Thinking Mormon Philosophy and Theology

A few days after I returned from my trip to New York, I packed the suitcases again–this time with the children’s pajamas and toothbrushes, too–and flew to Utah for the annual conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, where I was slated to read a paper. After installing my children comfortably at their grandparents’ home in Provo, I drove to Logan, where the meeting was held on the campus of Utah State University. I walked into the chilly conference room just a few minutes before the opening session, put on my name sticker and helped myself to some water, and looked around at about thirty people gathered in the room as I sipped. I found T&S’s Ben Huff, whom I’d never met in person, and then spotted Jim Faulconer; I sat down beside him, chatted for a moment, and then the proceedings began.

I had been a little apprehensive about the conference, not because I was nervous about my presentation—I enjoy public speaking, and I was comfortable with my topic—but because I knew that, for a variety of reasons, I would be very unlike most of the participants, and I was concerned about feeling socially awkward. It soon became apparent, though, that most of the other presenters were as unlike one another as I was unlike them: I was struck by the variety of social types represented on the program, spanning everything from tweed jackets to black biker gear, dark business suits to wide-brimmed fedoras. The audience was similarly heterogeneous: graduate and undergraduate students, business professionals, CES types, representatives from Signature and Sunstone, proud parents, and even a dance professor had made the ascent into the hazy Cache valley to discuss Mormon philosophy and theology. I was pleased to meet a few bloggernacle readers and regulars, as well.

As I might have expected (but didn’t), the papers themselves broached a broad range of topics and critical approaches. Technical philosophical proofs, scriptural exegesis, contemporary critical theory, historical and bibliographical research, and even readings of popular culture found their way to the podium. A few talks stood apart, not falling naturally into a topical group with other papers. On Friday morning, Noel Reynolds opened the conference (and attracted the cadre of USU CES instructors) with his talk on “Lectures on Faith” authorship. Reynolds has worked on this document for some time, having argued previously that the “Lectures” were authored primarily by Sidney Rigdon. In this talk, Reynolds showed the influence of the American frontier revival preachers Alexander Campbell and Charles Finney on Rigdon’s rhetorical structure and theology in the “Lectures”: the poorly digested Scottish enlightenment rationalism of Campbell and Finney reappears in Rigdon’s distinctive four-part rhetorical structure, which relies on a faulty logic that posites, on the basis of shared assumptions and everyday experiences, the Bible as a source of factual grounds for faith; furthermore, Rigdon shares with Campbell and Finney the distinctive doctrines of social trinitarianism and the transferrable testimony of witnesses. Later that day, Jim McLachlan outlined a Mormon eschatology derived from 2 Nephi 2 which moves from an unconscious unity (pre-mortal existence) —> to a conflicted, fallen multiplicity (mortal existence) —> to a chosen, social unity (post-mortal existence). This framework , McLachlan argued, shares much in common with Romantic eschatologies, and he entertainingly supported his claim with examples of popular film, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “In the Company of Men.”

David Paulsen delivered the keynote address on Friday night, a preview of the talk he’ll present at the upcoming Library of Congress conference on Joseph Smith. Paulsen took as his topic Joseph Smith’s challenges to the theological world, and he began by identifying seven such challenges: open revelation, priesthood authority, open canon, the attributes of God, Christ and humanity, and soteriology. Paulsen then proceeded to spend the rest of his hour discussing the just first of these seven challenges, using Lee M. McDonald’s questions about the limitations of the closed canon to explore Joseph’s response in revelatory event, either by the facticity of motor-sensory revelation or by the propositional content of those revelations. On Saturday afternoon, our own Jim Faulconer presented a fascinating phenomenonological (not scriptural) account of hope, arguing that hope is an orientation to the fundamental openness of events, a kind of humility in acknowledging our own finitude. Invoking Heidegger’s theory of time, in which past events are as open (that is, as undetermined) as future events, Faulconer suggested that hope can be directed toward the future as well toward the past. After Jim’s talk, Adam Miller delivered a highly technical (but delivered in a rivetingly soft, intense voice) piece on “subtractive Mormon theology,” arguing that the church’s emphasis on family is what makes Mormonism thinkable between modernity’s poles of science and capital.

The other talks fell nicely into two broad categories, usefully informing and critiquing one another. One of these categories, explicitly theological, began with Jennifer Lane’s talk on sovereignty, agency and the atonement. Helpfully laying out the connections between the nature of the atonement and the nature of God’s sovereignty, Lane showed that a notion of supreme divine sovereignty (like Calvinisms’s) requires the presumption of a limited atonement, in which Christ’s atonement extends only to the elect; by contrast, a limited divine sovereignty (as in Arminisnism) places greater stress on human agency and allows for a notion of a universal atonement, in which Christ suffers for all human sin. The Book of Mormon contains strands of both limited and universal atonement theory, Lane argued, and its concept of an infinite atonement resolves the contradiction between a “transactional” atonement (in which Christ atoned specifically for each and every sinful act, even before those sins were committed) and the reality of human agency. Ben Huff’s talk provided a fruitful counterpoint, as he explicated the story of the Fall as a dualistic pattern not only for mortality, as it is generally understood, but also for final judgment. Blake Ostler picked up on themes of divine sovereignty in his talk, performing a formal disproof of social trinitarianism and suggesting in its place his concept of monarchical monotheism.

Another cluster of talks dealt with issues of community and individual. Brian Birch spoke on the social dimensions of religious experience, arguing that spiritual experiences are, contrary to popular characterization, not self-authenticating; instead, the meaning of spiritual experiences must be sought within the shared episteme and social practice of the religious community. Drawing on the critical vocabulary of William Alston, Birch argued that because these community religious practices (what he calls “doxastic practices”) are not shared across religious traditions, there is no external means to evaluate their internal claims; Birch advocates, then, a “confessional approach” to inter-religious dialogue, one that acknowledges the social specificity of spiritual conviction. Dennis Potter followed up with a presentation on what he calls “communicative pluralism,” arguing that affect—including habits of action and human relationships–is more important than propositional belief in religious faith, both because those propositional beliefs can be malleable and because the Holy Ghost generally produces affective rather than propositional knowledge. The understanding that priesthood authority does not always entail epistemic privilege facilitates both intra- and inter-community dialogue, Potter’s “communicative pluralism.” I presented a paper on LDS theologies of conscience, arguing that individual conscience is a weak category in LDS thought, except when expedient for protecting group religious practice against the external encroachment of state regulation. Richard Sherlock explored the roles of community and individual in the realm of ethics, proposing a “modified divine command” model for Mormon ethics in which God rules out certain impermissible actions and leaves open several possible courses of action subject to human choice.

After two days packed with stimulating talks and discussion, I was both wired and exhausted as I drove back down I-15 toward my children. I’ve been thinking about a few of the problematics and concepts I encountered at the conference on and off during the intervening weeks, particularly those surrounding the relationship between personal testimony, social practice, and community dialogue. The experience has also prompted yet another round of personal questions about my decision not to pursue an academic career. The knotty problems and high stakes of both sets of questions, theoretical and personal, should keep me occupied at least until next year’s SMPT meeting.

27 comments for “Thinking Mormon Philosophy and Theology

  1. Rosalynde-

    Thanks for your post. I graduated from Utah State University and have fond memories of my time there. This is probably wandering too far off the subject of your post, but would you mind sharing with us why you’ve decided not to pursue an academic career? You seem so comfortable and well versed in a variety of academic disciplines. Just wondering why you have chosen not to formally pursue a career in academia.

  2. Rosalynde,

    Will the conference proceedings be available for perusal? I’m trying to get your paper via a mutual acquaintance but was wondering about public availability of all the talks. Thanks.

  3. Rosalynde, was Blake’s paper a case of devil’s advocacy, or was he in fact sketching out his own disagreements with social trinitarianism and prefernce for a more monarchical understanding of the Godhead? (Perhaps Blake himself can be induced to comment and explain.) I’m curious, because from his past writings I’d understood him as an exponent of social trinitarianism.

  4. Later that day, Jim McLachlan outlined a Mormon eschatology derived from 2 Nephi 2 which moves from an unconscious unity (pre-mortal existence) —> to a conflicted, fallen multiplicity (mortal existence) —> to a chosen, social unity (post-mortal existence). This framework , McLachlan argued, shares much in common with Romantic eschatologies, and he entertainingly supported his claim with examples of popular film, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “In the Company of Men.”

    A number of Schiller’s essays, as well as other writings of German enlightenment and romantic thinkers, address this structure. I quote from some of these in my recent BYU Studies article on the Eighteenth-century notion of progressing from Arcadia to Elysium as a metaphor of moving from such an “unconscious unity” (the Germans referred to this as Homeric totality) to a conscious, chosen, willed, or even, according to Schiller, deserved unity or totality. My own article addresses this pattern in the Magic Flute, so it looks like I took a slightly similar approach as McLachlan looking at it in popular film. My own approach was, however, not influenced in any way by McLachlan. Any reference to my BYU Studies article in McLachlan’s speech?

  5. Elisabeth, thanks for your interest (and kind words!). The discussion is probably better carried on elsewhere, but the short answer is that while I have a few personal reasons (not enjoying certain aspects of academia, not imagining I would enjoy the working-mother lifestyle, having a husband who works 80+ hours/week), the decision is based mostly on how I personally interpret prophetic counsel on the matter. (This, however, should in no way be construed as a judgment of mothers who reach different interpretations; I fully support those that I know in their circumstances and decisions, and I think many of them are doing valuable and important work.)

  6. Nick, Ben Huff would know more about that than I; I imagine he’ll comment here. I am not aware of any plans to publish the proceedings. If you contact me, I’ll be happy (and flattered!) to send you a copy of my paper. By the way, who’s our mutual acquaintance?

    Russell, Blake did indeed perform a formal disproof (what’s the technical word here?) of social trinitarianism, so it seems as though his views have changed. He set forth a model of monarchical monotheism, which circumvents the internal contradictions of other models of godhead by showing God to be one, “The Most High God,” among many. Blake himself can explicate more fully and cogently, I’m sure!

    John, McLachlan didn’t mention your article, but I’m guessing his was written and submitted before your excellent piece came out.

    By the way, all, my capsule summaries treated the barest of minimums, so I’m happy to elaborate here to the best of my memory on any of the talks you might be interested in.

  7. Russell, Blake did talk about difficulties with certain kinds of social trinitarian view (e.g., is the trinity God, and also its members? would that be four gods?). I still think he endorsed a version of social trinitarianism, but perhaps a specifically monarchic version? My notes aren’t great. He discussed several trinitarian models; I would be glad to hear him clarify.

  8. Rosalynde,
    Let me add my thanks as well. My husband and I also went to Utah State (class of ’96), and had classes from Richard Sherlock. Many of the presentations sound fascinating, and I appreciate your summaries. I wish I could have attended.

  9. Out of curiosity, what is the status on the text of last year’s conference and will there be a proceedings of this year’s conference?

  10. Nick and Clark, there are no plans for a proceedings volume specifically from this conference. A more likely place to watch for some of them to appear would be in Element, SMPT’s journal. Jim McLachlan is still in charge of the proceedings volume from last year. I suspect it will come out later this year.

    Russell, Rosalynde’s notes on Blake’s talk are clearly better than mine : )
    The shift in terminology doesn’t mean he tossed out everything he used to think, though.

  11. On the contrary, Ben, you’re a much more reliable witness than I! Blake’s was the most technically out-of-discipline for me, and consequently the one which I had the most trouble reconstructing.

  12. You’re too modest, Rosalynde. Training be as it may, there was plenty new to me in Blake’s talk, and I was also a little distracted thinking about the board meeting scheduled right after!

  13. Rosalynde, I’m also quite interested in your experiences as an academic outside of academia, and impressed by your example of remaining engaged with your field. I agree it’s off topic here, but sometime I hope you’ll write more about it.

  14. Rosalynde,

    It’s not fair that you get to have all the fun. I call for a re-count of that internal “which T & S blogger gets to have all the fun” vote. And this time _I’ll_ make sure to bring homemade brownies for the judges too!

  15. Well, it seems that I wasn’t very clear at SMPT. I gave a formal disproof of ST as it is conceived in the tradition. The problem with the tradtilonal view of ST is twofold. It either ends up with more than one God or reduces to just one being loving him(its)self. I remain a Social Trinitarian — of sorts. I argued that the unity of the Godhead arises (emerges) from the loving unity of the divine persons. However, in this unity there is one that is preeminently recognized as the fountain or source of such divinity, and that is the Father who is called in our scriptures the “God of all other gods.” The existence of the Godhead is logically contingent because it is dependent on the free choices of the divine persons (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost from all eternity) to be in such a loving relationship. I argued that the highest form of love is such that it must be freely chosen and always honor the freedom of the other to say “no” to the relationship. However, since the properties of divinity depend not only on the freely giving of the divine love by the Father, but also the free acceptance of the offer and return offer of relationship by the Son, it follows that divine existence is necessarily relational — divine properties emerge from a perfectly loving relationship.

    There is only one God — only one Most High — and that is the Father. However, there are other divine persons who share the one and only one possible divine sovereignty with the Father. They are equally divine with the Father. The Holy Ghost and the Son have chosen to enter this relationship and reciprocate the Father’s love from all eternity — and we are now invited into this same deifying relationship. I call my view Emergent Social Trinitarianism — or “the only true doctrine of God” — to make it short . {grin}.

    Does that do anything to clarify?

  16. Thanks for the summary, Rosalynde.

    Based on past discussions you will not be surprised that I am intensely interested in the cluster of issues addressed by Brian Birch (and also, to some extent, Dennis Potter). Coming out of a very traditional Mormon background, and seeing things in “black and white” by disposition, my naive, less-than-nuanced response is that those issues are quite traumatic to the usual notions of viability of an ‘only true church’, and the universal responsibility placed upon all mankind to find it (D&C 84:47-53). Is this response too severe? Did Birch (or Potter) offer any bridges to these traditional Mormon notions, or am I seeing a chasm that’s not really there?

  17. Blake, you weren’t unclear in your SMPT presentation–you were just using a critical vocabulary that I’m not yet familiar with and thus had trouble reproducing. I think I understood your argument at the time, but paraphrased it incorrectly here–my apologies! I found your ideas on divine relationality–in fact, your whole concept of the gospel seems to hinge on relationship–to be stimulating and, indeed, inspiring; thanks again!

  18. Jonathan, thanks. In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that my participation in my actual discipline is pretty limited–a few conferences (which have been much more expensive than I’d thought–not only do I not have departmental funds for travel, but I usually have to fly my children out with me, too), and plans for a few publications. Maybe I’ll write about it sometime. I’ve been at this experiment for less than a year (this time last year–almost precisely this time, in fact–I was making final preparations to my dissertation), but it’s been a year in which I haven’t had a baby, so we’ll see if things get easier or more difficult as I continue.

  19. Thanks for the clarification, Blake! I love your choice of the term “emergent”, reflecting the free choice by which the three are one, rather than a static, merely ontological unity (“that’s just the way they are . . .”). It connects well with the Book of Mormon emphasis on agency (underscored by Jennifer Lane, and also Terryl Givens) in the working of the atonement whereby we are reconciled to God.

  20. Thanks for investing the time and expense to come out to USU, Rosalynde! I suppose if you lived closer to your children’s grandparents, it might be less expensive for you to go to conferences. I’m glad at least you were able to stick around in UT and visit them for a while.

    Christian, Dennis Potter and Brian Birch recommended changes to how we Mormons typically communicate with those of other faiths, recommending less dismissiveness, more respect, listening, and humility. But I don’t see the changes they recommended as inconsistent with our claim to belong to the one true and living church. I see there points as somewhat akin to Moses’ point in Deuteronomy that Israel is not chosen because of its righteousness, so they shouldn’t become self-satisfied. Our claim to belong to the one true and living church should be understood in light of statements such as those in Alma 29 that teach that a portion of truth is revealed to all nations, and e.g. Brigham Young’s inclusive injunction that we gather in truth from wherever it is found.

  21. Roselynde:
    Translating into Standard American English what you heard/offered at this conference would be very helpful to many of us who struggle with terminology that seems to be out of our field (or do I speak only for myself?). The disconnect between religious thought and practice, and essential philosophical reflection (and I do believe the latter is essential to a fully-realized faith) is created by a number problems, not least of which is the arcane language and grammatical structures employed by some philosophers and critics. You, in short, are an arduous read.

    But I read you because I frequently find your thoughts and perspective (not to mention your energy) worth the effort. Your final two paragraphs contain items that are ripe for elaboration and are potentially productive in the effort to achieve that big kind of faith. This excerpt, in particular, strikes me as a kind of “where the rubber meets the road” inquiry that could substantially illuminate important corners of faith:

    “Brian Birch spoke on the social dimensions of religious experience, arguing that spiritual experiences are, contrary to popular characterization, not self-authenticating; instead, the meaning of spiritual experiences must be sought within the shared episteme and social practice of the religious community. Drawing on the critical vocabulary of William Alston, Birch argued that because these community religious practices (what he calls “doxastic practices”) are not shared across religious traditions, there is no external means to evaluate their internal claims; Birch advocates, then, a “confessional approach” to inter-religious dialogue, one that acknowledges the social specificity of spiritual conviction.”

    What I’m asking for is not a dumbing down, but an “in other words” epexegesis (ha ha). How we plug enlargements and new information into our lives is our own concern, of course, but receiving the data in a more comprehensible context would be very good.

  22. Hi pd and, uh, thanks, I think! I readily concede the imperfections in my writing style–in this case, particularly, where I was summarizing a score of technical academic arguments in a few paragraphs, and feeling nervous about doing justice to the complexity of those arguments when the authors might be reading my summaries! On the larger issue of discipline-specific technical language, I am a staunch defender of jargon, in the proper contexts: it’s an invaluable shorthand, and usually a sensitive medium for conveying complex ideas to particular interpretive communities. Whether or not certain posts at T&S are the “proper context” for a certain amount of jargon has been a matter of some debate, and will continue to be so, probably!

    I’m happy to unpack Brian Birch’s ideas a bit, though I’m not familiar with the theorist he uses–William Alston–and thus might make some errors. (If you’re reading, Brian, please chime in!) He began by showing that religious experiences are usually not self-authenticating; in other words, some outside interpretive source is required to make the meaning of those experiences clear. Missionaries spend considerable time explaining to investigators, for example, what the witness of the Holy Ghost feels like, how to recognize it, and, most importantly, what it means; conversely, if investigators or converts report negative feelings, experiences or trials, the missionaries will assure them that it’s Satan working against their spiritual progress. In both cases, the meaning of the experience was not self-evident: the particular ways of knowing (episteme) of the LDS religious community, embodied here in the missionaries, were necessary to make sense of the experiences. Of course, this isn’t usually the way we talk about our spiritual experiences: we tend to talk about them as if they were self-evident, irreducible grounds for religious propositions (like “the Book of Mormon is true”), and as if we have direct and privileged access to the meaning of the experience.

    When we recognize that spiritual experience requires shared social knowledges and practices to have meaning–these knowledges and practices are what Alston calls “doxastic practices”–then we can see how this social mediation produces belief or faith from experience. It also shows us how people of other faiths can have spiritual experiences that seem to confirm to them, with the same authenticity and sincerity that ours confirm to us, different religious propositions. Different religious traditions have different doxastic practices, and because those practices are what transform experience into belief, there’s no uniform external way to adjudicate those beliefs across faiths. And when we try to insist to those of other faiths that our spiritual experiences are more valid than theirs, dialogue rapidly breaks down into defensive sparring.

    Brian proposes as an alternative basis for inter-religious dialogue what he calls a “confessional approach” that acknowledges that other people’s spiritual experiences and convictions may be as deeply felt as our own, and that explains our own religious belief in terms of the doxastic practices that produce it: “Here’s what I’ve felt, here’s how I interpret those feelings, here’s what I believe, and here’s what I do.” Of course, this complicates the way we’ve generally thought of the special mission of the Church of Jesus Christ, as the one church with true authority: I think it’s possible to adopt Brian’s confessional approach and still maintain the conviction that the Church does have that special mission, but it’s not clear to me why or how others could be convinced of that.

  23. Rosalynde, thanks for answering pd, and thereby also me (#16). ;)

    Just to follow up a bit. Ben suggested (#20) that Brian was talking only about how we communicate with others, not how we conceptualize our own convictions. Was this your reading (or “hearing”, I guess) of him? Did he say anything about how to adopt his “confessional approach and still maintain the conviction that the Church does have that special mission”? (I’m not asking you to resolve this issue, just indicate whether he addressed it.)

  24. Christian, I was going to get to you, too!

    Brian’s “confessional approach” refers specifically to inter-religious dialogue, but his argument that spiritual experiences are not self-authenticating seems primarily to implicate the way we conceptualize our own convictions. (Let me add here that certain types of spiritual experiences may be self-authenticating: motor-physical revelation, in which the individual touches, hears or sees actual objects or propositional content, does seem to me to be self-authenticating. Maybe that’s why Joseph’s early visions needed to be of this type.)

  25. Rosalynde:

    Thanks for the clarification and elaboration.

    I think I have rendered Brian’s ideas even further: Everyone’s faith is the metafaith (with Mormonism and Catholicism as the great subsumers, at least in the Christian category, though there are many pretenders to that metatitle) and the goal of his “confessional approach” is to move interfaith dialogue from oneupmanship to a “paper/scissors/rock” proposition – which really won’t make our man very popular with anybody, especially the LDS Church. He will require R&R (not to mention a few stitches) after his encounter with the Strengthening Church Members Committee. Tell him he can come to Kansas and hang out with us for a while. We’re terrible Mormons but we’d love to have a philosopher around.

  26. Yeeps, pd, take it easy on the SCMC! Like I said before, Brian’s ideas needn’t threaten the Church’s self-concept as the one true church (a concept I embrace), though they do complicate proselyting somewhat. And the Church already seems aware of the necessity of social practice to buttress personal experience–indeed, that awareness is specifically built into the missionary program.

    Nevertheless, you fully persuade me that Kansas is a lovely place to hang out.

  27. Rosalynde, how is what he is speaking about different from the recognition by many different schools of philosophy that all experience is theory laden?

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