SMPT Notes: Brown

For the first concurrent session I attended Sam Brown’s. While he’s not as well known as David Paulson he has written numerous extremely well received papers and books. I honestly can’t fathom how he has the time to do all he does. He’s a medical researcher and ICU physician as well as writing on Mormon philosophical notions and history. We were very lucky to have him there. At the end he noted how he’s really trying to cut back on all he does. So in that case we were doubly lucky to have him there.

It’s almost difficult to describe Brown’s talk although I had more notes on it than anything else. He started off talking about how the god of classical theism was really the ground of being. It’s thus problematic to talk of an essentially embodied being since how can the ground of the universe ground the universe. (Some philosophies do attempt that of course) His notion is what he calls True Light. Most of his discussion was a careful analysis of various texts of Joseph Smith starting in the 1830’s on up through his Abraham writings.

The talk was a tour de force even though I personally found the key idea problematic. Brown started out discussing Adam Miller’s flat ontology and noting how relations are so problematic in this system. (There are ways they are dealt with but fundamentally the emphasis is on things not relations and new emergent things) Even though I suspect Adam Miller’s thought comes closest to my own of any major LDS writer, I’ve also had pretty similar complaints at times to those Brown raised.

With most critique of religion, especially by New Atheists, the real target is a kind of science fiction conception of God. Brown calls this the “glowing grandpa” model. However for traditional theism God is ultimately the ground of being and thus completely different from what New Atheists critique. The Mormon conception of God as an advanced actor essentially embodied within the universe is precisely the type of being the New Atheists critique. While Brown doesn’t address the New Atheist critique of Mormonism he does ask if there’s anything akin to this ground of being in Mormonism.

He starts out with Alma 42:13 which can be read as suggesting justice is greater than God. He more or less makes the Euthypro dilemma where there must be something greater than God for God to be good. He then turns to the main classics of Mormon theology (D&C 76, 88, and 93) all of which have a nearly neoPlatonic like take on light. True light is synonymous with the light of truth or the light of Christ. He sees it as a kind of adoption theology where entities take up a loving relationship with others (their children). Brown sees this first as essentially hierarchal and especially genealogical and thus opposed to the flat ontology of network theologies like Adam Miller’s. The main difference from neoPlatonism is that instead of having a Chain of Being leading back to The One you have a genealogy going backwards of relations between individuals. (The traditional patriarchal order) Especially in Abraham 3 (and fac 2) the very notions of priesthood, governance, and power are seen in these hierarchal ways.

This True Light is thus both hierarchy and communication. What he argues is that the place of God as ground of being in traditional theology (roughly the ousia in the Trinity) is found in Joseph Smith’s theology as light. He then raises the question of the two types of matter in Joseph’s thought. (Regular matter and spirit or more fine matter) He asks whether light is matter for Joseph and suggests it is not. Elohim is the incarnation of this light.

A lot of the questions focused on the issue of names as well as some major Russian theologians I wasn’t that familiar with. (They sounded interesting but I was completely ignorant) This obviously has a lot to do with various issues like Brigham’s issues with Adam/God (or as most argue his mangling of these ideas) as well as how Enoch receives “corporate divinization and receives Gods name in the city as City of Holiness.”

My question was a bit different and more tied to his critique of Adam’s ontology. In Adam’s key texts it’s very clear he’s doing ontology. You have objects and an “event of grace” which ends with new objects and orientations. Brown’s main critique is that Adam avoids relationships. (This is common in OOO) I think that secular grace or a kind of Buddhist happening ends up taking their place. What Brown is doing is putting relationships back into Mormon ontology as foundational. Light takes this place.

The problem I have with Brown is that sometimes he’s clearly speaking ontologically. More often he’s speaking historically or genealogically. This seems like a fundamental problem in that it’s not clear what role Light has for him. (He does note that especially in Joseph’s riff on Johannine logos in D&C 93 that light fills that role) Brown responded that he knew he was being coy. I brought up the place of infinity as origin in say the neoPlatonism of the Kabbalists with the En-Sof and wondered if the endless regress of Gods played a similar role. He agreed it did. I confess I just don’t see how an endless regress of gods can possibly function as an ontological ground – especially if it has to ground each individual in the regress.

Others were speaking to him at the end and he’s an extremely busy fellow so I didn’t want to take his time. However there seems to be a fundamental problem here that I think Plato already brings up in the Timaeus. Fundamentally you have to have three components. First a source. Second a place (whether a divine emptying or an outright receptacle ala Plato’s Khora in the Timaeus) Finally you need an element of mediation. (Brown actually brought up the Platonic conception of the demiurge from the Timaeus as a worker or mediator suggesting that Elohim functions in this fashion)

Fundamentally the problem I have is that he overlooks some pretty fundamental ontological questions about time that I think mean his approach, as audacious as it is, won’t work. He wants light to simultaneously be place, origin of the filling, and mediation. I don’t think it works. In certain ways this ends up being pretty similar to a series of discussions Adam and I had on LDS-Phil discussing his secular grace as tied to the notion of Khora both in Plato’s Timaeus but also in Derrida. But that’s going down a rat hole and I’ll not bore you with that discussion.

I really do hope Brown works these ideas out. I think it clear there is a strong neoplatonic component to Joseph’s work. I think light is a key ontological notion for him. I just don’t think relations can do the work he needs them to do.

4 comments for “SMPT Notes: Brown

  1. Clark, thanks for the summaries you’ve put up. Wanted to hear Sam’s piece but I couldn’t get to the conference. Appreciate the thoughts.

  2. Thanks, Clark, for this helpful summary of some ideas I’m very eager to know better.

  3. Thanks for the wise, charitable, and accurate summary of my ramblings. I’m sorry I have had to work on this in tiny moments stolen from other pursuits, so it remains inchoate for now. My only minor quibble with your portrayal (in response to your insightful question re: Kabbalah and the en-sof) is that the infinite regress does not ground itself. The Light grounds it. I was arguing that YHWH is the kefer-elyon, the ground and source for the “tree” for Kabbalah, whereas in what I think JSJ is saying in the 1830s, YHWH/El(ohim) may be incarnations of the True Light, but it’s the true light in which the infinite regress of Ahman is embedded that serves as the grounding. I hope that makes sense. Right now I’m mostly focusing on a theodicy project that utilizes this material, so the improvements, such as they will be, are going to come in that line. But I would like to puzzle this through at some length, beyond the implications for theodicy (which thereby looks rather more ancient Mesopotamian than traditional Christian). It arises out of my puzzlement at how gleefully we LDS seems to dismiss the God of Classical Theism without realizing what we abandon logically and metaphysically by so doing.

    I think that secular grace is an inadvertent side-stepping of a flaw in the network theology/OOO stuff. Without some sense for what the interconnections are/represent/facilitate/constrain, it’s logically and scientifically vacuous, I believe, to say that new objects/meanings emerge on the objects. One would have a very different world if humans could only interact via gravity and electromagnetism vs. hydrostatic forces vs. encounters of consciousness, and these variations, which are fundamental to any account of meaning, are elided in what I read of network theology. I’m arguing that per JSJ the True Light of Christ’s adoption is the relevant mode of relation that allows network theology to do its work. But then what we’re calling emergent meaning is actually the work of the True Light. (There’s the parallel question of judgment/evaluation, and there the True Light also allows you to say what is actually or not actually meaningful; I believe you lose any non-trivial judgment with the move to pure flatness/self-grounding. And with no non-trivial judgment we really are utterly at sea and imminently drowning, I think.

    But i gladly and freely confess that this project may not work and clearly needs substantial more thought to make it work. Glad to be schooled on many topics and sorry that this work has to get squeezed into the interstices of my work days.

    All best, Sam

  4. Thanks for clearing that up Sam. (And in all these years I didn’t know the smb moniker was you)

    That difference between light and incarnation of the light was something you brought up a few times. Sorry I missed some of the key aspects of it. This is of course important in John with his notion of the logos as Christ. It’s always been interesting to me how the JST changes John 1 and those key parts on the Word to Gospel. I always took that to be an interesting mixing of Mal 3:1 “messenger of the covenant” which pops up in D&C 45:9 and other places. The light of John is the covenant.

    My ontological criticism was that if light is the ground of being then it also has to ground time ontologically. But if light is tied to the endless regress that doesn’t quite work. But maybe that’s me still confusing the incarnation of the light with the light. i.e. the regress is the incarnation

    To the point about secular grace, this seems a constant problem in a lot of process styles of philosophy. I think it’s a problem in Whitehead too. Effectively this all goes back to the first modern process thinker Leibniz. There Leibniz has monads which are bundles of becoming. However the monads are infamously windowless which means he needs the pre-established harmony to make them change. This thus requires God. With Whitehead he appropriates Leibniz but makes his equivalent of monads windowed. However while relations become more important in Whitehead he still has God making all this possible in certain ways. (I’ll confess it’s here that my relative forgetfulness of the nuances of Whitehead limits me)

    The way to turn this around is that if secular grace is what connects these different objects (with objects in some sense viewed dynamically rather than statically) then it actually fulfills the role of time, causation and relation. When you raise light or true light I’m thus not sure you’re making quite the break with Adam that I think you do. Effectively you’re just calling it something else. i.e. light is Adam’s secular grace.

    I’ll have to think about this. I confess my neoplatonism knowledge has become quite a bit fuzzier than it once was. It’s honestly been years since I last studied it closely – especially the Jewish forms in late antiquity and the medieval era. Your point about incarnation is actually similar to how certain strains of Jewish mysticism tied the En-Sof to the whole Adam Kadamon set of emanations. People have for years noted that as a possible parallel to Joseph Smith (although typically done via weak parallels – such as that initial period in the early 90’s). The sefirot thus might be again to Joseph’s temporal regress of gods – although there are obvious differences. The sefirot is not temporal but is a more abstract neoplatonic set of clearings and emanations. Joseph’s regress of gods has a potentially odd connection to time but fundamentally is historical not ontological. (Which was why I raised that question – this distinction between a ontological/logical regress versus an historic one)

    I should add that I think atheists end up with something akin to the ousia of theists. It’s just the theist part they reject, as you note. (Or they’re just ignorant they’re doing this) It’s the weird mix of God as ground with God as interventionist ‘person’ that is the problem for Trinitarians IMO. This is why the line between atheists, deists, and theists who only care about the ‘ousia’ part is pretty blurry. They end up believing similar things and just call them different names. With Mormons I think you simply have a total break between God as ground or transcendence and God the interventionist person. Thus effectively we’re atheists with the Father as demiurge from a Trinitarian point of view.

    Regarding whether this all is a flaw in OOO. It definitely is an aspect of OOO I don’t care for. I think it ends up being akin to a Newtonian composition of mechanics in terms of causes/relations and a Hamiltonian form which is just the evolution of the wave function or system. Adam’s form is more the Hamiltonian way of thinking whereas thinking in terms of causes or relations is the Newtonian form. But both are mathematically identical even if there is a big ontological difference between the two conceptions.

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