strong, since you are clear that you are not arguing for a particular supplement. A good example of what I’m seeing could be pulled from your paragraph about devils and religious faith. The faith that the devils lack is not trust in some arche, but a lack of trust in God. At the same time the devils must have a sort of faith in order to be rational. An absolutely careless reader might see “I wouldn’t ascribe faith to them” and conclude that devils don’t use some supplement to their reason. Another reader may see the same word being used in both cases, and have meaning bleed easily between them.

    In the beginning of the essay you aim to demonstrate the commensurability of faith and reason. My understanding is that commensurability means that the two objects can be considered by similar methods — and you certainly use reason to point towards the existence of that something which is always beyond reason. Now, we have room , but what can we say about that room?

    From pg. 41: “But why is the arche to be thought of in terms of faith rather than, as for Marxists, in terms of material history or, as for feminists, in terms of the history of oppression? That question is the hardest one a brook, but I think I can say something reasonable about it. … The first, quick answer is deceptively simple: for something to be the ground for a knowledge claim, I must trust it and be faithful to it.”

    We can say that we must have faith/trust in whatever we have in the room, since we cannot pull it entirely into the chain of reasons. But, notice how faith is presented as an alternative to material history or the history of oppression. Both of those histories are candidates for filling that room. That seems close to conflation to me. Faith/trust/reliance is taken to be implicit in the relationship between all rational creatures and some supplement (even when undefined by the subject), and an entirely different sort of faith (content) can be part of the supplement.

    Is this entirely different sort of faith commensurable with reason? Certainly not. Any possible content the supplement may have cannot be evaluated in the way the existence of the supplement was, otherwise you would be able to offer some way to judge between them (based on my understanding of commensurability). I may rely on dialectical materialism, or I may rely on Mormonism with a side of pagan faith — reason cannot arbitrate between the two. So I think you are right in saying that the content of the arche is not what you generally mean by faith in this essay, since this faith and reason are not commensurable. However, there can still be blurry edges around the word faith.

    My comment above was directed more at Adam, who, I think, fell prey to this conflation. I read him saying that pagan faith is the primary ground of our experience, with reason executing its obligations to the world. On my reading of Room to Talk, reason is primary vehicle of human experience, while faith in the supplement supports it. The supplement is there, it gives us room to talk, but I can’t say exactly what it is. So I thought Adam misread you, unless I’m supposed to read the post as “Contrary to Faulconer, reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the [pagan faith], and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey [it].”

  19. Clark on February 15, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    I’ve long wanted to read Royce, Jim. I didn’t know you had that connection with him. He’s of interest to Peirceans due to his being the main promoter of Peirce in America. Especially after James’ death. A lot of people wonder how philosophy would have differed had Royce not died when he did leading to Whitehead’s influence in his place. It’s generally thought his premature death along with the anti-German philosophical backlash due to WWI really dramatically changed American philosophy. I suspect this is a bit overstated. But I am quite intrigued to read him one of these days.

  20. Adam Greenwood on February 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks, but I don’t see what the first claim has to do with the second. You disagree that, simply as a matter of a general consensus, Mormon metaphysics are pagan in character? And if not, then why not just engage the discussion on its own merits?

    Your presuppositions are that Mormonism is either pagan or traditional Christian and that we should establish which by debate. I would feel silly acceding to either.

    Mormonism is . . . Mormon.

  21. Adam Miller on February 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Re #20: Adam Greenwood says, “Your presuppositions are that Mormonism is either pagan or traditional Christian and that we should establish which by debate. I would feel silly acceding to either. Mormonism is . . . Mormon.”

    Ok, if this were the issue, I’d agree. But these are not my presuppositions. Nowhere did I argue that Mormonism must be either pagan or Christian. I made, instead, a very limited point about one aspect of Mormonism, that metaphysically Mormons are pluralists. We appear to be committed to the idea that, at bottom, reality is plural and that this is plurality is co-eternal with God.

    This is a very different kind of point, working on a different kind of level, with pretty narrowly circumscribed and explicitly indicated bounds.

    Whatever the inadequacies of my own expression (and heaven knows they’re legion), Jim’s own position should emphatically not be understood as proposing or enforcing the kind of raw, unqualified dichotomy suggested above.

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