This post revisits the theme of fullness from Taylor’s introduction that I mentioned briefly in the last post. In the universal quest for the “good life”—the telos that determines what makes life valuable and what is the normative way to live— Taylor distinguishes the believer and the unbeliever by where they locate this fullness (the transcendent or the immanent frame), and what fullness entails (transformation or flourishing).
What does Taylor mean by “transformation” and “flourishing”? In short, flourishing is the perfection or fulfillment of our “human material” (i.e. sexual fulfillment, security and success, health and prosperity, etc.), while transformation entails a “radical change in identity” that “takes us beyond merely human perfection”—or requires its very renunciation– in the name of a higher good. More specifically, “the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case…to the point of the extinction of self in one case [Buddhism], or to that of renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God in the other [Christianity].”
But what does “serving God” mean? Doesn’t the Judeo-Christian God desire our flourishing? (Yes, Taylor affirms). Might not its renunciation simply be instrumental to greater flourishing, some kind of “unnecessary ballast on the journey of life”? Taylor argues this negates the sacrificial power of the “renunciation”; the transformative power stems from this very act of affirming and surrendering the “unsubstitutable good” of our own flourishing. Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemplative writer and priest, puts it even more strongly: “It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one dies to the lesser in order to ‘gain’ the greater. But the great spiritual teachers (of which Jesus was clearly among the greatest-of-the great) do not say that. You do not die on a cross in order to ‘set up’ the resurrection; you die on a cross because the willingness to give it all away is itself the original and ultimate creative act from which all being flows…. And so the last attachment must be broken: the attachment to having itself” . Here, the transformative process is clear: the egoic attachment to “having” that rests at the heart of flourishing — having “more” of x human good– must be completely transformed into a different way of being.
Here I think Taylor muddies the waters a bit. For example, he uses “flourishing” in two ways: i.e. God’s desiring of “ordinary human flourishing” (such as the physical healings Christ performs in the New Testament) and “fuller flourishing” (what he characterizes later on in the book as agape—universal participation in God’s love). This slippage makes Taylor sound contradictory (we must surrender the goals of our own flourishing to serve a God who desires our flourishing). This is also blurred by his shifts between a “God’s eye view” and the “believer’s view.” From God’s point of view, it is about [“fuller”] flourishing, though on a universal scale; but carrying this out may entail the sacrifice of individual flourishing. He explains, “The fruit of this forgoing is that it becomes on one level the source of flourishing to others, and on another level, a collaboration with the restoration of a fuller flourishing by God. It is a mode of healing wounds and ‘repairing the world’ (18). So while God’s “telos” may entail our flourishing, from the position of our own individual experience (and that perspective is supposed to anchor the book), our telos–devotion to God’s will—may ultimately require its renunciation.
This, at least, is Taylor’s (broadly painted) version of the Judeo-Christian believer. Where does Mormonism fit into this? Not comfortably, I think, though we are not the only ones . Mormonism complicates this dichotomy of transcendence/transformation and immanence/flourishing not only through the embrace of innate human goodness and rejection of original sin, but the more radical doctrine that man and God are not ontologically distinct; that as man now is, God once was. If that is the case, how much “transformation” do we believe is really necessary in the path to fullness? Is our “fullness” simply an amplified and immortalized version of human flourishing, rather than radical change or self-transcendence?
On the one hand, some passages in LDS scripture do emphasize a kind of fullness continuous with the flourishing of ordinary human desires . Furthermore, Book of Mormon descriptions of dramatic transformations describe the change from sin to righteousness— not a renunciation of actual, legitimate human flourishing . Explanations of the afterlife rest on continuity rather than transformation: we are “restored” to the works and desires of our mortal tabernacle, for good or ill . Or take a much-loved passage by Parley Pratt on the effects of the Holy Ghost: the language bespeaks more of the expansion, perfection, cultivation of human nature than its transformation: “The gift of the Holy Ghost quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands, and purifies all the natural passions and affections, and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. It inspires, develops, cultivates and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings, and affections of our nature…” . If I can get away with being really broad , I’d say many pulpit and scriptural discussions of the Atonement depict Christ’s grace as more of a stain-remover than an identity-changer (see Alma 5, for example); the basic “fabric” of our nature doesn’t really seem to change. Perhaps as a consequence, we often treat Christ’s crucifixion less as an example to follow and more as an instrument to our freedom from sin and death—despite Christ’s call (warning?) that “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” The full-scale transformation and self-denial implied in this scripture doesn’t find much correlation that I can see in the Book of Mormon.
So if we look at Mormonism through Taylor’s dichotomy, is Mormonism’s idea of fullness (salvation) more about flourishing than transformation?  This could be challenged several ways. One is to point to the overall “prosperity cycle” of the Book of Mormon as a message that man’s tendency towards treating the temporal and spiritual gains of keeping the commandments as “goods” or flourishing shorn of God’s greater “telos” (“fuller [universal] flourishing,” i.e. to love and care for others, alleviate poverty and suffering, etc.), ends in spiritual and social catastrophe.
Or we could look at explicit examples of prophets calling for transformation over flourishing—but this takes us in a tricky direction. The primary example I see of this is the case of polygamy, where Joseph Smith and subsequent leaders ask members to surrender the goals of human flourishing (marital love and intimacy) for a radical “identity [or values] change,” culminating in a heaven populated by dynastic networks and polygamous offspring. Ironically, this is an issue in which the Church has made the most profound reversal, not simply away from polygamy and its radical implications , but towards an enshrinement of the nuclear family (something Taylor associates as a source of “ordinary human flourishing”) as the very essence of salvation and exaltation.
In summary, I think Mormonism’s claim that God and man are not ontologically distinct has the potential to reconcile Taylor’s dichotomy—a hugely important feat, in Taylor’s eyes (as we’ll discuss in later posts, though in a nutshell, Taylor asserts it was the tension between the two that fractured Christianity in the first place, and hopes that modern Christianity can ultimately achieve their reconciliation and thus speak to our fundamental human longings and potential). However, before we triumphantly call it a day, I think Mormonism’s position between those two poles can be contradictory and incomplete, and thinking along the lines of flourishing and transformation may allow us to ask fruitful questions. For example, does Mormonism’s ontological collapse diminish the spiritual depth and transformative power that renouncing –or at least questioning—our human “flourishing” could produce? Do we overemphasize the divinity of ordinary human flourishing at the cost of much-needed personal and collective transformation? Is a religion that measures our spiritual worth by our flourishing [i.e. Mosiah 2:41] a bit too egoically satisfying and convenient? Can we find a middle ground in affirming our innate goodness and divine likeness while recognizing the extent of our brokenness, without slipping towards antithetical ideas of total human depravity? What are your thoughts?
 Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, 49.
 There’s also some slippage in speaking about locating our telos (“transcendent transformation” or immanent flourishing) and the sources for achieving that telos (in a force beyond ourselves [grace] or within ourselves [will, reason, etc.]); the dichotomy breaks down in something like Buddhism, where the transformational resource is “immanent,” or self-contained]). I think that discussions in Mormonism about the emphasis on our own agency and responsibility [immanent resources] at the expense of grace [transcendent resource] speak to that issue.
I also find Eugene England’s essay “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest” an interesting perspective on the tension produced by individual agency and collective values or needs, and the inevitable tragedy that produces. This seems related to Taylor’s implicit collective vs. individual tension at the heart of God’s desired universal flourishing.
 Nor is it the only one; in his book on Secular Age, philosopher James Smith takes issue with Taylor’s distinction between transformation and flourishing as a “hangover of… scholastic Thomism,” a discontinuity between grace and nature that Reformed traditions, for example, do not share See How to (Not) be Secular, p 48 FN 1, and pg 32 FN 2. Others have also pointed out that Judaism and Islam do not fit well into these dichotomies for various theological reasons.
 Mosiah 2:41 seems like a classic example: God’s commandments ensure “blessed and happy state,” both temporally and spiritually. Consider also Mosiah 3:19’s call to become “put off the natural man and become as a child” [an originary, rather than transformative, state]).
 Mosiah 5, Alma 22, Alma 5
 Alma 41
 Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, Deseret Book, 1978, p. 61
 I know, I know. This whole thing is ridiculously broad. But if you’re talking about Taylor, what else can ya do?
Taylor might think so by locating Mormonism in the context of the modern “anthropocentric shift” (17th-19th centuries), where the goals of religion became wedded to the goals of modern civilization, and God’s purposes and mysteries are reduced exclusively to human flourishing. I think there is a lot to say about this, but it will wait for a later post (once we hit chapter 6).
 I think teachings on polygamy threaten to undo much of the theological radicalness of Mormonism’s claims that we and God are ontologically the same: see Joseph Smith’s letter to Nancy Rigdon [Mormon Enigma 112-113], for example, where the famous “happiness is the object and design of our existence (through keeping all the commandments, etc.)” quote is followed by his explanation that sometimes those commandments might upend our entire moral compass. Instead of ontological similitude, Joseph’s letter emphasizes God’s alterity and unknowability, for “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another”—but “whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.” This Euthyphroian answer (it is “good” because God commands it) reverses the powerful Mormon teaching that God commands because it is good—i.e., the Good exists independently of God. I think this warrants a separate discussion, perhaps.