For Zion – Part 4

For ZionFrom the pen of Ben Peters:

I’m thrilled and humbled to take part in this roundtable. By way of introduction, I’m Ben Peters, a husband, a father of four, a media historian and information technology theorist (more on my work here), a lifelong member, a long-time T&S reader, and first-time poster. My family has lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 2011, following an education trek stretching from Provo and Stanford to New York and Jerusalem. A disciplinary mutt, I have no real business commenting on the work of professional philosophers, especially chapters likely to trip up readers more careful than I am. Those wanting a scholarly review of his argument will have to look elsewhere. With that warning, read on as I think out loud in three installments about the central proposition of the second quarter of For Zion (chapters four through seven): all we have to hope for and consecrate, even that which remains to be seen, is already present.


“The Time of Hope”

Let us begin with the general problem. Hope, viewed critically, risks utter foolishness. Only those who hope can be disappointed. As Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche have made famous, hope for a brighter future can blind us to the concrete press of the present. Marx and Freud—it is worth noting at the beginning—also inspired projects that have mostly since shed, in G.A. Cohen’s phrase, their “empirical carapace” in favor of moral philosophizing. (Marxism, in my view, is at its best in ink.) Their critique might be summarized: hope dulls and dismisses our faculties for hardheaded empirical evaluation, papers over and even justifies injustice, and risks vaulting and dumping all that matters into the sink of the mystical beyond. Such naïve optimism offers up a momentary salve that binds not our wounds but our eyes and hands to the world around us.

And yet hope is central to the Christian fundamentals of faith, hope, and charity. Moreover, Paul’s bold statement—“for in hope we are saved”—admits no easy runaround. What is a Christian to do?

Furthermore, the law of consecration—which asks members of the LDS faith to commit our lives and material substance to the church—does not on the face of it fare much better. Those who accept that law likely find themselves stubbing toes against one or two despairing recognitions: either we will continually fail to live up to that impossible standard or we must rationalize away the relevance of the law, postponing it, like the object of any desire, to some post-apocalyptic future time. By imagining hard breaks in the future, sometimes we even manage to confuse the causal arrows of the Christian injunction to care for the needy: since in the millennium there will at last be no poor and suffering among us, only then, some may be tempted to muse, will we be able to fully live according to a consecrated socioeconomic order. Trapped between that outrageous position and the commonsense observation that the law of consecration and its communalist ends have no hope of scaling in the current economic order that concentrates the uneven accumulation of wealth in a globalizing market, Church members may reason that tithes and offerings will have to satisfice for now.

And yet the law of consecration is central to the covenants made in LDS temples in this world here and now. Again, what gives? What else might hope and the law of consecration be than theologically trumped up exercises in expectation management? How sure are we these principles do not actually speed our disengagement with the present world—a world self-evidentially already too short on Zion and too long on immiserated classes?

Joseph Spencer’s analysis reverses and reclaims this problem of hope, without dulling its critical edge. In particular in For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope, Joe works through the apparent paradox of Christian hope and LDS consecration: he holds out that “hope in its most fully developed Christian sense is an engaged orientation toward indiscernible possibilities inherent in a world that has been rendered unstable by the Christ event” (my italics). For Joe—a prolific Mormon philosopher still in grad school, a time and space reserved for the most untenable buffetings of hope and desperation—the hope of a consecrated life both partakes in and opens up the indiscernible possibilities in the present. He seeks to understand hope, the law of consecration, and Zion as bound up in one collective and curiously general task: namely, his task is to show how hope—particularly a hope empowered by the LDS scriptural canon and covenants—makes possible a revolutionary and transformative way of social life in the current world. Much in the book moves me.

In chapters four and five Joe situates the Pauline hope in Romans 8 within a framework of time and space. The specifics of his philosophical discussion of the limits of hope in the works of Paul of Tarsus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Giorgio Agamben, Ernst Bloch, and Gabriel Marcel need not detain us here, except to note their chorus of voices rings out that hope, properly understood, can only be hope if it works in the present-day world. At the same time under Spencer’s direction, these voices also harmonize to Paul’s point that “hope that is seen is not hope” (Romans 8:24) or, as Joe puts it, “hope is always without an object.” How can hope necessarily be both present and unseen? Hope for Joe must recognize the utter bankruptcy of particular everyday desires. Ralphie in film The Christmas Story, for example, cannot actually hope that the shiny package underneath the Christmas tree might contain an actual Daisy Red Ryder air rifle BB gun because he had already expected the gun in its particulars and therefore idolized the image of that particular object in his mind. A hope anchored to the Christ event is opposed to this kind of (Christmas morning) expectation that can only disappoint. In order to do so, hope, like faith (see chapter two), must remain unseen, especially in our vainglorious imaginations of the future. Joe must imagine that even Sisyphus, whom the Greek gods condemn to roll a rock up a mountain for the eternities, is happy because he expects nothing in specific.

In chapters four and five, Joe examines how hope—general but engaged, present but unseen—fits into a particular understanding of time and space, or what he calls with Paul “the time of the now” as well as, borrowing from Jean-Luc Marion, the space of “what remains to be seen.” “The time of the now” refers to long-standing Christian occupation of the present day as an in-between time between Christ’s first and second coming, and that all we have now is the time that remains before this time comes to an end. While Paul believed the ending was imminent, the LDS faith seeks a sort of middle ground. By asserting that we live in the latter, not the last, days for working out our deliverance as a covenant people, the urgency of the Restoration hedges against that hardy perennial in human history, apocalyptic endism.

Here are two images for thinking about the time of the now. (The first is mine.) Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is sometimes said, is a disorder of time, wherein the past perpetually punctures the present in the mind of its victims. Its sufferer cannot live normally in the present, since the sufferer finds herself (click here for a study suggesting PTSD is a disorder not just for male combat veterans) incarcerated in the memories of the traumatic past, constantly caught up in a return to a time when she had no control over her life. PTSD swallows up its sufferer in the demands an impossible past places on the present. Perhaps by force of analogy, the law of consecration is the temporal reciprocal (or inverse) to PTSD. It is an order of time that orients its sufferer not only to the past, the future, and their respective traumas (apostasy and apocalypse, Abrahamic covenants and the millennium), but to an impossible present and its relentless demands, especially those we do not yet see. The law of consecration, that is, loops all willing sufferers into the only time—the time of the now—to which we can always return and asks that we consecrate ourselves to the possibilities lying still unseen all around us.

Second, Joe likens Gospel deliverance in “this time of the now” to the time of the deliverance of a newborn. An unborn child remains, like all embodied hope, unseen; an unborn child does not promise a Messianic millennialism in which a future Savior will deliver us from our woes and cares. Rather it guarantees that the present will be a time of transformative suffering and that our deliverance can only be worked out now and together. As a relatively young parent myself, I am struck by how the time of childbirth offers a creative way for understanding theological time: a year before a child is born, the timing of the child’s entry into the world is basically unforeseeable; for weeks before the delivery, the specific timing of labor is unpredictable; in the time of active labor, time passes quickly to the outside observer (active labor for our most recent child, for example, took less time than between meals) at the same time that suffering appears interminable to those who labor—mother and child together, however suffused with the promise of mutual deliverance it may be; and once the birth event is past, the universe is forever transformed for all involved. Read at a theological scale, the time of our present deliverance is similarly unforeseeable in earlier times and unpredictable in the latter days, at once instantaneous and at times interminable in our experience of it, and irreversibly revolutionary in its costs and consequences. Those who participate in the delivery of a mother and newborn child, the image suggests, glimpse as individuals the profound revolutionary risk carried in the deliverance of Zion as a world event.

The childbearing image of time has a few helpful consequences: it describes how the passage of time is not always straightforward. Sometimes time stops, escapes, surprises, and leaps new life, relief, and burdens into being. Also, we can see in it more clearly how all humans bear the burden of delivering a world fast in the state of change—a call as resonant with the parent and the theologian as it is with the policy analyst and climate scientist. Hope invokes neither the vagaries of metaphysical beyond nor fully articulated visions of the future; rather “hope takes its time” because it sounds our “inarticulate groanings” (Romans 8:26, cf. Moses 7:48, 56) that we now bear as co-laborers in the evolving continuum of creation.

In short, both of these images—the inverse of PTSD and childbirth—underscore what I take to be the fundamental, if sometimes implicit, point of Spencer’s chapter about the time of hope: any present-day theology of hope must recognize that hope is no naive antidote to present-day suffering. The most hopeful moments—the birth of a child, the release from past trauma, and the establishing of Zion (that reservoir of unarticulated hope for the faithful)—arrive pre-wrapped in present-day suffering and sacrifice.

The next post will glance at how chapter five seeks to reconcile such tensions in the space of hope.

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