Category: Philosophy and Theology

The Anthropocentric Shift: Secular Age, round 6

Links to posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 In the last several posts, we’ve covered how the enchanted, hierarchical world of pre-modern Europe slowly shifted in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries to a “disciplinary” society, where human beings began to perceive themselves as rational agents and masters of their own will and destiny, and increasingly related to each other in terms of mutual benefit, exchange, and equality. This shift corresponded with the changes in scientific views (with the “mechanized” universe), sociopolitical views (i.e. government as an instrument for mutual benefit), and economic developments (the rise of the “invisible hand” free market) . In this post covering chapters 6 and 7, we’ll see corresponding religious changes during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in what Taylor calls “Providential Deism” — the bridge between the transcendence of pre-modern Christianity and the immanence of secular humanism and atheism. Providential Deism encapsulated what Taylor calls the anthropocentric shift, or the reduction of…

Some Thoughts on Trends in Apologetics

First let me say upfront that I simply don’t read that many apologetic papers anymore. That’s less about any problems with the genre so much as just a lack of time. I have to be a little pickier about what I read than I used to. One day when little kids aren’t waking up all hours of the night that may change. Second let me say I’m not really interested in doing apologetics in the below. I’ll do my best to refrain from answering tangents that head in that direction. Rather, what I’m more interested in is the theoretic scaffolding behind different eras and trends in Mormon apologetics. I’ve been thinking about this a lot primarily in reaction to some of Dave’s post and Brad L’s comments to it last week. Brad in particular justifiably called me out on staking out a stronger position than I could defend. That said, I’m not sure I agree with taxonomy of apologetics many…

Modern Sources of Belonging– Secular Age, round 5

The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals.  How did we get there? Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order.  Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and…

Hell Part 1: Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers. My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent…

New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3)  In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the…

What if Belief isn’t Volitional?

Imagine you walk outside under a beautiful blue sky, the sun warm on your skin. Now someone comes up to you and tells you that you must believe the sky is orange and the air cold. Can you do it? If not, does that mean your beliefs are freely chosen? Can you choose to believe?

“A Supreme Act of Love”

This past Sunday, we covered chapter 6 of the Howard W. Hunter manual titled “The Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The lesson quotes President Hunter as saying that the Atonement “was an act of love by our Heavenly Father to permit his Only Begotten to make an atoning sacrifice. And it was a supreme act of love by his beloved Son to carry out the Atonement.” We lingered on this section for a while, which prompted me to comment. I recalled how I had been asked before, “What does the Atonement mean to you personally?” (Or something along those lines.) This is obviously a deep and rather broad question, but for me, the Atonement sends at least one major message: I’m worth something. I rest this largely on the evangelical favorite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In an ancient world full…

Modern Christology

I recently read Alan Spence’s Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed, a short but very helpful discussion of the topic. I’m going to use it to reflect a bit on Mormon Christology, particularly as it relates to modern Christological commentary on and criticism of the doctrines that emerged from theological debates in the early Church. First, let’s define the problem.

“That They Might Have Joy”: Conquering Shame Through At-one-Ment

*Film spoilers* Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame is one of the most devastating movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I’m wading into potentially touchy Mormon territory given its NC-17 rating and subject matter, but I think it’s worth the risk. In short, the film follows Brandon (an incredible Michael Fassbender) as he struggles with his all-consuming sex addiction; one that includes frequent pornography viewing and masturbation at both work and home, casual sexual encounters (including one in a gay bar despite being quite straight), and multiple hired sex workers. In the midst of his nihilistic despair, we witness his withdrawal from those around him, including his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who is temporarily staying with him. Yet, the underlying theme of all this is–as the title makes clear–shame. The word shame may bring to mind a mixed set of meanings. For example, the word is obviously central to “ashamed” or even the phrase “have you no shame?” This understanding of the concept is very ancient…

A Mormon Minimalism

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, 79.5 x 79.5 cm, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

I’ve been practicing a kind of theological minimalism for a long time now. This impulse toward minimalism is itself religious. And it’s aesthetic. It doesn’t have to do with whether particular things are true or false (though, rest assured, such judgments must also be made), it has to do with the feel (literally, the aesthesis) of Mormonism as it’s lived.

Mormon Christianity: A Sympathetic View

mormon christianity

Stephen H. Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (OUP, 2013) has a lot to offer both LDS and non-LDS readers. My acquaintance with Amazon titles on Mormonism makes me think it would have attracted a much larger non-LDS readership had it been titled How I Escaped From Mormon Christianity. Happily for mainstream LDS readers, the book is listed at Deseret Book, where an author search under “Webb” sorted by popularity puts the book just above Melodie Webb’s 250 Ways to Connect With Your Family and just below the ebook version of Isabelle Webb’s The Grecian Princess. I suppose a title like 12 Ways Mormon Christianity Can Make You Rich would have pushed it higher on the Deseret Book popularity list. All this to say I’m not sure how many from either potential audience will actually read this book. But you should.

Mormon Christianity: A Little Bit Catholic

I’m about a third of the way through Stephen W. Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (OUP, 2013). Webb is a Catholic professor of philosophy and theology turned writer. His Catholic perspective on LDS doctrine and his evident sympathy for the LDS approach to Christianity make this insightful outsider treatment of LDS theology quite refreshing. I will no doubt post a longer discussion of the book in a week or two, but here is a quotation highlighting some similarities between Catholic and Mormon approaches to Christianity (apart from both traditions being the target of historical Protestant animus, of course):

Reasoning Together – Zion

We talk about Zion in a lot of different senses, but I think most of these share the general idea of communally gathering, developing, sharing, and partaking in everything that is lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy or of good report. How do we do this, both collectively and individually, on both a theological and political level? Once again (obviously) I can’t adequately answer that question here. But once again I’m bothered by a lot of the discussions I see flying around our virtual and ward-level worlds. I don’t like the divisive,  polemical way in which these discussions are framed – especially when the discussion revolves around whether all is well in Zion or whether Zion is in need of some serious, often non-contiguous reform. In what follows, this question is my main target and what I want you to consider. Is the good ship Zion sinking while the crew and passengers obliviously bask in what they take to be the sunlight?…

The Approaching Zion Project: Deny Not the Gifts of God


This chapter (understandably) overlaps significantly with the previous chapter, Gifts. These are, after all, discourses he delivered at various times, to various audiences, with common themes. I’m reading them separately, though, and different things hit me at different readings. So, like always, I won’t discuss everything Nibley focuses on (and I’ll try to not spend too much time on things I’ve discussed previously). With that out of the way, on to the chapter.

The Approaching Zion Project: What is Zion? A Distant View


Another confession: I had a really hard time with this chapter. And it’s not just because I read it sitting in an airport waiting for a plane that was delayed for an hour and a half. Rather, it’s because of the way Nibley speaks of the wealthy. Certain of his descriptions feel, to me, so laughably one-dimensional—so moustache-twirling, tying-the-heroine-to-the-tracks—that I find myself fighting both his prose and my instincts to not just dismiss his entire piece out of hand.

The Approaching Zion Project: Our Glory or Our Condemnation


Now that I’ve read my first chapter of Approaching Zion, a couple more caveats before we get started. First, I’m not going to bother summarizing what Nibley said. Instead, I’m going to try to engage it, responding to ideas that engaged me, whether I agree or disagree. Second, I’m not going to try to engage with the full text; in Chapter 1, there were two things that really spoke to me, and one more that I’m going to mention and defer until a later installment. Feel free, in the comments, to engage with what I’ve engaged with, what I’ve said, or something else in the chapter that you feel needs to be responded to. With that, let’s go!

How a concussion made me think of Stephenie Meyer and Francis Hutcheson


Last semester, my first semester studying Greek, I sustained a mild concussion. I have mostly recovered now. I still have problems with bright lights that makes nighttime driving intolerable, but for the most part, I’m functioning normally. But for a few weeks there, I couldn’t think straight. It hurt to concentrate. Reading even a light novel was difficult, and translating Greek was nigh impossible. Just looking at Greek letters caused me pain. But my handwriting was spectacular. Any notes I took about lectures I attended during that time are the most clearly written, beautifully precise notes I have ever taken. Sketching was fine too, so the concentration required to look and draw was painlessly available to me. It was strange to experience this involuntary shift in my capacities. I tend to think that what I think, how I think, is what I am. But if my cognitive functions are subject to physical manipulations, some of which are outside of my…

Finding My Heavenly Mother, Part 4 (Literary Edition)

Also see part 1, part 2 and part 3. In a 1944 essay (“Is Theology Poetry?”), C.S. Lewis remarked, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” As one who embraced Christianity later in life, Lewis had a keen appreciation of how a new discovery of belief can throw a bright reflected glory on the world and everything in it. The mind, which craves new connections of any kind, takes a special delight in those intellectual connections that carry an associated weight of affection. Who has not noted with pleasure the increased sweetness imparted to a beautiful place by the remembrance of a few precious moments shared there with one’s beloved? How much more, then, might we linger over a place, a picture, a happy turn of phrase that brought to mind some past or promised communion with the divine, assaulting our senses…

Finding My Heavenly Mother, Part 2

venus de milo

 The same drive which called art into being as a completion and consummation of existence, and as a guarantee of further existence, gave rise also to that Olympian realm which acted as a transfiguring mirror to the Hellenic “will.” The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented.    – Friedrich Nietzsche   During part 1 I described for you my personal awakening to the existence of Heavenly Mother. In this post, I’ll explore some of the implications that discovery had for the way I view God, religion, and myself. (Also see parts 3 and 4) It’s funny, it wasn’t until I became experientially aware of the reality of Heavenly Mother that I realized there is a gigantic hole in the way I had been imagining God. All of a sudden, in the midst of a deluge of male pronouns in scripture and hymn and church discourse, all I could hear was a deafening silence about…

Post-structuralist Mormon?

I played with deconstruction a little bit this semester. It probably wasn’t a good idea; I didn’t feel I had a firm grasp on Derrida; his ideas squirmed away from me like slippery little fish. But it seemed like so much fun, like such a powerful tool; how could I resist? It was like fire beckoning, or the primitive call to throw rocks off a cliff, or the closed box full of some unknown something. It was seductive to be sure; that didn’t stop it from being a bad idea. One paper I wrote shortly after attempting to read Derrida was about conversion and the binary between internal and external reasons. Internal reasons are one for which an agent has something in his or her subjective motivational set, some desire or inclination, that gives him or her motivation to act. An external reason has no such component in the agent’s subjective motivational set, so while the agent may recognize the…

Exploring Mormon Thought: The Homogeneous?

William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"

In chapter 8 of The Attributes of God, Ostler continues grappling with the question of human agency in relation to God’s foreknowledge. The professional literature generated by this kind of theological question is wide and deep and the field is no particular speciality of mine. On these kinds of questions, Ostler is much better read than I am. The basic problem is this: “If there is anything in [an agent’s] circumstances which precludes a person from exercising a power, then the power cannot be exercised under those circumstances” (249). Blake argues that God’s strong foreknowledge is just the kind of  causally implicated circumstance that compromises a person’s freedom to exercise their agency. As a result, the power to choose in this instance is no real power and agency is compromised. I recommend a close reading of the chapter’s details. As a non-specialist, though, I’m wondering about the larger context that frames these really difficult questions.