On Reading Theology

February 11, 2012 | 19 comments
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The children of Israel are stiff-necked and hard-hearted. God sends serpents to bite them. Then he says the only way to be healed is to look at a serpent held up on a pole.

This is kind of like reading theology.

When I read theology, I assume two things and I assume these same two things regardless of the author. I read Blake Ostler the same way I read Augustine or Dogen.

I assume that the author is a sinner and that their theology is handicapped by an irreparable narrowness. And I assume that, compared to me, they are smarter and significantly closer to God.

I assume that the face of God is as likely to shine through their twinkling weakness as anywhere else. The serpent that bites is the same serpent that gets held up for healing.

These assumptions are the key to both redeeming and being redeemed by the stuff we read.

Joe Spencer and I are reading Blake’s books all year long. I go in assuming that Blake’s a sinner (that snake! – he is a lawyer after all) and that his theology, like everyone’s, is handicapped by an irreparable narrowness. And I go in assuming that he is smarter and significantly closer to God than I am.

Look again at the thing that bit you. Look close this time. It’s simple.

God’s winking at you with Blake’s black eye.

Thanks, Blake.

19 Responses to On Reading Theology

  1. joespencer on February 11, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Exactly.

  2. Keith on February 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    I need convincing (or clarification) that the serpent that bites and the one that is held up are the same. Any help?

  3. Blake on February 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Keith: It is a reference to the fiery flying serpents that flew into the camp of Israel and poisoned them and then Moses held up a serpent and whoever would look thereupon was healed. See the expert — Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiery_flying_serpent

  4. Blake on February 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    When I read another I assume that I am in no position to judge that person’s standing before God and that whether they are a really original sinner or just an innocent one. I also assume that whether the author is a sinner is irrelevant to the merits of what they convey. I also assume that each person has something valuable to teach me and that those who have had the greatest influence have been found by many to have something very valuable to say and that if I don’t see it, I am missing something essential and important so I had better keep looking.

    Does this difference speak to the divide between analytic philosophy and continental thought?

  5. the narrator on February 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    FYI, the first volume of Blake’s book is now available in ebook: here

  6. Rameumptom on February 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    that Adam and Joe are poking new holes or insights into LDS theology is a great thing. Blake’s books have been out for several years now, and to have a discussion on them now, after many have digested them well, may give us new ways to see things.

    There are things I like and dislike about Blake’s theology found in his books. There are other things that I neither like nor dislike, but that do have me thinking.

    That the snake can represent both Christ and Satan or good and evil, helps us to realize there is often two sides of the same coin. I am certain there will be things that Adam and Joe discuss which I will agree with, and other things that I won’t. But then, that doesn’t mean I will agree with Blake, either.

    While many Christian churches have an established theology, I like to think that the LDS have a variety of potential theologies: some to choose from, and others yet to be determined I (thanks to continuing revelation). Today’s brass serpent may be tomorrow’s fiery and poisonous serpent, just as Lucifer once was a high and mighty angel in God’s courts, but now slithers in the dust on his stomach.

  7. Adam Miller on February 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Blake: “Does this difference speak to the divide between analytic philosophy and continental thought?”

    I don’t think is so. As far as I can tell, I think we pretty much agree.

  8. Robert C. on February 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Excellent, Adam.

  9. Jacob on February 11, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Yes, I like this. Everyone’s theology or philosophy or worldview is always already handicapped, as you say, or perhaps fallen, in that, as always, it is our own eyes that need to be refreshed or replaced in order to see that which can be redeemed. We can never trust the world to stand still and wait for us to catch up so we can finally see or understand it in the ways we are used to. We ourselves must be willing to constantly see anew.

  10. chris on February 11, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Labelling someone a sinner abuses the word and greatly misunderstands the restored gospel. I’ve seen it in vogue to refer to each other as such… hello fellow sinners…
    Implying and acknowledging we are all imperfect. It would be better to say the people you read are imperfect and lack a fulness of understanding that we will have some day.

    But we are called saints because it is expressly in our imperfections and failings and sins that we look to God and he takes our burdens upon himself so that we are not sinners but saints. It seems in calling one sinner we are not acknowledging they are turned toward christ in an attitude of constant repentence. P

  11. Eric Nielson on February 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I met Blake at the 2010 SMPT conference. I like him a lot.

  12. Keith on February 12, 2012 at 12:49 am

    I know what the reference is to the snakes and the snake on the staff, I really do. It’s just not clear to me how one identifies the serpents that are biting and killing and the one that is saving. It’s the identification that has me puzzled here, particularly if this is taken as a type and shadow. Everyone else (Joe included) seems to agree with Adam’s way of putting it. I’m simply asking for help. Rameumpton’s comments help some, but seem to leave the serpent that saves (Christ) as perhaps good today, bad tomorrow. Perhaps I’m reading too literally and it’s a simple message that theology can kill or it can save), but I just don’t see how to identify the killer and the saver. So while my initial post and this one seems to say I’m leaning to disagreeing, I’m truly not sure I understand what I’m disagreeing or agreeing with. (And my worst fear is that I’m the stupid block-head who can’t see what’s obvious.)

  13. Blake on February 12, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Keith: Look at it this way. We could have stayed in a life without death and the challenges to which we are heir as mortals. We chose to confront opposition in all things because it would ultimately bless our lives. That is the message of opposition in all things: what challenges us most ends up being our greatest blessing. Now I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I treat the atonement through this metaphor in the second chapter of volume 4 my book that will be published in May. It is the perfect symbol of atonement to which the Book of Mormon refers no less than 4 times as the model of atonement. I also develop this insight into a a plan of atonement theodicy in the final chapter of my book. {Blush}

    Here is the message: The very thing that could kill us if we have a hard heart is the very thing that saves us if we are just willing to soften our hearts and look to Christ. It is really beautiful. I should be flattered that Adam makes it the symbol for my brilliance that shines through my falleness. But if we take it literally, it becomes idolatry and a very grievous mistake.

  14. Chris H. on February 12, 2012 at 1:09 am

    “Labelling someone a sinner abuses the word and greatly misunderstands the restored gospel.”

    So it is not that Adam is continental in his philosophy, he just does not understand the restored gospel. I hope that doesn’t make him a sinner.

    Blake,

    I tend to think there is something to the idea of a divide between analytical and continental approaches within Mormon theology…but that is a post-dissertation undertaking.

  15. Adam Miller on February 12, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Blake: ” I also develop this insight into a a plan of atonement theodicy in the final chapter of my book.”

    I think this is exactly the way to go.

    Blake: “It is really beautiful. I should be flattered that Adam makes it the symbol for my brilliance that shines through my falleness.”

    I hope you are. I certainly intended it that way. Everything I’ve (clumsily) written so far, I’ve intended as a love letter. This whole year is meant in that spirit.

  16. BHodges on February 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Adam, interesting thoughts. My initial reading had me a bit perplexed. To be specific, I think the “sinner” thing is a really risky figure to use because of all the baggage it brings. For instance, there is the cultural idea that “apostates” fall away because of some sort of moral failing, overlooking the fact that we all have moral failings but not all of us “fall away.” There is also a general Mormon stigma against writing intentionally-theological works, Mormons generally don’t need to be warned about the dangers of theology, especially non-LDS theology, so they might walk away saying “if I don’t get bit in the first place I won’t need to be rescued. Might as well skip this theology business altogether (not realizing that, at base, we’re all theologians).

    Blake suggested this may be a continental/analytic divide and Adam disagrees, but I think there is still a little something to his suggestion, in that Adam’s style can make points that resonate perfectly with anti-theology folk *and* pro-theology folk, depending on what set of assumptions they bring to the table.

  17. aquinas on February 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    Exactly.

  18. BHodges on February 12, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    ps- I wish this blog had an option to email me when other people reply.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    When Christ assumed our sins, and absorbed our punishment, he was taking into himself the “serpent” of sin that afflicts each of us and causes us to die spiritually. Looking to the bronze serpent on the staff, to the Savior on the cross, is healing for us as we recognize our own serpents and sins have been taken by Christ, and we can thus escape them if we focus our lives on Christ and accept the relationship with him that he invites us to enter. It is taking Christ’s two-man yoke upon us (Matthew 11) which is easy and light because Christ is bearing the burden of our sins.