Exploring Mormon Thought: Two Paths in a Wood

October 10, 2012 | 23 comments
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William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"Blake Ostler does a lot of admirable critical work in Of God and Gods (Kofford, 2008), but the book’s main constructive contribution grows out of his decision to make our heady claims about the superlative attributes of God throb with a Hebrew heart.

He does this by (1) prioritizing the highest form of interpersonal love as the critical divine attribute in light of which all other attributes must be understood, and (2) arguing that, in order to give and receive this highest kind of love, even the Gods must remain genuinely other to each other.

In this decisive respect, our warm-blooded Mormon Gods depart from the tradition’s frozen creeds. As Blake puts it:

The Mormon view is most distinctive in its view that there are divine persons who are truly other to each other. . . . The face of the other is never compromised in Mormon thought; instead, the uniqueness and otherness of the other is celebrated. (257)

I think Blake is right to emphasize that love depends on never compromising the face of the other, but I worry that he ends up compromising quite a bit on this point and quite quickly.

For instance, it only takes a few pages before Blake severely quarantines this otherness behind a “spiritual force-field that penetrates into each of the divine persons and imparts the same spiritual energy and life to each of the divine persons” (277). In fact, this protective force-field renders Father, Son, and Holy Ghost so impervious to any of the internal risks of real alterity that

there are no barriers between them because they are perfectly transparent and open to each other. They are fully conscious of each other’s mental states and share an experience of all things that is identical, except to the extent that they have first-person reflexive properties. Only the Son knows that “I am the one who physically suffered in atonement”; however, all three shared in his experiences in the sense of knowing what he was experiencing. (276)

Maybe this is the kind of thing we have to say about the Godhead, but how much otherness is left here? And is it enough to sustain the highest kind of self-giving love? What does otherness amount to here? A razor-thin margin of bodies (but bodies rendered perfectly transparent and no longer limited by space or time) and indexical properties?

The sticking point here is cost. My claim is that the minimal condition for any truly other otherness is cost

Do divine relationships of perfect love still impose an internal cost? Is there still sufficient friction left in these relationships to require real costs of time, energy, and intelligibility between the members of the godhead?

And if there isn’t, if the seams no longer show and the paths between the Gods have been worn perfectly and pricelessly smooth, then have we lost a handle on what Blake rightly calls the “most distinctive” and perhaps most decisive aspect of the Mormon view of the Godhead: genuine otherness?

Because this whole series of posts is drawing to a close (and because I think this question has been at the heart of many of our discussions this past year), let me try to frame the problem one more time and as precisely as possible.

Blake holds the following positions:

(1) The members of the godhead, in order to be fully divine, must exhibit the most divine kind of love for each other.

(2) The most divine kind of love is love freely shared with someone who is genuinely other.

(3) Therefore, the members of the godhead must be genuinely other to each other.

This, I think, is an accurate summary of Blake’s basic position. However, Blake also wants to simultaneously claim that:

(4) The members of the godhead are perfectly transparent to one another, are fully conscious of each other’s mental states, and share without barriers an identical experience of all things.

I do not believe that (4) is logically compatible with (3). Complete identity and perfect transparency are not compatible with genuine alterity.

Blake, sensing this difficulty, adds an amendment to (4). Let’s call it (4a):

(4a) Despite their perfect transparency and identical experiences, each member of the godhead has first-person reflexive properties and a discrete body that are unique to them.

This is a useful qualification. However, I don’t believe it solves the problem.

Either these bodies and first-person reflexive properties are sufficiently opaque as to render their mutual identity and transparency imperfect or the members of the godhead do not, in fact, experience each other as genuinely other.

For the sake of maximal precision, let me spell out exactly what I mean by otherness in relation to (2). Let’s call it (2a).

(2a) The minimal condition for genuine otherness is cost. A is genuinely other than B only if the differences between A and B require real negotiation. Real negotiation requires real losses in terms of time, energy, and intelligibility when the differences between A and B are mediated.

The simplest way for Blake to respond to this dilemma would be to offer a different criterion of otherness in place of my own (2a). I welcome this. Or, alternately, he could explain what kinds of costs are involved on his account.

However, simply repeating that the members of the godhead have unique first-person reflexive properties and discrete bodies will not be enough. These are (potentially) examples of otherness, not criteria. Without knowing Blake’s criterion for otherness, simply re-asserting the examples won’t help us.

Blake needs a criterion for genuine, “uncompromised” otherness that is not logically incompatible with perfect transparency and identical experiences.

For my part, I doubt that there is such a criterion. I believe that, in order to preserve the centrality of (1), (2), and (3), we must modify (4), not water-down (2).

But, you say, qualifying (4) would give us a godhead that is even less absolute than Blake speculates! Probably. But that may well be the price of love – love that, in order to be real, must impose real costs.

23 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Two Paths in a Wood

  1. Andrew S. on October 10, 2012 at 9:14 am

    is alterity found in the actuality of a cost of negotiation with losses in time, energy, and intelligibility between persons…or is the possibility of such costs sufficient.

    Like, suppose when you first meet someone, they don’t make sense to you. They seem to zig when you zag, and it just doesn’t make sense.

    …but over time, as you continue striving with them (which yes, in the short term, requires time, energy, and intelligibility costs), you become better at understanding why and when they zig…you become better able at understanding them.

    As you get to better know someone, are they then less other? (like, is otherness something on a scale?) Is it a possibility that someone who was once other can become not an other (even if only in an asymptotic way over as time approaches infinity)?

    if not, can’t the godhead represent the progression of the (separate and distinct persons who are other to each) to understanding each “other” so well that they do have that transparency and consciousness.

  2. Adam G. on October 10, 2012 at 10:52 am

    I think these problems you see disappear with having a history. Even if they, and ultimately we, share perfectly, our routes to that perfect sharing will be different.

    You also underestimate the difference that having a body makes.

  3. Adam Miller on October 10, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Andrew S: Good questions. I don’t know how it works with gods, but the better I know my wife, the less transparent she seems to me.

    Adam G: I think you’re on to something here. Though my position is that Blake is the one who underestimates the difference having a body makes. Bodies matter so much and offer such high returns precisely because they impose such high costs.

  4. Blake on October 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Adam: I think that you raise an important issue that those serious about the Mormon revelation of God ought to grapple with. However, we have to clear away a good deal of confusion that I believe resides in our presentation before we can have that dialogue.

    What “transparency” amounts to is clear enough. Each of the divine persons is “all-knowing” in a sense that they know all that is knowable — and that includes knowing at least the thoughts of the other divine persons. The scriptures state very clearly that God knows our thoughts and it would be passing strange (not to mention taxing worshipworthiness) if the Father didn’t know the resurrected Son’s thoughts and vice versa. I suggest that we must say this of the divine persons on pain of rejecting the scriptures and coherence.

    However, it is more than unclear to me what you mean by a “Cost” that is exacted in interpersonal relationships of genuine otherness. As mortals, we are vulnerable to pain in relationships to others because they let us down, do harm to us (and us to them). There is no such risk of cost in relationship to God — he does not harm us. If we cannot truly trust him to do what is in our best interest all things considered, then I suggest the kind of trusting faith required by the first commandment cannot be rational or even possible. (The Lectures on Faith say as much!) So what the heck do you mean by “cost”?

    What do you mean by “negotiation”? If all you mean is that the divine persons can and sometimes do disagree at first and then come to a unity of will after talking it out, then I fail to see how transparency is incompatible with that kind of negotiation. You need an argument of some sort go establish this inconsistency rather than mere assertion that it is so.

    As for the “spiritual force-field”, that is merely an analogy to the light of God that is in and through all things and by which D&C 88 asserts that God not only knows all things because he penetrates them with intelligence and mind, but is the source of God”s power to govern all things. In the last three chapters I discuss the nature of this divine life, this zoe, that interpenetrates all things as the basis of deification when we are filled with a fullness of divine light. I suggest that it is a very central doctrine in the Mormon view(s) of God.

  5. Robert C. on October 11, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Blake, how are disagreement, if only at first, and transparency compatible? This seems to be the heart of the matter. If we disagree at first, isn’t this a manifestation of a lack of transparency?

    This makes me wonder the extent to which time is the underlying issue at stake. If differences exist, but these differences are always negotiable, and both (or all) parties are committed to in fact negotiating such differences, then it seems the kind of unity that Blake has in mind is achievable, and I take Adam as suggesting precisely this kind of limitation on whatever conception of transparency Blake has in mind. That is, the unconditional, eternal commitment to unity makes the live-time disagreements/differences always merely conditional and temporary, even if such differences are always manifesting themselves anew.

  6. Blake on October 11, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Robert: the upshot of Adam’s suggestion seems to be that if I know all of your thoughts and we have no secrets between us, then we will always agree. However, that is a non-sequitur as far as I can see. Given that the divine persons have distinct wills and it is possible to disagree, I don’t see how transparency somehow entails that there are not in fact initial differences in how they would go about matters. Take Jesus’s statement “not my will but thine be done.” This statement evinces both disagreement (if it were up to me alone I wouldn’t do it) and also complete subordination of will — “I will do whatever your will for me is.” This is a model of how I believe divine persons are in accord.

    I have another qualifier on my view. The divine persons could disagree; but they could not disagree and still exercise divine power. If they disagreed on a course of action and remained in disagreement, they could not achieve any purpose that requires the exercise of divine power or action. That follows because the attributes of divinity such as shared divine power and shared divine knowledge depend on the kind of loving agreement that allows them to share the divine life and light in common. Thus, it would be irrational for them to remain in disagreement.

    Along the path I also address issues of competing omnipotent persons — if they disagree they would thwart each other’s plans and neither could achieve what is desired.

  7. Adam Miller on October 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks, Blake. This is simple then. What exactly is your criterion for otherness? Not your example, your criterion?

  8. Blake on October 15, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Adam: I’m not sure that I need some “criterion” as if otherness can be captured in some formula. However, it seems to me that distinct wills that can differ with respect to first-order desires and say “no” to the other’s love is a minimal criterion. In addition, each divine person has distinct bodily location, bodily (spatio-temporal) actions that the other divine persons do not. That would seem to make them not merely “other,” but also distinct.

  9. Snyderman on October 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Blake (4): “There is no such risk of cost in relationship to God — he does not harm us. If we cannot truly trust him to do what is in our best interest all things considered, then I suggest the kind of trusting faith required by the first commandment cannot be rational or even possible.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. Some trials would certainly seem to be give to us by God, and what if one of those trials is what sends us over the proverbial edge? What if God… maybe not knew, but strongly suspected that the trial would send us over the edge? Could we still honestly say that He has our best interest in mind? What if a trial necessary for our salvation turns out to be the one that we decide is too much? If God strongly suspected that we would decide it would be too much, could we still argue that He had our best interests in mind? I’m not so sure…

    In other words, I think there is cost involved in a relationship with God. I certainly feel like there has been cost in my life. I also think that God has harmed me, intentionally even. Which does beg the question of how I can continue believing in perhaps a less than omnibenevolent God. Honestly, I don’t know, I’m still working on it. I’m of the opinion that some questions are meant to be lived, not answered. And yes, I do realize the irrationality of trusting a God who I believe has intentionally harmed me. But I’m not so convinced that it’s supposed to be rational.

  10. Adam Miller on October 19, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Thanks, Blake. Good, clear definitions (even given their limitations) are always helpful – though I thought I was the one painted as the obscurantist “poet” of the two of us? ;)

    As for distinct wills that can differ with respect to first-order desires: are you claiming, as Robert indicates, that agreement among the members of the godhead is a product of a negotiation between the wills? If so, I think this would be a big step toward defining otherness: there’s cost involved in a dialectic process of negotiation, costs in time, energy, sacrifice, etc. But this didn’t seem compatible to me with an assertion of perfect “transparency” and continuously perfect agreement between the members.

    With respect to bodies: I can’t tell what it means to have a body on your account. Presumably, bodies localize experience in a discrete location and thus contribute to alterity. But on your account the members of the godhead each have complete, unmediated, frictionless, and simultaneous access to every location. I don’t see how these two things are compatible.

    At any rate, thanks again for the conversation as we wind things down with this series.

  11. Blake on October 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Snyderman: You raise a very interesting question. However, I cannot help but feel that God gives us opportunities to grow, some of which could be crushing for a finite (very short) period of time. In my view mortality is such a short period of time — a time of probation.

    Moreover, I wonder if there is not a question of accountability to be addressed. For instance, if we “go over the edge” is that due to our choices about how we choose to respond? It seems to me that a thoroughgoing determinist could well say that God had to know the causes would be overwhelming and we had no choice but to be completely crushed by our circumstances. However, a libertarian about free will like me is more wont to say that we choose how to respond to whatever occurs to us. We had a chance, no matter how small, to choose a way that would be healthier than being crushed.

  12. Blake on October 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Adam: I suppose that the view that “negotiation” takes time and energy may be one way of weighing the cost. However, I think that negotiation has already occurred: The Son has agreed to subordinate his will to the Father’s will if there is a conflict of wills. That seems to be the scriptural response (Mosiah 16 strongly supports such a view as well a numerous other scriptures).

    Are you suggesting that God’s light and thus his knowledge and power are not in and through all things? Are you suggesting that having a body is somehow incompatible with God acting at a distance from his body immediately? To have a body means to be spatio-temporally located (and not much more as a bare minimum). It does not ential that God is limited to act through motions of a mortal-sized physical body. If it did, then the scriptures could not make any sense at all about God’s action in the world.

  13. Adam Miller on October 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Blake says: “Are you suggesting that God’s light and thus his knowledge and power are not in and through all things?”

    I’m just suggesting that their is always a cost in time, energy, intelligibility, or etc.

    Blake says: “Are you suggesting that having a body is somehow incompatible with God acting at a distance from his body immediately?”

    Yes. Or, God’s body is not anything like a “body” and we should no longer use the word. Or, at least, call it a “mystery.”

  14. Blake on October 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Adam: If God is limited to his bodily actions as the basis of his action in the world, then we have someone so limited that the word we ought to change is not merely “body” but “God.” I suggest we wind up with someone much less effective than Zeus. D&C 88 very clearly says that God’s power is manifest in and through all things. He answers prayers of people not in his immediate bodily presence. He moves seas out the way. He heals someone’s daughter in the next town over. He holds the planets in their orbits.

    None of these are bodily acts — yet they are God’s. So your proposed restriction is seriously at odds with scripture. Now there is of course a certain mystery since I cannot explain (and shouldn’t be expected to know how to explain) exactly how God acts. But I can explain well enough how light can affect things far away and that sub-atomic particles through quantum effects can act at a distance.

    If you are suggesting that God is located at a particular spot in the universe and is limited in acting to the speed of light from that location when he acts, then I have serious reservations about the plausibility of such an account.

    I agree that we must mean by God’s “body” something different than just a mortal body or even a simple spatio-temporally located body made up of “crass matter.” I address the issues related to God’s bodily existence and action in the universe here in paragraphs 1.3.a and 1.3.d: http://www.fairlds.org/authors/ostler-blake/reviews-of-the-new-mormon-challenge/necessarily-god-is-not-analytically-necessary-a-response-to-stephen-parrish

  15. Adam Miller on October 20, 2012 at 7:26 am

    Ah, yes. Section 88 and subatomic particles. I think you’re missing my basic question. I’m not objecting to your characterization of the Godhead’s perfect transparency and absolute immediacy. I’m objecting to the idea that they are compatible with your emphasis on genuine otherness. Keep the transparency and immediacy and keep God’s perfect love, just don’t try to characterize that love in terms of otherness. It seems much more consonant with your position to just argue that perfect love depends on the development of perfect transparency and immediacy (as in your account of sexual intimacy). Voila! Problem solved. Otherness is, as you point out, too problematic and messy.

  16. Blake on October 20, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Adam: I disagree about leaving “otherness” out. It is essential. I just don’t think that you have made the case that it is incompatible with perfect knowledge and transparency entailed thereby. You keep insisting that there is a problem and avoiding it would solve the problem — but I don’t think that you have shown that there is a problem here that needs to be solved.

  17. Adam Miller on October 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Perhaps. The basic problem is related to what I noted in this post: I don’t know what YOU mean by otherness. So it’s hard to judge. And FWIW, I don’t want to leave “otherness” out of it. I think your position might work better without it.

  18. Blake on October 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Adam: My position couldn’t survive without otherness since it is the ability of the divine persons to say “no” to each other that is the hallmark of their genuine love. I don’t know how much clearer to be about otherness — the divine persons each have distinct bodies, distinct bodily actions, distinct wills and distinct choices. They could choose not to love one another.

  19. Robert C. on October 23, 2012 at 6:10 am

    I somehow missed the rest of this discussion — thanks, you guys, for trying so hard to figure out your differences!

    It seems to me that the underlying difference between Adam and Blake can be understood as a certain inflection of mind-body dualism. For Blake, it seems there is a kind of transparency of minds but an otherness pertaining to bodies. And, on this articulation of the issue, the will is other in the same sense that the body is other, even while there is perfect information sharing between minds.

    So, the will includes things like bodily appetites, and what not, whereas the mind (or whatever it is that is transparent on Blake’s account — perhaps “mind” is a bad term) contains something like information that can be instantly shared and computed.

    Adam, on the other hand, seems to be talking from a perspective that isn’t ready to accept this bifurcation of mind and body: if there is otherness of body, then this requires some sort of otherness of mind also, since mind and body are necessarily connected.

    If there’s any merit to what I’m saying, then I think the task for Adam is to better articulate what the link is between mind and body, and the task for Blake is to better articulate how mind and body can be distinct and yet connected.

    Perhaps?

  20. Blake on October 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Robert: I am an emergentist so I regard the properties of mind as an emergent ability that depends on a material substrate and a certain level of material complexity. However, what counts as “material” is very broad and would include states of information organization that are not usually seen as “matter”. However, my definition of matter is, I believe, consonant with our best present knowledge of physics.

  21. Robert C. on October 25, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Blake, then I think the question I’d have for you (or the question I’ll have when I can read or reread your books more carefully) is how the emergent mind and information gets related among the members of the Godhead. Perhaps it is this process of emergence that Adam is pointing to in #2a, and Adam’s claim amounts to an assertion that this emergence requires some form of real negotiation.

    The difference I have in mind is simply the difference of what it feels like to, say, feel hungry, versus the difference knowing that someone is feeling hungry. That is, it seems on your account, the Father could know that the Son is hungry when the Son is hungry. But would that constitute a direct experience of the feeling of hunger? Could such a direct knowledge of another’s experience emerge? And if it could emerge would it be direct and immediate, or would the emergence require some sort of “real negotiation” to come about?

    I see the difference between you Adam, then, as follows: you would say the Father’s knowledge of the Son’s hunger is transparent whereas I think Adam would say that the Father’s knowledge of the Son’s hunger still retains an important sense of opacity that you are not sufficiently accounting for. (This is how I understand Adam’s premise #4 that he ascribes to you.)

    My own inclination, then, is to think about my own son’s hunger: I can oftentimes tell when he is hungry without him telling me. And I feel for him when he is hungry. It pains me, sometimes in a way that I would call physical or bodily — I can taste the siren song of the chocolate he craves in my own mouth, since I too love chocolate (my genes coursing through his body…). But because I inhabit a different body, I do not directly experience the sense of hunger in the same way that he does. So, my knowledge of his hunger is not really direct, transparent or equivalent, and because of this opacity it takes a kind of real loving effort(/negotiation) on my part to traverse. I become mentally aware of his hunger and because I am concerned about him, I experience feelings of empathy and sympathy as I pay attention to him.

    So, I take the point in Adam’s post (esp. his proposed #2a) as suggesting that this kind of traversal of knowledge is not just mental/informational, but entails bodily experience, and whatever knowledge we might have of another’s bodily experience requires at least some of kind of effort to negotiate/traverse (e.g., caring enough about my son to pay attention to his experience of hunger).

    So, it’s this effort of negotiation — work that is the essential ingredient of love and commitment — that I think Adam is trying to draw out more explicitly from you, particularly in the tension between claims #2 and #4 in his sketch of your position.

  22. Blake on October 25, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Robert: The short answer is that according to D&C 88 the light of God proceeds from his presence to be in and through all things. It is also indwelling in the divine persons. This light is the basis of his knowledge — at least that is how I read D&C 88. Presumably this encompassing light contains the data of all experiences in which God participates — I think of it the way Whitehead’s Process thought posits that all things act upon all other things and the actual occasions share their momentary data of experience with one another. Thus, a fullness of knowledge is communicated – including knowledge such as data of bodily pains of another (indeed, all others) as part of God’s own immediate experience. The consciousness of such data emerges from the data being synthesized into a holistic experience analogous to the way we bring the underlying data of our cerebral cortex to consciousness.

    So there is no tension between bodily experience and divine knowledge. The data of every experience is included within the scope of God’s own immediate experience.

  23. Robert C. on October 25, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks, Blake — this is making much better sense to me now (and I really enjoyed the “indwelling light” part of your 2nd book). I’ll have to ponder for a while what I think about this position of yours, that I think I understand reasonably well now….

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