A few days after I returned from my trip to New York, I packed the suitcases again–this time with the children’s pajamas and toothbrushes, too–and flew to Utah for the annual conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, where I was slated to read a paper. After installing my children comfortably at their grandparents’ home in Provo, I drove to Logan, where the meeting was held on the campus of Utah State University. I walked into the chilly conference room just a few minutes before the opening session, put on my name sticker and helped myself to some water, and looked around at about thirty people gathered in the room as I sipped. I found T&S’s Ben Huff, whom I’d never met in person, and then spotted Jim Faulconer; I sat down beside him, chatted for a moment, and then the proceedings began.
I had been a little apprehensive about the conference, not because I was nervous about my presentation—I enjoy public speaking, and I was comfortable with my topic—but because I knew that, for a variety of reasons, I would be very unlike most of the participants, and I was concerned about feeling socially awkward. It soon became apparent, though, that most of the other presenters were as unlike one another as I was unlike them: I was struck by the variety of social types represented on the program, spanning everything from tweed jackets to black biker gear, dark business suits to wide-brimmed fedoras. The audience was similarly heterogeneous: graduate and undergraduate students, business professionals, CES types, representatives from Signature and Sunstone, proud parents, and even a dance professor had made the ascent into the hazy Cache valley to discuss Mormon philosophy and theology. I was pleased to meet a few bloggernacle readers and regulars, as well.
As I might have expected (but didn’t), the papers themselves broached a broad range of topics and critical approaches. Technical philosophical proofs, scriptural exegesis, contemporary critical theory, historical and bibliographical research, and even readings of popular culture found their way to the podium. A few talks stood apart, not falling naturally into a topical group with other papers. On Friday morning, Noel Reynolds opened the conference (and attracted the cadre of USU CES instructors) with his talk on “Lectures on Faith” authorship. Reynolds has worked on this document for some time, having argued previously that the “Lectures” were authored primarily by Sidney Rigdon. In this talk, Reynolds showed the influence of the American frontier revival preachers Alexander Campbell and Charles Finney on Rigdon’s rhetorical structure and theology in the “Lectures”: the poorly digested Scottish enlightenment rationalism of Campbell and Finney reappears in Rigdon’s distinctive four-part rhetorical structure, which relies on a faulty logic that posites, on the basis of shared assumptions and everyday experiences, the Bible as a source of factual grounds for faith; furthermore, Rigdon shares with Campbell and Finney the distinctive doctrines of social trinitarianism and the transferrable testimony of witnesses. Later that day, Jim McLachlan outlined a Mormon eschatology derived from 2 Nephi 2 which moves from an unconscious unity (pre-mortal existence) —> to a conflicted, fallen multiplicity (mortal existence) —> to a chosen, social unity (post-mortal existence). This framework , McLachlan argued, shares much in common with Romantic eschatologies, and he entertainingly supported his claim with examples of popular film, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “In the Company of Men.”
David Paulsen delivered the keynote address on Friday night, a preview of the talk he’ll present at the upcoming Library of Congress conference on Joseph Smith. Paulsen took as his topic Joseph Smith’s challenges to the theological world, and he began by identifying seven such challenges: open revelation, priesthood authority, open canon, the attributes of God, Christ and humanity, and soteriology. Paulsen then proceeded to spend the rest of his hour discussing the just first of these seven challenges, using Lee M. McDonald’s questions about the limitations of the closed canon to explore Joseph’s response in revelatory event, either by the facticity of motor-sensory revelation or by the propositional content of those revelations. On Saturday afternoon, our own Jim Faulconer presented a fascinating phenomenonological (not scriptural) account of hope, arguing that hope is an orientation to the fundamental openness of events, a kind of humility in acknowledging our own finitude. Invoking Heidegger’s theory of time, in which past events are as open (that is, as undetermined) as future events, Faulconer suggested that hope can be directed toward the future as well toward the past. After Jim’s talk, Adam Miller delivered a highly technical (but delivered in a rivetingly soft, intense voice) piece on “subtractive Mormon theology,” arguing that the church’s emphasis on family is what makes Mormonism thinkable between modernity’s poles of science and capital.
The other talks fell nicely into two broad categories, usefully informing and critiquing one another. One of these categories, explicitly theological, began with Jennifer Lane’s talk on sovereignty, agency and the atonement. Helpfully laying out the connections between the nature of the atonement and the nature of God’s sovereignty, Lane showed that a notion of supreme divine sovereignty (like Calvinisms’s) requires the presumption of a limited atonement, in which Christ’s atonement extends only to the elect; by contrast, a limited divine sovereignty (as in Arminisnism) places greater stress on human agency and allows for a notion of a universal atonement, in which Christ suffers for all human sin. The Book of Mormon contains strands of both limited and universal atonement theory, Lane argued, and its concept of an infinite atonement resolves the contradiction between a “transactional” atonement (in which Christ atoned specifically for each and every sinful act, even before those sins were committed) and the reality of human agency. Ben Huff’s talk provided a fruitful counterpoint, as he explicated the story of the Fall as a dualistic pattern not only for mortality, as it is generally understood, but also for final judgment. Blake Ostler picked up on themes of divine sovereignty in his talk, performing a formal disproof of social trinitarianism and suggesting in its place his concept of monarchical monotheism.
Another cluster of talks dealt with issues of community and individual. Brian Birch spoke on the social dimensions of religious experience, arguing that spiritual experiences are, contrary to popular characterization, not self-authenticating; instead, the meaning of spiritual experiences must be sought within the shared episteme and social practice of the religious community. Drawing on the critical vocabulary of William Alston, Birch argued that because these community religious practices (what he calls “doxastic practices”) are not shared across religious traditions, there is no external means to evaluate their internal claims; Birch advocates, then, a “confessional approach” to inter-religious dialogue, one that acknowledges the social specificity of spiritual conviction. Dennis Potter followed up with a presentation on what he calls “communicative pluralism,” arguing that affect—including habits of action and human relationships–is more important than propositional belief in religious faith, both because those propositional beliefs can be malleable and because the Holy Ghost generally produces affective rather than propositional knowledge. The understanding that priesthood authority does not always entail epistemic privilege facilitates both intra- and inter-community dialogue, Potter’s “communicative pluralism.” I presented a paper on LDS theologies of conscience, arguing that individual conscience is a weak category in LDS thought, except when expedient for protecting group religious practice against the external encroachment of state regulation. Richard Sherlock explored the roles of community and individual in the realm of ethics, proposing a “modified divine command” model for Mormon ethics in which God rules out certain impermissible actions and leaves open several possible courses of action subject to human choice.
After two days packed with stimulating talks and discussion, I was both wired and exhausted as I drove back down I-15 toward my children. I’ve been thinking about a few of the problematics and concepts I encountered at the conference on and off during the intervening weeks, particularly those surrounding the relationship between personal testimony, social practice, and community dialogue. The experience has also prompted yet another round of personal questions about my decision not to pursue an academic career. The knotty problems and high stakes of both sets of questions, theoretical and personal, should keep me occupied at least until next year’s SMPT meeting.