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.
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.