A close reading of Blake Ostler’s work is timely, and I’m happy to do it alongside of Adam Miller. I’ve left mostly to Adam’s post last week to state what we’re up to and why. I want this week, before we come to the chapter-by-chapter work of this project, to say something about how time has affected Ostler’s project—how the project has changed between 2001 (publication of volume one) and 2008 (publication of volume three). I’ll also have to say a word about how it may change before 2012 is over (publication of volume four).
My modus operandi will be simple: I will look at the prefaces to the already-published volumes of Exploring Mormon Thought.
2001: The Attributes of God
The project, according to the preface of The Attributes of God (2001), was originally to be a carefully structured trilogy:
The first volume . . . deals with the Mormon concept of God. The second volume . . . deals with the problems of Christian theism . . . . These first two volumes are in the analytic tradition of philosophical theology. These first two volumes are addressed primarily to non-Mormons and Mormons who are interested in having a dialogue regarding Mormonism as it relates to traditional theology. The third volume is radically different. . . . [It] is a departure from theology as it has usually been done in the Christian tradition. . . . Indeed, my style [there] is precisely a break with all previous types of philosophy and theology to better embody the break of Mormonism with prior theological traditions. This work engages in what I call “revelatory discourse” as a means to more faithfully speak to persons within the faith. [p. xi]
The project as originally laid out:
(1) Two volumes in the tradition of analytic philosophy dealing in turn with (a) the specifically Mormon conception of God and (b) the philosophical problems inherent in the non-Mormon Christian conception of God. These volumes were to be for a non-Mormon audience, so that volume one would serve as an introduction (in the language familiar to non-Mormon philosophers), to Mormon theism, while the second would serve as a critique (in the same style) of Christian theism.
(2) A third volume in a radically non-analytic—indeed, unprecedented—style dealing with . . . who knows? This volume, taking off from the ground cleared through the first two, was to present Mormon theology in an apparently uniquely Mormon style and to address itself principally (exclusively?) to Mormons.
Such was the original intention. The whole project appears to have been driven by Ostler’s “misgivings about the analytic tradition as a vehicle to dialogue regarding Mormonism.” He explains:
My primary concern is that the tradition treats “God” as a mere object of analysis and, by its very nature, misses the essential importance of having a relationship with individual divine persons who are one God. . . . However, I will not say more about this dilemma until my third volume—except to say that I regard the analytic mode of dialogue as essential between persons belonging to different religious traditions to the extent their traditions are not shared. [pp. xii-xiii]
Analytic philosophy was an essential starting point, allowing for conversation between “different religious traditions,” but the aim of the conversation was to mark the limits of such discourse, apparently to justify (or to explain?) a subsequent departure from conversation into discourse only among Mormons. Volumes one and two, in other words, were to be a philosophical apology, to interested but critical non-Mormons, for a desire—or the need—to abandon interfaith dialogue for a community directly in communication with God.
2005: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God
The opening of volume two’s preface is crucial:
The second volume represents a movement toward a different kind of discourse—but it is not yet a different discourse. It engages still in the analytic tradition. However, the subject matter deals more centrally with divine grace and love in relationship. [p. ix]
The project has changed. Nothing in volume one’s preface hinted at a gradual shift from analytic to “a different kind of discourse.” Rather, Ostler had claimed straightforwardly that a radical break between discourses would separate the first two volumes from the third volume. Between 2001 and 2005, he seems drastically to have reconceptualized his project.
I don’t want to speculate too much about why Ostler changed things, but I suspect it was due in part to volume one’s success among LDS students of philosophy. Though he intended volume one to introduce Mormon theism to non-Mormons in the problematic style of analytic philosophy, he discovered a ready Mormon audience who actually wanted to think about Mormonism in analytic terms. Few of them, it seems, had “misgivings” about analytic philosophy, and I suspect this left Ostler wondering how he might continue to speak to this new-found audience without alienating them, while nonetheless pushing toward a discourse radically distinct from analytic philosophy.
The result, it seems, was volume two. The task by 2005, it seems, was to pave a relatively comfortable road from a strict analytic casting of Mormonism to a radically distinct discourse by taking up the topic that, for Ostler, most deeply problematizes the analytic approach: God’s love. Hence, instead of what was supposed to be a critique of Christian theism, one finds a study of Mormon Christology, more or less along the lines of the first volume in the series.
(One further, brief note. Ostler already recognized by 2005 that the project would have to grow, since a road from analytic philosophy to “revelatory discourse” would be difficult to pave. Three volumes, each having a clear role to play, was quickly giving way to four volumes, each having a semi-murky role to play, as Ostler himself noted in the preface.)
2008: Of God and Gods
Curiously, the preface to volume three never mentions the other volumes (preceding or following) or the larger project with its aims and intentions. It speaks only of itself, as if it were meant to stand entirely on its own. But the project is clearly changing. Volume three is not the originally projected volume three (volume four, still forthcoming, will be that originally projected volume three), and it continues in volume two’s vein, further paving the way that leads from analytic philosophy to distinctly Mormon discourse. The paving stones, though, are now of a different color.
According to its preface, volume two gives attention first and foremost to scripture—specifically to Alma 34, Alma 40-42, and Paul’s writings generally. The preface to volume three, however, speaks not of scripture, but of worldviews: “My project has been a rescue operation to save the heart of God’s revelations to the Hebrews from the Greek mind” (p. ix). What of this shift in emphasis, from the words of specific prophets to the language of the prophetic people—this shift to a focus on Hebrew versus Greek thinking? This is especially strange, since volume three is, in terms of content, much more focused on scriptural texts than volume two.
Again I prefer to avoid speculation, but the shift in emphasis from texts to languages seems to me motivated by a growing recognition of the difficulties of scriptural hermeneutics—already dawning in volume two. Scripture has been claimed as much by what Ostler calls the essentially Greek philosophical tradition as by any supposedly Hebrew tradition, and philosophy’s readings of scripture are, at the very least, self-consistent, provocative, and compelling. Pointing to scripture is not enough to justify the non-analytic discourse Ostler aims to provide in the final volume of the series. A general hermeneutical method—one that breaks with the Western philosophical tradition—must be established. And this, Ostler believes, is to be accomplished through an appeal to Hebrew thinking.
Hence: a rescue operation. Scripture has to be pulled from danger, has to be snatched from what threatens it, has to be cut out of the wrecked car of Western (Greek) thought in which it’s trapped. What was intended to be a radical break—analytic (that is, non-Mormon) discourse versus “revelatory” (that is, Mormon) discourse—has become a rescue operation where Hebrew texts have been captured by and must be retrieved from Greek logic. 2008: If Mormonism can be distinguished from other Christianities by appealing to scripture, it will be accomplished in a dramatic, spectacular rescue. The immanent critique of analytic philosophy is only a distraction.
2012: A Fire on the Horizon?
What will volume four reveal? One can only speculate, and I think I’ll refuse to do any more speculating here. But I’m happy to ask a question, in some ways the only question to ask about the fourth (and I assume still final) volume: What will uniquely Mormon theological discourse look like? What relationship will it have to the analytic tradition? How will it speak—if at all—of scripture? How will it relate to Hebrew and/or Greek thinking? Will it have abandoned these categories in favor of a distinctly Mormon ethos? What is coming?
Is it a fire indeed that’s on the horizon? It’s too difficult, as yet, to make it out.