SMPT Notes: Paulson & Boyd

SMPTI wasn’t able to attend Ben’s session this evening and it’s looking like I won’t be able to go like I’d hoped tomorrow. Still I really enjoyed the sessions I went to. To give a bit of a taste (and to encourage everyone to attend tomorrow and Saturday) here’s some notes with a bit of commentary. My notes ended being a bit longer than I expected. So I’m doing a separate post for each. Hopefully those of you who attended the other sessions can tell me how they went.

David Paulson and Hal Boyd (opinion editor at the Deseret News) opened things up with a discussion of a few parts of their forthcoming book Are Christians Mormon. The theme of the book is various moves in Christian theology the past couple of decades where many theologians are making moves towards elements of Mormon theology. I just don’t know enough of the main figures in contemporary theology let alone how they are viewed by most pastors or seminarians to evaluate the main claim. Dr. Paulson did give quite a few examples of these moves however. There was also discussion of the backlash to these moves by theologians. Often they make the counter-move of using Mormonism to explain why these ideas are not legitimate. That is if a theology includes Mormons, how on earth could it be considered orthodox? Boyd in particular noted that Carl Mosser (who actually studied Mormons at BYU for a year and was active on LDS-Phil in it’s heyday) saw the very meaning of social trinitarianism as suspect and ill defined precisely because it included Mormon belief.

The title of their book comes from a well known paper of Truman G. Madsen, “Are Christians Mormon?Dr. Paulson actually had a paper with the same title in BYU Studies reflecting on Joseph Smith’s theology.

Dr. Paulson’s part of the discussion focused primarily on divine embodiment. A lot of the discussion was over how the original problem with embodiment came from Greek conceptions of God brought into Christianity. For the Greeks God was primarily about the “all” or first cause and not intervention in the universe. God was simple, immutable and impassable. To limit God by time and space mean that, following Anselm, “a greater can be conceived.”

The incarnation of Christ poses the problem of how to deal with this. Given that Trinitarians have one of the persons as resurrected why is the embodiment of God such as problem? Sadly they didn’t do as well discussing that issue. Most of the issue of Jesus being part of the Trinity yet embodied ended up being brought out in the Q&A at the end. As someone pointed out, once you have creation ex nihlo with God outside of the universe entirely, there’s really nothing he can’t do. So making a body for Jesus is the least of his problems. That is I’m not sure Paulson and Boyd necessarily explained well why Christian theologians were making this move towards what we’d perceive as more Mormon-like perspectives. At least in theological terms. He did note that of the 5 major views of Christ’s resurrection only one involved a physical resurrection. (The others were the gnostic and similar moves of denying a real resurrection as merely spiritual or fake)

One thing I noted in Dr. Paulson’s discussion in particular was that he often opposed theology to science. While he never really came out and said it, my sense is that he thought it was physicalism that was posing the biggest challenge to traditional Christian theology. Perhaps that assumption of physicalism in society is the real driver behind these movements. I’d hoped that would be brought up in the Q&A but no one did. The problem I have with all this is that while physicalism tends to be a “default” cultural position, especially among scientists, science really does not hinge on physicalism. Indeed as many philosophers have pointed out even defining physicalism is problematic and often circular. (Although not everyone sees that as a problem if one isn’t being reductive) In any case it’s not at all clear that we must endorse a physicalist ontology to embrace science.

I’d add that it’s not at all clear Mormons should be physicalists either. It’s true that the major figures of the early Utah period largely were (Brigham Young and Orson Pratt). However Joseph Smith only said that spirit was matter not that all there is consists of matter. (And indeed the tripartite model of the soul in the 20th century often interpreted intelligence as something akin to an immaterial mind)

Paulson at one point also talked about how an incorporeal god ends up being incoherent. I wish he’d spent more time on that. It’s not that people don’t argue for this. I’m just not convinced there are good arguments for it. The idea appears to be a kind of causality that to act is to act within the universe. This seems wrong and perhaps akin to Orson Pratt’s bad arguments in “The Absurdities of Immaterialism.” I’m sure Paulson wouldn’t endorse that. There are arguments for these notions often tied to the problem of referring with negative definitions. Again I don’t buy it but perhaps I need to investigate it closer.

An other problem was that Paulson brought up the numerous examples of embodied encounters with God in the Old Testament. While these certainly can be used to argue for embodiment (and I certainly use them) Paulson tended to say that opponents of embodiment explained them away as metaphors or the like. I’m not sure that’s fair. The real issue isn’t embodiment (as Jesus shows) but essential embodiment and the distinction in Trinitarianism of Father and Son. After all in say Aquinas’ conception of a substantial soul for an angel the angel when manifesting in the material world will have its form impose order on matter. The key is the soul isn’t bound to matter. Sadly this key ontological issue and how it could apply to God wasn’t really addressed.

The final point Paulson brought up was whether psychology requires embodiment. Again this wasn’t really fleshed out so I’m not sure what to make of it. I tend to be a Heideggarian so don’t buy into a more Cartesian conception of mind. I very much embrace the idea that many mental states aren’t purely mind independent of the world but states of embodiment in the world. Separating them out seems artificial. Yet it seemed that Paulson meant something stronger.

Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Paulson’s presentation. However it was definitely a big picture view and left me wanting more.

Hal Boyd focused much more on social trinitarianism. He briefly went through the history, especially Cornelius Platinga’s views. Social Trinitarianism started to become popular among Mormons especially in the 90’s in no small part due to David Paulson and Blake Ostler. I confess I’ve always had a bit of a problem with parts of social trinitarianism. However Boyd’s presentation was excellent. He clearly brought up the issues I tend to see breezed over. Boyd noted that there was often confusion over what counts as social trinitarianism. He saw three main components.

1. There is one God but with the Father, Son and Spirit as separate individual consciousnesses
2. Any divine simplicity must be modest enough to admit (1)
3. Any unity must be tight enough so they make a social unity.

Body noted that they are a transcendent society unified by both purpose and divinity. There can be only one font of divinity (the Father) and one essence and one family. The unity is short of personal identity but must be more than a club.

This gets at a problem I often saw in Mormon appropriation of social trinitarianism. Mormons, especially those embracing Bruce R. McConkie’s theological writing, tended to adopt a fairly nominalistic conception of the divine unity. (Nominalism is the idea that only individual things exist so universals are merely mental) They shared purpose and intelligence (knowledge) but there wasn’t really a shared essence or unity beyond having these same mental states. What was real wasn’t some divinity but their individuality and minds. Mormonism certainly doesn’t require that (and one could argue there were often moves against it such as Orson Pratt’s unique conception of the aether as the interpenetrating Spirit). However just as society tends to adopt a status quo ontological assumption of physicalism it also tends to be highly nominalistic. It’s hardly surprising that in the 20th century even when there were anti-physicalist moves (such as with the tripartite model of the soul where intelligences were immaterial) a nominalist conception of God was common.

Inherent to the trinity is a much more platonic conception. So it’s hard to conceive of social trinitarianism conceived of in nominalistic terms. While again the topics of physicalism and nominalism weren’t brought up, I think the concerns behind them were touched upon by Boyd in passing.