Exploring Mormon Thought: Second Principles

February 15, 2012 | 39 comments
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William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"In House of Prayer No. 2, Mark Richard relates the hip surgery he had in the sixties as a boy. He didn’t understand much about what was happening. His parents checked him into the hospital and then he was pretty much on his own.

In the next days they draw your blood and take your temperature. They X-ray you some more and forget you in a hallway until suppertime. They make you walk naked in front of an auditorium of young student doctors and nurses from college. Walk. Run. Stop. Stand on one leg. Hop. Run some more. Also in the audience are boys your age and girls your age. They see how you can’t run naked, how you can’t hop naked, how you can barely walk naked. They laugh at first until they realize in a few minutes a nurse will remove their gowns and make them jump, run, walk, and hobble naked, too.

Adults don’t really talk to him. He gets stuff second hand. He picks up clues from what the other kids say. He manages to stay upright by keeping a tight grip on the railing of routine. He pays close attention to any deviations. These spell trouble.

One day after lunch, instead of a nap, a nurse takes you and her purse out in front of the hospital to wait for a taxicab. The taxicab takes the two of you to a laboratory downtown. By the way the nurse pets your head, you know this is going to be bad. They give you a shot that makes you drowsy and begin to dream, but you don’t fall all the way asleep. While you are drowsy and beginning to dream, they lay you on your side and push long needles into your spine. Somebody in your dream is screaming.

It’s you.

Later in the taxicab back to the hospital the nurse holds you in her arms like a backseat pieta, the sunlight burns your eyes, and the telephone wires hang and loop, hang and loop. In the hospital auditorium you had noticed these words painted in large letters over the stage: SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME.

Who said that? you ask the nurse who took you to the laboratory, the nurse who sometimes sneaks Coke in your metal spout cup when everybody else gets tap water. Nurse Wilfong.

Jesus. Jesus Christ, she says.

What kind of jerk would want little children to suffer? you wonder.

Do you remember what it was like to be a child? How much seemed to happen offstage? How, outside the spotlight of your own experience, so much was dark? How hard it was to make out faces in the audience or read or predict their reactions? How frequently you had to just read your lines, pretend to know what you were doing and why? How routinely you relied on second hand rumors passed along from other kids? How thoroughly you improvised? How much of it you misunderstood?

Are things much different for me as an adult? How far would I have to wander to find myself in regions unknown? How tight-fisted is my grip on rumor and routine?

You’ve likely made more progress than me. I don’t suspect I’d need to go very far. I still don’t care for spiders. And I’m glad my house doesn’t have a basement.

In chapter 3 of Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God, Blake Ostler gives a crisp, concise overview of what systematic thinking Mormons have done about the nature of God. The chapter is about 30 pages and covers The Lectures on Faith, a few crucial sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, Orson Pratt, Parley Pratt, a little Brigham Young, John Widtsoe, B. H. Roberts, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie. The first section that deals with the Lectures is especially productive.

The virtue of the chapter is its relative brevity. It’s instructive to hear the polyphony of these voices crowded into such closes quarters. It’s easier to hear how they are each singing parts of the same song. And it’s easier to hear how, in terms of the underlying metaphysics, they are sometimes setting those verses to very different music.

This doesn’t worry me, but it does interest me.

Metaphysics is first philosophy. It is that from which everything else is supposed to follow. It’s the foundation.

If this is true, then Mormonism may be more like a raft of revelations, rumors, and routines, floating freely on the open sea. Maybe there are tethers that go down into the dark water and anchor us in a certain locale. But, if so, they seem to have an awful lot of play.

Blake suggests that part of this may be by design. With respect to The Lectures on Faith, he notes that, when contrasted with much of Western theology, the Lectures purposely avoid beginning with or commenting on “first principles.” Rather, as Blake points out:

The unifying principle of the Lectures is not a metaphysical postulate such as Aquinas’ principle that all things must be caused; rather, the focus is simply the requirements that rationally allow persons to stand in a faithful relationship of salvation with God. There are no logical postulates or rules, but merely the character a being must have to inspire faithful trust without reservation. (70)

This doesn’t mean that the Lectures aren’t subtle, nuanced, rational, or systematic. It just means that they are subtle, nuanced, rational, and systematic about something other than metaphysical first principles.

In effect, the Lectures maintain that traditional theological systems begin with secondary principles, for they do not explain why or how God acts but merely begin with the fact that there is movement and therefore there must be a cause. Thus, whereas process theology regards creativity as ultimate, and Thomism regards the necessity of a first mover of motion to be the ultimate, the Lectures regard faith as the ultimate principle of explanation. (71)

From a traditional theological perspective, metaphysics comes first, then we consider religion as its given on the ground with faith, persons, charity, relationships, etc. But, the Lectures say, this is backwards. Theology should regard “secondary” principles like faith as ultimate. From this perspective, metaphysics is itself secondary.

Note that this approach doesn’t rule out speculation about traditional first principles. It just says that speculation about those first principles should begin with “secondary” principles like faith.

For my part, I think this gets something crucial essentially right. When Mormons do theology as metaphysics, we should feel free to creatively speculate about what first principles tether our raft of revelations, rumors, and routines. But, if so, that speculation about first principles should always be pressed into the service of secondary principles. Secondary principles – like faith or, better, that which is greater than faith: charity – should always have a kind of paradoxical priority. Creative and informed speculation about what the bottom of the ocean looks like will only be worth as much faith and charity as it is able to foster in the boat.

We are so much like children, clinging to rumor and routine. Speculating about what the grown-ups are doing (and why) can be fine and good so long as doing so encourages us to also cling a little more tightly, a little more faithfully, and little more often to each other.

39 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Second Principles

  1. Adam G. on February 15, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    You have hit the nail on the head.

  2. Dave on February 15, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    I suspect what actually happens is that first principles get smuggled into the discussion by the back door. Instead of receiving direct attention and systematic consideration they become unacknowledged assumptions or ungrounded speculation. But I like the raft metaphor. I arrived at something similar when reading Rorty’s exposition of anti-foundationalism.

  3. SteveP on February 15, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    I wonder what faith is?

    As I read Blake on LOF, we have faith that God is, as he says, “An invincible ally.” That he can pull off what he says he can. He has character and power that allows this. That seems like either a huge rational leap, or a kind of blind assumption. Whether we focus on God’s metaphysical omni’s or his character I find myself in the same boat. For understanding God’s character I’m given reasons (historical, subjective feelings, words of others) but faith in any of these ‘reasons’ and requires some kind of Kierkegaardean leap beyond the data. I’m not sure where focusing on either Character or metaphysical Omni’s lets me escape. Why does focusing on elucidating the attributes of character give me any sense that such a God exists? (Are we back against an Anselm v. 2, in which having the character trait ‘existence’ is better than ‘non-existance’?

    In short, I don’t see Lectures on Faith buying me anything because it focuses on a secondary principles. Maybe I’m just skeptical of any analytical approach. However, I love the perspective you outlined in this opening. Of just walking in unknowing. A pragmatic acceptance that nothing makes sense, and we do what we can to make sense of a hope that someone is up there who knows what they are doing and they really, really want us to love others.

  4. Mark D. on February 15, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    I completely agree – metaphysics as a rule of doctrine is perhaps the number one problem with classical theism. And it is not metaphysics so much as legislating the results, constructing an iron box that no one can get out of without starting a new church.

    I am always cheered to see indications that the contemporary Catholic church, for example, recognizes that doctrinal principles aside, legislating a particular (systematic) theology is a bad idea. Where Calvinism, on the other hand, is a systematic theology. Any theological departure, and you are not a Calvinist any more, but something else entirely.

  5. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 2:31 am

    SteveP: The LonF address the source of faith: it either arises from believing and accepting the words of others or based on one’s own immediate experience. There is no natural theology presented to prove God’s existence.

    If you’re looking for irrefutable “data” that prove God’s existence, I think you’ll search in vain — and I’d suggest that you don’t get what faith is. Grounding faith in one’s own experience seems right on to me. Of course if you reduce faith to “subjective feelings,” then of course it buys us nothing. If faith is grounded in our own being including the divine presence in our experience, it may be subjective but it definitely ain’t just a feeling. I address this issue at some length in vol. 4.

    If we’re just walking in the dark as you assert, then why not walk in some other darkness? It seems in principal that all darkness is just darkness with no greater claim on us than any other. Indeed, how could you even know that you not just walking in some other darkness. The gospel is presented as light and light, not death and darkness.

  6. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 9:07 am

    SteveP, I’m sympathetic. There’s not a lot of spiritual resonance for me personally in talk of faith being necessarily grounded in God’s being an invincible ally.

    This is, in part, why I suggest we shift to making charity/grace the theological starting point rather than faith. Then talk about faith/fidelity, as an indispensable aspect of charity, has more traction. Where faith would be conditional on God’s being a certain way (e.g., an actually invincible ally), love (even for God) would be unconditional.

    What we need are The Lectures on Charity. [Smile]

  7. SteveP on February 16, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Blake, Do you even read the comments before you answer them? I’m not sure who you are addressing in your answer to me. Prove God? Darkness? What?

    I love the the shift you propose. Faith is a silly starting point especially as developed in the wildly non-canonical Lectures on Faith. I think Love is the starting point for a relationship with God and second a call for Lectures on Charity. Perhaps after your work on Grace you could write them?

  8. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 11:43 am

    SteveP: I’m really confused by your response. Of course I read before responding. Here is what I was responding to: “However, I love the perspective you outlined in this opening. Of just walking in unknowing. A pragmatic acceptance that nothing makes sense, and we do what we can to make sense of a hope that someone is up there who knows what they are doing and they really, really want us to love others.”

    “Walking in unknowing … nothing makes sense.” That is what I equated with just stumbling in darkness. I just don’t think that reveling is unknowing and nothing making sense is a good way to go.

    I was also responding to this: “For understanding God’s character I’m given reasons (historical, subjective feelings, words of others) but faith in any of these ‘reasons’ and requires some kind of Kierkegaardean leap beyond the data.” Now perhaps I misunderstood you, but I took you to be saying that we don’t know God through experience and the basis of faith grounded in personal experience is inadequate. The LonF give pretty good reasons why faith requires certain character attributes to inspire trust — the kind of ultimate trust necessary to rely on another for ultimate salvation.

    “Wildly non-canonical . . .” What? First, the merits of the LonF don’t depend on whether they are canonical — and second I’m not sure that they aren’t at least quasi-canonical in the sense that the First Presidency endorsed them as their statement of the doctrine of the Saints at that time. They have at least the status of a First Presidency statement it seems to me.

    I think that both you and Adam missing the point of the LonF and why faith is a first motivating factor. No one can have charity unless and until s/he believes that there is another to relate to. I’m not suggesting that charity or love isn’t essential and primary — it is just that it doesn’t exist without trust. Every relationship begins in faith in the sense of interpersonal trust.

  9. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Blake says: “I think that both you and Adam [are] missing the point of the LonF and why faith is a first motivating factor.”

    Granted. That’s totally possible.

    Blake says: “No one can have charity unless and until s/he believes that there is another to relate to. I’m not suggesting that charity or love isn’t essential and primary — it is just that it doesn’t exist without trust. Every relationship begins in faith in the sense of interpersonal trust.”

    I think this is right (charity is primary, faith/fidelity is essential to it, and faith/fidelity needs to be understood primarily in terms of interpersonal trust), but I think the rest may get the cart before the horse.

    I know of no experience of charity/love that begins with believing the other person exists. The other person is just plain given, whether I want them to be or not. Charity then depends on how I deal with the raw, unasked for givenness of the other person together with the unwanted demands that they unavoidably make on me.

    Charity begins from the fact of the other’s givenness not from my belief that there is an other. No?

  10. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Adam: “The other person is just plain given, whether I want them to be or not. Charity then depends on how I deal with the raw, unasked for givenness of the other person together with the unwanted demands that they unavoidably make on me.”

    I think this is right with respect to inter-human relations. But is it true in our relationship with God? I believe that God is given in experience, but it is hidden from us in our fallen-ness and self-deception. In these terms, dealing with us as we are, God’s existence and presence are not given in the same way it seems to me.

  11. J. Madson on February 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Good stuff. NT Wright argues in one of his books that knowledge can be and should be a form of love, arguing for an epistemology of love. The key phrase being To know is to be in a relation with the known, which means that the ‘knower’ must be open to the possibility of the ‘known’ being other than had been expected or even desired, and must be prepared to respond accordingly, not merely to observe from a distance. It seems to me that this is precisely what grace and charity demands if we want to know God. It has to be done through love with the possibility we may be surprised.

    When confronted with a story-laden world I have a stewardship or responsibility to of course try to make sense of it but to always be aware of my limitations. This is not to discredit logic, reason, or even empiricism entirely but to suggest that they have their proper bounds. But once I have admitted my limitations and desire to know God (because the only other choice is to not accept him/her/it and we already know where that leads), then it seems incumbent that we love him (should we want to know him) and to approach the story laden world in such a manner, always critically engaging our views.

  12. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Blake: “I think this is right with respect to inter-human relations. But is it true in our relationship with God? I believe that God is given in experience, but it is hidden from us in our fallen-ness and self-deception. In these terms, dealing with us as we are, God’s existence and presence are not given in the same way it seems to me.”

    I agree that this is the sticking point. But I don’t know what it would mean to have an interpersonal relationship without a person being given. In other words, I don’t know what it would mean to found charity on my willful belief in the existence of another person that is not given when it seems the defining feature of charity is its being a willing response to something that I did not willfully choose.

    In this sense (and I think this was part of what SteveP was after), I’ll readily acknowledge that I have an ongoing experience of something like “Spirit,” but I’m still waiting on the actual person of the Lord and, in the meanwhile, I’m hesitant to substitute a belief in this person for the actual person. It seems to risk idolatry, especially given my propensity for self-deception.

    I guess this is a way of saying I don’t really know what to do about the problem you raise. Not theologically, and (perhaps especially) not practically.

  13. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Adam: I think I see where you are coming from given your statement in 12. I fear the idolatry too. But I think that the point of trust in relationships is precisely the dimension that is necessary to focus on. How could I just love without knowing the person?

    Adam: ” the defining feature of charity is its being a willing response to something that I did not willfully choose.”

    I know Levinas argues for the priority of the Other (or just pontificates it). However, trust/faith isn’t something that can have without knowing something about a person it seems to me. In other words, I think that the LonF are correct that to trust God the way he commands, we must have some idea of the kind of character and attributes he has. I don’t trust you that way and it would be idolatry to do so. So there must be a fairly significant distinction between the way I trust and know you and the way I trust and know God. I couldn’t possibly have trust in your for my ultimate salvation. I don’t trust you to always look out for my best interests no matter what (I suspect that you’d prefer your family if push came to shove). I don’t trust you to have the capacity to defeat death and sin. The disanalogy is therefore both stark and important. So simply reducing our trusting relationship with God as if it were like other inter-human relationships, the relationship with God has dimensions of a demand on our trusting response that don’t and cannot exist in merely mortal relationships — or so it appears to me.

  14. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Blake: “However, trust/faith isn’t something that can have without knowing something about a person it seems to me.”

    Yeah, I agree we can’t have love (with its necessary quality of fidelity) without knowing something about another person. But I wonder if, when it comes to love, there isn’t too big a gap to bridge between knowing “about” a person and knowing the person.

    (I feel like I’m stealing this point from you. It seems to be at the heart of your critique of traditional theology, with which I’m on board: that traditional theology doesn’t let God be an actual person with whom we could have a relationship.)

    Don’t we have to get the actual person on stage here as “given” rather than “believed in” for a real loving/faithful relationship to exist?

  15. SteveP on February 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    “I think that the LonF are correct that to trust God the way he commands, we must have some idea of the kind of character and attributes he has.”

    This is actually where I’m getting lost. I’m reading ‘trust’ as ‘Having faith in’ and ‘some idea of’ as some sort of knowledge. Whether we place faith first or supposed ontology we get to the problem that one requires the other. If I cannot have faith without a knowledge of character. What warrants my knowledge of character? I’m not saying we cannot form a relationship with God (which obviously I believe possible), but not in the limited LoF way where faith is some sort of blind belief that motivates action.

  16. clark on February 16, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    I know of no experience of charity/love that begins with believing the other person exists. The other person is just plain given, whether I want them to be or not.

    Perhaps in a logical form the belief they exist must come first whether we are conscious of that going on or not. If the person is given then that entails belief. I don’t see belief as choice though so perhaps I see belief different from you. (Although I vaguely recall a discussion where you saw belief as non-volitiional as well)

  17. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Clark: “Perhaps in a logical form the belief they exist must come first whether we are conscious of that going on or not. If the person is given then that entails belief. I don’t see belief as choice though so perhaps I see belief different from you.”

    I’m surprised by this point. I think the phenomenological accounts of belief as a second-order phenomena are pretty persuasive (I think you find it persuasive too?). The givenness of another person is just given, not believed. I can reflect on this givenness in terms of belief or doubt, but that’s a different, secondary phenomena.

    I also agree that belief, in this sense, is (generally) non-volitional. Though this sense of “belief” is very different from the kind of willing “faith/fidelity” Blake and I have been talking about.

  18. Keith on February 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Adam: “I’ll readily acknowledge that I have an ongoing experience of something like “Spirit,” but I’m still waiting on the actual person of the Lord and, in the meanwhile, I’m hesitant to substitute a belief in this person for the actual person. It seems to risk idolatry, especially given my propensity for self-deception.”

    In some sense isn’t the interaction with the Spirit (if by that you mean the Holy Ghost, or even if you mean the light of Christ) an interaction with the actual person? Isn’t this how he manifests himself to us? Granted there is the literal appearing we’re told may happen, but the Spirit is the person manifesting himself (Chirst’s self) to us now. There’s a unity here. In that sense I agree we don’t substitute the belief in the person for the person. We manifest our faith/trust in him (and this assumes he has communicated himself to us in some way).

    In that sense we don’t have faith in an idea—faith in this sense isn’t assent to a proposition. We also manifest that trust in him by believing the gospel he gives us. (This gospel, though it has narrative aspects and is a doctrine or teaching of a particular kind, I take to be something different than theology or philosophy. This is Kierkegaard’s point that Christianity is not a doctrine, not a philosophy, but more an encounter with a being—Christ.) But there is a faithfulness required to what he tells us about himself and the sort of things he tells us to do—repent, be baptized, etc. In some sense this may involve assent to a proposition, but it still strikes me as something more or different than that.

  19. Richard Livingston on February 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Adam and Blake, isn’t it possible that the given–that which is always-already present–and our beliefs about the given are reciprocally dependent upon one another? That is, the given always shapes our beliefs, and our beliefs always shape the manner in which the given is received (grasped and understood). In other words, perhaps this isn’t so much a question of which has priority–though it seems to me that the given must necessarily have ontological/metaphysical priority, since there is always some given prior to any beliefs about that given–but more a question of how it is that each unfolds in relation to the other. In short, since one really can’t think about or speak of the one without the other, don’t they share a vital reciprocal dependency?

  20. Richard Livingston on February 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Simply stated, I think what’s at stake here requires a both-and and not an either-or way of thinking.

  21. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    SteveP: I see your conundrum. Knowing a person in the interpersonal sense (conoscere rather than sapere, or gnosko rather than episteme) doesn’t tell us about any metaphysical properties. Knowing God in the interpersonal sense necessary for eternal life includes knowing God’s love intimately, but it doesn’t give us a sense of the extent of God’s power or knowledge. We may know that God’s power is immense — but do we know that it is the most immense there could be and sufficient to insure our salvation from all that might seek our destruction? Not from this encounter. But that is precisely why it is faith and not knowledge that is prime in such encounter with God as one who is in fact trustworthy as God.

    However, I still think that the LonF make a compelling point. To trust God for my salvation I must — of consequent necessity — believe that God has whatever qualities, properties or attributes are sufficient to insure my salvation. (I’m a conceptualist so referring to such properties is merely our mode of speaking). Otherwise, such trust not only does not exist, it cannot exist. So I posit in my act of faithful trust that God is adequate to such trust. If I have reason to believe that there is no being that has such attributes, then I have reason to doubt that there is a being in which I trust in the sense necessary to trust Him with my salvation. I may “hope” there is such a being as you put it in your prior post, but I really don’t know. However, by throwing my life and well-being and that of everything I love into God’s hands, I posit this trust in having faith that God can deliver me. It is simply a necessity that I posit as a matter of faith.

    It is analogous to trust that have when I drive across the state line into Montana for the first time — in my act there is trust that the necessary concomitants to support life are present in Montana. (BTW, Montana is a wonderful place for life to thrive). However, I have a lot of experience to support my trust in this instance. All I have to trust with respect to placing my salvation in God’s hands is my interpersonal knowledge and what he has said of himself in revelations that I have come to trust in fact come from him. So it is believing in what others have received and said God said and my own experience — just as the LonF assert.

    I have no particular stake in the LonF, but I have found them to be more thoughtful and insightful than most others I discourse with on blogs.

  22. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Richard: I agree that it is both/and.

    Keith: It seems to me that knowledge through the spirit is personal encounter as you state.

  23. J. Madson on February 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Blake, #21

    What I see you describing is engaging in an imaginative (in a good way) endeavor. I don’t see the faith versus love or charity distinction but as them being one and the same. It is an act of grace or love I give to deity in positing “qualities, properties or attributes are sufficient to insure my salvation.” One could easily look at the world and find no reason to posit a loving, charitable, and gracious God but in an act of faith/grace towards God one can choose just that, to love an imagined God. It is then I presume that we begin a process of relationship with the other ever tweaking our imagination as actual interactions with the other refine our once imagined act of grace now transformed into something real. This I imagine is the only way to really come to know God.

  24. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    J. Madson: Yeah, something like that. As I said, I believe that we actually do begin with God given in our experience. His light and spirit dwell within us always already. We can become numb to the constant presence already given in our experience kind of like the way we shut out music playing at the grocery store. It is so ever-present in our experience that we just shut it out. So we begin with knowing God in a very intimate way — and then through self-deception we begin to see ourselves as alienated and isolated and God becomes veiled to us.

    But none of that is sufficient to give a conceptual understanding of what God is like. In coming-to-ourselves we awake to the given-ness in all experience and sense or being-with this immense power and knowledge and love in the given to us and we become aware that we have posited trust in God when we recognize him as God. We have known his love and therefore we love him back. We have known him and therefore our trust grows when we choose to posit trust. We give ourselves to this given-ness in our experience for what it is already known to be in our experience without knowing it conceptually — the source and goal of everything that matters most to us. In so doing, we posit that God must be conceptually as our experience of salvation in God demands and requires — we can see that our trust amounts to trust that God will and can deliver us from all that challenges our salvation and that he loves us with consistent and constant steadfastness. We can trust him to always seek the best for us. We “see” that God’s character is such that our trust in him is justified by the kind of character that our faith already knows without knowing it conceptually. I deal with a lot of this in ch. 5 of vol. 4 of my book.

    It seems that Adam and I would agree on all of this — I think.

  25. Robert C. on February 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Great post, Adam. I haven’t read the discussion so far all that carefully, but it makes me think of the bit in Alma 32:27 that say, “even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you.”

    It seems to me there is a kind of priority of love/desire at work here (where desire and love are synonymous, following Jean-Luc Marion’s Augustinianism).

    However, I guess this could also be interpreted — along the lines of what I think SteveP and others are suggesting — as an experience of desire coming first, and so experiential knowledge is primary. But then this is where the gap reappears: how does experience come to be desirable, if not through something that I think is ultimately tantamount to love?

  26. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Re: Richard #19/20, I agree that it is “both/and” as you describe it. But the word “belief” is here used in a way that seems synonymous with the more apt phenomenological term “horizon.” Beliefs qua horizons are, I think, what Clark also has in mind in #16: beliefs/horizons as co-constitutive of experience but non-volitional. This, though, is very different from the use of the word faith/fidelity as willing element of charity. Yes?

  27. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Blake says: “As I said, I believe that we actually do begin with God given in our experience. His light and spirit dwell within us always already. We can become numb to the constant presence already given in our experience kind of like the way we shut out music playing at the grocery store. It is so ever-present in our experience that we just shut it out. So we begin with knowing God in a very intimate way — and then through self-deception we begin to see ourselves as alienated and isolated and God becomes veiled to us.”

    I think that, pragmatically, we have to say something like this. God is manifest already in our experience of the light/Spirit/grace that is given. But this seems so very different from a relationship with God as an actual person that I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to have a personal relationship with light. And if we give away the “relationship with an actual person” part (or even just postpone it), we seem to have given away what, as Mormons, we tout as most valuable about our unique revelations.

  28. Blake on February 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Adam: Right. Getting to know as a person is where prayer and learning to listen come — not merely that — but knowing God as that specific person (and not merely as personal as the Tradition would have it).

  29. Adam Miller on February 16, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    And, so, I wait upon the Lord.

  30. SteveP on February 16, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Thanks Blake that clarifies things and I’m not sure I disagree with your approach. I see a kind of pragmatism that I think you rightly point out may be the appropriate way to approach these difficulties. In looking ahead in our reading of your book it looks like we are going to explore this issue in more depth, so I look forward to that.

    Amen to Adam #29.

  31. Richard Livingston on February 16, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Adam (re: #26): Agreed. I think that sounds right, there are a number of “layers” to consider here–e.g., (1) that which is (metaphysically/ontologically) present prior to any human experience or thought, (2) the pre-reflective horizon (or world) within which that which is present gives itself to us, or that which is (implicitly) always-already given to and experienced by us, and (3) our (explicit) cognitive awareness of or reflective beliefs about the given. I think beliefs with respect to (2) are largely non-volitional and co-constitutive of experience, and beliefs with respect to (3) are largely volitional, conscious, but also co-constitutive of experience.

    With respect to faith and charity, I can see why charity is one viable/valid starting point for theological reflection, but I still don’t see why it’s necessarily a better or more adequate/appropriate starting point than faith. Whether I begin with love for (charity) or trust in (faith) God, each seems to be an equally appropriate starting point in the endeavor to come to an understanding of our experiences with and ideas about the divine. One might thus say that both are equi-primordial insofar as one cannot have faith/fidelity without also having charity/love and vice versa. In other words, they are co-constitutive of and reciprocally dependent on one another.

    I take it that you’d more or less agree with that, but you’re concern actually lies with a different conception of faith. If I understand correctly, your concern is with a view of faith that is intimately bound up with beliefs, more particularly, explicit, volitional, and rational beliefs–i.e., having faith is about holding correct ideas about God, and theology is about articulating those ideas in a theoretical/rational way. One of the problems here, of course, is that this is a confused view of faith–it seems to get things exactly backwards. I think that’s basically right. However, even though it wouldn’t make sense to say that either charity or faith begins with explicit beliefs about the existence of God–as you note above, that’s simply presupposed as part of being already situated within horizon of faith and charity–I do think at its root faith includes (often only implicitly) various beliefs about, understandings of, experiences with, or ways of comporting oneself to the Divine. Put differently, one must have some idea of and way of relating to the Divine for it to have any purchase in his or her life, and thus holding some idea or adhering to some way is fundamental to faith. If that’s right, then I just want to say that one (though certainly not the only) part of theology is an (always provisional and flawed) attempt to make sense of those beliefs, understandings, experiences, and ways. And, in this sense, it does seem that faith as bound up with beliefs is an appropriate starting point for engaging in the project of thinking about and speaking of God.

    My point is ultimately the same: it’s not either the Lectures on Faith or the Lectures on Charity that we ought to seek, but both the one and the other. Both ‘faith seeking understanding’ and ‘charity enacting understanding’ seem like proper designators for theological reflection. Put differently, charity and faith appear to be more like spouses than siblings, and should thus be treated accordingly. ;)

  32. Robert C. on February 17, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Richard #31, if we take your definition of theology, as “engaging in the project of thinking about and speaking of God,” then I think Adam’s point is that it is important to recognize that this intellectual practice is rooted in a prior experience (of the divine, we might say). If it is not, then this kind of (thinking-based) theology runs the risk of becoming idolatrous. To avoid this problem, theological thinking must remain true to the more fundamental/foundational/primary experience of the divine.

    In this sense, I think Adam’s point can be nicely linked to (1) the Mormon focus on continuing revelation, since experience(/givenness) is more important than cerebral reflection (i.e., metaphysical speculation, cognitive beliefs, etc.), and (2) the embodied nature of God, our existence on this earth, etc. (that is, we find ourselves embodied before we begin thinking, and thinking — at least as we experience it in this life — is a fundamentally embodied task…).

  33. Joe Spencer on February 17, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Well, I’m coming late to the discussion again, but let me add a thought:

    I want also to say that love and faith can’t be disentangled, but not because faith in or fidelity to someone is equivalent to or another element of love for someone. Love, it seems to me, unfolds when two are jointly faithful to something that exceeds them. This, in the end, is what I find compelling about Adam’s original post: Theology, which is a working out of faith, is something we do together in love. The beauty of the specifically Mormon conception of God is, in my view, that God and I get to work together on building a kingdom—that we are together faithful to something that calls us both to work. (This, as I understand it, is Joseph’s conception of God, most visibly on display in his “Before August 8″ discourse, which more or less launches the Nauvoo period. Brigham’s subsequent developments are a perhaps problematic but nonetheless beautiful radicalization of Joseph’s conception.)

    So perhaps the Lectures on Faith can be taken as suggesting that only the faithful can love—that wherever faithlessness lurks what passes as love is always and necessarily lust?

  34. Blake on February 17, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Joe: Good comments. Lecture 7 develops the nature of love involved — but it is unifying love that literally gives rise to participation in the divine attributes and character. I have argued that the King Follett Discourse is a further reflection on Lecture 7 having the same beginning point of reflection — the character of God.

    Robert C. – it seems to me that experience will always under-determine anything we deal with. As I believe the LonF correctly point out, our faith makes sense only if the being(s) in which we have faithful trust can deliver on that trust. Our faith is that God is such a being that we can trust him completely — with our salvation and ultimate good. To be able to deliver on that kind of trust, there are certain things that must be true of God. So faith is the explaining principle, and though it is grounded in faith, the realization of the kind of God we trust results only from reflection on what is entailed in that kind of faith. I think that there is a good deal to be said for this approach.

    For example, what if God asks us to kill someone? Can we trust that requester to really be God? If God can make ultimate demands like that on us (scary thought that) then what kind of being/person could legitimately make such a request? Is there any being who could request that of us — and note how I changed from person to “kind of being” in merely formulating the question, because just saying “what kind of person could ask me to kill another person” misses the point of the question. That person must be a specific kind of being in existence to even have the position where I could trust that — or not. In any event, the God the LonF is addressing is the kind that can ask of us the sacrifice of all that we are and have. Reflection suggests that we are not just dealing with the neighbor who lived down the street, just a very, very long time ago.

  35. clark on February 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I’ve been sick in bed with a bad sinus infection. So I’ve not had time to contribute much. Thankfully the doctor gave me antibiotics so I should be getting better.

    Adam (17), I’m not sure a short pithy response is worthy the question. So I might try to write up a longer response on my blog. Ultimately the issue is one that I think gets at the issues Lectures on Faith does. The reason we qualify the priority of belief is because of the problem of semblance in phenomenology. That is things can be given but not given as the sorts of things they actually are. In such a phenomenological situation the question then becomes what the object of belief actually is.

    I don’t think there’s a short answer to this. The Lectures seem primarily focused on how a knowledge of God and some of his basic properties was passed down such that faith was possible. This suggests that to have faith requires a certain level of correct belief in terms of what God is actually like.

    It’s like the old question of whether Evangelicals and Mormons worship the same Jesus. (Man I had that saying, but there’s a kernel of truth behind it’s annoying exterior) Derrida of course plays with this same idea in his aporias about love. Does Derrida love his wife because of what she is like (her properties) or because of who she is (a pure reference). Of course it’s neither which is why this is a problem at all.

    Pascal has a nice quote which I think allows us the way out. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.”

    Much of Derrida’s work touches upon this – especially his work on mourning. However I don’t think I feel 100% and it’s been some years since I last studied this closely. (The post I linked to was from 2005!) The anti-realist way of reading Derrida is to say because the Other is always Other the essence we need for love (or belief for that matter) is cut off. All we have are traces. The realist reading of Derrida is to see how the traces are always traces of something that is absent but real. Thus our analysis of belief in this scheme must include the present and absent simultaneously.

    To switch back to more Analytic terminology this leads naturally to content externalism of belief.

    So my criticisms of belief is (1) it’s non-volitional (it just happens) and (2) my beliefs form my horizon or context (which you picked up in later comments) and finally (3) the content and nature of my beliefs and other relational mental states can’t be reduced to what is present to my mind. (Externalism)

    This is not to say what is present isn’t important. And I think Lectures makes that very clear. It is precisely through a correct knowledge that we are able to exercise faith and gain a deeper relationship.

  36. clark on February 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    A few others

    Adam (14): But I wonder if, when it comes to love, there isn’t too big a gap to bridge between knowing “about” a person and knowing the person.

    One can see love as not being purely propositional but being tied to a set of background comportments we may not even be fully aware of. Those comportments demand a kind of knowing not as propositions but as practice with something. It’ll sound trite since clearly my relationship with my wife isn’t like my relationship with my paintbrush. But in certain ways it is. Now I don’t want to say love is exhausted by a set of background performances and goals. Clearly it is not. I think it does point to how knowing about a person in terms of propositions isn’t necessary. I have many ways of comporting with things I can’t describe with propositions.

  37. Robert C. on February 17, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Blake #34, I think I see your point, but I’m not sure your example of being commanded to kill someone doesn’t support the idea that experience should be given more priority. That is, if God commanded me to kill someone, it doesn’t seem like I can even ask the question of whether God is the kind of a being that deserves to be obeyed — even when such an extreme command is offered — unless I first have the experience of being commanded. It’s this calling — what’s given to me, before I respond to it, with belief or trust or doubt or whatever — that I think Adam’s pointing to, and that I am still rather convinced by. (But I enjoy thinking about this, and it’s all far from decided in my mind, so I’m hoping you can respond some more!)

  38. Robert C. on February 17, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Clark, thanks esp. for the link to your Derrida post(s). This helped me connect some ideas I hadn’t linked before. That is, Plato’s Euthyphro question is ultimately what seems at stake in this question of whether faith or charity is primary. But this seems directly related to how we understand God’s love toward us.

    I posted some thoughts here some time ago on 1 Ne 17:34-38 where I think Nephi raises a version of this question, and answers it in an interesting way — that is, God loves(/esteems) all of us unconditionally (suggesting love is primary, I would argue), but those who are righteous are favored (suggesting that questions of faith and fidelity are subsequent to this love; this is something I discuss in light of the unconditional vs. conditional covenants in Genesis in the last few paragraphs of this post).

  39. clark on February 18, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Part of me is inclined to say neither love nor faith/belief is primordial but both are different modes always already in play.

    Admittedly my conception of belief is highly shaped by pragmatism which sees the very meaning of belief as wrapped up in terms of all the possible actions one could take holding that belief.

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