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 religion, politics, the universe, God, etc. to fit the scope of human flourishing in the here-and-now.  The other face of this anthropocentric shift was a widespread  “immanentization,” where the transcendent or other-worldly faded in importance and legitimacy. In Providential Deism, the religion of many Enlightenment intellectual elites, we see these changes reflected in the recasting of God’s nature from that of a being who relates to us through his agency and personality, to one who relates to us only indirectly– and indifferently– through the law-governed structure he has engineered for our benefit.

To highlight these shifts, recall that in medieval/early modern Europe, the cosmos was one great Chain of Being or cosmic body, of which everyone and everything played a specific and hierarchically ordered part. Mankind was embedded within this order, not the focal point as became the case with the anthropocentric shift. Furthermore, in the medieval world saturated with a variety of spirits and forces, God’s power was the guarantor of safety and protection in this life or, at least, salvation in the next—which was supposed to be everyone’s focus anyway. While they perceived God as good and desirous of human flourishing, he had higher purposes— like our own transformation– shrouded from our understanding, but to which we should submit.

With the anthropocentric shift, a few key elements fall out of the picture: (A) the eclipse of any good beyond human flourishing; (B) the eclipse of grace; (C) the eclipse of mystery, and (D) the eclipse of transformation. How did this “anthropocentric shift” happen? [1] Again, primarily through religious reforms (as we’ve seen in line with one of A Secular Age’s broader patterns: religion births secularism). One of the key factors was the Protestant Reformation which initially aimed to instill greater devotion and piety among the clergy and the laity, and then expanded its aim to shaping civilization writ large into more “orderly, sober, disciplined, and productive ways of living.” These reforms were astoundingly successful over the next several centuries, until such norms were no longer perceived as the grace-aided transformations of a chaotic and violent human order, but simply as mankind’s natural inclination. More people came to identify the “locus of our highest moral capacity and inspiration without reference to God, but within the range of purely intra-human powers” (ciao, grace). Because such ways of living were simply encoded into our nature, understanding our purpose and flourishing in life became a matter of reason and self-evident observation (adios, mystery). In other words,  Enlightenment thinkers forged new models of human nature (rooted in older movements like devout humanism and Jesuit spirituality, with their more positive view of human agency) in which people were naturally inclined to feel benevolence for their fellow man and a concern for universal justice. Thus, the Christian ideas of agape and grace were transposed into mankind’s immanent or self-derived moral motivations [2], which were in turn activated by pure will, or some other inner capacity like universal sympathy, reason, or dignity, depending on your theorist [3].

In addition, the fruits of these civilizational reforms—i.e. better quality of life, more prosperous economy, social stability, etc.— were no longer understood as the side-effects of transformative, holy living, but rather as the whole point. God’s plan for human beings was reduced to their pursuit of happiness and wellbeing  (goodbye, supra-flourishing goals and transformation). The more effective people perceived themselves to be at achieving and benefitting from this new disciplined, productive, mutually beneficial social order, the more distant and indirect God’s role became. Some Deists credited God with bestowing these natural capacities upon mankind, while others assigned his role to judging mankind at the end of time if their natural inclinations didn’t do the trick (though human perfection was increasingly seen as a viable, if still somewhat scandalous, possibility). But with the rise of universalism and the decline of hell, even that judicial role faded, and the clockmaker God became more entrenched.

Taylor analyzes the changes in conceptions of God’s nature and mankind’s relationship to him more closely in chapter 7, “The Impersonal Order.”  In the 18th century, the biblical God—- the feeling God who relates to us through the contingencies and individuality of our stories (stories in which he intervenes), and invites us into communion with him through the embodied community of the church—- is relegated to the fanatics, enthusiasts, or the superstitious. The God of educated “enlightened” society was the author of “natural religion,” knowable by reason and the natural order; God was an “architect of a universe operating by unchanging laws, which humans have to conform to or suffer the consequences.” In this new paradigm there is no relationship of agape between rescued and rescuer; there is no communion that “integrate[s] persons in their true identities, as bodily beings who establish their identities in their histories, in which contingency has a place.” The Enlightenment was the age of the Impersonal Order, where flat, categorical relationships superseded the older, personal, and complementary (if hierarchical) ties of feudalism and the like. In this picture, universal codes of behavior replace individuated relations of agape. There is no more allowance for the balance of complementary, mutually necessary polarities, such as order and chaos; order was the only legitimate condition. Discipline and reason replace revelation (for how could an Author of “such an order…stoop to such a personalized communication as a shortcut, if virtuous reason alone can…tell us all we need to know”). Unconditional human dignity replaces the purchase of divine sacrifice, and instead of communion, there is the Cartesian command to distrust each other and even our own bodies; we must learn and reason on our own.

That is, for a time. In the next chapters, Taylor will explore the “malaise[s] of modernity” that set in during the 19th century, and the various reactions (like Romanticism) to the loss of miracles, mysteries, and the transcendent.

So, how much of this Enlightenment anthropocentric immanentization does Mormonism inherit? I have been accustomed to situating early Mormonism within the Great Awakening and Romanticism, but now I see strong echoes of these Enlightenment ideas as well. For one, you can’t get much more anthropocentric than God’s work and glory being to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” or the audacious couplet “as man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” Or consider Joseph Smith’s affirmation that happiness is the object and design of our existence, or Brigham Young’s assertion that we “must learn how to enjoy the things of life,” and that “there is no enjoyment, no comfort, no pleasure, nothing that the human heart can imagine…that tends to beautify, happify, make comfortable and peaceful, and exalt the feelings of mortals but what the Lord has in store for his people.” Flourishing? Definitely. Transformation? Not as much. In terms of the eclipse of mystery, consider Brigham Young’s description of  God as “the greatest chemist there is,” the naturalization of miracles, or the early enthusiasm for and expectation of “wagonloads of plates” and cascades of revelations exposing all the mysteries of the universe. And grace? Well, the last couple decades of interfaith dialogue have spurred some Mormons to focus more attention on the hitherto opaque role of grace—aided also, perhaps, by the cumulative stress of “after-all-we-can-do” readings. There has certainly been an external and internal perception of the diminished role of grace in this theological context of uncreated agency and limitless perfectibility.

Clearly, however, Mormonism is not simply a product of Providential Deism’s anthropocentric immanentization. Even aside from the boisterous insistence on revelation, an interventionist God (especially in reading D&C), the early revival of spiritual gifts and other very non-Deistic traits, the Mormon brand of anthropocentrism seems to be doing something else. Mormonism did not simply “shrink” religion to the immanent frame, as Taylor describes Deism doing; as Terryl Givens notes in People of Paradox, Mormonism expanded rather than merely contracted the sphere of the sacred. Joseph Smith both made the divine concrete and immanent, and infused the earthly with celestial meaning. In other words, rather than disenchanting the earthly of the sacred as Protestantism did, or lopping off the transcendent and the conflating the sacred and secular as Deism did, or mingling them promiscuously as Catholic mysticism and popular devotion continued to do, Mormonism both exalted the immanent and immanentized the transcendent. Human beings are born trailing clouds of glory, mortal relationships found the conditions of godliness, the brick and mortar of communal religion serve as the very essence of Zion; and looking at it from the other end, angels whisking in and out of bedrooms, muddy earth yielding golden plates, revelations dropping in between bouts of wrestling matches. We see both the mundane pulsing with divinity, and the transcendent made shockingly immanent.

This two-way dynamic is treated by Terryl Givens as a rich paradox marking Mormon cultural and aesthetic life, generating fruitful tensions. But at the end of his chapter “Cinder Blocks and Everlasting Burnings,” Givens recognizes that with this collapse of the immanent and the transcendent, we struggle against the elimination of the transcendent altogether. In this collapse, what happens to that yearning for or sense of mystery, the Other, the Beyond?  And I find other risks in this anthropocentric bent to Mormonism, as well as in the disciplined, ordered, will-driven, self-constructing agency of the Mormon self (which seems to go on steroids during early 20th century Progressivism—a movement with many Enlightenment echoes). What happens to our capacity or need for awe-filled worship, or the “wasteful” generosity of devotion, completely divorced from our own ends or “productive” goals [4]?  Have we closed the door to those rich spiritual experiences that transcend our egoic achievements and spiritual acquisitiveness for “progress”, that realm of spiritual communion found among the great Christian and Eastern mystics? What really happens to Christology and the Atonement, to the Condescension of the Word made Flesh, in our application of the idea that we are not ontologically different from God?  What is the line between that spectacular collapse of the abyss between the divine and the human, and mere appropriation? What image of God are we really seeing?

These are some of my questions sparked by these two chapters. What are your thoughts on these tensions? Are they productive paradoxes? Is there room for some more resolution? And, showing my own cards here, how would this “collapse” operate differently if we looked to the immanentization of Buddhism and Eastern Christian mysticism, which also locates the divine within the immanent materials of human relationships and the human heart, but on a level that gets underneath the egoic self and its willpower, self-mastery and self-construction? Admittedly, this last train of thought would take us outside A Secular Age, which focuses on the mainstream intellectual history of the West. But in trying to understand and shape the ongoing revelatory project of Mormonism, it is something I find very, very worth thinking about. For another post!

[1] Taylor briefly mentions other causes: fatigue from religious wars and theological battles and controversies, prompting a turn towards simpler doctrine; a general sense of skepticism in coffee houses and salons, which provoked clergy and believers to undertake an apologetic approach that ironically reinforced the “shrinking” of religion, as they defend only God as creator—not Christology, grace and sin, etc.; and  the rise of  “polite society” and its new norms, which served as the “first stage in the passage of the modern moral order from a mere theory to a form of social imaginary” (237)

[2]  Whatever its limitations or results, Taylor argues, this “immanentization” of moral motivation is one of the greatest achievements of human development: “For the first time, we have such an opening to the universal which is not based in some way on a connection to the transcendent” (255). Human beings find—or create– the impetus, or at least the expectation, within themselves to care about others on a universal scale. In other words, the “buffered identity, capable of disciplined control and benevolence, generated its own sense of dignity and power, its own inner satisfactions” (262) independent of any divine gift or cosmic order. This sense of intrinsic moral capacity becomes so deeply internalized that it takes the most extreme ideologies, like Nietzsche or Fascism, to attempt its repudiation.

[3] There are significant differences among these theorists: Taylor divides them into two camps, the “innocentizing” theorists and the “positive” theorists. Those who “innocentize” human nature render human motivation neutral but capable of being directed towards good or bad, rational or irrational ends, through reason, discipline, and self-control. Those, like Rousseau, who believe human motivation has a natural positive bent towards solidarity and sympathy find that discipline and rational self-control can actually divert us from our “original, spontaneous good nature”; rather, our natural capacities need only be liberated. Some, like Kant, try to combine the two, where our “noumenal” nature is innate but requires a long discipline of reason to emerge. In either case, Taylor points out that it’s not just a simple affirmation of ordinary human desire, released from the shackles of guilt, shame, and religion; there is still the sense of some self-work and proper conditions, training, discipline, etc.

[4] See Josef Pieper’s 1952 book Leisure for an interesting treatment of worship as leisure or “waste,” and its deeply detrimental erasure from modern industrial life.

15 comments for “The Anthropocentric Shift: Secular Age, round 6

  1. Clark Goble
    July 11, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Glad we got an other one of these. I’m going to review the chapters again before commenting. Hopefully tomorrow.

  2. July 11, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    As noted in the post, there is some naturalization of the divine going on in Mormonism, including bringing God into the universe of time and space (rather than somehow existing outside of time and space) and naturalizing miracles as somehow being in accord with the operation of natural world, even if beyond our current understanding. But Mormonism is not Deism — the supernatural is still alive and well in Mormonism with objects like the Liahona and Nephite interpreters and Joseph’s many seer stones. It’s almost like Mormonism squeezed much of the divine out of God and deposited it in natural objects.

  3. Clark Goble
    July 11, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Naturalizing relative to the view of God that came out of the medieval world. One thing I’ve noticed in Taylor is that this received scholastic view is taken as the default view. He’s really opposing the rise of modernism (such as with the rise of a focus on will) to the received medieval view. (My sense is largely Aquinas, but that might be unfair)

    I think your point though highlights the two different ways to conceive the supernatural/natural distinction. To me it’s best to just discount the conception and opposition as inherently problematic. If Taylor is really still thinking in terms of that distinction (even if qualified and historicized carefully) then that’s problematic to me.

    The problem I have with Mormon naturalism is that we assume some final laws. But those final laws are ambiguous. (I’d note that this parallels the problem that physicalism often has as well where it wants to acknowledge that contemporary science is incomplete and possible incorrect in details) So it might be the laws of this universe as set could be changed temporarily by God. Yet a Mormon wouldn’t say that was supernatural even in Hume would. Simply because we want to call it some meta-rules by which this universe has to abide. All of this gets complicated by various multiverse theories and the common assumption that the laws of the universe are actually open to a lot more types of systems that this universe – each with very different rules due to different symmetries.

    While Mormonism has a supernaturalism of sorts, as I said I’m not sure I’d call it that. Rather it’s more a kind of “enchantment” of the real world around us. That is that there are these extra players with their own intents that are in play which aren’t captured by traditional secular analysis.

  4. July 11, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    Great post. I’ve been calling this “the burden we cannot bear” in some recent lectures that I’m working into an essay. How much of the weight of divinity (or the void left after the last God has died, to riff on Eliade) can we actually bear on our own, whether in secularity or in Mormonism? I think it’s an important and as yet unsolved problem. Ping me if you’re in the mood to give feedback on the essay. I’d be grateful.

  5. Clark Goble
    July 11, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    By and large I think secularism can bear it fairly well – although I’d note they create their own sense of transcendence either in higher ethical laws or the spirituality of the earth or so forth. And, as Rachel noted, there are things within Buddhism that allow a kind of transcendent immanence without a transcendent God. (Adam Miller’s done some interesting stuff there with his notion of secular grace which is a kind of Mormon-Buddhist-Deism for lack of a better term)

    The issue of grace is interesting. Pre-protestant Christianity often interpreted it in near mystic terms. While portraying Mormons as Arminians is wrong, there is a sense in which we see grace in more practical terms of God giving to us. That is grace is seen akin to human grace. I think there’s always a sense of transcendence in that – but it’s the transcendence of human autonomy.

    I suspect this is why existentialism in various forms has been so often attractive for Mormon thinkers. Because in many ways we are closer to the secularist side ontologically than the medieval Christian side the existentialist approach to transcendence offers a great deal.

  6. zjg
    July 11, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    So glad for another one of these posts, Rachael, although I’m now a bit embarrassed regarding my earlier claims about my reading — it turns out that I’m not yet to Chapter 7. I’ll try to pick up the pace. A couple of thoughts though: When Taylor talks about the Enlightenment’s anthropocentric immanentization, it seems that one of the things he’s focused on is the shift regarding how humans define fulness. One way to think about the extent to which Mormonism has inherited the effects of this shift is to ask about how the average Mormon defines fulness and how that definition compares to that of the broader culture or even sub-sections of that culture. Obviously, one can point to clear peculiarities in a Mormon’s daily life: lots of meetings, the temple, scripture reading. But in terms of how we define fulness, I’m not all that convinced that it’s significantly different from that of the broader culture. I think this becomes particularly clear when we try to explain to investigators what we have that they don’t. Additionally, it seems to me that, especially in light of Joseph’s and Brigham’s highly respectful views of the Constitution and the Founding, that Mormonism is much more accommodating of liberal democracy (an effect of the Enlightenment agenda) than, say, Catholicism. In other words, it’s hard to imagine Mormons engaging in the types of debates that take place in conservative Catholicism between folks like Alisdair Macintyre on the one hand and John Courtney Murray on the other regarding the tension between their religious commitments and the concept of America. (For example, see this article: In other words, it seems to me that in many ways the lived experience of modern Mormonism is unabashedly embracing of the shift that Taylor is talking about. Of course, one could point to the evidence of an enchanted Mormonism: the Liahona, seer stones, etc. But I certainly don’t see my world that way, and I don’t know many Mormons who do. But I’m fully open to the possibility that I’m an outlier and so are my friends.

  7. Rachael Givens Johnson
    July 12, 2016 at 12:03 am

    Dave: Quite right, Mormonism is not like Deism in many obvious ways, though I do think the “naturalization” of the supernatural (and vice versa, or as I put it in Taylor’s formulation, immanentizing the transcendent and vice versa) in Mormonism doesn’t put it in the Catholic camp either, where the supernatural was constantly erupting in time and space, but very much as the supernatural, if that makes sense. These dichotomies– transcendent/immanent, natural/supernatural, get interesting/muddy in the Mormon context, I think.

  8. Rachael Givens Johnson
    July 12, 2016 at 12:05 am

    smb: That’s a great coinage; and I think, not much, given how much Mormon pastoral discourse still relies on traditional rhetoric about the omnipotence and omniscience of God, and downplaying the ontological collapse.

  9. Rachael Givens Johnson
    July 12, 2016 at 12:11 am

    Clark: I edited this out of my already-long post, but I think the way many Mormons seem to instrumentalize grace and the Atonement points to another Enlightenment/Progressive way of thinking– i.e., anthropocentric/”will”/egoic way of thinking. 90% of the time, I hear Mormons talk of “using” or “applying” the Atonement, and this strikes me as a peculiar way of understanding grace. I think it points to how buffered the Mormon self is; sin is the external stain that can be expunged by grace, the external solvent. There are sometimes allusions to the “mysteries” of the mechanics of the Atonement and how it “works” or tallies up. I think Adam Miller and others, like Thomas McConkie, gesture towards some really fruitful ways of reconfiguring sin, grace, etc.

  10. Rachael Givens Johnson
    July 12, 2016 at 12:44 am

    Really interesting points, zjg. I do think that’s a useful metric; if I were to summarize the missionary “sell,” it’s how the Gospel offers a rich(er) and happy(ier) life in the here and now. I’m not sure how much of this is unconsciously strategic (secular sell to a secular audience; theosis might not really do it for the average Westerner) and how much of it is Mormonism’s own internalization of the flourishing/immanent frame and it’s positive view of human nature (we really just need to be “better” or “more” x/y/z; rather than transforming some deep brokenness or fallenness, or tapping into a different kind of selfhood altogether). Though there are plenty of counterexamples, then and now; the sealing ceremony, for example, as always struck me with how lofty and transcendent the promises and blessings of marriage are, instead of the focusing on the in-the-trenches commitment through better or worse, sickness and in health, in the daily grind of ordinary life.

    Thanks for the link to that fascinating article; it seems that at the heart of the debate is the differing views of human nature (and relevant to Taylor’s overall analysis): “Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility….a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism, among which (Catholics hold) are the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation…” Mormonism’s checkered history with social and political radicalism and post-20th century conservativism, and its simultaneous embrace of the sovereign, uncreated self, but also a profoundly relational one (twinned into godhood through marriage, or bound into celestial sociality through mortal relationships and sealing links) are one of the reasons I find Mormonism such a fascinating case study to put against Taylor’s analysis. Though I know I’m being sloppy with the different historical forces and timelines now… But I think there’s more room for that kind of debate you reference above, when we flesh out some of these different facets (some might say tensions or contradictions) in our theology, history, and cultural practice.And, of course, when we incorporate non-Western Mormon experiences.

  11. Clark Goble
    July 12, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Rachel (9) as I’ve been listening to Taylor I frequently get annoyed at how the focus is only on the transition from a medieval world to a modern world. I agree with many of the things he says, but like you suggest there are plenty of groups that don’t fit into either camp. I think we’re one of them. Consider for instance his analysis of social order in modernism being on a kind of egalitarian individualism whereas in the more medieval times it’s your place in the larger social order. Yet consider the New Testament accounts of communitarian. It’s not really a medieval monastic system. In a Mormon context you could throw in our ideas about the City of Enoch or the hidden society of 4th Nephi. It seems very individual focused yet not in a way that makes sense in modernism. (Communism and Marxism notwithstanding)

    There’s lots of these little things like that I find while reading or listening to Taylor. I find my mind drifting down tangents opened up by Taylor but not really addressed by him with his more Catholic orientation. Even with his discussion of Protestantism there’s often that frustration things are being left out.

    I like your point about instrumentalizing the atonement in LDS thought. I think that’s right although I’m not sure I agree with you seeing this as problematic. Nor do I see it as being at odds with works. I do think Mormons often interpret it in incorrect economic ways. And I fully agree that perhaps our instrumentalist tendencies lead us in that direction. But one can avoid the economic interpretations of the atonement without abandoning the instrumentalist tendencies.

    With regards to Adam, I confess that my biggest problem with his writings on grace is precisely over rejecting this instrumentalism. That is grace seems to be seen primarily in terms of a secular grace more akin to Buddhist immanence or even something closer to neoplatonic immanence of the One. The idea of grace as grace of God in terms of a gift from God is missing or treated as secondary or even metaphoric. That is the notion of gift is completely transformed into something problematic.

    That’s not to say I have a problem with this secular grace. I think that’s a great way to talk about it. I just think the term grace is misleading precisely because it moves towards analysis in terms of this more deist angle. However as I’ve long said Mormons, precisely because we reject the unifying of the God of Athens with the God of Jerusalem, end up bifurcating these issues. The theology of God gets divorced from the theology of the universe or being. The former becomes (ala Brigham Young) an anthropology. The latter effectively becomes a deism stripped of God. That is ontologically we have more in common with the atheists than the Catholics.

    To the degree this informs the discussion of Taylor, I suspect this explains the problem of locating Mormons on either side of Taylor’s divide. Ontologically we’re secularists. God’s creation becomes an ordering of the cosmos ala the early Hebrew creation accounts. The implication being that God’s creative power functions in a basically instrumentalist way of transforming chaos.

    Rachel (8) I confess I don’t see Mormon discourse of ominipotence and omniscience as playing down the ontological gap issue. Mormons tend to instrumentalize both. That is knowledge and power are seen in terms of God being able to do what he needs to do rather than the more Hellenistic take on those attributes purely in terms of the attributes themselves. Even in the debate over foreknowledge the conflict between those Mormons inspired by Open Theism and those more open to foreknowledge ends up hinging upon whether God could act the way he is portrayed as acting if he doesn’t have more robust foreknowledge. That instrumentalist bent however seems to me to presuppose there is no ontological gap. That is God acts as a being on other beings unlike in traditional Trinitarianism or even Greek absolutism or deism.

  12. Rachael
    July 14, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    Clark (11), really interesting points, thanks. Can you tell me more about Mormon instrumentalism, and why you think that’s a better way to understand grace, than something more “naturalized” or immanent like in Buddhism or Adam’s writings? I’ve been doing some reading in Christian mysticism and the non-dualistic, non-egoic focus seems completely at odds with Mormon understandings of the self, and I’m trying to make them work together because I really, really like certain aspects of the former, and find some spiritually detrimental consequences of Mormon “instrumentalism.” But I do agree that Taylor’s discussion–already of massive scope, so it’s hard to complain, given the kind of broad intellectual history he’s doing– leaves out some pretty interesting counterexamples. I think he’s fine with that, because his work is meant to be more of a springboard than a comprehensive overview, for sure.
    As for the omnipotence/omniscience discourse– I don’t think they have to be at odds with the ontological collapse, but I think functionally they are, especially when you consider that leaders like Pres Hinckley deliberately played down that collapse (as do most, I think). But I’ll mull that over so more– you bring up good points.

  13. Clark Goble
    July 15, 2016 at 11:21 am

    By instrumentalism I mean that grace is seen more as a word capturing the idea of practical gifts as a means to an end. That is the gift is that God helps us in various ways. That’s why I’ve long argued that while Mormons until recently didn’t use the language of grace the theology of grace perfused 20th century Mormonism. The most obvious example of active grace is the idea of personal revelation and gifts of the spirit. Indeed I think Mormon conceptions of grace really are wrapped up with the idea of participation in the spirit to such an extent that the rhetoric of spirit in LDS parlance replaces the language of grace from Protestantism or Catholicism. Even among laity in the late 20th century spiritual gifts were seen as giving us the ability to do things we otherwise couldn’t do. And folk tales, occasionally told in F&T meetings, express that view of grace/gifts. Mormons were uncomfortable with the word grace primarily in reaction to perceptions of Cheap Grace in Protestantism and I think in part as a reaction to Evangelical persecution of Mormons. i.e. we differentiated ourselves by avoiding the symbols and language of Evangelical persecutors.

    Even when we talk about repentance and sanctification it’s still conceived of in instrumentalist ways. The legal theory of grace (which I find problematic) is taken up by Jesus choosing to take our place. So it’s less mystical than it is a literal legal substitution. Again that’s instrumental. And with the other aspects of repentance it’s seen as God repairing consequences with his power — often by helping people overcome psychologically in the long term. So that’s instrumental. And full sanctification is first seen as the bestowal of the Holy Ghost giving us gifts that aid our ability to choose and our abilities to act. Then finally we get a resurrected body which is seen as a kind of biological repair.

    The point is that grace is almost always seen as God doing practical things with his power to bring about desired ends or enabling conditions. There’s very rarely a more mystical or platonic sense of Grace that you see in say Augustine’s platonism.

    Grace is the gifts to us of God acting for us. Likewise we participate in grace to the degree we act in that same spirit. (Abinadi’s exegesis of Isaiah 52 in Mosiah 15 is interesting there) So grace literally is giving of our actions to promote some end. Which is pretty much instrumentalism.

    Getting back to Adam or more Buddhist like conceptions, I’m not necessarily opposed to that. I just don’t really think it’s grace. I think it’s Adam taking up a more ontological conception of grace that arises out of Augustine, giving it a somewhat more Mormon twist, and then really just saying Becoming in its ontological sense is this grace. Which is fine as a metaphor but more problematic (IMO) in a Mormon context that’s far more alienated from Augustine. I think Mormonism tends to embrace the earlier Jewish view (see say Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil) where God’s creative activity (and thus grace) isn’t ontological but is organizing and holding back chaos.

    That said, I think we can appreciate the givenness of reality itself. So I think Adam’s thinking is important and I hope it gets embraced more. What Mormonism fundamentally does is remove the God of Hellenism which treated anything anthropomorphic as a myth used for pedagogy. (See Plato’s Phaedrus for example) The Christian Fathers largely unified this “ontological origin” God with a more anthropomorphic deity (although the anthropomorphic angles became associated only with Jesus). We push the anthropomorphic parts but reject the Hellenistic God. Yet that Hellenistic “god” still makes ontological demands. Thus it becomes secularized grace as in Adam’s work.

  14. Clark Goble
    July 15, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Regarding Omniscience/Omnipotence I think those become more limited within Mormonism especially if one embraces Nauvoo theology especially as expressed in Utah. So they cease to be conceived of platonically in any broad sense of the term. In one sense of course the ontological gap isn’t in tension with them since it works in an emanation model such as the various forms of platonism in late antiquity but also work just as well in the more Augustinian platonism where God creates all things separate from himself.

    To Hinkley and others downplaying such things, part of that is I think just a PR move by the media savvy Hinkley who knows such things can’t be explained in a soundbite. But I also think it gets into the sense that more ontological claims are very vague and perhaps aren’t as well grounded in repeated clear revelation as other doctrines are.

    Take the most characteristic ontological feature of Mormonism: our materialism. That tends to arise primarily out of D&C 131 which is in term a very fragmentary note from a longer discourse. It’s almost impossible to tell what’s meant or its boundaries. Further it doesn’t even really give a physicalist ontology. It just says spirit is matter (without explaining what that matter means in that sense). It doesn’t say (as Orson Pratt took it) that there’s only matter. And not at all unexpectedly in the 20th century many people separated intelligence from spirit and saw the former in a manner closer to Cartesian minds or Aquinas’s substantial forms.

    You could repeat that process for most of the “deep doctrines.” Most of what we have are really folk doctrines that arose out of speculations regarding vague and fragmentary statements many not even codified in canon. (Say the Sermon in the Grove, the King Follet Discourse, or the many sermons recorded in the Journal of Discourses) So epistemologically they are weak and really shouldn’t be treated as Mormon doctrine even if widely believed. (Say what one will about McConkie codifying speculation as doctrine, but in a certain sense Mormon Doctrine was more helpful for removing as doctrine many folk beliefs)

  15. p
    July 21, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    9:50pm Central: Reading Rachael while watching the Trump acceptance speech is like eating strawberry ice cream & anchovies. Just sayin’ –

    God bless America.

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