It seems hard to deny that some kind of structure, however fragile or unstable, organizes human experience. And it seems hard to deny that a major aspect—if not the determining characteristic—of the structure of experience is time.
Let’s grant all that for the purposes of this week’s discussion.
If we take as paradigmatic the structure of a formal system, it turns out that there are two possibilities when it comes to a structure, as the early twentieth century’s greatest mathematical minds taught us: if a structure is consistent, it is incomplete; if a structure is complete, it is inconsistent. More strictly, every structure robust enough to be worthy of the name as it were produces an undecidable element—an element that cannot determinately be said either to belong or not to belong to the structure in question; if it is decided, in the name of achieving systemic completeness, that this element belongs to the structure, inconsistency results; but if it is decided, in the name of maintaining systemic consistency, that this element doesn’t belong to the structure, incompleteness results. Thus, completeness and consistency are mutually exclusive when it comes to structures. (Note that this result is easiest to demonstrate when it comes to formal systems, but it equally holds for non-formal systems, as so much work in the so-called soft sciences has shown in the past century.)
Coming up against an undecidable, we have a decision to make. (Note that, paradoxical as it might sound, every decision is a decision on the undecidable. If one isn’t deciding on an undecidable, then one isn’t actually deciding, because the decision is made for one.) As I’ve laid it out so far, the decision can be said to be a decision about whether structural consistency is to be preferred over structural completeness—let’s call this the mathematical option—or, vice versa, structural completeness is to be preferred over structural consistency—let’s call this the poetic option. A third option—let’s call it the Kantian option—is available as well: one can decide against deciding the undecidable, taking the undecidable to be the limit or threshold or vanishing point of the structure.
How are we to think about the undecidable element of the largely (entirely?) temporal structure of human experience?
The classical theological gesture here is the one Ostler recounts—and heavily critiques—in chapter 11 of The Attributes of God. Assuming the temporal consistency of human experience and not at all afraid of asserting the incompleteness of human experience, theologians classically decide that the undecidable of human experience—God, classically defined—doesn’t belong. In a word, theologians classically decide that God is outside of time. Of course, this decision is difficult to square with scriptural, pre-theological understandings of God. But as the tradition has shown with remarkable consistency for thousands of years, scripture isn’t much of a roadblock for a theologian armed with reason.
There’s no mystery about the fact that Mormonism, at least as Joseph Smith conceived of it by the end of his life, contests this classical theological decision. To claim that God has a body “as tangible as man’s,” that in seeing God one would see him “in all the person, image, and very form of man,” that God sits in council with the ancient patriarchs in order to push forward with his plan for humankind—all of that puts the axe to the root of the classical theological tree.
What, however, does Mormonism plant in the ground thus cleared? That is a much more difficult matter.
I’ve already set up a kind of symmetry between the mathematical and the poetic options—between opting for consistency and opting for completeness. The classical theological gesture is, in the terms I’m employing here, a mathematical one. Does Mormonism then make the symmetrical gesture, a poetic one? Does Mormonism, in other words, simply decide that the undecidable of the temporal structure of human experience actually belongs to it? It might seem that way at first glance. After all, Mormons give a picture of God as being human-like, corporeal, even, on most accounts, temporal. Doesn’t that straightforwardly imply that the Mormon picture is simply the simple negative of the mathematical picture of classical theology?
Things are much, much more complex.
As it turns out, Ostler’s bet is on the Kantian option. I’ll come to that in a minute. First, I want to lay out the non-Ostlerian ways of making sense of Joseph Smith’s gesture, just to make clear how much more difficult this theological situation is than it seems at first.
First, can Joseph Smith’s basic theological gesture be understood to be another form of the mathematical option? I think it can.
What might be called the naïve interpretation of Joseph’s vision—what has become the naïve interpretation thanks first to Brigham Young’s stamping out the dragon seed of Prattian thought and second to the early twentieth century’s flattening out of Brigham’s subsequently established conception—doesn’t assert that God as classically defined belongs to the structure of human experience; instead, it asserts that God isn’t what he is classically defined to be precisely because he experiences the world from within the same structure as human beings. There’s no decision in this everyday Mormon conception of things for inconsistency. Indeed, one could easily make the argument that most Latter-day Saints, like the classical theological tradition before them, don’t question the consistency of human experience and have no problem with asserting the incompleteness of human experience. They just claim, if they’re familiar with and relatively thoughtful about what Joseph Smith had to say about God, that God experiences the world in something like the way humans do. And frankly, few Latter-day Saints bother with reflection on all that, being happy just to claim that Joseph Smith finally gave us to see that God has a body.
This everyday view naturally has problems. Really, it just displaces the problem of the undecidable. In itself, it is neither mathematical nor poetic—it doesn’t decide the undecidable. But it isn’t therefore Kantian, since it fails to decide not to decide. The result is that, generally, when Latter-day Saints begin to reflect in a theological vein on God, they focus on the question of whether God created all laws or whether God is subject to certain laws that are, in whatever sense, “higher” than him. This classically Mormon question is ultimately the question of whether the naïve view of Joseph Smith’s statements about God should be understood (1) to leave God in the position outside the structure of human experience assigned to him by classical theology (though with the minimal clarification that he has a body), or (2) to revise the definition of God so that something else can be identified as the undecidable of human experience while God is recognized to be human enough to be oriented to the same newly assigned undecidable.
Now, none of this should be taken to suggest that there is no room in Mormon theology for the poetic option—as if the mathematical option were the only viable one. I haven’t the space here to go into what the poetic option would look like in the first place (though I can gesture toward the work of Graham Priest as a place to start), let alone what it would look like in Mormonism, but I think it remains a real possibility, one worth exploring.
And then there’s the Kantian option, and it’s this that Ostler promotes—throughout the book to this point, but more explicitly and clearly here than previously. Ostler decides, it seems to me, against deciding between consistency and completeness, opting instead to keep the undecidable in its stark undecidability, hovering between inside and outside, marking the limit of the structure of human experience.
Ostler shares with the classical theological gesture the essential equation of the undecidable of the temporal structure of human experience with God. Where the naïve Mormon understanding of Joseph Smith outlined above breaks with the classical theological gesture principally in that it distinguishes God from the undecidable in reassigning God’s place in the structural picture, Ostler draws no such distinction, but answers the question of the undecidable differently. God is the undecidable, but it’s decided that God/the undecidable is the limit—rather than lies outside—of the structure of experience. Hence, rather than making God atemporal, as in the classical theological gesture, Ostler makes God omnitemporal. (Note that I’m constructively recasting, not summarizing. If you haven’t read the chapter in question, repent and read, and then re-read what I’ve said here.)
I’m intrigued. Intrigued, but unconvinced as yet. For the moment, the naïve Mormon conception, pushed toward sophistication and increased rigor, seems more appealing to me—perhaps simply because it’s more familiar, and perhaps because it makes for a little more straightforward reading of Abraham 3 than Ostler offers (in passing). I guess I’m intrigued, but I’ve not yet seen the reason to move in the direction Ostler does. Why not work out the philosophical bugs of the naïve conception? Can this approach be motivated a bit more?
I suspect it can be motivated, and convincingly so. In the meanwhile, I’ll reflect further on my own, perhaps too-wonted, naivete.