Exploring Mormon Thought: Darwin

May 9, 2012 | 21 comments
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We’ve come to the last chapter of Blake Ostler’s first volume of Exploring Mormon Thought. After five months of reading and writing about this first book, I’m even more convinced than when we began that Blake’s work is and will continue to be the indisputable starting point for our generation’s work in Mormon philosophical theology.

Blake is familiar with the broader Christian tradition, he is intimately familiar with Mormon sources, and he engages with contemporary work in the field critically and creatively. He performs a yeoman’s work of systematically laying out the basic problems associated with thinking philosophically about a Mormon conception of God and he pioneers insightful formulations in response. Above all, Blake’s work is worth reading because it is clearly a labor of love. Charity, that pure of love of Christ, is the work’s horizon.

In chapter 14, Blake turns from the critical work of the previous chapter to the work of constructing “A Mormon Christology.” The key to a Mormon Christology – a Christology capable of addressing the thicket of problems traditionally associated with how to think about Christ’s incarnation – is our “redefinition of what properties are essential to divinity and which are essential to full humanity” (451). Traditionally, “insuperable problems for Christology are created by the conventional belief which posits an ontological dichotomy between the Creator and the created which can never be bridged no matter how much progress humans make” (451).

Mormonism, on Blake’s account, posits an ontological continuity between the human and the divine such that “‘divinity’ is the fulness of what it is to be human” (456). Like God, humans are, in a crucial sense, eternal and uncreated. And though God has fully matured into his divinity and humans have not, humans nonetheless possess in embryo the potential for bearing all the attributes requisite for divinity.

“Humanity” and “divinity” refer to the sets of properties which are severally necessary and jointly sufficient to be human and divine respectively. However, they are not distinct sets but are rather sets describing what the other can become when fully developed. For example, an acorn looks very different than an oak. The properties of an acorn are different but not logically exclusive of those of the oak. However, an acorn, is not a different natural kind than an oak; it is simply a fully mature oak. Similarly, a son grows into what his father is. In this same sense, divinity is humanity fully matured in relationship with God the Father. (456)

I think Blake is on the right track here, emphasizing the continuity between the human and the divine and connecting Mormon Christology to the uncreated and co-eternal character of those beings that, traditionally, are only “creatures.” But, for my part, I worry that Blake’s articulation may be hobbled by its heavy reliance on atemporal ideas like “eternal essences” and “natural kinds.”

In some ways, Blake’s entire formulation of a Mormon Christology hinges on his claim that gods and humans belong to the same natural and essential kind.

What’s the trouble with this? I think it’s fair to say that no idea has been more thoroughly called into question by the world-opening revelations of Darwinian biology than the idea of “natural kinds.”

After Darwin, all talk of natural kinds becomes local, historical, and messy. There are species, but species are a moving target grouped by something more like a series of overlapping family resemblances than fixed and comprehensive essences. Kinds get temporalized such that essence no longer gets to precede existence. For Darwin, essence is always the local and contingent product of existence.

Now, theologically, this is an easy enough problem to fix. Either deny the queasy temporality of evolution outright or reframe evolution as only a local operation subordinate to the big picture of a classical metaphysics where essences are globally eternal and still shape in advance the possibilities for any change or progression. Taking this latter kind of course, the biological facts on the ground are absorbed and recontextualized by the imperatives needed in order to make our theology work as we expect it should.

This is a venerable and defensible approach that has many advantages to recommend it and Blake’s frequent appeals to the minimal conditions necessary to guarantee a God worthy of saving faith (a la the Lectures on Faith) strike me as being exemplary in this regard.

But, for my part, I’m interested in practicing theology in a way that inverts this tack. Rather than asking, “What would the world have to be like in order for our ideas about God and salvation to make sense?” I want to ask, “What would our ideas about God and salvation need to be like in order for what we know about the world to make sense?”

This difference may be most clearly manifest, for instance, in my previous post about sex. Rather than take our theological ideas about divine intimacy as a model for human intimacy, I speculate instead about the nature of divine intimacy given a phenomenology of human intimacy.

(Though the case at hand is also a useful example. Rather than take our theological ideas about the eternal character of God’s essence as a model for natural kinds, I’m interested in speculating instead about the nature of divine essences given what we know about the mobile contingency of species.)

The difference between these two approaches also marks, I think, the difference in temperament between Blake’s approach and mine. Because I begin with the world and then ask about God in light of it, theology is for me weak and speculative and tentative in a way that it need not be if we simply proceeded from the other direction. There is room for a kind of confidence when we begin instead with theological imperatives.

This is not to say I find Blake’s approach unfruitful – in fact, I hope I’ve made very plain the fact that I think Blake’s approach is very fruitful and, in some respects, crucial. But it is to say that, when I practice theology, I’m generally doing something that is significantly different from what Blake does and this difference is, I think, only tangentially related to the differences between Continental and analytic philosophy.

Regardless, my aim here is not to privilege one over the other but to distinguish the approaches and set them dancing as willing partners.

21 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Darwin

  1. Eric James Stone on May 9, 2012 at 11:08 am

    “However, an acorn, is not a different natural kind than an oak; it is simply a fully mature oak.”

    I don’t think this was translated correctly. :-)

  2. Adam Miller on May 9, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Eric, I agree. But that is what it says. You get the idea though.

  3. clark on May 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    The idea of natural kinds is tricky. While evolution called into question the idea of species as natural kinds of course stuff in physics is still assumed to be natural kinds even though things got tricky there too. The idea of cosmological evolution – not really evolution as the term is used in biology but the idea that a lot of the stuff around is simply due to the way early energy froze and the related symmetries. I think we can still keep the idea of natural kind but it’s become complex. Say is carbon a natural kind. Well yes, but what kind of carbon? How many neutrons?

  4. nate on May 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Adam, are you saying that you mistrust a theological appeal to “natural kinds” because it contradicts evolution?

    I think you are comparing apples to oranges. Darwin is talking about the evolution of species, and Blake is talking about the evolution of individuals.

    Darwinism only concerns itself with the eternal direction of the species as a whole, not about the eternal nature of the immortal soul, and it’s evolution from man to God.

  5. Tim on May 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Knowing what we know about evolution, though, what is “man”? Is the Neanderthal “man”? What about our ancestors that lived 20,000 years ago? Back then, did our ancestors have the kind of immortal souls that could evolve from man to God?

    Since evolution is so slow and gradual, at what point did man become the actual “child” of God? Was it sudden? Is that who Adam and Eve were–the first creatures with the ability to become like God? Or was it somehow gradual, like evolution?

  6. Adam G. on May 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    If you are starting with this world as your key to understanding heaven, well, things naturally seem to fall into kinds down here. Evolution complicates that experience somewhat, but our basic experience is of fairly discrete classes of beings.

  7. Blake on May 9, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    How can you get much past your shoelaces in theology if you begin with the world rather than what God has revealed? BTW the notion of natural kinds is right out of Genesis.

  8. Suleiman on May 9, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Now Blake, don’t go and mess up a theological discussion with reference to the scriptures.

  9. Tim on May 9, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    “How can you get much past your shoelaces in theology if you begin with the world rather than what God has revealed?”

    Yeah, heaven forbid we actually look at what God created…

  10. Bradley on May 9, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Darwin would not approve of today’s Darwinism. Being a Lamarckian, he believed in natural kinds. The reductionist rejection of the spiritual side of biology was not his doing.

  11. Thomas Parkin on May 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    The world is a) fallen and b) telestial. I’m tired and not wanting to think about whether these are one and the same thing – I don’t think they are; but in any case they both severely limit the assumption that we can know about God by observing the world. They are points of view that limit a statement like ‘we know God from His creation.’

    Rather I think we have a kind of gnostic picture, wherein the essential part of us comes to this world from a distance, is a ‘stranger and pilgrim’ on it, and returns from it to the original home. In this model, lessons about God begin in observation of self and of self beset in the world. Jospeh Smith himself said something to this effect, paraphrasing ‘if man does not understand the nature of God he does not understand himself.’ We are beasts of the cosmos at the same time that we are beasts of the earth – but the essential self is cosmic. It is easy to see how the Gnostics came to their idea of matter – and, of course, we have to elude that.

    I’m tired, that’s all I’ve got, for now.

  12. nate on May 10, 2012 at 7:04 am

    It’s true that the idea of “natural kinds” is perhaps the greatest contradiction between LDS theology and the material world as it is understood in science. Even if many LDS people believe in evolution, they still believe that the human form is not “local” but eternal and universal (God happens to be in the form of a local homo-sapien).

    Interestingly, this contradictions disappears with an appeal to Brigham Young’s Adam-God Theory, which posits that God is in the form of a local homo-sapien, because he happens to be one of those homo-sapiens, namely, Adam.

  13. Adam Miller on May 10, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Alright, Blake. Alright.

  14. Meldrum the Less on May 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I assume that “Mormon thought” is congruent with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Having read nothing in this seemingly interesting book, it is with extreme risk I ask the obvious question.

    Why does it take 14 chapters before we discuss Christology in the Church of Jesus Christ in a book destined to be the “indisputable starting point for our generation’s work in Mormon philosophical theology”? Shouldn’t that be where we begin?

    I beg your forgiveness if a simple reading of the book renders my question mere quibbling.

  15. Blake on May 11, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Meldrum: I think I am perhaps the one to answer that question. The discussion of Christology requires getting clear on what we mean by “god”, “divine person”, the various attributes of God as both classically conceived and also as the revelation in the Mormon tradition present them. It also requires some idea of the classical struggle to develop anything like an intelligible and coherent claim that “God became man” (a claim that appears in Mosiah 14 and 16). It also requires some idea of the challenge of critical biblical scholarship to make sense of the man Jesus of Nazareth in relation to this claim. I make the claim that Mormonism can make sense of these various resources and alone can make sense of the claim that God became a mortal human.

    The logical issue is the logical incoherence that arises when we assert that any human person has the attributes of God since the two are mutually exclusive in traditional thought. The biblical problem is making sense of what the various scriptural sources claim. It takes the prior discussion to identify the issues and problems so that a meaningful discussion can take place. Does that explain it?

    I agree with Adam that to get a grasp on what a human is we can begin with the mundane and just observe carefully — though just what the heck we are isn’t so easy given this kind of empirical mind-set. However, I don’t think that one can begin by looking for God in the mud unless god is anthropomorphic or made in our image. We are theomorphic in his image and what we may yet be has not yet appeared. That is why looking at mundane appearances won’t get us to God.

  16. Adam Miller on May 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks, Blake. I wouldn’t describe my approach to theology as empirical (that is much too narrow), but I would describe it as a kind of immanent theology.

    I guess I’ve got two questions:

    1. I agree that scriptures are crucial to the practice of theology, but it seems to me that scriptures are, in fact, given. That is, scriptures are themselves immanent. Would you agree?

    2. Granted that Genesis talks about “natural kinds.” It’s a natural way to talk. Evolution, like heliocentrism is profoundly counter-intuitive. Do you agree in general with the Hebrew cosmology advanced in Genesis (a terracentrism with water sealed off above the sky by a dome, etc.)? If not (I assume you don’t), how do you pick and choose which parts of the cosmology to accept at face value and which parts to retool?

  17. Blake on May 11, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Adam: To answer your first question, I have to know what you mean by “immanent.” I confess to not having any clear or intuitive idea of what you are addressing. It seems to me that your approach is already so theory laden that it is difficult to assess outside of the assumptions of that approach.

    Second, I have already questioned the Hebrew cosmology as an acceptable framework for a current informed view in my 4th volume. So no. I suggest that natural kinds is not sophisticated. It is more of a Sesame Street assessment: one of these things is not like the others. What I mean by human need not be mucked up by evolutionary considerations as to whether Neanderthals and other proto-humans are similar enough. After all, chimpanzees share 99% of their DNA with us, but no one mistakes them for humans. By human I mean just what we are now.

    When Genesis says that we are made in God’s image it means the kind of image that a statue was meant to reflect. The Genesis kind term is “min” which means can replicate “after the order of its kind”. If something can mate without being sterile then it is the same kind of thing given this approach.

    As you likely know, the Hebrew terms for “likeness” and “image” are demut and selem. They mean “looks like” and “belongs to the same natural order as.” That is the natural kind term I had in mind — not some biological formula of DNA resemblance of which Genesis has no notion. That term is reaffirmed in modern revelation in many ways. When we say that God became human (or “man”) we have some idea what that means by just looking at ourselves.

    When we say “God” I believe that term is unpacked only by reference to revelation. One does not find God by beginning with the pebbles on the street and working at it from there. If we limit God to what we are as a basis of our inquiry then we fail to notice the ways in which we differ from God — which are vast. I believe that the difference between our intellect and knowledge is much greater than the difference between humans and snails for instance. So we begin with the texts, the revelations, the divine disclosures of God about himself to humans because there really is no other way forward.

  18. Meldrum the Less on May 13, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Reply Blake #15: Thanks,

    I might have understood about 60% of what you wrote. I get it that maybe some foundation needs to be in place philosophically first. Maybe several chapters. I guess until I read and comprehend the book I will have to trust that 2 Nephi 25:26 really does describe it.

    Otherwise, I remain stuck in the same place I am everytime I hear a somewhat well-thought out talk or lesson at church that I do happen to understand and then later wonder how the heck was that centered on Christ? Even recent BYU graduates have this amazing ability to discuss on deep levels all manner of gosepel topics and spin complex beautiful doctrinal webs and entirely avoid much mention of Christ at all. Maybe He is up in the bleachers on the third row somewhere, and not in the middle of the game.

    Please keep assuring me that this is not true of the “indisputable starting point for our generation’s work in Mormon philosophical theology.”

  19. Tim on May 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    “If something can mate without being sterile then it is the same kind of thing given this approach.”

    So say group 1 can successfully mate with group 2, group 2 with group 3, and group 3 with group 4. Now imagine (and you don’t actually have to imagine, as this example exists in real life) that group 1 cannot mate successfully with group 4 because the two groups are too different. One kind, or two? If one, can we create another “kind” by killing off groups 2 and 3? If two “kinds,” where do you draw the line between the two?

  20. RW on May 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Kind: some sort of essential object in the cave, which shadow we can sort of recognize.

    Do we believe in the cave paradigm anymore? Doesn’t it say more about who we are than the ultimate nature of being?

    Doesn’t the fact that there are unrelated “kinds” of species, whose only relationship is that of convergent evolution in a specific niche, sort of dampen the use of “kinds” as a designation?

    That being said, what I love about Mormonism is the humanism raised to eternities. It’s just us. With this I agree.

    I also agree that we can learn about the nature of God by observing His creation, i.e. God is a Darwinist, among many other things. Infer from that.

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 23, 2012 at 5:07 am

    No organism that is based on DNA can be immortal and invulnerable to the ravages of time and random mutation from exposure to radiation (including the radiation from the natural radioactive isotopes of potassium and carbon in our own cells). Clearly, the essential nature of any immortal being, including a resurrected human, let alone a God, cannot be made of DNA. Since DNA is essential to biological life and reproduction, and evolution, it is clear that eternal people and God are beyond DNA, in some dimension that is orthogonal to the direction of biological evolution.

    There is a strong analogy between our pre-mortal spirits and our mortal bodies, made clear by the vision of Jehovah by the Brother of Jared. And the description in scripture of our eternal resurrected form being recognizably ourselves, restored in every limb and joint and hair, affirms a strong analogy between our mortal selves and our eternal, resurrected physical selves. The MEDIUM that transmits and preserves our eternal selves through all these diffetent stages of eternal life is diffetent from DNA. It is not fallible material that depends on constant reproduction within the colony of cells that forms an indivodual human person. And it is augmented in the physical resurrection by a substance that is MATERIAL with analogues of the physical systems that enable us to experience this material world.

    This eternal and essential self that connects us to God is NOT made of DNA and therefore is not subject to evolution by random mutation and natural selection. What could be the nature of this non-immaterial matter that comprises our spirits, and persists through stages of pre-mortal childhood, mortal birth, life and death, dwelling in the Spirit World, and then having a transformation by resurrection into beings both physical and yet immortal? It is a different kind of matter, according to Joseph Smith. Acvording to modern physics, some 80% of the material universe is made of “dark matter”, some substance which has none of the attributes of normal matter, except for gravitational mass. There may be several diffetent varieties of such matter, just as the menagerie of ordinary subatomic particles is numerous. There is lots of room in this dark area of reality to accommodate beings like us, including all our pre-mortal and post-mortal siblings in their billions.

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