Exploring Mormon Thought: Benediction

October 19, 2012 | 7 comments
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William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"In linguistics, a word that is only attested once in a text is called a hapax legomenon. In older texts (like Hebrew and Mayan texts), these hapaxes can be especially hard to decipher because that single attestation may be the word’s only occurrence anywhere. Lacking context, it’s hard to tell what a hapax means.

Blake’s books have been, I think, a Mormon hapax. They have been for us the sole attested example of contemporary, book-length, academically informed Mormon theology. The three books we now have in hand are a singular, 1200 page wager that Mormon theology, as a scholarly discipline, is possible.

But we are the ones who must now decide if we’ll take that bet. Because, at this point, like any hapax, it’s hard to say what Blake’s work will mean. We need context. And that context will have to be supplied by our work. Will Blake be a one-off Mormon anomaly? A theological wunderkind? Or will a generation of real Mormon thinking follow in his wake?

If real thinking is going to follow, then we’ll have to think hard not just about what we should think but about how we should think it. I agree wholeheartedly with Blake that one reason we may yet lack much Mormon theology is because we haven’t yet found a form adequate to its expression. Those old wineskins can’t handle our new wine. We need a new voice to speak our new truths.

As Joe Spencer pointed out in an early post, Blake argues just this in the introduction to Exploring Mormon Thought, volume one. Blake’s three volume plan originally looked like this:

The first volume . . . deals with the Mormon concept of God. The second volume . . . deals with the problems of Christian theism . . . . These first two volumes are in the analytic tradition of philosophical theology. . . . The third volume is radically different. . . . [It] is a departure from theology as it has usually been done in the Christian tradition. . . . Indeed, my style [there] is precisely a break with all previous types of philosophy and theology to better embody the break of Mormonism with prior theological traditions. This work engages in what I call “revelatory discourse” as a means to more faithfully speak to persons within the faith. (xi)

This third volume in the present series, for whatever reasons, is not that third volume (in fact, we’re now expecting a fourth book). But what Blake proposed is still what we need: a serious departure from the tradition that breaks with previous types of theology (analytic, continental, whatever!) in order to better embody Mormonism’s revelatory discourse.

The introduction to Blake’s currently existing third volume starts on a similar note.

My project has been a rescue operation to save the heart of God’s revelations to the Hebrews from the Greek mind. The Hebrews relied upon immediate experience of God and divine self-disclosure for their understanding of God, but God remained a mystery in the way that persons who are free are always mysterious when combined with unfathomable power and glory. Yet God could be known as a unique individual, spoken with face to face. Whatever we know in relation to God derives from a relation to God. It is either revealed in divine self-disclosure or we remain ignorant. (ix)

This may be too strident, but I think it hits the right note: Mormon theology must enact what it presents. It must work to catalyze the very kinds of divine self-disclosure that it investigates. Mormon theology must be, as Jim Faulconer puts it, a kind of “apocalyptic” theology that is not only persuasive but performative.

As Jim says in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: “Theology may be about many things, but it is not about [God] if it does not reveal him, and it does not reveal him if it does not announce the nearness of his kingdom. . . . Our theology must be a figure of the Apocalypse, a theology that reveals God himself, even if only as a [type], rather than revealing only our understanding of him” (113).

Our new wineskins must do this kind of work: (1) they must performatively call into question our idolatrous assumptions about God so that (2) there is room for God to show us, face to face, the jarring nearness of his kingdom.

I’m hesitant, though, to join Blake in saying that this kind of work pits the Greek mind against the Hebrew heart. From what I can tell, God has been just as busy revealing himself to Greek minds as he has to Hebrew hearts (let alone to Greek hearts and Hebrew minds!).

Rather, what we need is a fresh discourse that, as David Foster Wallace hoped for his monumental novel Infinite Jest, will make people’s “heads throb heartlike.” The aim must be to join head and heart in a feedback loop that ramifies the thoughtfulness of our hearts and the clear-sighted tenderness of our heads.

In this sense, the real challenge and real promise of Blake’s work remains.

Show us, Blake, not just what solid analytic theology on a large scale looks like but how to do theology in this new way that breaks with tradition and catalyzes divine self-disclosure! Show us how to engage in theology as a revelatory discourse!

No one is more hopeful for your success than I am.

Love,
Adam

 

7 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Benediction

  1. Blake on October 19, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Adam: Thanks to you and Joe for your attention on work in this series of posts. I cannot help but think that there is a under-tow here. I have written 3 volumes that engage in the analytic assessment of Mormon thought. Is your intention to say that these 3 volumes are all just so much clap-trap until the new mode of “revelatory discourse” is “revealed”?

    I suggest that I am not alone in this endeavor. David Paulsen had engaged this approach before and during the same time I was working on my books — and he has widely published regarding Mormonism. Brett MacDonald and others have joined to co-author works that take the same kind of approach in works published in professional philosphical journals.

    I sense that the real divide is between the broadly Continental approach and the analytic approach — an issue now much discussed in philosophy. It seems to me that you and Joe have naturally gravitated to sentiments reflecting sensitivity to Continental issues, but have steered clear of the real meat of my books — the arguments themselves. Perhaps that is both inevitable and understandable. But it is not engagement of these books on their own terms. Your perspective has been valuable in a way that an analytic engagement of the arguments could not be — but for all that, it also lacks the questions of whether what is being is said is actually the case, is defensible, or is worthy of being adopted. In my view, in other words, it side-steps the issues being addressed.

    It is very common for analytic types (of which I am one) to complain incessantly that Continental philosophy is beyond vague and often engages in navel gazing asking questions such as “what could this philosopher possibly mean by this passage”? Getting to stop and ask such questions has value, but so does the question: “does this belief have a sufficient reason for me to adopt it as true?” “What are the merits of this belief?” “Is it coherent?” “What does it entail logically?” These are all very worthwhile questions that Continental philosophers most often bracket because they have “prior” or “other” questions that they want to address. I think that is what has happened in this series. Thus, it does not engage the series on its own terms, but on “other” terms — or in terms of “otherness”.

    I have all but decided at this point not to publish the 4th volume. “Revelatory discourse” is something that I give as being, well, revealed and revealing. But in our tradition it may be that it is appropriate that only the leaders can aspire to that in terms of publication.

  2. Jason U on October 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Sorry to hear that there will not be a 4th volume. I have enjoyed the books and have benefitted from the discussion here on T&S.

  3. Robert C. on October 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    I too have enjoyed this series — thank you Adam, Joe and Blake.

    And, Blake, I really do hope you’ll publish your 4th volume — though I would also welcome work by you that explicitly works out the relation between lay theology and the authority of our leaders!

  4. Adam Miller on October 19, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks, Blake. I certainly have no intention of dismissing the importance of the first three books. I’ve meant every word of praise. But I also meant to take your own fierce commitment to the additional “revelatory” discourse with all the seriousness it deserves. It’s my genuine regret that Joe and I weren’t quite the interlocutors your work has needed. It does deserve better than I’ve been able to give it.

  5. Ben S on October 19, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I’ll throw my vote in for a fourth book as well. I hope if it’s not published, you’ll make it available some other way.

  6. Riley on October 19, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Worst. News. Ever.

  7. Suleiman on October 20, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Here is another vote for the fourth volume…