In linguistics, a word that is only attested once in a text is called a hapax legomenon. In older texts (like Hebrew and Mayan texts), these hapaxes can be especially hard to decipher because that single attestation may be the word’s only occurrence anywhere. Lacking context, it’s hard to tell what a hapax means.
Blake’s books have been, I think, a Mormon hapax. They have been for us the sole attested example of contemporary, book-length, academically informed Mormon theology. The three books we now have in hand are a singular, 1200 page wager that Mormon theology, as a scholarly discipline, is possible.
But we are the ones who must now decide if we’ll take that bet. Because, at this point, like any hapax, it’s hard to say what Blake’s work will mean. We need context. And that context will have to be supplied by our work. Will Blake be a one-off Mormon anomaly? A theological wunderkind? Or will a generation of real Mormon thinking follow in his wake?
If real thinking is going to follow, then we’ll have to think hard not just about what we should think but about how we should think it. I agree wholeheartedly with Blake that one reason we may yet lack much Mormon theology is because we haven’t yet found a form adequate to its expression. Those old wineskins can’t handle our new wine. We need a new voice to speak our new truths.
As Joe Spencer pointed out in an early post, Blake argues just this in the introduction to Exploring Mormon Thought, volume one. Blake’s three volume plan originally looked like this:
The first volume . . . deals with the Mormon concept of God. The second volume . . . deals with the problems of Christian theism . . . . These first two volumes are in the analytic tradition of philosophical theology. . . . The third volume is radically different. . . . [It] is a departure from theology as it has usually been done in the Christian tradition. . . . Indeed, my style [there] is precisely a break with all previous types of philosophy and theology to better embody the break of Mormonism with prior theological traditions. This work engages in what I call “revelatory discourse” as a means to more faithfully speak to persons within the faith. (xi)
This third volume in the present series, for whatever reasons, is not that third volume (in fact, we’re now expecting a fourth book). But what Blake proposed is still what we need: a serious departure from the tradition that breaks with previous types of theology (analytic, continental, whatever!) in order to better embody Mormonism’s revelatory discourse.
The introduction to Blake’s currently existing third volume starts on a similar note.
My project has been a rescue operation to save the heart of God’s revelations to the Hebrews from the Greek mind. The Hebrews relied upon immediate experience of God and divine self-disclosure for their understanding of God, but God remained a mystery in the way that persons who are free are always mysterious when combined with unfathomable power and glory. Yet God could be known as a unique individual, spoken with face to face. Whatever we know in relation to God derives from a relation to God. It is either revealed in divine self-disclosure or we remain ignorant. (ix)
This may be too strident, but I think it hits the right note: Mormon theology must enact what it presents. It must work to catalyze the very kinds of divine self-disclosure that it investigates. Mormon theology must be, as Jim Faulconer puts it, a kind of “apocalyptic” theology that is not only persuasive but performative.
As Jim says in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: “Theology may be about many things, but it is not about [God] if it does not reveal him, and it does not reveal him if it does not announce the nearness of his kingdom. . . . Our theology must be a figure of the Apocalypse, a theology that reveals God himself, even if only as a [type], rather than revealing only our understanding of him” (113).
Our new wineskins must do this kind of work: (1) they must performatively call into question our idolatrous assumptions about God so that (2) there is room for God to show us, face to face, the jarring nearness of his kingdom.
I’m hesitant, though, to join Blake in saying that this kind of work pits the Greek mind against the Hebrew heart. From what I can tell, God has been just as busy revealing himself to Greek minds as he has to Hebrew hearts (let alone to Greek hearts and Hebrew minds!).
Rather, what we need is a fresh discourse that, as David Foster Wallace hoped for his monumental novel Infinite Jest, will make people’s “heads throb heartlike.” The aim must be to join head and heart in a feedback loop that ramifies the thoughtfulness of our hearts and the clear-sighted tenderness of our heads.
In this sense, the real challenge and real promise of Blake’s work remains.
Show us, Blake, not just what solid analytic theology on a large scale looks like but how to do theology in this new way that breaks with tradition and catalyzes divine self-disclosure! Show us how to engage in theology as a revelatory discourse!
No one is more hopeful for your success than I am.