Exploring Mormon Thought: Analysis and Synthesis

In the fourth chapter of The Attributes of God, Ostler does both a nice bit of analysis and a nice bit of synthesis.

Ostler’s Analytic Gesture

Through engagements with a handful of potential philosophical pitfalls, Ostler constructs a very nice analytic definition of omnipotence, stated thus on page 116:

A is omnipotent at [time] t if A is able unilaterally to bring any logically possible state of affairs SA after t which (i) does not entail that “A does not bring about SA at t,” and (ii) is compossible with all events which preceded t in time in the actual world.

Ostler has worked into a single definition here all the caveats that have to be noted in any conception of omnipotence that hopes to avoid certain contradictions or paradoxes. It works, I think, and does an excellent job of skirting a whole series of difficulties.

Ostler’s Synthetic Gesture

Drawing on the Pratts, a bit of Mormon folk theology, a handful of texts from the Doctrine and Covenants, and a bit of genius, Ostler produces a brilliant theological concept of divine “concurrence,” described in the following terms on page 126:

Mormonism maintains that intelligences and natural substances have power too, although in order for them to exercise this power God must cooperate by lending his power to bring about the effect desired by these actualities. When God cooperates with the independent power exercised by intelligences or natural substances, he acts as a general concurrence or condition necessary for the intelligence or substance to actualize the causal effect.

Ostler goes on to use this bit of synthetic work to provide a brilliant explanation of miracles that (1) breaks with the long-standing Mormon tradition of making miracles a question of scientific principles known to God but not yet known to human beings and thus (2) returns in an important way to the scriptural idea of supernatural miracles tied to faith. I don’t know whether I agree with this idea, in the end (or at least with its rootedness in scripture), but it’s a beautiful speculation and deserves more attention.

Olive Trees?

Two distinct theological gestures—one recognizing where we’ve gone too far and so need to start paring back our concepts, the other recognizing where we’ve not yet gone far enough and so need to start speculating, and speculating wildly. When to analyze, and how to do it? When to synthesize, and how to do it?

Before taking each of these up in a bit more detail, let me note that I mean with these two categories to replace, to whatever extent possible, all talk of “analytic” versus “continental” thought in the past couple of weeks in the responses to this series. Ostler’s work is as continental as analytic, as mine or Adam’s is as much analytic as continental. If there’s a difference, it’s likely a question of whether one is inclined to look for overgrown trees that need pruning or for struggling young trees that need fertilizer.

I like the imagery of that last sentence. Perhaps we would do well to compare Mormon theology to trees—say, to olive trees so that we can borrow from the language of the allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5. Analysis is what becomes necessary when the branches overgrow the roots—when digging and dunging and the like will only cause more trouble. Synthesis is what becomes necessary either when we’ve planted a new tree or when we’ve done some grafting—when pruning and cutting back will only kill what we’re working on.

Playing with the analogy, I’ve got four questions: (1) What is the root? (2) What are the branches? (3) What does it mean to plant a new tree? (4) What’s at stake in grafting?

I entirely agree with Ostler’s answer to question one: The root of (good) theology is scripture. (I take it this is his answer given his insistence in earlier chapters on apostasy being a question of preferring reason’s conclusions to scripture’s claims.) The root remains in a single place (the texts are fixed), but what grows out of it can go in all kinds of different directions (the meanings remain to be worked out). And there, already, we’ve got an answer to question two: The branches are what we draw from the texts—interpretations the boughs, theological conclusions perhaps the branches from the boughs, further implications the twigs, etc. Analysis is the work of bringing us back to the basic task of exegesis, and the shearers with which we cut back to the task of exegesis are logic.

Question three: planting a new tree? Well, if we aren’t thereby trying to replace the scriptures (by looking for a new root), then I suspect we’re taking young and tender branches from the original tree and planting them elsewhere in our vineyard. To plant a new tree is to isolate a scriptural text for the purposes of seeing what can be done with it alone—leaving the remainder of the scriptures and their implications to do their own work in the meanwhile. This, we might say, is the work of speculation: to take a text or just a few texts and to begin to play with their possible philosophical implications regardless of where it might lead and without an eye to the rest of scripture. This isn’t in itself, perhaps, yet synthesis, but it makes synthesis possible. Because the answer to question four, I assume, is that grafting is synthetic work, the work of bringing back from the speculative endeavor to the original tree—back to the scriptures—what one has discovered in the course of theological speculation. Grafted back into the scriptures, does what has grown independently survive or no?

That, I think, is the picture I want to work with. Now, the questions still to be asked are the ones I asked above: When to analyze, and how to do it? When to synthesize, and how to do it?


With a nod to Adam, whose fellow traveler I am in this project, I think it’s best to take charity as guide here. Where in Mormon theology have the branches overgrown the roots? Wherever the consequences of our theological speculations stand between the Saints and redemption. And how do we recognize overgrown branches as overgrown branches? By recognizing that certain theological explanations are being used to justify one’s refusal of or rebellion against redemption.

Now, lest I be mistaken, let me note that I think theological speculations only get in the way of redemption instrumentally. That is, I think theological speculations “block” redemption only when we espouse them in order to pretend that we want but can’t have redemption. The branches overgrow the roots only where we collectively or individually let them grow that long, and we let them grow that long because we want them that long. Why? Because then we can say (loudly perhaps, but tacitly often enough), pointing to the fact that they grow right out of the divinely inspired root, that it’s God who keeps us from happiness.

Theology, we might say, begins as something we do in order to get away from what we take to be the oppressiveness of God’s gracefulness—oppressive because it refuses to let us wallow in misery.

So how do we go about pruning? If the analogy is still working, it seems clear that the task of analysis is to take theology back to its scriptural roots—to show where it interprets scriptural texts either wrongly, problematically, or simply boringly. The task, it might be said, is to show that the interpretations that lend themselves to the work of staving off redemption are so problematic that they could only have been created for perverse reasons. In analysis, the theologian gets to play the exegete. The task is, in a sense, deconstructive, since one has to show how the interpretations in question take themselves apart when brought back to the texts from which they take their orientation. But it is, in another sense, psychoanalytic, since it has to go at least a step further if it will make clear that there is a problematic motivation behind the interpretations offered, and not just an “honest mistake.”

Analysis, then, yes, but psychoanalysis as much as straight analysis. In this work, the theologian serves as an apologist for redemption and so can’t shirk the task of adding to the exegetical gesture the hard—and, frankly, a bit embarrassing—work of offering diagnoses. The aim, in the end, is to bring us face to face with the fact that our theologies were created in order to get away from God.

But if we do come face to face with that reality, perhaps it becomes possible to envision, beyond theologies created in rebellion against redemption and theologies wagered only in order to overthrow such rebellions, a positive theology that does its work for rather than against theology.

Perhaps. But if so, let’s call it “synthesis.”


Again I think charity is the key. If we give ourselves the task of planting branches taken from the scriptural tree, or if we assume the responsibility of bringing branches from such plantings back to their “mother tree,” charity must be the guide. But why would we speculate in charity’s name?

Synthesis, it seems to me, is a question of exploring possibilities, and of doing so hermeneutically (no more responsible exegesis here, thank you!). What does it mean to pull a branch—especially a young and tender one—from the scriptural tree in order to plant it elsewhere? At the very least, it’s to take some scriptural passage, preferably with a dose of responsible exegesis to avoid trouble, and to introduce it into a new context to see what fruit it can bear there. What if I read the awkward rhetoric of Alma 32:23 in light both of gender theory and of Nauvoo theology? What if I read Nephi’s discussion of Jews and Gentiles in 2 Nephi 27:1 as an investigation of contemporary politics? What if I read the changes made in 1835 to D&C 42:30-39 in terms of canonization theory? (These are real examples: my contributions to three distinct Mormon Theology Seminar projects.)

Of course, as can easily be seen, this is a bit dangerous. Hence, two points of clarification.

First, it’s crucial to note that what the synthetic theologian watches for is growth. If the transplanted branch doesn’t grow, or produces bad fruit, then the project is abandoned. I’m not at all advocating deliberately planting seeds among thorns to see if the tender plants will choke. One looks at both the branch and the ground carefully enough to suspect in advance that good fruit will be the result (the text has, in some sense, to anticipate or even call for the context into which it will be inserted), and one is more than ready to cut down and to burn the tree if things go in a bad direction (though perhaps retaining a branch that can be grafted back in to its source). But how does one know what constitutes good ground? How does one know if the fruit is good? Here again the key, it seems, is charity. Good ground is wherever charity is desperately needed, and good fruit is charity given and experienced.

Second, it’s crucial to note also that the synthetic theologian’s work only really comes to fruition when a branch from the newly grown tree can be grafted back into its “mother tree.” How does speculation that has born good fruit give something back to the original text from which it’s drawn? Or how does speculation that has born bad fruit change shape when it’s brought back to the scriptures? These are the best questions the synthetic theologian can be asking.

And what else? This is the sort of work the theologian does, in my view. And I think Ostler has done an excellent job of each of these in his fourth chapter of The Attributes of God. And I believe I see charity as the motivation behind both his analysis and his synthesis—as it seems to be behind his entire project.

And now it’s time to let a thousand (trees with) flowers bloom.

20 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: Analysis and Synthesis

  1. Well this may come as a surprise, but I really like this model. I agree that the continental/analytic split doesn’t have much traction here. And I think that the image you propose instead is very productive: theologian as laborer in the vineyard, sometimes pruning, sometimes grafting, etc.

    I wonder if, with respect to the work of the Mormon theologian, you would agree that the work has a “virtual” dimension to it that other kinds of work in the kingdom may not share?

    That is, the Mormon theologian, as extra-institutional, goes about “hypothetically” pruning and grafting branches in posts, essays, and books that sketch out possible approaches and explore possible consequences without actually committing the Church or its members to cutting that branch or moving that graft. This “virtual” aspect to the work being part of what frees up the theologian’s hand to experiment both analytically and synthetically.

  2. So I read the chapter last night. Yes, it would seem nailing down a definition of omnipotence, including whatever limitations on omnipotence a particular definition would impose on divine power, is an important part of the discussion.

    There wasn’t much discussion of the concept of time, which Blake appears to view as part of the given universe in which God operates, hence the definition quoted in the post above (definition DO4 in the chapter). So past events limit what God can bring to pass in the present or future.

    That seems like a reasonable way to look at things, but it gives the interesting consequence that God’s power is at its maximum the instant after Creation (when there are very few past events to constrain God’s actions), decreases over time, and is at a minimum when entropy has would down the universe and there are lots of past events to limit God’s future acts. As the universe and its history expands, God’s power shrinks.

    A more conventional criticism is that from Augustine forward most theologians view time as created by God and subject to his control rather than as a limitation on his power. There are scriptural verses as well that suggest past, present, and future are equivalent to God (D&C 38:1, Moses 1:6, D&C 130:6-7) rather than radically different. Just because Augustine and the Bible like an idea doesn’t mean it is correct, but it deserves further discussion. It looks like the topic of time gets that further discussion in Chapter 11.

  3. Adam #1 – I think you know I’m on board with what you here call the “virtual” aspect of Mormon theology. But I think I’m also placing that aspect of things entirely within the synthetic gesture. The analytic gesture, which I’m also pleased to make a part of Mormon theology, is more difficult to see as virtual. Unless you’ve got more up your sleeve than I thought, here?

    Dave #2 – I have nothing to add, though these ideas (especially your last paragraph) occurred to me as I read the chapter as well. I wonder if Blake’s failure to address these kinds of criticisms isn’t bound up with his decision, right at the beginning of the chapter, that Descartes’s extreme theism is nonsensical.

  4. Dave and Joe: I didn’t address the A theory of time assumed in my approach to omnipotence because I beat it to death in chapters 5, 7 and 11. I don’t think a timeless approach is consonant with Mormon thought and so argue — but I don’t believe that divine timelessness is even coherent. I offer a view in chapter 11 in which God exists and has the perspective of all inertial frames of reference at once which is different than our measured time. However, it doesn’t approach timelessness and it is not based on 1,000 years = 1 day except to the extent that time is relative to motion and is interpreted as space-time in the special theory of relativity. In other words, time is also a function of space (something like 1,000 years to a cubit as facsimile No. 2 puts it).

    There is another issue that is at the very core of issues confronting Mormonism that is essential to address that lurks near: Is God subject to natural laws and within the universe or does God transcend natural law and the space-time pocket universe in which we exist? This is a very fundamental issue that implicitly entails a position on supernaturalsim/naturalism as Joe so eloquently recognizes in this post. It is the fundamental issue confronting Mormon theology that must be addressed before anything else can be said about God in my view.

    My position on this issue, implicit in my elucidation of omnipotence and divine concurrence, is somewhat of a blurring of this fundamental distinction — but a logically consistent and disciplined position that turns away from the Tradition and toward process theology and Molinist sensitivities.

    Joe: Great post, I’ll address your very fecund and interesting parable of theology when I have time. Short answer: I really like what it illuminates.

  5. It seems to me:

    I would replace “scripture” with “truth.” All growth is good growth, if it is into truth, meaning facts. Knowing a true thing about God is more important than, say, knowing at what temperature it is best to wash your towels. But all true information is good information, if one is able to synthesize. All truth can be synthesized, since it is all a part of a totality of truth – one great whole. So that pruning is the shedding of untrue information, or, at least as likely, re positioning true information (synthesizing) in an increasingly truthful way. The details get tricky. Scriptures are sources of truth, if handled in a deeply truthful way, but they are not truth themselves except in so far as it is true that they exist. But they are only indicators, especially of how others have gone about searching into God, and what their experience of that has been. We canonize the best, but ‘scripture’ should probably be seen as a relative term: something applied more vigorously to parts of the canon and having relevance to a great deal of writing outside the canon. “The Word of God” is truth and light and Spirit (D&C 84) – scripture is the “Word of God” only in so far as we are positioned in such a way that truth, light and Spirit can flow through it to us.

    Redemption and augmentation are synonyms. What comes between us and God may be ‘bad growth’, but it can only be bad if it us fundamentally not factual, or, at least as likely, is held by us in an untruthful stance. Good information can only be bad growth if we have a character trait (better thought of as a lack of a trait) that causes us to hold good information in an untruthful way. Pride, etc. The fundamental fact, the fundamental truth, is that we lack truth and stand in need of an augmentation of our being.

    I trust in God to have power to save me. However, in terms of his omnipotence, I only have to have faith that he is able to do all things necessary to save me, as He is saved.In terms of omniscience, I need only have faith that he can see everything necessary, including into my heart, not that He need see everything simultaneously. In terms of omnipresence, I need only believe that He can exert His influence anywhere necessary to save me, not that He is _any_ meaningful way personally present in all places simultaneously.

  6. Blake #4 – I figured you’d be addressing these questions later. For the moment, let me be clear that I’m quite skeptical of any conception of timelessness. At the same time, I’m less convinced that it’s an incoherent position…. In the meanwhile, I eagerly await your further responses.

    Thomas #5 – I’d be fine with replacing “scripture” with “truth,” except that I’m really nervous about any equation of “truth” with “facts” or “true information.” I have a lot to say about the concept of truth (it’s the focus of my work in philosophy), but I’ll say it briefly here by saying that I think we have a lot more work to do on scriptural notions of truth before we can sort out the stakes of any claim that what we’re after is truth.

  7. And I believe we are saved by facts, so we’d probably have some work to do to find common ground. :)

    I have a good friend who has a PhD from York University in Toronto. In spite of the fact that he has had a heck-of-a-time finding work since finishing, when he heard that I was going History instead on English he chided me for not going Philosophy. But I know that I’m far too imprecise both in thinking and writing to do Philosophy. I admire those who do, though. I think it is important.

  8. Nice post, Joe. I like the vision of theology you offer, and I am excited to hear more discussion of time and timelessness, and I’m esp. anxious to think more about the natural/supernatural distinction (along the lines I’m discussing with Clark on the lds-herm list…).

  9. Nice post Joe. First, I think your approach to theology a great approach, especially with its focus on Charity.

    Second, I think it’s high time to show Omnipotence the door–“I think our time together was unforgettable, but I think it’s time we move on . . . It’s not you, its me.” The whole idea is neo-Platonic duct-tapary straight out of Plotinus without scriptural support (the two given by Blake in the opening of his chapter can easily have other interpretations). As Thomas says above, all he has to have is power to save me for me to be satisfied that he knows enough. The idea that God can do anything not logically impossible (with a few caveats so he does not mess with time or wish for more wishes or any of that), seems to remove some things from God that I want to hold onto, e.g., like his creativity. Creativity requires newness, emergence beyond what is present not only in stuff, but in expression. The Harry Potter/wave-the-wand God seems to be what we have in mind with Omnipotence (or maybe the Picard “Make it so” God). I see an embodied God, that means a God with a biology (of a kind I know nothing about albeit), which => conditions for existence at the very least. I think Adam Millers ontotheology which dismisses ex nihilo creation nicely, also implies (it seems to me–Adam?) that omnipresence should be emperor we hand some clothes and tell to get a real job.

  10. Steve #10 – I’m entirely on board with you here. I’m particularly smitten by the complete reworking of concepts of power, potentiality, and impotentiality in Giorgio Agamben’s work. If we’re to think about God’s power in a fruitful way, it may have to be through the Aristotelian equation of potentiality and impotentiality.

  11. SteveP: I think we need some concept of maximal power to work with. It seems that given the criteria that God must be at least sufficient to save us, that requires (as the Lectures on Faith recognized) that God must be able to save us from any force that would defeat our salvation. But that also means that God must be able to control the natural order because if it can snuff us out of existence, then we certainly are not saved. It seems to me that the very reasonable criterion of the Lectures of Faith regarding power to save requires that God be maximally powerful. That isn’t the same as omnipotence, but it is darn close.

  12. If individuals are ultimately eternal and self-existent, per Joseph Smith, we certainly need not have any worry that we are going to be snuffed out of existence. Even if spirit/intelligences are not, it certainly would not seem to require maximal power to resurrect an individual from spiritual dust, but rather principally a sufficient acquaintance with the state of that individual in the first place.

    In addition, the idea of the power of God as the ever increasing joint power of all divine persons, in spiritual unity, as that number increases, seems like a more practical conception of all power in heaven and in earth than the idea that divine power requires the ability to suspend the nature, tendencies, and/or ability of anything and everything, at will, in an infinitesimal amount of time.

  13. I meant, “too near a black hole.” In other words, do the laws of physics govern or does divine power govern?

    However, the process-related view of power that I present adopts the view of concurrence — and that entails that God’s power to accomplish tasks increases with cooperation. However, what is in God’s power is a matter of what God (the Godhead) can bring about unilaterally. If one is included within the unity of the Godhead, then acts in unity to bring about the divine act and therefore divine power is necessarily shared.

  14. Blake, the proposition that all material things (i.e. all things that are embedded in space and time) are subject to gravitation seems like a bridge too far to me, as does the proposition that black holes strictly are “holes”.

  15. Joe:
    I am only recently looking in Mormonism with greater curiosity. For the last decade it has satisfied, primarily, a perfunctory place in my life. And I really appreciate this parsing of Blake’s work. What do you feel are the criteria of primacy in establishing the roots and the trunk? Is it a reduction of the cannonical body to the first ideas sequentially? Those ideas that comprise a reduced corpus that is not contradictory? Or those that satisfy your/a communities most ardent need? Or some version of logical primitives (e.g. Start with god or nature and move out)?
    Could there be room for a practical compromise on a less-than-physically-omnipotent God who, unable to change the given state of certain things in the universe, selects place? In other words: I, unable to snuff out all childhood violence instead choose the neighborhood where I will raise my children. It is tantalizing for me to think of a physically dangerous universe just as it is tantalizing for me to approach a view of existence that is spiritually fraught with peril.

    Spiritual peril is important: it was motive enough, I believe, for much of Devine intervention. Maybe our doctrines and our scripture are the map of the neighborhood. Recently I have been approaching the scriptures anew. I have take a more hermanutic approach; one where they seve as primarily documentation (much in the vein of programming documentation — mostly of the “missing manual” form). And I imagine some wrote thier contributions to the documentation with as much machine knowledge as my 9 year old daughter might have — where some things are still magical.

    In short entropy, black holes, evolution, and m-branes/p-branes do no violence to my faith. And I believe most or all of those things exist in some form.

  16. DBG,

    I’m wondering if you can say more about your questions. I’m not entirely clear what you mean. But that won’t stop me from trying in the meanwhile. :)

    What I’ve got in mind with the actual roots is nothing more than the scriptural texts, uninterpreted—the texts as a kind of fixed code. We can debate where the limits of canon are to be found, whether we prefer the canonical texts or the originals (so far as they can be found), etc., but I’m not bothering myself here with those particulars. So the roots aren’t, for me, a set of ideas or claims or propositions, but a set of texts. Theology is what grows out of the roots into the light of day….

Comments are closed.