Ostler’s Analytic Gesture
Through engagements with a handful of potential philosophical pitfalls, Ostler constructs a very nice analytic definition of omnipotence, stated thus on page 116:
A is omnipotent at [time] t if A is able unilaterally to bring any logically possible state of affairs SA after t which (i) does not entail that “A does not bring about SA at t,” and (ii) is compossible with all events which preceded t in time in the actual world.
Ostler has worked into a single definition here all the caveats that have to be noted in any conception of omnipotence that hopes to avoid certain contradictions or paradoxes. It works, I think, and does an excellent job of skirting a whole series of difficulties.
Ostler’s Synthetic Gesture
Drawing on the Pratts, a bit of Mormon folk theology, a handful of texts from the Doctrine and Covenants, and a bit of genius, Ostler produces a brilliant theological concept of divine “concurrence,” described in the following terms on page 126:
Mormonism maintains that intelligences and natural substances have power too, although in order for them to exercise this power God must cooperate by lending his power to bring about the effect desired by these actualities. When God cooperates with the independent power exercised by intelligences or natural substances, he acts as a general concurrence or condition necessary for the intelligence or substance to actualize the causal effect.
Ostler goes on to use this bit of synthetic work to provide a brilliant explanation of miracles that (1) breaks with the long-standing Mormon tradition of making miracles a question of scientific principles known to God but not yet known to human beings and thus (2) returns in an important way to the scriptural idea of supernatural miracles tied to faith. I don’t know whether I agree with this idea, in the end (or at least with its rootedness in scripture), but it’s a beautiful speculation and deserves more attention.
Two distinct theological gestures—one recognizing where we’ve gone too far and so need to start paring back our concepts, the other recognizing where we’ve not yet gone far enough and so need to start speculating, and speculating wildly. When to analyze, and how to do it? When to synthesize, and how to do it?
Before taking each of these up in a bit more detail, let me note that I mean with these two categories to replace, to whatever extent possible, all talk of “analytic” versus “continental” thought in the past couple of weeks in the responses to this series. Ostler’s work is as continental as analytic, as mine or Adam’s is as much analytic as continental. If there’s a difference, it’s likely a question of whether one is inclined to look for overgrown trees that need pruning or for struggling young trees that need fertilizer.
I like the imagery of that last sentence. Perhaps we would do well to compare Mormon theology to trees—say, to olive trees so that we can borrow from the language of the allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5. Analysis is what becomes necessary when the branches overgrow the roots—when digging and dunging and the like will only cause more trouble. Synthesis is what becomes necessary either when we’ve planted a new tree or when we’ve done some grafting—when pruning and cutting back will only kill what we’re working on.
Playing with the analogy, I’ve got four questions: (1) What is the root? (2) What are the branches? (3) What does it mean to plant a new tree? (4) What’s at stake in grafting?
I entirely agree with Ostler’s answer to question one: The root of (good) theology is scripture. (I take it this is his answer given his insistence in earlier chapters on apostasy being a question of preferring reason’s conclusions to scripture’s claims.) The root remains in a single place (the texts are fixed), but what grows out of it can go in all kinds of different directions (the meanings remain to be worked out). And there, already, we’ve got an answer to question two: The branches are what we draw from the texts—interpretations the boughs, theological conclusions perhaps the branches from the boughs, further implications the twigs, etc. Analysis is the work of bringing us back to the basic task of exegesis, and the shearers with which we cut back to the task of exegesis are logic.
Question three: planting a new tree? Well, if we aren’t thereby trying to replace the scriptures (by looking for a new root), then I suspect we’re taking young and tender branches from the original tree and planting them elsewhere in our vineyard. To plant a new tree is to isolate a scriptural text for the purposes of seeing what can be done with it alone—leaving the remainder of the scriptures and their implications to do their own work in the meanwhile. This, we might say, is the work of speculation: to take a text or just a few texts and to begin to play with their possible philosophical implications regardless of where it might lead and without an eye to the rest of scripture. This isn’t in itself, perhaps, yet synthesis, but it makes synthesis possible. Because the answer to question four, I assume, is that grafting is synthetic work, the work of bringing back from the speculative endeavor to the original tree—back to the scriptures—what one has discovered in the course of theological speculation. Grafted back into the scriptures, does what has grown independently survive or no?
That, I think, is the picture I want to work with. Now, the questions still to be asked are the ones I asked above: When to analyze, and how to do it? When to synthesize, and how to do it?
With a nod to Adam, whose fellow traveler I am in this project, I think it’s best to take charity as guide here. Where in Mormon theology have the branches overgrown the roots? Wherever the consequences of our theological speculations stand between the Saints and redemption. And how do we recognize overgrown branches as overgrown branches? By recognizing that certain theological explanations are being used to justify one’s refusal of or rebellion against redemption.
Now, lest I be mistaken, let me note that I think theological speculations only get in the way of redemption instrumentally. That is, I think theological speculations “block” redemption only when we espouse them in order to pretend that we want but can’t have redemption. The branches overgrow the roots only where we collectively or individually let them grow that long, and we let them grow that long because we want them that long. Why? Because then we can say (loudly perhaps, but tacitly often enough), pointing to the fact that they grow right out of the divinely inspired root, that it’s God who keeps us from happiness.
Theology, we might say, begins as something we do in order to get away from what we take to be the oppressiveness of God’s gracefulness—oppressive because it refuses to let us wallow in misery.
So how do we go about pruning? If the analogy is still working, it seems clear that the task of analysis is to take theology back to its scriptural roots—to show where it interprets scriptural texts either wrongly, problematically, or simply boringly. The task, it might be said, is to show that the interpretations that lend themselves to the work of staving off redemption are so problematic that they could only have been created for perverse reasons. In analysis, the theologian gets to play the exegete. The task is, in a sense, deconstructive, since one has to show how the interpretations in question take themselves apart when brought back to the texts from which they take their orientation. But it is, in another sense, psychoanalytic, since it has to go at least a step further if it will make clear that there is a problematic motivation behind the interpretations offered, and not just an “honest mistake.”
Analysis, then, yes, but psychoanalysis as much as straight analysis. In this work, the theologian serves as an apologist for redemption and so can’t shirk the task of adding to the exegetical gesture the hard—and, frankly, a bit embarrassing—work of offering diagnoses. The aim, in the end, is to bring us face to face with the fact that our theologies were created in order to get away from God.
But if we do come face to face with that reality, perhaps it becomes possible to envision, beyond theologies created in rebellion against redemption and theologies wagered only in order to overthrow such rebellions, a positive theology that does its work for rather than against theology.
Perhaps. But if so, let’s call it “synthesis.”
Again I think charity is the key. If we give ourselves the task of planting branches taken from the scriptural tree, or if we assume the responsibility of bringing branches from such plantings back to their “mother tree,” charity must be the guide. But why would we speculate in charity’s name?
Synthesis, it seems to me, is a question of exploring possibilities, and of doing so hermeneutically (no more responsible exegesis here, thank you!). What does it mean to pull a branch—especially a young and tender one—from the scriptural tree in order to plant it elsewhere? At the very least, it’s to take some scriptural passage, preferably with a dose of responsible exegesis to avoid trouble, and to introduce it into a new context to see what fruit it can bear there. What if I read the awkward rhetoric of Alma 32:23 in light both of gender theory and of Nauvoo theology? What if I read Nephi’s discussion of Jews and Gentiles in 2 Nephi 27:1 as an investigation of contemporary politics? What if I read the changes made in 1835 to D&C 42:30-39 in terms of canonization theory? (These are real examples: my contributions to three distinct Mormon Theology Seminar projects.)
Of course, as can easily be seen, this is a bit dangerous. Hence, two points of clarification.
First, it’s crucial to note that what the synthetic theologian watches for is growth. If the transplanted branch doesn’t grow, or produces bad fruit, then the project is abandoned. I’m not at all advocating deliberately planting seeds among thorns to see if the tender plants will choke. One looks at both the branch and the ground carefully enough to suspect in advance that good fruit will be the result (the text has, in some sense, to anticipate or even call for the context into which it will be inserted), and one is more than ready to cut down and to burn the tree if things go in a bad direction (though perhaps retaining a branch that can be grafted back in to its source). But how does one know what constitutes good ground? How does one know if the fruit is good? Here again the key, it seems, is charity. Good ground is wherever charity is desperately needed, and good fruit is charity given and experienced.
Second, it’s crucial to note also that the synthetic theologian’s work only really comes to fruition when a branch from the newly grown tree can be grafted back into its “mother tree.” How does speculation that has born good fruit give something back to the original text from which it’s drawn? Or how does speculation that has born bad fruit change shape when it’s brought back to the scriptures? These are the best questions the synthetic theologian can be asking.
And what else? This is the sort of work the theologian does, in my view. And I think Ostler has done an excellent job of each of these in his fourth chapter of The Attributes of God. And I believe I see charity as the motivation behind both his analysis and his synthesis—as it seems to be behind his entire project.
And now it’s time to let a thousand (trees with) flowers bloom.