Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Apocalyptic Theology

Imagine I’ve just been made supreme chancellor of a graduate program in Mormon theology.

Thousands of students throng. We need a syllabus. What’s our first reading assignment?

We’re going to start with Jim Faulconer’s dramatically subtitled essay “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse” from Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010).

On my reading, Jim’s essay lays out a couple of basic principles for engaging in theology as quasi-academic meta-reflection on Mormonism:

1. Theology should be “apocalyptic.”

Apocalypse does not so much refer to the end of the world . . . as it refers to the moment when the nearness of the kingdom of God is revealed to the believer and the believer’s life is oriented by that kingdom rather than by the world. To hear the gospel preached is to experience a type or shadow of the Apocalypse” (110)

Our theology must be a figure of the Apocalypse, a theology that reveals God himself, even if only as a figure, rather than revealing only our understanding of him. (113)

In an “apocalyptic” theology,

the challenge is not to think another world or to think other than the world. It is not to create a Platonic metaphysics. The challenge is to think our being-in-the-world differently, to think it as directed toward God by his self-revelation in the world. (119)

2. Theology should confess its foolishness before God.

If our theology is to be apocalyptic, it must demonstrate its foolishness before God in some way. (124)

Theology is not only a matter of going beyond learning through testimony and covenant, though it is that. It is also a matter of remaining a fool before God in knowledge. (123)

In particular, theology should be willing to confess that truth, in general, may not be the neat, tidy, and transparently “rational” thing that we would often prefer it to be.

I believe that most of us who do theology or some informal version of it assume that God’s knowledge is a systematic whole, and that he reveals parts of that whole over time, gradually revealing more and more of it. If so, then those who think that way assume that, using the part of the whole that has been revealed so far, they can tentatively  speculate as to the systematic whole that stands behind the part. However, as reasonable as that may seem, I think it is mistaken. (115)

For one thing, to claim that our speculations are concerned with an eternal, rational system of truths that God reveals to us over time assumes that knowledge is fundamentally and essentially systematic and rational . . . . But much of twentieth-century philosophy . . . has made that assumption about the character of knowledge dubious, each in different ways. It is questionable whether it makes sense to believe that there is an eternally existing set of systematically related fundamental truths expressed at least in part in our accurate understanding of things. Indeed, I believe that most who have dealt with the question carefully have concluded that the notion is rationally incoherent. But it does not follow from that rejection of an eternal, static realm of truth that is metaphysically prior to or beyond this world that there is neither truth, nor that there is no eternal truth. Indeed, the revealed truth that God is embodied and, so, within the cosmos in some way rather than metaphysically apart from it, suggests that the realm of truth is metaphysically prior to the cosmos within which human beings find themselves. Instead the truth is part of the cosmos, perhaps as its happening. We can reject the Enlightenment formulation of truth (a formulation that continues to use the traditional God as its model even if it sometimes rejects his existence) without rejecting truth itself. (115-117)

3. And, perhaps most importantly for a Mormon thinker, theology should be undertaken as “a kind of prayer” (134).

19 comments for “Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Apocalyptic Theology

  1. The best example of this kind of apocalyptic theology is Nibley in Mormonism and Early Christianity. I quoted a segment in a post from years ago. It’s still my favorite thing Nibley ever wrote. A lot of what you outline from Jim in the above is very much the kind of Platonism Nibley held onto.

  2. That is a plausible position, but where is the argument? i.e. what should motivate us to coming to the conclusion that rational theology is a waste of time?

  3. Good question, Mark. I’d recommend Jim’s entire article.

    The short answer, though, is that there is no reason to conclude that rational theology is a waste of time . . . unless that rational theology fails to also be apocalyptic in character and confess its foolishness before God. In which case, rational or not, it would be a waste of time.

  4. Mark, I think the way to reconcile Jim’s point (which as I noted is roughly Nibley’s conception of the Mantic in Mormon thought) with rational investigation is to always be open to what is new. I’m sure Adam, with his conception of a secular form of Grace would agree here.

    I think this ends up being pretty much Peirce’s notion of fallibilism combined with his notion of continual inquiry. We should never think our work of learning is done. There is always more to be revealed either directly via the Holy Ghost or by our empirical and rational investigations. The way reason often is taken is that it cuts off inquiry since when you have an answer inquiry is at an end.

  5. Thanks, Adam. As a side note, I really like Jim’s take on theodicy in this piece, which I this is basically just an application of points 2 and 3 as you’ve identified them, confessing our foolishness and doing theology as a kind of prayer….

  6. How does this:

    “I believe that most of us who do theology or some informal version of it assume that God’s knowledge is a systematic whole, and that he reveals parts of that whole over time, gradually revealing more and more of it. If so, then those who think that way assume that, using the part of the whole that has been revealed so far, they can tentatively speculate as to the systematic whole that stands behind the part. However, as reasonable as that may seem, I think it is mistaken. (115)”

    reconcile with this:

    “all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole”

    I fully know the latter to be true, and think the the former is saying “it is mistaken.” Which mean the I find the former to be mistaken.

    It is difficult for me to place trust in “twentieth century philosophy” and to view it as a source of good information when investigating the nature of God or of his system for dispensing of knowledge to man. The ‘philosophy of man’ is not something I think we should place our trust in, let alone mingle with scripture, to find truth or understanding – but maybe I’m wrong.

  7. How are they at odds? Basically it’s just saying we know so little that are speculations of the whole are untrustworthy. To make an obvious analogy, consider scientists in the late 19th century who thought science was basically complete and that they had a pretty good idea about the whole. Then along comes Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and shows just how wrong they are.

  8. To add, I think Jim’s point is basically your final paragraph. We ought be suspicious of those who think they have answers based upon reason rather than revelation.

  9. Clark,

    I realize that we don’t KNOW the entire truth, just like scientists didn’t and still don’t know it either. But that doesn’t rule out that truth IS circumscribed into one great whole.

    I thought these sentences, “then those who think that way assume that, using the part of the whole that has been revealed so far, they can tentatively speculate as to the systematic whole that stands behind the part. However, as reasonable as that may seem, I think it is mistaken” were saying you can’t speculate on the whole because their isn’t a ‘whole’ truth. I suppose it could have been saying it was just a mistake to speculate but I didn’t read it that way.

    But I definately didn’t find any value in his assessment that speculation doesn’t work (for either reason) because of the ‘findings’ of philosophers. The message I got was this, “20th century philosophers reasoning says that it is dubious to think that there is a ‘whole’ truth and therefore speculation about what entire truth is like is mistaken.” Did I misunderstand something?

  10. This is a good question, Jax.

    I suppose whether or not they are incompatible depends on how you understand “truth.”

    Most of our 21st century “common sense” definitions of truth are based on what Jim – I think rightly – identifies as notions of truth that are themselves non-scriptural and highly dependent on suspect 19th century philosophical thinking. The advantage of 20th century philosophical thinking about truth is that it is at least suspicious of its own philosophical definitions of truth.

    What have you got in mind by the term “truth”?

  11. I was in a collegiate class where this question was asked, “Is truth one big puzzle to be discovered?” where the instructor drew one big circle on the board and put on big ‘T’ in the center, “and each of us sees one part of it and each of us from a different angle? Or is it a whole bunch of truths?” and he put a bunch of little circles on the board with lower case ‘t’s in them, “and we each have our own?”

    Well the class hemmed and hawed for awhile and gave a few wierd philosophical answers and the instructor kind of laid back leaving us to work it out. Well since this class was in Utah (not BYU) and I knew about 1/2 of the class males were LDS returned missionaries I asked to use the chalkboard. The instructor consented and I asked the class if anyone knew what the word ‘circumscribed’ meant. No one did. So I told them it meant to encircle, or to literally draw a circle around. I then said, “I can guarantee at least half of you are wearing reminders that ‘all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole’ and that have covenanted to wear these reminders all the time. Well they understood my reference to their temple garments and the discussion ended early with about 90% of the class agreeing on the big “T” truth.

    We all see a small piece, and each from a different angle, but their is a ‘whole truth’. I don’t have anything really to add, except that my understanding of his argument (that it is a mistake to think of one ‘whole’ encapsulating truth) is not in acoordance with my knowledge nor that of most following these posts.

  12. Jax, that’s a good story. I like it quite a bit.

    I don’t disagree that “all truth can circumscribed into one whole.” I suspect Jim doesn’t disagree either.

    You seem, though, to be using a very modern, common sense notion of truth that takes for granted a whole slew of what may be questionable philosophical presuppositions. But I can’t say for sure. What have you got in mind by the term “truth”?

  13. May I interject a scriptural definition?

    “The Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls” (Jacob 4:13).

    “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…” (D&C 93:24).

    Maybe I’m missing the point, but I believe that the type or definition of truth we must deal with in an LDS theological context is that truth must be revealed (the Spirit must “speak” it); it must deal with past, present and future realities; and it must be “manifested unto us plainly.”

  14. Jax,

    I take the phrase you suggest as a ritual injunction to use whatever power–spiritual, rational–I have been given to circumscribe (encircle [think “sphere” in D&C 93:30], draw a line around, mark the limits of) truth. The language of “all truth can be [not “is”] circumscribed into one great whole” suggests an ongoing performative act on the truthseeker’s part. Whether that circumscribing is in the form of a narrative or systematized logic or some other intellectual form, grasping delimited wholes (getting a working sense of the whole) is important to us emotionally as well as intellectually. If I take section 93 as my guide, truth must be delimited in some way, which leaves an open-endedness beyond the circumscribed whole–a temporary closed system within an ultimately open unfolding system [erasure]. Already I’m presuming temporality and other ideas in my notion of truth and reality (the whole). It may be an idiosyncratic reading but I think it fits into performative understandings of language and the linguistic nature of truth.

    Frankly, even as I write this

  15. I like the reading, Comet. And it nicely illustrates the kind of difficulty involved in taking, at “face value,” (admittedly beautiful) phrases like “all truth can be circumscribed into one whole.”

    Any reading of “truth” or “circumscription” is going to harbor a host of only more or less justifiable epistemological and metaphysical assumptions: is truth temporal or atemporal? is it conceptual or existential? is it correspondence or unveiling? is circumscription an intellectual or moral project? is reality fundamentally One from the get-go, or originally many?

    These are just the tip of the iceberg but they are big questions that, I think, lack obvious, slam-dunk answers.

    The key when pursuing them is, as Jim argues, the continual confession of our foolishness before God.

  16. The idea of our foolishness before God is only to acknowledge that no matter how much we have come to understand, He understands more. At the same time, we are accountable for the understanding we possess, and when we teach it by the power of the Holy Ghost we need not apologize for it. I believe that the concept of “all things can be circumscribed into one great whole” refers to the fact that the same principles of governance and righteousness, and form, exist at ALL levels, both above and below us. We see the same patterns of physics, for instance, in the makeup of the atom that we see in the makeup of the solar system. We can assume that the same pattern of family structure that exists on this earth also exists among the Gods. Fatherhood here is the same thing as fatherhood in heaven; it is the act of creating after one’s own kind. These are brief examples. That is why the “patterns” we see throughout the scriptural record are so important for us to consider, as we strive to discern all things; because the patterns of history are bound to repeat themselves, because all things can be circumscribed into one great whole.

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