Exploring Mormon Thought: Love

May 23, 2012 | 3 comments
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I’m more than happy to be turning from the divine attributes to the question of divine love. I wasn’t particularly concerned about whether God possesses the several “omni’s” before beginning this project, and, for all I’ve learned along the path laid out by Ostler’s first volume, I’m no more concerned now than I was before. Of course, I think in the end that Ostler himself would have to say that he shares my sentiments in this regard—at least to some degree. His project as he describes it in the prefaces to the several volumes of Exploring Mormon Thought is one of putting up with the sorts of ontotheological questions the tradition raises in order eventually to get to what he takes to be the beating heart of Mormon theology: the love of God. As with Ostler, the question of God’s love—and especially the question of grace—is one to which I’m not only willing but thrilled to give my attention.

Ostler opens the first chapter of The Problems of Theism and the Love of God with exactly the right question: “It is commonplace in Christian theology to start from metaphysical concepts, such as the notion that God is a perfect being or that God is the metaphysical explanation of all existence. … What if, instead, we started from the most basic commitment of Jesus’s teachings—that God is the type of being who can enter into loving relationships of mutual reciprocity and intimate self-disclosure with us?” (pp. 1-2). I couldn’t agree more with Ostler that “such an approach [is] the appropriate starting place for Mormon ‘theology’” (p. 2).

That said, let me dedicate this post to outlining what I believe will be the difference between my own thinking about love and Ostler’s. I’ll let Adam speak for himself, but I suspect that he largely shares my position.

As is the case in The Attributes of God, The Problems of Theism and the Love of God attempts to think relationships starting from Martin Buber’s distinction between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. But whereas in The Attributes of God this was a relatively minor point, mentioned only on occasion and in the course of doing philosophical work on other questions, it is the official starting point in The Problems of Theism and the Love of God. And I think there are some major problems with this starting point.

My worry about Buber is his Kantian grounding. Ostler himself identifies this grounding: “Immanuel Kant elucidated an ethical imperative that arises in human relationships: We must never treat persons as mere means, as mere objects, but always also as ends in and of themselves. The reason for this imperative is that if we use persons merely to accomplish some other purpose, then we have subordinated a person having absolute value to some ‘thing’ else less valuable. Buber’s view of persons also arises out of the commitment that, when persons are used, they cease to be persons and become mere things for us” (p. 15). There are reasons—good reasons—to be critical of Kant’s basic conception.

The question that has been—and has again and again to be—put to Kant is this: Whence the “absolute value” of persons? Kant, of course, had an answer to this, but it’s an answer few philosophers would be likely to agree with: the presence of rationality. If that answer is to be rejected, both because rationality has been shown to be far more conditioned and constructed than Kant was willing to allow and because it isn’t clear why rationality should be regarded as an end in itself, what is to takes its place as the guarantee of the “absolute value” of persons? The implicit Buberian answer to this question is, I think, clearly at work in Ostler’s thought: particularity or uniqueness. In Ostler’s words: “What I bargain for in a covenant relationship is you as the person that you are” (pp. 12-13); “It is you as the very person you are in your uniqueness that I desire to engage in mutual fellowship” (p. 14); “No one else can take your place for me because it is you as a person that I relate to” (p. 15). If it isn’t the other’s share in rationality, which is an end in itself, that obligates me ethically to her, it would seem that it’s her not-being-anyone-else, her particularity.

This answer is just as philosophically problematic as Kant’s. First, it isn’t clear why particularity or uniqueness—put most radically: unsubstitutability—should make something lovable. Second, and more important in my eyes, some kind of account needs to be provided justifying the supposed unsubstitutability of individual persons.

Now, I should note that one thinker—who was, it’s worth noting, an important critic of Buber, despite being influenced profoundly by him—has attempted to respond quite fully to these two problems: Emmanuel Levinas. And it seems to me that Levinas’ answers to these questions are not only consistent but compelling. But I wonder whether Levinas’ answers to these questions can be adopted by the Latter-day Saint. Jim Faulconer is the resident Mormon Levinasian if there is one, and he himself has pointed out the difficulties of accepting Levinas directly into Mormon theology—pointing out the likely necessity of tempering Levinas’ theism with a bit of Heidegger’s “paganism.” I’ll leave to Faulconer the task of addressing these difficulties—my own philosophical itinerary takes me elsewhere. For now I’m content just to agree that there are problems with adopting Levinas uncritically.

Another thinker—one whose thought has sometimes, quite problematically, been equated with that of Levinas!—has addressed this whole business in a rather different way: Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s entire project can be understood as an attempt to account for, precisely, the passage from the “I-It” to the “I-Thou” relationship—as an attempt to explain Freud’s famous formula: wo Es war, soll Ich werden; “where It was, there I come to be.” But rather than attempting thereby to justify the Buberian conception of the absolute value of unsubstitutable persons, Lacan aimed only to account for it.

I won’t go into the details of Lacan’s account here, but I’ll state his—in my book crucial—conclusions: the “I-Thou” relationship is ultimately the imaginary (read that: image-inary) side-effect of the inconsistent symbolic structure of discourse. The Buberian picture—even once it has been qualified and clarified by Levinas—is ultimately a distracting reflection of much more deeply rooted matters.

Now, let me be quite clear (I know I’m never clear, but I’m trying hard here). To agree with Lacan on these points is not to reject the possibility of love. Rather, it’s to claim that any account of love will have to begin from something other than the Buberian “I-Thou” relation. Love is something other than a kind of face-to-face affirmation of each other’s intrinsic value. If we’re going to get off the ground with love, with love in all its philosophical complexity, we’re going to have to provide a rather different account of it.

Now let me be quite clear about another point. I don’t mean here to say that Ostler’s account is simply wrong, or that it’s unsophisticated. As I’ve already pointed out, I think that the Buberian conception of things can be fleshed out in philosophical rigor, as it has been in Levinas’ work. My concern is that I’m not sure that the resulting picture is ultimately reconcilable with Mormon theological presuppositions. It seems to me that Ostler can indeed embrace a Buberian conception of love, but I wonder what Mormon commitments he’ll have to give up along the way. (One quick example: I suspect it’s largely because the Buberian conception has become so widely accepted that Latter-day Saints are more prepared today simply to dismiss early Mormon polygamy than they were in previous eras of Mormon history. I don’t know that Mormon polygamy could make sense in a Buberian picture. That’s to say neither that polygamy has to be defended nor that some such incommensurability is reason enough to dismiss the Buberian picture. I mean only to illustrate here, and then only between parentheses.)

Obviously, there’s a good deal more to be said about all that, and I’m already out of space (and time!). Just as obviously, I have the responsibility to say something about what I take love to be, and I’m still already out of space (and time!). As a result, all I’m offering here is a kind of preliminary criticism, preparatory to a much more robust engagement—one that will likely have to take place at a later date.

3 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Love

  1. Dave on May 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I’m thrilled the series will continue through Vol. 2. After I review Levinas and Lacan maybe I will have something to say on the philosophical observations. But on a practical level, Kant’s dictum that we treat all people, all individuals as ends not means is fairly helpful, and for that reason few people dispute Buber’s adoption of that framework. “No, some people should be treated as things rather than as persons” is not a rejoinder I have encountered, so I’m assuming the objections you or Lacan have are more complex than simple rejection.

  2. Bradley on May 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    “Kant touch this.” — M.C. Hammer

    But I’m not sure love can be approached from a theological standpoint. The experience is so far beyond words that it cannot be written, and how can you have a theology without words?

  3. M Miles on May 23, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    If love can’t be approached from a theological standpoint, I’m not sure anything can.

    Joe Spencer,
    I look forward to the next part.