Part II here.
What can Mormons take away from Kierkegaard and Marion? I have been suggesting that Marion (a Catholic theologian) and Kierkegaard (a Protestant philosopher) are two distinct though not totally opposed poles within which to imaginatively consider the situation in which Mormon thought and apologetics operates. These are not one-to-one correspondences of course, and I hope the differences between Mormonism and Marion and Kierkegaard are obvious. In fact, Mormonism itself could charitably criticize both thinkers on various points. I want to suggest however, that there are some interesting readings of Mormonism that Marion and Kierkegaard might productively contribute to.
Any consideration of apologetics, philosophy, theology, etc. within the context of Mormonism is a consideration of teaching authority, where there are, properly speaking, teachers in the absence of traditional theologians and where philosophy is still often regarded as a worldly endeavor that is dangerously mingled with scripture. The authority to teach in Mormonism descends through multiple levels of delegation from the magisterium–the priesthood hierarchy led by prophets and apostles. Ultimately, though, the teachings that are most often considered authoritative in the Mormon world are derived from two principle sources: the teachings of the apostles and prophets themselves and the scriptures. As Kierkegaard has, I think, wisely illustrated, for a believer within the community the content of the apostles’ message must be subservient to who speaks it, not the other way around. An apostle is an apostle by virtue of his calling and his message, not by virtue of his persuasive or non-persuasive articulation of a given issue. But this is exponentially complicated in Mormonism (assuming it is accepted) because Mormonism presents us (heretically, with regard to mainstream Christianity) with actual living apostles instead of an ideal type symbolized in St. Paul–officiators of the Gospel who are flesh and blood human beings. The traditional Christian has only to deal with the concept of “Apostle” typified through Paul in the scriptures. What Paul teaches is always already reinforced by canonical steel beams of authority because all of it is synonymous with the scriptures, and indeed what constitutes scripture in the first place. What to do, then, with the multiple sources of potentially authoritative teachings from living messengers?
Kierkegaard might respond, I think, by saying that we might profitably see this situation in Mormonism as a problem of degree rather than kind. We might be tempted to say that apostles and prophets in the Mormon context are simply too vastly different from the Pauls and the Isaiahs of the scriptures in order to make any serious comparisons, that they are different in kind from the prophets of the Text. However, Kierkegaard might respond that if this is truly to be the case, Mormonism must reveal, from its own sacred texts, how they are to be different. Is an apostle a divine messenger or not? It makes no difference if he attends basketball games, plays with his grandchildren, or pokes fun at Darwinism. Even Paul had some interesting and contestable (to say the least) notions about women and marriage, fought with Peter and others fairly regularly, and must be considered, for all intents and purposes otherwise, to be a human being. But as an apostle, Paul was a divine messenger. He may even be shown to be wrong in some way about the Law, or faith, or grace–but as an apostle Paul was a divine messenger, and if the Christian chooses to remain a Christian, Paul must be received as an apostle before all else. His responsibility is to God in such a way that the burden of his message for Paul the human being is one of personal despair, because the message is relentless, unyielding, and only removed by death.
Applied to a Mormon context, whether we agree or disagree with the content of divine messages, we must first be attentive to the fact of the messenger at the risk of A) assigning no value to the message at all if we disagree and consequently risk severing ourselves completely from the community, or, B) for the believer who enthusiastically and unthinkingly endorses every message, assigning too much value to the content of the message at the risk of confusing the aesthetic and the ethical with the religious. In other words, we can trivially and dangerously assume that, because the apostle or prophet spoke it, it has come ready made as a philosophically persuasive argument, when this is to miss the crucial importance of the message as wholly religious in nature if the apostle was truly speaking as a messenger from God, a message that cannot be simply judged according to rational logic or cultural predilection alone. That apostles and prophets themselves sometimes present their messages within these structures—that is, they’ll sometimes seek to present their message within the structure of logical argument–merits attention, but this will not invalidate the critical importance for the believer in hearing their message as apostles, not as theologians, ethicists, or cultural critics. (In any case, to say that this frequently happens would be to overstate the case. My experience has been to note the very confessional manner in which most Mormon apostles speak, where confession and didacticism are more prevalent than argumentation).
Marion’s explanation of the relationship of the theologian to the bishop and the Eucharist is relatedly instructive here. What is the bishop as bishop for Marion? The administrator of the Eucharist. Not a sermonizer, not a pronouncer of doctrine. He may do these things as well (and usually does) but for authentic life-promoting and community-binding theology to take place, in which the theologian is tied directly to the bishop, he is no more or less the ritual revealer of the Word. His importance to the church community ultimately begins and ends here. Similarly, for Mormon theologians or teachers and the “Eucharistic” sites of their theology, which, apart from the sacrament itself we might include temple ritual, the priesthood as administrator of the ordinances becomes the theologian at large and par excellence. But the priesthood in this sense is not making doctrinal pronouncements or even strictly teaching, though again it may do that. Instead, through the constant administration of ordinances, its role is as the revealer of the Word and the founding events of early Mormonism against which Mormons find themselves in fidelity, or at least against which they might struggle in fidelity (First Vision, Book of Mormon, etc). Priesthood administers the ordinances, through which, as the Doctrine and Covenants states, the powers of godliness are manifest. The Mormon theologian who disconnects himself or herself from the ordinances in this way (not by not participating in them but by presenting Mormonism non-religiously) becomes instead a theologian, one with, by default, her own referent, ideology, and agenda, and therefore not a servant of the greater community, a community that is religiously bound together and connected to God through sacred ordinances. Theology as a thoroughly religious endeavor. Consequently, simply to hold the priesthood is not to be a pronouncer of doctrine or even to authoritatively teach. To hold the priesthood is to simply be (potentially) enabled to play the role of revealer of the Word through ordinances. Having living apostles and prophets but no living theological magisterium in which to wrestle with and systematically nail down points of doctrine on every issue is, among other things, a particularly Mormon way of clearing a space for a multitude of teachers without authority. But not, consequently, to create all males as priesthood-holders-as-teachers, but for of all Mormons to potentially be teachers–who do not have authority. In other words, my having the priesthood (as a Mormon male) has nothing to do with my capacity nor any supposedly endowed authority, to teach. I am not an apostle or a prophet. Neither is my bishop nor my stake president (popular beliefs in some areas of the church that the bishop is the prophet of the ward notwithstanding). Being the recipient of the transfer of powers and authorities through keys does not make me an apostle either. The apostle must stand as a figure of universality, and in the Mormon church, there are only 15 that represent such a figure. As a consequence, if I choose to teach (to be a theologian, an apologist, an outspoken blogger) I can become a theologian by not severing myself from the authority of the ordinances and seeking to upbuild the community, or I can be a theologian by teaching according to my own lights alone, my own agenda, interpreting the word in ways that serve my own purposes and not those of the larger community. As a theologian I iconically build up, as a theologian, I idolatrously tear down, only to build up myself alone from the remnants. Both men and women can do this and become this. As teachers without authority, we live in the aesthetic and the ethical and are thus positioned and called to persuade, to criticize, to upbuild in this way. Priesthood, on my account (particularly at ground level) is scripturally most coherent as it is connected to ordinance and ritual.
As I’ve already mentioned, I do not think apologetics is avoidable or should be wholly avoidable, though I do think that certain styles of apologetics do more harm than good and as a result, as Marion says, bring death instead of life. I also think that, for those of us who insist it is possible as a religious person to be wholly unapologetic in discoursing about our faith commitments, Kierkegaard invites us to see the messiness of the descriptive/prescriptive distinction. Not that description is not a worthy goal. I think what Kierkegaard can teach us here is the hopefully humble nature and manner of the apologist, of one who, without any authority or even the desire to become so rationally persuasive that the susceptible might accept the apologist as authoritative, merely seeks to clarify and remind, herself no less than others. The descriptive way of doing theology or philosophy, then, is a worthy method because it thinks so little of itself, as long as it realizes that the prescriptive will often bleed into his methods and does not arrogantly think that this is not possible, and even that to describe is sometimes to prescribe. If we are serious about our message, our faith commitments, and our growth as rational thinkers then we are seeking both the growth and continued immortality of every human being. Marion suggests that it is love that will finally do this work, never the persuasive presentation of evidence, and that the rational side of apologetics, instead of seeking to convince, might instead consider seeking to restrain the will, to give it good enough reasons (just so) in order to stop and consider the love that the apologist ideally has for his or her audience, and it is through this method that Christ is fully revealed—if in fact the revelation of Christ is the ultimate goal of the apologist. But apologetics is traditionally an extremely secular enterprise (as Joseph Spencer rightfully says in his recent post). Why? Because it uncompromisingly and almost unthinkingly uses the tools of modernity (scientific method, linguistic analysis, archaeology, etc) and, more importantly, because it so often takes the form of self-inflating argumentation that does not seek to create a space for the will to truly accept or reject the divine but merely confirms its priors for those who already believe, apologetics has rarely been religious. (For my money, Salt Press is a beginning of a sophisticated apologetics–though it doesn’t refer to itself as such–that is more religious in nature). At the core, then, of love-driven apologetics? Repentance. Both the desire that the intended audience embrace repentant and transformative ways of life (intellectually as well as spiritually), and the desire for the apologist to see one’s own ideas, methods, and presuppositions as inherently revisable, producing an authentic and unending willingness to learn and grow, but more importantly, an enterprise that seeks to provide the will with a reason to stop and embrace the Master it claims to desire to reveal. With love and repentance as a recognized goal and impetus for apologetic work, the tone of our apologetics will also be more loving and peace-making, and our potential work as theologians within a prophetic church will be one of love and upbuilding.