Future Mormon Chapter 1: A General Theory of Grace
Grace is primal and sin is a suppression of what has already been given. We don’t have to work our way into grace; we have to stop working so hard to pretend we aren’t already in it
Adam starts by breaking grace off from being only or even primarily about Christ’s atonement and salvation. He sees atonement as one mode of creation. God’s grace is his willingness to freely give all of creation both to creation and particularly to us. He sees the fundamental problem as our rejecting or suppressing this grace as the giving of creation. Sin is rejecting this already given grace. The fall is the suppression of grace. Because grace is a type of giving this entails change which entails a taking of what was previously given.
The flip side of grace is our nothingness. I think he means something like Buddhist impermanence as nothingness. That is grace entails change and therefore a lack of permanence. But he also means it as a lack of control. I think that is because he sees grace as something already given we either accept or reject but not something we master. This nothingness is itself a gift and thus grace. Our unwillingness to accept our passive place takes grace as a debt rather than a gift. (He appeals to Mosiah 2 for that) Because of the suppression of grace as gift, it’s seen as debt and therefore rejected so as to not fall into debt and lose more control. Most religion is the attempt to put God into our debt and thereby restore our power
The next part is about law which he introduces by first introducing obedience. The goal of law is love but obedience can’t achieve this. (This is argued for via scripture – primarily Matt 22 & Romans) The atonement doesn’t redeem us by complying with the law for us but rather he fulfills the law (which was love) by excepting himself from the law. Christ’s sacrifice isn’t providing a supplementary grace that was lacking but saves us from our suppression of grace by displaying the thing we were trying to suppress. It’s giving again the grace that was already given.
The conclusion is perfection. To live in a fashion that fulfills the law without being subject to the law is simply to receive grace with graciousness. To do this is to love in an undivided fashion.
I confess I really like this chapter because it gets at a tension I always saw in a lot of Adam’s earlier work where the notion of grace in Christ’s atonement and grace as the ongoing process of creation seemed in tension. The chapter really isn’t so much a set of arguments so much as a set of positions. In a way it defines the ideas that will be analyzed over the following chapters. That said though, while I appreciate what Adam wants to do I’m not sure he’s fully able to remove the tensions between grace in general and grace via the atonement. (Hopefully some of you can chime in on this point – although these tensions will come out further as we go through the book)
More or less what Adam does is make love and grace into basic elements of ontology. Now he’s not the first to do this of course. It’s hard to read through especially the early part of this chapter without hearing an echo of the platonists of late antiquity. In particular Adam’s treatment of sin as the rejection of the overflowing of grace is structurally similar to evil as the privation of good. In God proper there is always this overflowing or emanation. Existence for the platonists thus is various types of privation from God as the One. In traditional platonism this is a set of emanations such that all things flow from the One and in a sense are part of it already.
The problem for Augustine was attempting to reconcile the platonic One with God – the unifying of the God of the Hebrews with the God of the philosophers. In making that unification he creates an absolute ontological gap between God and creation which we term creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Now it might appear that Adam doesn’t have that problem since later in the book he emphasizes plurality rather than unity. Yet if grace is akin to the outflowing of the Good in platonism, there are I think more similarities than Adam might be comfortable with.
Now despite the similarities with some aspects of platonism I don’t want to say Adam is quite embracing platonism. Indeed later in the book Adam argues emphatically against platonism. I raise it primarily to point two things out. First this idea of the flowing of grace is a very traditional platonic conception, especially in the more theurgical type of platonism such as with Iamblichus. Second to note that the sense of us as nothing is very much the old platonic idea of the soul as a substance flowing from a divine fountain. In some traditions we are a receptical that receives this light but are nothing but place for it. To become enlightened is to turn back to that source. That turning to the One is often equated with love.
Again I want to be careful that I don’t turn Adam into Plato and then begin discussing Plato’s conception of love (eros, philia, agape). Yet I think by bringing up Plato we can see a problematic element in Adam’s thought that I think even Augustine and others struggled with. What is the relationship between grace and God? Is our love ultimately not of anything but grace? Thus in loving grace we manifest love? But what is God and what is the relationship between God and grace?
This tension isn’t new to Mormonism. Arguably Orson Pratt dealt with it nearly 170 years ago. Pratt came up with a materialist conception of God closely related to certain structures of platonism. The problem became that to explain the nature of God he postulated an interpenetrating fluid. This fluid gave God his power and his attributes. It was Spirit or a kind pure creative power. It fulfilled a place akin to the Nous, Intelligence or universal mind within many forms of platonism. While Adam doesn’t have a substance based ontology, grace has a pretty similar place for him that Spirit did for Pratt. The criticism many (especially Brigham Young) made of Pratt was that Pratt had transformed the love and worship of God for a worshipping of the divine attributes. The danger for Adam is that he transforms the love of God into grace that is independent of God and prior to God ontologically. Grace as love of grace, reception of grace, and grace as creative change, replaces God in the divine hierarchy. Grace becomes the God behind God.
Now let me say up front that this claim is clearly hyperbolic. I don’t think Adam really thinks that. Indeed we’ll see in Chapter 9 how he argues against platonism. I make the claims in this exaggerated way with platonism lurking in the background precisely to highlight this tension. To use Adam’s rhetoric of grace, it is an element of his thought that I think is often surpressed and thereby hiding in the margins. There are of course solutions to this problem. Indeed much of the theology of the trinity in terms of the relationship between the ousia and the hypostasis ends up being this very question. The pagan platonists had their own solutions. What I want to bring out is the question so in the chapters that come we can see it lurking in the background (or foreground).