One of the most tempting yet misplaced complaints lodged against Joseph Spencer’s For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope might be that, for all its talk about Zion, For Zion does nothing to suggest actionable proposals or bullet points for how to build Zion.
While I remain unconvinced that the best philosophical work need not apply its insight to the particulars of the real world, I am also convinced that, in Joe’s case, the force of his argument effectively anticipates and forecloses against that criticism: his work arrives without any particular object lessons, for so too, he contends, must our hope for Zion. The hopeful work of building Zion, while not content-less, cannot be reduced to any specified content or agenda with bullet points. (The previous two posts say more about how such hope might be present yet invisible, engaged yet provisional.)
Even if one rejects this approach, I think it would still be wrong to contend that Joe offers no lesson on for how Zion can be built because the whole work is a mute performance of what I take to be its central proposal of chapters six and seven: Zion is sustained and repaired in the consecrated rereading of texts.
Chapter six argues, in a nutshell, that hope and its associated Zion practices are neither necessarily nor sufficiently about either individuals or the entire world. Rather Zion is and always has been about the deliverance of sort of ambiguously mezzanine group—namely a covenant people of Israel. In Romans 9-12, “it is not individuals [Paul] addresses but Jews and Greeks, and it is not the world that needs redeeming but Israel” (58), and in so doing Paul seeks to bind the early Christian church back to the Abrahamic covenant.
Then drawing on the work of Gabriel Marcel and Josef Pieper, Joe advances a criticism of a sort of proprietary individualism so frequently associated with liberal economics since C. B. MacPherson (although Joe does not mention Locke’s labor theory of property or his interpreters by name). Any hope that reduces to a purely economic order of labor, as the twentieth-century experience with Nazism, State Communism, and even high capitalism attest, is already condemned to desperation (65).
Hope must be, according to Pieper, “an existential realm in which such categories as ‘profit,’ ‘feasibility,’ ‘usefulness,’ or ‘efficiency’ mean nothing” (65-66). Joe does not flesh out the loaded implications of this economic critique in this chapter, but instead points to how those implications will be born out in rereading key portions of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Before that, however, Joe issues this striking claim: “the Book of Mormon is, taken as a whole, a kind of massive exposition of the letter to the Romans, even though it was written at a different time and in a different place.” “However it should be explained,” he offers, “the Book of Mormon is profoundly Pauline” (67).
Chapter seven elaborates: the Book of Mormon, itself a hopeless civilizational tragedy prophetically preoccupied with Christian hope, emerges in English at a time—the time of the now, or the time of hope—when hope has been restored. Paul, Mormon, and Moroni all wished but could not experience (save for a period of peace and social justice discussed in 4 Nephi) the time of hope their teachings foresaw. In other words, “The Book of Mormon serves as a kind of bridge between the apostle Paul and the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Spencer claims, since “the doctrine of hope outlined by the one provides the theological frame for the practice of consecration outlined the other” (78). “What has always remained to be seen—Israel fully redeemed—[is] given its rightful place as the focus and orientation of the most Christian hope” (68).
Here the summary point of his rereading of the Book of Mormon as a sideways epistle on another Pauline epistle (in particular the letters and sermon on hope from Mormon reproduced by Moroni) is to refresh both covenantal continuity of Israel’s hope across LDS scriptural canon while also introducing the later chapters’ discussion of “the real economic implications” for the “idol trade” of modern economic practice.
Radically rereading scripture in new combinations issues forth its own kind of faithful revelation. Joe, for example, rehearses Heather Hardy’s argument that the “apocalyptic anticipations [in the days of Paul’s early Christianity] were entirely correct if they are read as anticipations of what would take place in the New World” (75).
In other words, the early generations of Christians in the Roman world would not have been puzzled why their Messiah did not return had they lived in Lehite lands in the New World. He also repeatedly rearranges one book of scripture as a lens for refocusing another in a different time and place, writing, for example, “if there is one thing the Book of Mormon might accomplish for the Bible-believing Christian, it would be to focus one in a new way on the covenantal bearings of both the Old and the New Testaments, drawing attention to Paul’s hope for Israel and their continuity with the writings of Isaiah and the promises given to Abraham” (77).
I take the point of his trans-historical instinct here not to be that everything is illuminated and every puzzle resolved with the Book of Mormon in hand, but that we encounter better puzzles to work through. In his argument, for example, that Pauline conception of hope suffuses the teachings of the Book of Mormon prophets, I wonder if I cannot hear the quiet prompting that the title page reference to the book coming forth from a hillside “by way of the Gentile” could be read not only a reference to Joseph Smith but also as an oblique reference to Paul of Tarsus, that Roman citizen and hillside-trotting Jew.
It is a truism in the study of western civilization that preservation of a people requires the continuous reworking and repair of its literate tradition. When things go well, the identity of particular peoples endure and are restored by their relationship to grounding texts. To list a couple obvious examples: the ancient Hebrews uncovered an identity anchor of ethical monotheism in the records of the prophets that buoyed them in the stormy seas of Diasporic exile; Lehi urged his children to return to Jerusalem for the plates of brass before embarking for the new world; and countless protestant sects opened new windows to heaven in the mass literate revelations of the Bible of Gutenberg and Luther.
Of course when things do not go as well, textual traditions do not only preserve a people; they can also lead to persecuting other peoples. The same monotheism of the ancient Hebrews (which learned something from the priestly classes of Pharaoh’s empire) has a long and checkered past justifying intolerance and warfare; the records were evidently not enough for Lehite family, the Book of Mormon teaches, given how generation turned against generation over religious, economic, and social differences; and the short story of modern history, from the launching of the Pope’s bellum sacrum and St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, to the formation of modern Germany and the Gaza strip, is one of unequal socioeconomic conditions working itself out in sectarian strife on the global stage.
Put another way, perhaps Joe is after a world historical question: To what end do we read scriptural texts? How could we reread them? Specific to the LDS textual tradition—and its scriptural canon and covenants concerning consecration and hope in particular—he asks how might these texts help turn church members more fully toward serving the demands of hope and consecration, social justice and economic grace on the one hand or toward the exploitation and uneven concentration of natural and human resources worldwide? Put simply, he asks, so what does LDS scripture teach about the law of consecration?
Some of his answers will follow in later chapters. The value of those answers I think should lie in how they reframe, if not resolve, the thorniest conundrums of modern economic life. Of course many questions remains: on what grounds can one be convinced, for example, that the current time of hope today differs from Paul’s? And how ever should or will consecration work? These are productive questions, and Joe deserves major kudos for using scripture, and LDS scripture no less, to get serious about some of the most insistent difficulties in the modern world. In these chapters, for example, we see in action not answers to these questions, but rather the consecrated work of rereading scriptures on how to hope and act: the Book of Mormon appears somehow as an exposition on Paul, just as Paul’s letters to the Romans does on the Abrahamic covenant.
Our world, for all its problems, he shows, arrives with texts ready to refresh all we have to hope for and consecrate; the time for doing so is now and much more remains to be seen. With this, Joe turns his attention to the Doctrine & Covenants.