Exploring Mormon Thought: Prefaces

A close reading of Blake Ostler’s work is timely, and I’m happy to do it alongside of Adam Miller. I’ve left mostly to Adam’s post last week to state what we’re up to and why. I want this week, before we come to the chapter-by-chapter work of this project, to say something about how time has affected Ostler’s project—how the project has changed between 2001 (publication of volume one) and 2008 (publication of volume three). I’ll also have to say a word about how it may change before 2012 is over (publication of volume four).

My modus operandi will be simple: I will look at the prefaces to the already-published volumes of Exploring Mormon Thought.

2001: The Attributes of God

The project, according to the preface of The Attributes of God (2001), was originally to be a carefully structured trilogy:

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. These first two volumes are addressed primarily to non-Mormons and Mormons who are interested in having a dialogue regarding Mormonism as it relates to traditional 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. [p. xi]

The project as originally laid out:

(1) Two volumes in the tradition of analytic philosophy dealing in turn with (a) the specifically Mormon conception of God and (b) the philosophical problems inherent in the non-Mormon Christian conception of God. These volumes were to be for a non-Mormon audience, so that volume one would serve as an introduction (in the language familiar to non-Mormon philosophers), to Mormon theism, while the second would serve as a critique (in the same style) of Christian theism.

(2) A third volume in a radically non-analytic—indeed, unprecedented—style dealing with . . . who knows? This volume, taking off from the ground cleared through the first two, was to present Mormon theology in an apparently uniquely Mormon style and to address itself principally (exclusively?) to Mormons.

Such was the original intention. The whole project appears to have been driven by Ostler’s “misgivings about the analytic tradition as a vehicle to dialogue regarding Mormonism.” He explains:

My primary concern is that the tradition treats “God” as a mere object of analysis and, by its very nature, misses the essential importance of having a relationship with individual divine persons who are one God. . . . However, I will not say more about this dilemma until my third volume—except to say that I regard the analytic mode of dialogue as essential between persons belonging to different religious traditions to the extent their traditions are not shared. [pp. xii-xiii]

Analytic philosophy was an essential starting point, allowing for conversation between “different religious traditions,” but the aim of the conversation was to mark the limits of such discourse, apparently to justify (or to explain?) a subsequent departure from conversation into discourse only among Mormons. Volumes one and two, in other words, were to be a philosophical apology, to interested but critical non-Mormons, for a desire—or the need—to abandon interfaith dialogue for a community directly in communication with God.

2005: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God

The opening of volume two’s preface is crucial:

The second volume represents a movement toward a different kind of discourse—but it is not yet a different discourse. It engages still in the analytic tradition. However, the subject matter deals more centrally with divine grace and love in relationship. [p. ix]

The project has changed. Nothing in volume one’s preface hinted at a gradual shift from analytic to “a different kind of discourse.” Rather, Ostler had claimed straightforwardly that a radical break between discourses would separate the first two volumes from the third volume. Between 2001 and 2005, he seems drastically to have reconceptualized his project.

I don’t want to speculate too much about why Ostler changed things, but I suspect it was due in part to volume one’s success among LDS students of philosophy. Though he intended volume one to introduce Mormon theism to non-Mormons in the problematic style of analytic philosophy, he discovered a ready Mormon audience who actually wanted to think about Mormonism in analytic terms. Few of them, it seems, had “misgivings” about analytic philosophy, and I suspect this left Ostler wondering how he might continue to speak to this new-found audience without alienating them, while nonetheless pushing toward a discourse radically distinct from analytic philosophy.

The result, it seems, was volume two. The task by 2005, it seems, was to pave a relatively comfortable road from a strict analytic casting of Mormonism to a radically distinct discourse by taking up the topic that, for Ostler, most deeply problematizes the analytic approach: God’s love. Hence, instead of what was supposed to be a critique of Christian theism, one finds a study of Mormon Christology, more or less along the lines of the first volume in the series.

(One further, brief note. Ostler already recognized by 2005 that the project would have to grow, since a road from analytic philosophy to “revelatory discourse” would be difficult to pave. Three volumes, each having a clear role to play, was quickly giving way to four volumes, each having a semi-murky role to play, as Ostler himself noted in the preface.)

2008: Of God and Gods

Curiously, the preface to volume three never mentions the other volumes (preceding or following) or the larger project with its aims and intentions. It speaks only of itself, as if it were meant to stand entirely on its own. But the project is clearly changing. Volume three is not the originally projected volume three (volume four, still forthcoming, will be that originally projected volume three), and it continues in volume two’s vein, further paving the way that leads from analytic philosophy to distinctly Mormon discourse. The paving stones, though, are now of a different color.

According to its preface, volume two gives attention first and foremost to scripture—specifically to Alma 34, Alma 40-42, and Paul’s writings generally. The preface to volume three, however, speaks not of scripture, but of worldviews: “My project has been a rescue operation to save the heart of God’s revelations to the Hebrews from the Greek mind” (p. ix). What of this shift in emphasis, from the words of specific prophets to the language of the prophetic people—this shift to a focus on Hebrew versus Greek thinking? This is especially strange, since volume three is, in terms of content, much more focused on scriptural texts than volume two.

Again I prefer to avoid speculation, but the shift in emphasis from texts to languages seems to me motivated by a growing recognition of the difficulties of scriptural hermeneutics—already dawning in volume two. Scripture has been claimed as much by what Ostler calls the essentially Greek philosophical tradition as by any supposedly Hebrew tradition, and philosophy’s readings of scripture are, at the very least, self-consistent, provocative, and compelling. Pointing to scripture is not enough to justify the non-analytic discourse Ostler aims to provide in the final volume of the series. A general hermeneutical method—one that breaks with the Western philosophical tradition—must be established. And this, Ostler believes, is to be accomplished through an appeal to Hebrew thinking.

Hence: a rescue operation. Scripture has to be pulled from danger, has to be snatched from what threatens it, has to be cut out of the wrecked car of Western (Greek) thought in which it’s trapped. What was intended to be a radical break—analytic (that is, non-Mormon) discourse versus “revelatory” (that is, Mormon) discourse—has become a rescue operation where Hebrew texts have been captured by and must be retrieved from Greek logic. 2008: If Mormonism can be distinguished from other Christianities by appealing to scripture, it will be accomplished in a dramatic, spectacular rescue. The immanent critique of analytic philosophy is only a distraction.

2012: A Fire on the Horizon?

What will volume four reveal? One can only speculate, and I think I’ll refuse to do any more speculating here. But I’m happy to ask a question, in some ways the only question to ask about the fourth (and I assume still final) volume: What will uniquely Mormon theological discourse look like? What relationship will it have to the analytic tradition? How will it speak—if at all—of scripture? How will it relate to Hebrew and/or Greek thinking? Will it have abandoned these categories in favor of a distinctly Mormon ethos? What is coming?

Is it a fire indeed that’s on the horizon? It’s too difficult, as yet, to make it out.

18 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: Prefaces

  1. Really interesting approach to the books picking out something I’d never even noticed before.

  2. Thanks for the summary, Joe. I just finished reading Millet’s A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans, 2005). It had the potential to offer something like an LDS Christology, but it did not quite get there (instead focusing on interfaith themes). To the extent it did engage, it flat out rejected all historical Jesus scholarship and merely sketched Christian theological formulations regarding Christ and noted where LDS reject that view. So I’m pleased to hear Blake’s second volume tackles LDS Christology more seriously.

  3. I think this is really helpful, Joe. I would like to hear more, though, about why you think this transition from one project (analytic/Greek thought) to a “radically” Mormon approach to theology is bumpy and difficult.

    I’m not asking you to speculate about what Blake’s thinking, but I would like to hear more about why you think this is an interesting question/problem that has broad applicability to everyone interested in Mormon theology (and, obviously, not just Blake).

    In other words, I don’t think you’re saying this is a “problem” with Blake’s individual project, but that Blake’s work indicates the presence of a kind of “systemic” knot that anyone trying to deal with Mormon theology is going to have to deal with. Thoughts?

  4. That’s a good question, Adam. If I haven’t said anything yet about what I think the road between an explicitly philosophical discourse and an unapologically Mormon discourse would look like, it’s because I’m a bit skeptical about that very way of framing things. That is, I’m both (1) a bit nervous about any radical distinction between analysis and faith or between Greek and Hebrew thought and (2) a bit confused about how any road could actually be paved between two incommensurable discourses anyway. Perhaps I’d want to say that the shift marked over the course of Blake’s first three volumes is an indication that he too is recognizing that the dichotomy of volume 1 is problematic, though I think he’s not radical enough in calling that dichotomy into question (since he paves roads between supposed incommensurables rather than blurs the boundaries originally drawn between them).

    All this, I think, comes back to the conversation surrounding your post last week, to talk about apostasy narratives in Mormon theology. I suppose I’m completely unconvinced that Mormon theology has to be grounded in or oriented by an apostasy narrative at all—though it should be quite free to reflect on the idea of apostasy, etc.

    But that’s not to say that there aren’t incommensurable discourses to be identified. It’s just that I’m more inclined to see the incommensurability to hold between faithfulness and faithlessness, between fidelity and infidelity, and I’m unconvinced that faithlessness and/or infidelity can be equated with (analytic, Greek) reason.

  5. I think that Joe is onto something here. I’d say that the immcomensurability is not between Greek (taken as a whole) and Hebrew, but between Greek and Hebrew placeholders to designate modes or ways of going about inquiring into questions. The Hebrew discourse is essentially grounded in knowledge that transcends reason and experience and moves into relation with one’s essentially inter-related place in the world and inheritance from one’s ancestors and community. It’s primary mode of inquiry is the heart or lib as the locus of knowledge that then enlightens the binah, the feelings, personal traits and wisdom of a person’s entire being – which essentially includes inter-relatedness to the community and world.

    The Greek way of knowing is probably a misnomer and reduction on my part. By it I mean one who isolates reason from the entirety of what one is to avoid biases and fallacies of reason. It is Plato’s reality apprehended through “reason alone” over against what we think we know of the world of appearances. It is a person who refuses to listen to the truth vibrating in one’s heart. The problem that I will address is that one can speak about this knowledge, describe the experience, but still cannot convey in linguistic form the truth of what is known. It is a truth that cannot be grasped from the contents on a page or in words. Words can be evocative and inspire, but the truth at issues is not in the words. The meaning is not in the words.

  6. Joe #6: “I’m unconvinced that faithlessness and/or infidelity can be equated with (analytic, Greek) reason.”

    I’m convinced that faithlessness isn’t equated with analytic reason. It it is, I am a faithless infidel.

  7. I tend to be skeptical of the divide between Greek thought and Hebrew for various reasons. Although I’m glad Blake makes explicit that “Greek” is a placeholder for a particular position that divorces reason proper from “heart.” Even in that characterization though I have some issues. I think it undeniable that everyone who reasons isn’t doing pure reason. If only because we make leaps and don’t stick to deductive logic. In those leaps our reasoning isn’t based off some ideal baysian inference but something more complex and difficult to discern. I think reason is always contaminated by non-reason. I’m just not sure saying that it’s the heart is helpful. Nor can I entirely say for sure what that means – even though lots of figures talk about it as love going back ironically quite far.

  8. Clark: We agree that “reason alone” is impossible. However, the pretenses to base one’s views on reason alone, or the alternative “scientific (empirical) evidence alone”, are alive and well.

    I expand on what it means to say that one knows in one’s heart in my 4th volume.

  9. Well one problem is that it’s never entirely clear what is meant by reason. I know there are some who claim to just follow empirical evidence but I think that sort of naive positivism isn’t that common. Even people who appeal to science tend to recognize the messiness of how science is done. They just think that classes of facts should be established by science. Even there (and I’ve debated this point with quite a few) it doesn’t take much to demonstrate even that weaker positivism problematic. (“How did you know you were in love?”)

    I think where some, myself included, have problems is when wishful thinking is added to reason and then people attempt to justify that. (Not that you are attempting that) Sadly that’s even more common than the naive positivism. And it unfortunately happens a lot in theology. Which is why, I think, theology has such a bad reputation both in and out of the Church.

  10. Blake #8 –

    Thanks for the clarification (re: Greek and Hebrew as placeholders, etc.). But I’ll confess I’m equally nervous about some of your further formulations here.

    I’m nervous, first, about the idea that Hebrew knowledge “transcends reason and experience,” less because I disagree with the words (I think I’d affirm the same) than because I’m not sure what you mean by it. I’m wondering, I guess, whether you can say more about the status of the word “transcends” in philosophical terms here.

    My second source of nervousness is your characterization of Plato (something I’ll be taking up a bit in two weeks when I write on chapter 2 of your first volume). There might be some kind of Platonism in which reality is apprehended through reason alone, but it’s true neither of Plato nor of his most interesting followers. That’s a quibble, but I think it’s an important one—since I’m convinced that Plato is an important philosophical resource for any religious conception (Mormonism included) that holds to a strong notion of truth. Indeed, it seems to me that you reproduce Plato’s own problematic when you say that you’re after a sort of truth that can’t be conveyed in simple linguistic form.

    My third source of nervousness is your affirmation of “the truth vibrating in one’s heart.” I’m more than happy to affirm what we might call the indiscernibility of truth, but I’m nervous about locating that truth in the heart, feelings, affections, etc. Let me be clear, I agree entirely that there are feelings and affections associated with truth, but I should think they’re ancillary rather than substantial. If we’re to put a finer point on a notion of truth that outstrips a pedantic theological rationalism, I think we’ll have to do it by showing how rationalism itself doesn’t think hard enough, not by affirming, perhaps fideistically, a non-rational-because-feeling-based other truth.

    Now, I may well be entirely missing what you’re after. These are, after all, only confessions of nervousness on my part. I’m happy to be un-nervoused. :)

  11. Joe: If I’ve made you nervous then I have exceeded my goals beyond my wildest imagination already.

    I don’t know what you mean by “Hebrew knowledge.” I don’t think I use that term. I’m also pretty sure that there is no such a thing as “Hebrew knowledge.” I also don’t know what is being referred as to “truth in the heart.” What I am referring to is a way of approaching inquiry.

    There is, however, a recognition ubiquitous in the scriptural sources (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and English) that the heart is the organ or locus of knowing and wisdom — and even the place where the kingdom of God resides. What are they talking about? What does it mean that the disciples had a surer knowledge of Christ’s resurrection based on their hearts burning in response to Christ’s explication of the scriptures than the fact that the resurrected Christ was standing right in front of them? What does D&C 9 mean when it says that “if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right”?

    I suggest that very recongize what a knowing heart is. The knowledge is experiential in nature and cannot be conveyed in tomes. Yet God is known in the heart’s response — and I’m not referring to the organ beating in the chests of living mortals.

    I suggest that we miss what the scriptures are getting at if we base our approach only on logical analysis or empirical evidence (the analytic and scientific methods respectively). I’ll wait for your take on Plato as to whether he believed that Truth (the Forms) was apprehended through reason alone (obviously if he believed that consistently then he wouldn’t have tried to appropriate it through myth in the Timaeus). I happen to believe that Plato was inconsistent on this issue between his verbal claims and what is entailed in his method. But regardless of what Plato thought, it is clear that the earliest Middle Platonist such as Justin and Athenagorous did read Plato that way.

    I also suggest that those who are “past feeling” include those who insist on relying on these methods exclusively as a trustworthy basis of knowing. I run into them all the time when I speak with folks who have lost their testimonies. They think that relying on “feelings” (and that is a reduction that is a large part of the problem as such) is unreliable.

  12. Joe — by “knowledge that transcends reason and experience” I mean that such knowledge is more basic (in fat absolutely basic) and cannot be arrived at through reason or empirical means. However, it cannot be spoken or said either. I spend a very long 3 chapters dealing with this issue in volume 4 — and I took the 3 chapters to do so because I didn’t think it could be done in less. So I’m unlikely to succeed in giving you an adequate rendition of that discussion in a blog post. Besides, since it cannot be said, to attempt to say it would be kinda self-defeating.

  13. Just to interject, Plato emphasized revelation heavily. For him reason was a revelatory act. Further, the late Neoplatonist were explicit on this point. Iamblichus’s De Mysteriis is an exposition on why the Gods could not be understood by reason alone but had to be understood by revelatory experience.

    Kocku von Stuckrad’s Locations of Knowledge (that I mentioned in a recent post), traces the revelatory influence of Plato throughout the Western intellectual/religious tradition. Historically speaking, it was Aristotelianism that rejected Platonic notions of revelatory knowledge.

    I may do some more posts on this. Here I addressed the issue of Christian Platonism and Mormonism.

  14. I think Plato does see knowledge as revelatory of a sort. And people have played that up relative to Mormonism. (Think Nibley’s mantic vs. sophist which ends up being very Platonic) I think reason functions as a guide to mimesis. Think of Plato’s famous example of Meno’s slave learning geometry. To Plato it’s all memory of what we once knew. So reason provides us with a way of recognizing truth.

    Now I have a lot of problem with Plato ultimately. But it is important to remember that especially in the early dialog reason only ends in an aporia.

    As for the bit about feelings, I eagerly await your fourth volume to see how you deal with this. To me there’s a distinction between feeling certain and being certain. We can feel confident but that alone is insufficient for knowledge. (IMO)

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