Future Mormon 5: The God Who Weeps

Welcome to the fifth chapter of the originally weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most.

My apologies for the delay on this chapter.

Future Mormon Chapter 5: The God Who Weeps

Weeps is invigorating precisely because it does not mime the voice of authority. It speaks and thinks in its own name.

This is an odd chapter to deal with. I’m loath to confess but I just haven’t read the Givens book The God Who Weeps. So I’m trying to react to a reaction to something obscure and hidden. Perhaps though that’s the ideal state to be in to try to react to Adam overall since that’s what his theology is ultimately trying to do. Yet I’m aware of the limits that puts on me. Rather than do this chapter the way I’ve done the others I’ve decide to pick out a few “reactions” to react to. So there won’t be the normal summation and critique I’ve done.

First off Adam makes a distinction between doctrine/dogma and thinking. He puts it as thinking without copying or mimicking authority. I think that’s very insightful since so much of how we read scripture is trying to unearth the authoritative voice. Thinking is self-consciously not authoritative. It’s tentative. I like to think of it as preparing a place where authority can manifest itself.

Where I differ from Adam is over whether we should call this faith. It seems to me that for faith to be faith presupposes an authority. For me to trust someone requires I know they are trustworthy. The element of faith Adam focuses on is the gap from total knowledge. To identify this gap from perfect knowledge requires first knowing what isn’t the gap. Put an other way, to see the valley you first have to see the hills. To have faith in God requires some knowledge of God. Where faith acts is faith is taking this knowledge as a stepping stone where one steps out off of knowledge into the lesser known.

Is knowledge freely chosen? I don’t think so. Knowledge is a type of belief. We might characterize it by how unshakable our belief is or by some more “objective” 3rd person account of facts. Yet fundamentally the belief part of knowledge seems something that happens to us. Adam characterizes faith as how we respond, yet that too seems somewhat instinctual. What we can do though is change where we put our focus. I can’t speak for the Givens, but if they do believe self-revelation occurs when we choose what we believe I just disagree. Rather to me, the self-revelation is the discovery that occurs when we see what we chose as evidence of our belief. That is the choice follows the belief to such an extent that they are two sides of a single coin. (Faith without works just isn’t faith – works are faith) What we mean by belief is the ways we’d act if we believe.

Do we postulate something to fulfill our desires? Is God merely the filling of an existential emptiness? While this is a traditional platonic move, I don’t buy it. Unsurprisingly I oppose Augustine here. I don’t postulate God to fill a gap. I notice God there in order to see the gap. My sense is that here, at least, Adam and I disagree with the Givens. (Although as I said here the Givens really are a gap for me: unread) I don’t feel a need to be whole. Rather I see the part and seek to understand it. In understanding it I find more revealed.

Identity is the favorite topic of philosophers. Yet in a certain sense it’s what’s closest to us. The problem is that when we try to theorize or systematize identity (“who is this ‘I’ that thinks and longs”) it seems like identity slips out of reach. It always reminds me of trying to think exactly how I walk and pay attention to each step of the process. Inevitably I find myself falling, unable to walk, forgetting what I’d already known. (If you’ve never tried this experiment please do – it is very humbling) But if these things that seem so present to us — identity, self, walking — withdraw when we try to focus too closely on them what does that mean?

Maybe the problem is that we’re trying to understand a process as if it were a fully present thing. Processes inevitably end up being complex. Each part has deeper parts and relations with other parts. Trying to fully understand a process is somewhat like trying to understand the shoreline of Norway. The closer you look you find new divots, nooks and crannies. Then just when you think you have those mapped out you find more. Soon you’re at the level of sand with each grain having its own shape much like the coastline of a shoreline. In the same way any process seems doomed to failure if we seek to grasp it as a whole fully present to mind.

If Adam presents the Givens correctly, they think the self is hidden to a kind of forgetfulness rather than a kind of fractal infinity. The doctrine of pre-existence can thus for the theologian become a curtain for a magician – hiding a certain slight of hand. However I suspect that there is no true self. There’s just the self who acts who has a nature like that shoreline.

Relative to their comments on Darwin, I’m loath to say much about the Givens. Let me just stick with Adam since I’m in no position to criticize a criticism of Darwin I’ve not read. Instead let me talk about self-organization. Much like that shoreline of Norway a self-organizing entity seems essentially incomplete. Yet such self-organizing principles seem quite demonstrable. Let’s ignore natural selection and neo-Darwinianism for the moment. Just look at the innumerable examples of self-organization that computer science departments have been showing since I was young. I remember as a young teenager writing Conway’s Game of Life on an old Apple //+. Rather than debating how much evolution is like fractals or chaos, let’s instead simply note the beauty and transcendence of how the implementation of a few rules can develop something far beyond our initial understanding. That’s the nature of contemporary computing in many ways. Machine learning no longer can be understood the way we understand the mathematical formula we encountered in high school.

Relative to theology the question becomes whether God can make something that transcends himself the way these equations transcend our knowledge. Again ignoring evolution for the moment, can God have that moment of creating something even he can’t fully grasp? Can God be surprised? Can he in an act of creation have creation be something new?

Not knowing God well enough we don’t know. My sense is that those who dislike the very idea of evolution are those who demand God control everything. It’s like the old “can God create a rock heavier than he can lift?” Can God be omniscient (know everything knowable) and still be surprised? The complaint with evolution is less a complaint with science than it is with a certain conception of God.

In the same way Adam presents the Givens on agency in the same way. If we’re only free if our choice isn’t cause or created by something else, but if our “self” is like that shoreline unknowable in a certain sense, can we be free? Again much like the assumed nature of God determining what we accept or reject about science, it determines what we accept or reject about choice. What if though the very nature of the plan of salvation is due to there being something in us (let us not say a something that is us) that even God can’t know or control? What if this probationary state is an attempt to provide freedom in the sense of a lack of constraints to let this grow in a way even God doesn’t know? The problem is that a certain conception of free will wants a “something” that is free yet fully determined and known. The quest seems inherently contradictory. To be free is to be tied essentially to that unknown.

If perfection is completeness, then freedom is this element beyond completeness. To be complete though means to have this incompleteness as well. We need a self-transcending God. To be like God we too need that imperfection that lets us be perfect. It seems the sort of thing that one can’t help but talk about via paradox. Freedom in this sense isn’t seen as a ground of choice. Rather it is seen as what undermines choice. Perhaps this life is to nurture this essential imperfection so we can utilize it in a fruitful fashion. Not undermining perfection but completing it.

4 comments for “Future Mormon 5: The God Who Weeps

  1. “Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.”

    This description of the motive and loose vision of the outcome of the collection of essays may or may not reflect the actual essays. I will need to read the actual essays. However, the text of the description resonates with me. I see a pattern in at least my parents’ individual conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through Joseph Smith, and supposedly embodied in the LDS church, as repeated in my own life.

    Each of my parents had their own reaction to the LDS church when each were introduced to it. This is based on later recollection, which has its own bias(es). One parent recalled feeling that questions brought up in childhood about the nature of God were validated and answered in LDS theology. The other thought that the LDS church presented a logical framework in which he could fit, as he had no formal family tradition of Christianity.

    Being the oldest of a first generation raised in the LDS church, which involved my parents migrating to Utah for that specific environment, I think I may have been given a too rarified atmosphere, but at least my parents included deliberate self-reliance as part of their legacy. As it played out, I think the self-reliance, at least in terms of individual thought, gave way to a personal insistence on how I would understand the gospel.

    Essentially, I had to deconstruct the faith tradition from my parents and the social environment I gew up in, and reconstruct it for myself. I had to test assumptions I had inherited, even had to let go of more than a few assumptions, in order for my understanding to increase, and for my faith to become trust.

    Sorry if I hijacked your post, but thanks for helping to increase my understanding, and providing peer review in other conversations.

  2. “The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts…The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.”

    I’m guessing this is the passage from Givens regarding faith you were speaking to.

  3. It’s odd, but the image that came to my mind in reading the Givens quote, and reading your summation of Miller’s reaction to it was the frescoe “The Creation of Adam” by Michaelangelo. I pictured faith as if it were an electricity between Adam’s outstretched finger (belief) and God’s outstretched finger (knowledge).

  4. Clark,

    I don’t have the book in front of me, but Adam isn’t it true that while Adam critiques the Givens’ use of agency and preexistence more strongly than he does there views on evolution? And if memory serves, I thought his critique wasn’t that they didn’t acknowledge evolution’s role in creation, just that they didn’t emphasize it enough throughout.

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