Category: Philosophy and Theology

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.

Phantom Limb

I can’t speak to your experience. I can’t speak even to my own. But I’ll tell a story. I remember the day and time and place that I stopped believing in God, but not the date.

Desert and a Just Society

The 2010 poverty level in the U.S., we learned on Tuesday, is the highest it has been since 1993. In 2010, about one in six Americans lived below the poverty line.[fn1] In June, 14.6% of Americans received food stamps.[fn2] To some extent, the high poverty rate is probably related to the high unemployment rate, which was 9.1% in August. I throw out all of these numbers to suggest that, as a society, we have a problem. That problem needs to be fixed. And we, as Mormons, undoubtedly have something that we can bring to the discussion of how to fix it. As I think about how we can fix poverty, though, I’m hugely influenced by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill’s book Creating an Opportunity Society.[fn3] Haskins and Sawhill point out that Americans care about desert.[fn4] That is, as Americans, we want those who have the ability to work for a living. And I’m interested in this idea of desert. Because…

Mormonism and Social Justice

Recently, we’ve seen some distrust of religions that advocate social justice, from sources as diverse as the political punditry and lay Mormons.[fn1] The criticism is unfounded, of course, and strikes me as ahistorical and anti-Catholic. The term “social justice” comes from 1840, when the Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli as he worked through the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. As you look at Jesuit schools’ mission statements, you begin to understand how central social justice is to the Jesuit identity. I teach at a Jesuit law school. Part of our mission is to “prepare graduates who will be ethical advocates for justice and the rule of law.” This social justice emphasis is inspired by the belief that each human being “deserves dignity and respect.” And Pope Benedict XVI takes this dessert further: he says that charity is inseparable from justice.[fn2] So why spend this time, on a Mormon blog, talking about Catholic conceptions of social justice? Because not only does the Mormon tradition has…

Grant Hardy’s Subject Problem

Criticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of the Book of Mormon simply ignore the book’s style altogether. Grant Hardy, in his new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, wants to uncouple the problems of historicity and literary merit. He brackets the first, setting aside the apologetic debates that have dominated Book of Mormon studies over the past four decades. Instead, he turns his attention to the content of…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: True Believer

Wooden Chair

It’s unlikely that I believe the right things about God, Jesus, the gospel, or the Church. It’s even less likely that I could express my beliefs in a coherent and justifiable way. I used to think that, because my ideas were clever, I was at least closer to being right than most. This I took as a consolation. But cleverness isn’t much to live on. God, I think, has been working to pry this cleverness from my cold, dead hands. I have felt God more than once pushing me to echo Meister Eckhart’s deeply orthodox prayer: “I pray to God to rid me of God.” In the midst of such a prayer, the wind stops howling and God bestows a terrifying calm. In this stillness, God gives a precise revelation that bypasses belief and instructs practice. Here, the gospel is given as a certain way of sitting in a chair, a certain way of meeting a child’s eyes, a certain way of kissing a…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Secular Mormons


The irony of religious fundamentalism is that it is a profoundly modern and profoundly secular phenomenon. This is perhaps especially true of the scriptural literalism that often accompanies it. The result is that many of the most conservative Mormons are, in point of fact, also the most secular. Few Mormons are more secular than Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. Why is fundamentalism so profoundly secular? Because it cedes the field of truth wholly and without contestation to secular models of truth – and then tries to combat, contest, and outdo the secularists at their own game. Is there a better example of this acquiescence to the secular paradigm than Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny? Jim Faulconer levels a similar (but subtler) charge against the Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey in the fourth chapter of Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010): Ironically, when people argue for creation science or for what is usually called a literal reading…



Sometimes unintentional mistakes lead to interesting lines of thought. A few weeks ago I misheard a speaker in an LDS meeting. The speaker was quoting John 14:27, and either because of the speaker’s mispronunciation or my imperfect hearing, I heard the word “live” instead of the word “leave.” This lead me to think about what it means to live in peace.

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: The Call

Hakuin - Blind Men Crossing Bridge

It is a commonplace in Zen that three things are necessary for liberation. If you want to wake up from the slumber of self-absorption, if you want to live your life outside the suffocating confines of that mason jar that is your own head, you need (1) great faith, (2) great doubt, and (3) great effort. As Mormons, we’re famous for valorizing the third. We’re also often good at promoting the first. But when was the last time you heard a talk extolling the need to cultivate great doubt? The Zen masters were likely right to see all three as essential. It is not enough to trust and build. Ground must also be cleared. In Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer makes a similar point in relation to reading scripture: We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, “merely” poetic. We then try to…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Pagan Faith


Mormons are metaphysical heretics, backward pagans, country bumpkins, who claim that the world, rather than being one, is fundamentally many. We’re metaphysical pluralists and so break with the creeds. Unity is a product, not a starting point. God the Son is not God the Father and (moreover!) all intelligences are uncreated and co-eternal with God. As a result, rather than being reassuringly antedated by the simplicity of a Divine Will or the uniformity of a Providential Reason, we’re preceded by the mystery of a material plurality that is always already given. In this scenario, faith is a different kind of thing. Unlike many versions of creedal faith, pagan faith is no temporary, stop-gap measure. Pagan faith is eternal and, in a pagan universe, even the Gods must have and keep faith. Faith is not the foil of a (lost or future) knowledge, but the ageless bedrock of any trusting, active, and moral engagement with an uncreated world. Pagan faith originates in response to…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Memory


Say someone asks if you know the time. You say yes and then look at your watch. Did you really know the time? Say someone asks you how to get downtown to the museum. You say yes. They ask you to write down directions. You can’t, but you offer to drive them there instead. If you can see the landmarks, then you’ll know where to turn. Did you really know how to get there? Say that, walking past a bakery, you’re struck by the smell of a pastry and then vividly recall a time when, six years-old, you made those same rolls with your grandmother. You can feel again the weight of her hand on your shoulder as she helps you roll the dough. This is the only time you’ve thought of that event in the past thirty years. Did you remember this? Or did the pastry? Who is doing the knowing in these examples? Who is doing the remembering? You? The watch?…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: A Typology of Readers


In the introduction to his Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer gives us a kind of typology of religious subjects. Imagining the different kinds of responses he might get to the difficulty of his philosophically inclined essays, he picks out four basic types. I. Typology 1. Those who enjoy a kind of childish naivete. Those with childish faith will find what I say difficult because it makes the obvious difficult. They are likely to be bored or, at best, indulgent of me, and their reaction is the right reaction. I have nothing to say to those who are naive in a childish way because anything I say would be superfluous. (xv) 2. Those who enjoy a kind of mature naivete. Those with more mature, childlike faith have moved from their initial naivete to one that knows the obstacles to faith and has faith anyway – not necessarily in spite of those obstacles, but aware of them and able to cope with…

Home Waters: Recompense


Of his awakening, Dogen says, “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.” Tinged with enlightenment, you see what Dogen saw: that life is borrowed and that mind itself is mooched. Every day you’ll need something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. Mind borrows mountains and rivers, earth, sun, and sky. But you can’t just keep these things forever. Even if they weren’t quite what you wanted, they gave what they had and now some compensation is needed, some recompense is required. “Recompense is payback,” Handley says. “It means to weigh together, to bring back into balance” (xi). What was loaned must be returned or replaced. What was given must be given back. Nobody gets to start from scratch, not even God. To make a world is to borrow, recycle, and repurpose the matter that, even if disorganized, is already out there…

Home Waters: Gene/ecology

Canyon Walls 2

Earth is stratified time. Use some wind, water, and pressure. Sift it, layer it, and fold it. Add an inhuman number of years. Stack and buckle these planes of rock into mountains of frozen time. Use a river to cleave that mountain in two. Hide hundreds of millions of purloined years in plain, simultaneous sight as a single massive bluff. It’s a good trick. Bodies, made of earth, are just the same: in my face, unchosen, generations of people are stratified in plain, simultaneous sight. My father’s nose, my grandfather’s ears, my mother’s wink, the lines my kids have etched into my squint. My wife pats my cheek and says: “Dear, your genealogy is showing.” She’s right. The lines on my face and in the palms of hands are family lines. But these lines aren’t easy to follow because, counter to expectation, time’s line isn’t straight. Time piles up. It loops around, knots up, peters out, and jumps ahead. It…

Home Waters: Soul as Watershed

Provo River

Spurred by Handley’s Home Waters, I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner. Like Handley, Stegner is interested in the tight twine of body, place, and genealogy that makes a life. On my account, Handley and Stegner share the same thesis: if the body is a river, then the soul is a watershed. Like a shirt pulled off over your head, this thesis leaves the soul inside-out and exposed. You thought your soul was a kernel of atomic interiority, your most secret secret – but shirt in hand, everyone can see your navel. Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, opens with the narrator’s own version of this thesis. An aging father, writing about his pioneer grandparents, names the distance between himself and his son: Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn’t believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I…

Home Waters: Overview

Home Waters

George Handley’s Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (University of Utah Press, 2010) practices theology like a doctor practices CPR: not as secondhand theory but as a chest-cracking, lung-inflating, life-saving intervention. Home Waters models what, on my account, good theology ought to do: it is experimental, it is grounded in the details of lived experience, and it takes charity – that pure love of Christ – as the only real justification for its having been written. It is not afraid to guess, it is not afraid to question, it is not afraid to cry repentance, and it is not afraid to speak in its own name. The book deserves some time and attention. It’s what you’ve been wanting to read. It may also be what you’ve been wanting to write. At the very least, it made me want to write about it. I’ve planned a few posts that will air some of my ideas about Handley’s ideas:…

What we talk about when we talk about God

photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

Bruce Feiler’s daughter was just five when she pitched him a question right to the gut of religious experience:  “Daddy, if I speak to God, will he listen?” Feiler writes books on the Bible and God for a living, so he’d presumably given the question some thought. Nevertheless he had no good answer ready for his daughter. So he did what any loving parent would do:  answered the question with an inartful dodge, and then wrote about it in the New York Times style section. How do we answer our children’s questions about God, he asked, when we are ourselves doubtful, confused, or otherwise conflicted? Feiler solicited comments on the matter from a formerly-Catholic agnostic playwright, a formerly-Episcopalian agnostic New Testament scholar, and a popular Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles.  It’s not hard to guess the direction their responses took.  Among the educated elite readership of the NYT, a kind of ritualistic doubt partners with a set of tolerant gestures…

Once upon a time on earth: the Church in a changing world


In debates over controversial religious issues, one often encounters a certain kind of argument from history, a sort of “once upon a time” argument. Once upon a time, it’s argued, the Church considered a given practice or belief, from witchcraft to usury to the heliocentric cosmos, to be immoral, unbiblical or otherwise forbidden.  The particular practice or belief in question varies, but the structure of the argument and its implication are nearly always the same: the Church once considered such-and-such to be evil, but now it doesn’t; thus by means of a progressive trope of enlightenment, the argument proceeds, the Church should also de-stigmatize and embrace the controversial topic at hand. (Often, it should be noted, these arguments are made with a great deal of care and nuance and insight.) In one sense, I’m sympathetic to this argument. I share the view that knowledge of and from God is a profoundly historical and historicized knowledge—and it that sense, it is…

An Apostle on Muslims


Yesterday, I read the following comments on Muslims by an LDS Apostle: I am aware it is not without a great deal of prejudice that we as Europeans, and Americans, and Christians in religion and in our education, so called, have looked down upon the history of Muhammad, or even the name; and even now we may think that Islam, compared with Christianity as it exists in the world, is a kind of heathenism, or something dreadful…

Ripples in History

I recently finished Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), with the give-it-all-away subtitle How wars of the past still determine how we fight, how we live, and how we think. Generalizing a bit, not just wars but many major events and some small, unnoticed ones send ripples into the future, silently influencing future generations. Could the present, our present, have turned out differently?