Blake Ostler does a lot of admirable critical work in Of God and Gods (Kofford, 2008), but the book’s main constructive contribution grows out of his decision to make our heady claims about the superlative attributes of God throb with a Hebrew heart.
He does this by (1) prioritizing the highest form of interpersonal love as the critical divine attribute in light of which all other attributes must be understood, and (2) arguing that, in order to give and receive this highest kind of love, even the Gods must remain genuinely other to each other.
In this decisive respect, our warm-blooded Mormon Gods depart from the tradition’s frozen creeds. As Blake puts it:
The Mormon view is most distinctive in its view that there are divine persons who are truly other to each other. . . . The face of the other is never compromised in Mormon thought; instead, the uniqueness and otherness of the other is celebrated. (257)
I think Blake is right to emphasize that love depends on never compromising the face of the other, but I worry that he ends up compromising quite a bit on this point and quite quickly.
For instance, it only takes a few pages before Blake severely quarantines this otherness behind a “spiritual force-field that penetrates into each of the divine persons and imparts the same spiritual energy and life to each of the divine persons” (277). In fact, this protective force-field renders Father, Son, and Holy Ghost so impervious to any of the internal risks of real alterity that
there are no barriers between them because they are perfectly transparent and open to each other. They are fully conscious of each other’s mental states and share an experience of all things that is identical, except to the extent that they have first-person reflexive properties. Only the Son knows that “I am the one who physically suffered in atonement”; however, all three shared in his experiences in the sense of knowing what he was experiencing. (276)
Maybe this is the kind of thing we have to say about the Godhead, but how much otherness is left here? And is it enough to sustain the highest kind of self-giving love? What does otherness amount to here? A razor-thin margin of bodies (but bodies rendered perfectly transparent and no longer limited by space or time) and indexical properties?
The sticking point here is cost. My claim is that the minimal condition for any truly other otherness is cost.
Do divine relationships of perfect love still impose an internal cost? Is there still sufficient friction left in these relationships to require real costs of time, energy, and intelligibility between the members of the godhead?
And if there isn’t, if the seams no longer show and the paths between the Gods have been worn perfectly and pricelessly smooth, then have we lost a handle on what Blake rightly calls the “most distinctive” and perhaps most decisive aspect of the Mormon view of the Godhead: genuine otherness?
Because this whole series of posts is drawing to a close (and because I think this question has been at the heart of many of our discussions this past year), let me try to frame the problem one more time and as precisely as possible.
Blake holds the following positions:
(1) The members of the godhead, in order to be fully divine, must exhibit the most divine kind of love for each other.
(2) The most divine kind of love is love freely shared with someone who is genuinely other.
(3) Therefore, the members of the godhead must be genuinely other to each other.
This, I think, is an accurate summary of Blake’s basic position. However, Blake also wants to simultaneously claim that:
(4) The members of the godhead are perfectly transparent to one another, are fully conscious of each other’s mental states, and share without barriers an identical experience of all things.
I do not believe that (4) is logically compatible with (3). Complete identity and perfect transparency are not compatible with genuine alterity.
Blake, sensing this difficulty, adds an amendment to (4). Let’s call it (4a):
(4a) Despite their perfect transparency and identical experiences, each member of the godhead has first-person reflexive properties and a discrete body that are unique to them.
This is a useful qualification. However, I don’t believe it solves the problem.
Either these bodies and first-person reflexive properties are sufficiently opaque as to render their mutual identity and transparency imperfect or the members of the godhead do not, in fact, experience each other as genuinely other.
For the sake of maximal precision, let me spell out exactly what I mean by otherness in relation to (2). Let’s call it (2a).
(2a) The minimal condition for genuine otherness is cost. A is genuinely other than B only if the differences between A and B require real negotiation. Real negotiation requires real losses in terms of time, energy, and intelligibility when the differences between A and B are mediated.
The simplest way for Blake to respond to this dilemma would be to offer a different criterion of otherness in place of my own (2a). I welcome this. Or, alternately, he could explain what kinds of costs are involved on his account.
However, simply repeating that the members of the godhead have unique first-person reflexive properties and discrete bodies will not be enough. These are (potentially) examples of otherness, not criteria. Without knowing Blake’s criterion for otherness, simply re-asserting the examples won’t help us.
Blake needs a criterion for genuine, “uncompromised” otherness that is not logically incompatible with perfect transparency and identical experiences.
For my part, I doubt that there is such a criterion. I believe that, in order to preserve the centrality of (1), (2), and (3), we must modify (4), not water-down (2).
But, you say, qualifying (4) would give us a godhead that is even less absolute than Blake speculates! Probably. But that may well be the price of love – love that, in order to be real, must impose real costs.