Who is God? (part 1)

Recent events—the death of Jordan Fowles, the shooting of the Stay family in Texas—have prompted some internal BCC discussions about the character of God. Commenters occasionally accuse BCC of being an echo chamber, but our discussions of this topic have turned out to be full of lively debate and disagreement. We’ve decided to bring our discussion to the blog, with several posts on the subject over the next few days. Our collective goal is to stimulate further conversation, not to defend any particular theological position (although some of us might choose to argue vociferously in the comments).

Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps offers a provocative vision of a God whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts, presenting this, as its subtitle (How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life) proclaims, as a compelling answer to the difficulties of being human. I want to follow in the spirit of Adam Miller’s thoughtful critique of Weeps in the Spring 2014 issue of Dialogue (subscribe if you haven’t yet) by probing some of the implications of the vulnerable God that the Givenses find in Moses 7:28-29. This probing will be ad hoc rather than systematic, stirring up dust rather than settling questions. With Miller, my aim is not to denigrate the book (pas du tout!), but rather to honor its contribution by allowing it to provoke further thinking.

1.1 Weeps seems premised on rejecting the notion that God is sovereign. In our post-monarchical age most of us are probably pretty uncomfortable with sovereignty, especially when concentrated absolutely in a single person. What we have long ago rejected in politics, however, we may be slow to dismiss in theology. In the recent debates about Ordain Women, for instance, I have frequently read comments to the effect that the current status quo in the Church perfectly reflects the will of God as revealed to living prophets. Whatever one might think of this proposition more generally, it strongly presumes a sovereign God who exercises absolute control over ecclesiastical matters large and small. So, one question raised by positing a vulnerable rather than a sovereign God is: how does such a God meaningfully lead the Church? Is “lead” even the right word? What is the nature of God’s involvement with human religious community? (I noticed, and others did too, that Weeps is rather light on ecclesiology. It may have much to say about how Mormon theology makes sense of life, but it does not have much at all to say about how life together in a religious community actually works in light of that theology. The hierarchical Church, which seems like a sovereign kind of structure, is wholly absent from the book.)

1.2 Rejecting the sovereign God seems to run afoul of scripture—even Moses 7! Verse 32 says that God gave humans their agency, which suggests that humans didn’t already have agency and were therefore dependent on the arbitrary will of God to receive this gift. Verses 60-62 include a promise from the Lord to fulfill an oath made to Enoch, and his ability to fulfill it implies a high degree of control over earthly events. This is to say nothing about the promises of wrath, vengeance, and judgment on the wicked, including the massive destruction involved in the flood. My point is not that Moses 7 depicts a sovereign God—there is too much contrary evidence, not least the verses about weeping—but rather that it complicates the notion that God is defined solely by vulnerability.

1.3 It’s worth asking whether sovereignty and vulnerability are really mutually exclusive. Sovereignty is defined by the ability to act, and vulnerability by passivity. Etymologically, vulnerability means susceptibility to being wounded. In grammatical terms, sovereignty pierces, while vulnerability is pierced. Putting these together in one person might place us in the realm of masochism, by making God both the wounder and the wounded.

1.4 As a sort of corollary to the last point, the idea of a vulnerable God can be used to attempt some kind of end-run around the problem of evil, because the question of how God can allow [terrible thing X] to happen only makes sense if God is meaningfully empowered to do something about it, or, in other words, if God is sovereign. On the other hand, if God is sovereign and evil exists, then God is responsible for evil, and that’s a problem. But if dropping the notion of God’s sovereignty might seem to make the problem of evil go away, then where does the idea of a vulnerable God really leave us?

2.1 If we accept for the sake of argument that God is characterized by vulnerability, in addition to the good (a God who can, in keeping with Alma 7, assume the full breadth of human experience), some serious questions still remain. The big one is this: given the reality of evil and suffering, can a vulnerable God save us in any meaningful way? Is perfect empathy enough? What does “save us” even mean, in this context?

2.2 It may be that what gets redeemed is not so much us as it is suffering itself. On this model, a capacity to absorb suffering and transmute it into something else (lead into gold) makes God God. We are therefore saved in that the experience of divine empathy teaches us to turn suffering into love.

2.3 A model of theosis along these lines might, however, lead us to fetishize suffering. People could feel guilty for not suffering enough, as though a failure to contract fatal bone cancer were hindering their spiritual progress. Others might seek out suffering like vinophiles search out fine wines, meeting each new outpouring of abjection with a snobbish swirl, sniff, savor, and spit before commenting on its complex profile of pain (“notes of a sound lashing, with hints of crucifixion in the finish”) and rendering judgment.

2.4 We might also fetishize suffering by aestheticizing it, making horrible stories beautiful for our own uplift in a way that cheapens the experience of others and hinders us from developing genuine empathy.

2.5 Moving in the opposite direction: by imagining a passive God, we might justify our own passivity. I think Thoreau was right to fear learning, when he came to die, that he had not lived. Experiencing life in all its variety means approaching it actively. So maybe we have to think in terms of a God who is actively vulnerable.

3.1 Perhaps one way of thinking an actively vulnerable God is through Giorgio Agamben’s notion, derived from Aristotle, of negative potentiality. According to Agamben, potential is actualized only through the exhaustion of its negative potentiality: “Radical evil is not this or that bad deed but the potentiality for darkness. And yet this potentiality is also the potentiality for light.” [1]

3.2 This God, then, might save us by showing that light is really only attainable by fully realizing darkness.

3.3 We don’t have to go looking for darkness. It’s everywhere. We just have to pay attention to it.

3.4 Not everything is darkness, but perhaps the only way to realize that is to really attend to the darkness.

3.5 Maybe this explains why, these days, a certain tang of sorrow is my most reliable indicator that something is deeply true.

Discuss.

[1] This is from his essay “On Potentiality,” in the collection called (you guessed it) Potentialities. Actualize your potential by reading it.

Comments

  1. A thought, Jason, to kick things off (though I don’t know how much I’ll be on the computer today). You write:

    >[G]iven the reality of evil and suffering, can a vulnerable God save us in any meaningful way? Is perfect empathy enough?…It may be that what gets redeemed is not so much us as it is suffering itself. On this model, a capacity to absorb suffering and transmute it into something else (lead into gold) makes God God. We are therefore saved in that the experience of divine empathy teaches us to turn suffering into love..

    These sentences put me to thinking about what is it about the experience of empathy for the suffering of others (and ourselves) which would, under this theory of God’s power, enable us to become joint-heirs with Him. And–perhaps not surprisingly–I suspect that sovereignty, or at least some quality of the phenomenon of being sovereign, has to be sneaked into the equation somehow. We are called to turn to other cheek, to submit, to be chastened–but if we are to use that experience of submission in an empathetic way and thus learn to love others in their own chastisement and weakness, then we cannot remain subject to our own experience of that chastisement and weakness. On the contrary, we have to transcend that experience, master it, get over ourselves and our own experience of ourselves. We go down into the grave, but we do not remain there; we rise (or, I would say, are lifted) up. If that wasn’t the case, our every act of attempted empathy will really be self-centered: “Oh yeah, I remember when that happened to me, it sure was rough, sucks doesn’t it?” We’d be stuck in C.S. Lewis’s twilight hell of The Great Divorce, where every action is poisoned by the fact that the damned refuse to make the choice to set themselves and their memories aside and be re-made. My point being: if God is capable of perfect empathy so as to save us, then doesn’t that mean that He must be, in some sense, completely sovereign over His own experiences? And wouldn’t a self-sovereign God also, logically, be a fully sovereign one?

  2. As I have let go of my need to worship a God that controls all (even down to magically making my cheesburger nourishing and strengthening for my body and commanding all the cars in my way to give way so I can get to work on time when I’m running late), I have come to discover a different, more compassionate type of God to worship.

    I’m not entirely sure that my new view of God comports with the overall Mormon view of God, but I know that I feel more comfortable with this version of God than any I have ever worshiped before.

  3. Jason K. says:

    You’re right, Russell, that getting rid of sovereignty (if indeed desirable) is not exactly easy. My last few points in the post attempt, in a sort of rushed way, to bring some kind of sovereignty back to a vulnerable God. I think that this attempt is much in line with your notion of a God who is “completely sovereign over his own experiences.” I’m not sure, however, whether a self-sovereign God is also of necessity a fully sovereign one. Mightn’t one be self-sovereign in the sense of being in control of how one interacts with an external reality over which one exercises only limited control? That is, can’t one be self-sovereign in the face of contingency?

  4. Jason,

    That is, can’t one be self-sovereign in the face of contingency?

    A well-put response! But one which, I think, simply opens up another set of (for Mormons, and really for most other Christians too, though perhaps not in the same way) usually unexamined assumptions: just what kind of “self” does God have? My suspicion is that, if we are dealing with a self which is, on the basis of most readings of scripture, comprehensively (even if not, in some severe philosophical sense, absolutely) knowing and powerful, then it’s not like any self that you or I know. We experience contingency, and remain our limited selves; could a limitless being do the same? I wonder.

  5. I am reminded of the first time I read 1 Corinthians 13 as a description of God, since, “God is love.” It’s an interesting exercise to substitute “God” for “charity” throughout that chapter – and “becoming godly” in place of “charity” at the very end.

    I have come to see God as the director of a VERY long play – one that lasts throughout all eternity and ends, for each actor, at godliness (whenever that occurs for each person within the overall play).

  6. James Patterson,

    As I have let go of my need to worship a God that controls all…

    It is a somewhat tangential point, but I would argue that “sovereignty” =/= “control.” The former, to my mind, is considering God’s place in the universe and our own hearts; the latter is a matter of how often or in what way God intervenes in the universe and our own hearts from that position which He occupies. I don’t at all want to discredit the spiritual insights you’ve received, just make the point that I, also, have given up on the idea of a God that controls all, assuming I ever believed that….but rejecting the idea of a (predictably, dependably) interventionary God doesn’t entail accepting limits upon His power, I think.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Agreed that if one accepts the omnis (or even some “diet” version of them), then God’s self is radically different than ours. I know that you and I have different opinions of the King Follett Discourse, but doesn’t that vein of Mormon theology posit a God whose difference from humans is one of degree rather than one of kind? Don’t the weeping God passages in Moses 7 indicate a God who is in some respect subject to contingency?

  8. Jason K. says:

    Tangent on a tangent, but what do you make of this song, Russell (or anyone): Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Into my arms: http://youtu.be/lEUgORVsECs

  9. Jason,

    I know that you and I have different opinions of the King Follett Discourse, but doesn’t that vein of Mormon theology posit a God whose difference from humans is one of degree rather than one of kind?

    Yes, it absolutely does–which is one of the reasons I think it best to file the KFD away along with Brigham Young’s statements about blood atonement and other (I think fairly obviously) unscriptural and unChristian speculations of the sort which all the prophets, ancient and contemporary, have tendencies to wander off into at times.

    Don’t the weeping God passages in Moses 7 indicate a God who is in some respect subject to contingency?

    Again, it absolutely does–and that makes that passage a complicated passage for me. Beautiful language and sentiment, but I’m not sure I can follow where some people (Gene England, the Givenses, and others) have taken it to point towards. (Of course I could play around with it such that perhaps I could assert that God is always already weeping for us, because He loves us in our brokenness as well as in our redemption, and that Moses 7 is a revelation of that aspect of reality, as opposed to some kind of chronologically synchronized vision where Enoch just happened to be present before God at the very moment that some new shit humankind was up to surprised Him and He broke down from the pain and sadness of it all. But I’m not sure I entirely like that reading either.)

  10. Jason K. says:

    I suppose this leaves us, then, at an impasse over the analogy of faith: what counts as clear and essential instead of difficult and obscure.

    I do like the idea that God loves us in our brokenness, though, because that’s the only kind of love that we humans can have for each other.

  11. The God of Moses 7 always reminds me a bit of King Darius. Hemmed in by his own rule making, he must eventually be bound in a perfectly formed coffin of inaction. Humor aside, I don’t think a consistent view of God may be had if we don’t toss most of Mormon tradition, a thing I’m not willing to do. Instead I struggle with my own experience with Divinity, or what I choose to label as Divine in my life.

  12. Jason K. says:

    Great comment. Maybe the limits of sovereignty here have less to do with God than with our capacity to systematize our theology.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    lasts throughout all eternity and ends, for each actor, at godliness

    Ray, doesn’t this presuppose that each actor will eventually WANT to become godly? That’s quite a leap, it seems.

  14. Mary Ann says:

    I think God’s vulnerability merely proves the extent that He is invested in his children emotionally and psychologically. He would not claim to be a jealous God unless he feels personal injury when his children worship other beings ahead of him — a detached God wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t care how we treat other human beings unless he is intimately concerned with each human being. This does not preclude him from being sovereign, though. Many scriptural accounts attest to his complete control of nature and even over human bodies (striking people dumb, striking people dead, miraculous healings). The fact that he sometimes chooses NOT to intervene (allowing the women and children to die in Alma as opposed to saving the faithful in 3 Nephi) is confusing, but also consistent with him valuing the role of human agency within the context of a greater plan. The fact that suffering causes us to value divine principles serves as a reminder that we appreciate those principles and come closest to Him when we have a “broken heart and contrite spirit” — unfortunately, suffering often seems to be the impetus for the broken heart as opposed to us voluntarily humbling ourselves. Does that mean that if we were all voluntarily humble God wouldn’t need to allow us to suffer? Christ’s experience contradicts that view. I am not sure why suffering seems to be necessary part of mortality, but it is comforting that an all-knowing all-powerful being is invested in me personally and is overseeing the course of my life. I can be confident that despite the shafts and arrows that will come, as long as my foundation is placed on a being who is unshakable I will ultimately overcome this earthly test (maybe scarred and battle-weary, but still overcoming).

  15. I am not sure why suffering seems to be necessary part of mortality, but it is comforting that an all-knowing all-powerful being is invested in me personally and is overseeing the course of my life.

    I agree, Mary Ann.

  16. Thanks, Russell, I agree that the two are not mutually exclusive.

    The Givens devote an entire chapter in their new book to God in the face of human suffering that expands upon their thoughts in God Who Weeps. One of the points therein that rings most true to me is that it is inherently part of the human experience to witness and wrestle with suffering, for that is how we learn about compassion, the deep kind of compassion that makes God one who weeps rather than rules as an emotionless dictator of commandments.

    To that end, I’ve never been a huge fan of the “Footprints in the Sand” analogy, as I’m quite convinced that life really is quite the opposite as that trite story suggests: most of the time, God must necessarily leave us on our own. We answer each others’ prayers, we are the ones who provide “divine” assistance, we are the ones who comfort each other. Our interactions with the divine are meant to be few and fleeting.

  17. I don’t think God is involved in everything. I think he probably lets a lot of things play out naturally. But I do think that when we ask him for help, he usually tries to help us – either by 1.) giving us inspiration on what to do, 2.) inspiring someone else to help us (though they may not heed the prompting), or 3.) giving us a feeling of peace or love or comfort that everything will work out. I frequently experience #3, which is why I like the Footprints in the Sand metaphor – I often feel like God is holding me in his arms.

    However, this type of experience seems to vary from person to person. My brother stopped believing in God because he’d never felt God’s presence or comfort in his life. Whereas I’ve felt it all my life. So maybe I just lucked out and got a spiritual gift that allowed me to feel that more strongly than him. My brother has other gifts, though – but they’re more in terms of how he relates to other people than how he relates to God. (He’s very generous and giving and gets along really well with almost everyone whereas I’m a bit more reclusive.) So, maybe God’s involvement in our lives is different for each of us, possibly based on our what we need to progress, our own inclinations or desires, etc.

  18. Jason K. says:

    MOQT: I think that you’re right about this pluralism of experience. Maybe the biggest reason we shouldn’t generalize about God is that we can’t generalize about people, especially on things this personal.

  19. Olde Skool says:

    2.3 I think the correct term is “oenophile,” but you can certainly be forgiven for not being fluent in the discourses of wine snobbery.
    3.2 C.f. Areopagitica.

  20. tubes, yes, it does – and I appreciate you pointing that out. It was a bit sloppy wording, but I do believe that, in the end, the vast majority of people will get there – and want to get there. Not everyone, as the wording implied, but the very large majority.

  21. Jason K. says:

    Olde Skool: yes, how gauche of me to mix up my Latin and Greek–almost like telling a oenophile that you’ve found a really good White Zin. And of course Milton is always lurking in my thinking (except when he’s out in the open).

    Looking back on Mary Ann’s comment, an alternate way of thinking about theosis (and one with which I have some sympathy) is to conceive of godliness as the capacity to control power. On this model, most of us are like Phaethon, foolishly thinking that we can steer the Chariot of the Sun. God can be sovereign, even in a fairly absolute sense, but God exercises that sovereignty not through tyrannical micromanagement of the universe, but through a studied restraint that leaves us room to grow. This model has the virtues of according with scriptural depictions of a sovereign God, aligning with our own sense of God as a parental figure, and fitting the D&C 121 counsel about priesthood. It also works with Agamben’s negative potentiality stuff, in the sense that you don’t really have power until you can choose not to exercise it.

  22. jlouielucero says:

    I think part of the problem is the way we use and understand words. Just looking at the comments and questions it seems that God possibly would chuckle at our attempts at defining vulnerable and sovereign. I think it is likely that it is possible to be both sovereign and vulnerable and maybe by being more vulnerable we become closer to being sovereign. I like the discussion, but i definitely think God’s true nature is found somewhere in the connection of opposites. “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”

  23. Could it be we are defining ‘sovereign’ mistakenly? If to be sovereign means to have complete (God-like) power, perhaps it is found precisely in and through pure love (what Ray said, God IS love.). Love is not vulnerability, it is the greatest, most powerful and indestructible, immutable power in existence (never mind that it’s a loaded word we’d need to precisely define in order to proceed with any coherent discussion about…) The love that weeps for another’s sorrow, pain, and sin is powerful. The power to control or manipulate others is not really power at all – and by that I mean, what does it prove? Force creates nothing, but love impels us (& others) to act of our own volition.

    I don’t think I can say it any better than this excerpt from a talk given a few years ago at AMCAP:

    “God worketh by power”, Moroni says — a kind of power the world would not recognize by that name, but superior to anything the world knows, a power so great that once felt without compulsory means it attracts the good responses it prizes. It moves others’ agency by freely offering goodness, truth, & love – the truth and love of a pure person invites, even draws forth the activation of another person’s agency. This power is invested in a person and Jesus Christ is the epitome of it, He said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” A person IS the truth, the way things are is the truth – truth isn’t found in propositions or theories – the truth is embodied in persons and truthful persons are filled with love. There can be no separation drawn between truth and love. This love, when it is complete and pure, is what a troubled person finds the greatest difficulty resisting.” (“Client Agency and the Counselor” 2008 or 2009?)

    This also articulates what I’m trying to get at – that I think what appears to us a vulnerability or weakness, is exactly NOT weakness.:

    “I think that if the beast that sleeps in man could be held down by threats—any kind of threat, whether of jail or of retribution after death—then the highest emblem of humanity would be a lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself. But don’t you see, this is just the point—what has for ages raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example.” (Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago)

  24. Jason K. says:

    Jen K.: those are marvelous quotes, and the second one in particular articulates what I was trying to get at by suggesting that theosis involves learning not how to exercise power, but how to control it.

  25. Jason K. “you don’t really have power until you can choose not to exercise it.” Exactly! Put famously another way: “When a man loves he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.”

  26. whizzbang says:

    I don’t know how to understand God in the tradition of Patriachal Blessings. How can he make promises of things future, it’s almost a guarantee if you do X then he will do Y. I know Elder Alonzo Hinckley of the Twelve was told he would be in the Twelve and he didn’t believe it and he didn’t put much stock in his Blessing. I don’t know why God would make promises to people he knows are going to go inactive, if he knows their future wouldn’t he also know they would go inactive? I look at Elder Richard Lyman, exed in 1944 but what would have happened if he didn’t do anything wrong and stayed faithful, would Elder Mark E. Petersen have come into the Twelve? or maybe in 1964? when Elder Lyman died? Another question is how can God say that the work of God isn’t frustrated but the work of men is, what happens if someone was foreordained to do something in the Church but say gets divorced or never marries, why would God be making promises he knows will never come to fruition much to the confusion and resentment of the recipient

  27. Jason K. says:

    Yep, that’s part of the tangle of complication that arises one you start talking about this stuff.

  28. Brother of Jared says:

    Question: Can God create a rock he can’t lift?

    If we spend our lives pondering such questions we’ll never know God. This post is asking the same kind of questions and will produce the same result.

    I’ll leave a few verses of scripture with the hope that some who read it will be inclined to ponder something worthwhile.

    9 Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.
    10 And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.

    (Book of Mormon | Mosiah 4:9 – 10)

  29. Jason K. says:

    Brother of Jared: given that we have to live in Christian community with each other, asking questions of this kind can foster greater charity by opening our eyes to the different ways that people experience the belief that King Benjamin enjoins in the passage you quote. I certainly agree that the contentious debating of such questions is detrimental to community, but this hasn’t been that kind of conversation, thank goodness. In the end I have a lot of sympathy for the atheological stance you’re advocating (because enforcing precision can unnecessarily shut out genuine experiences of belief), but I still see benefit in theology, so long as it’s practiced gratuitously.

  30. Brother of Jared says:

    Jason-thank you for a thoughtful post and reply to my comment.

    How we view “theology” has a direct correlation with our experience or lack of experience in the things of the Spirit. The currency or substance of heaven is the things of the Spirit (Spiritual gifts, manifestation of the Spirit, testimony). Each of us differ in the currency of heaven just as we do in the currency of this world.

    Those who are well to do in the currency of heaven are required to strengthen others ( “for of him unto whom much is given much is required”). The difficulty comes when those who are needy in the currency of heaven are well to do in the currency of this world (education, talent, wealth). Many harden their hearts and resist the things of the Spirit and draw near to the Lord in words, but their hearts are far from Him and the result is they lack in the currency of heaven.

    What I hope to contribute to this discussion is captured in the following scriptures:

    26 Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost! (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 28:26)

    4 And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith. (Book of Mormon | Jarom 1:4)

    I wish the Lord would give me power to express in words, written and vocal, the things I know by experience so that those who heard would be motivated to reach for the greater blessings that could be theirs if they would only have faith and seek diligently for the things of the Spirit with as much dedication as they have for the things of this world.

  31. Jason K. says:

    Brother of Jared: I suspect that you and I are at a similar impasse to the one I reached with Russell, and perhaps for similar reasons. Some of Joseph Smith’s teachings suggest a radical collapse of the distinction between spiritual things and things of the world, i.e., that the difference between God and humans is one of degree rather than one of kind. I am more inclined than Russell (and perhaps than you) to accept the implications of these teachings. To be clear, I do not wish to suggest that he (or you) is apostate because you differ from me on this point. Rather, I think that in a Christian community we ought to tolerate differences over propositions and seek unity in the fact that we’re all engaged in similar sorts of spiritual quest. And, to be very clear, I consider this spiritual quest to be paramount, even when I’m talking theology.

    Having said this, then, what is the point of theology? The Greek roots are theos (God) and logos (word/story/etc.). I understand theology as the attempt to put words or logic to our experiences of the divine. As such, it is basically inevitable that we participate in theology: human experience consists in organizing inchoate sense data into patterns and narratives. How could we do otherwise with our experiences of God? I think that becoming self-conscious about one’s theologizing is important precisely because it is liable to be flawed (I’ll meet Russell’s Lutheranism at least this far). In your last paragraph, you take a kind of mystical stance, suggesting the difficulty of putting words to spiritual experiences. I agree with that, but I still feel the need to try, with the caveat that I think theology needs to acknowledge its own gratuitousness in the face of its inevitable imperfection.

  32. Let me make a (apologies: too long) comment somewhat parallel to the back-and-forth here between Jason and BoJ:

    I actually think that the position which has become all-but-dominant among the more informed participants in these sorts of debates in Mormon circles–namely, that Mormonism is an “atheological” religion, concerned with orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy (that is, right doing rather than right believing)–is both 1) obviously correct in certain historical and sociological senses, but also 2) very susceptible to being maintained in ways that are both nonsensical and actually harmful to the community. The folks from whom I first heard this argument–scholars like Jim Faulconer, Gene England, David Bohn, and Louis Midgley as far back in the 1990s–were all trying (for various different though generally overlapping reasons) to create a space for understanding Mormon beliefs in the context of something other than the encyclopedist mentality which Bruce R. McConkie had presumed when he wrote Mormon Doctrine back in the 1950s, and when Macmillan got the church on board with creating the Encyclopedia of Mormonism in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Not many of them, I think, would have presented the absence of systematic theological reflection as a positive concomitant of being a member of the church; rather, they just disliked what they saw as the bad consequences of assuming that, for example, because Mormons affirm “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” as the first principle of the gospel, we know that “faith” means X. In short, they were, whether they admitted to it (Jim) or not (Louis), all rather postmodern, attempting to get Mormonism away from objective narratives which elided the possibility that living and practicing faith is central to understanding what it means. But none of that suggests that Mormonism should impel us to resist all narratives, which is where I sometimes see more than a few members of the church going with their comments in gospel doctrine classes and whatnot. That, I think, is allowing a kind of anti-intellectualism to piggy-back upon an important, but specifically pointed, claim. The fact that Mormonism historically developed and was lived by its members as a lay organization without a specialized clergy and without the formulation of creeds is not itself, I believe, an argument against theological narratives entirely. It can’t be, because human beings are dialogical creatures; we think and learn through speaking, through the exchange of ideas, and through the crafting of narratives. We can’t, I think, have a relationship with God–or at least, not one which involves a community of our fellow beings, beings we are commanded to love and serve and forgive and be loved and served and forgiven by–unless we can create narratives about why we’re all together at this place, taking the sacrament, repenting of our sins. Those narratives can, and I think probably should, eschew formal theological claims, but if they involve some kind of explication of what kind of God it is whom we are worshiping…well, honestly, I’m not sure how we could get along without that. I can’t imagine what a purely “orthopraxic” church community would be–I suppose something simultaneously mystical and totalitarian, where everybody just does what they are “supposed” to do all the time, without ever pondering what or who is actually doing the supposing.

    Anyway, to sum up: there’s nothing wrong with talking about God in mystical, ineffable terms–because in doing so, you’re already talking, which means you’re making a narrative, which means you’re doing theology. Not all doing of theology is comparable to compiling a List of Prohibited Books, though that objectifying temptation will probably always be present and must be resisted. We should be willing to try to figure out what it is that each of us experience in terms of God; every act of such figuring will only, or so I think (and hope), improve our own ability to exercise faith in Him.

  33. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Russell. As I understand your comment, I agree with it. Mormonism is atheological, but we can’t help doing theology, so the important thing is to keep both of these tendencies in dialogue with each other. That involves a certain self-awareness, which, rather than being paralyzing in the way that postmodern self-awareness can be, is actually empowering. Perhaps, to tie this thread of meta-discussion back to the OP, learning how to deal with contingency is part of the process of theosis.

  34. I very much find the KFD and the Sermon on the Grove to be revelation and to follow naturally what is in the rest of scripture.

    I do not see the Sovereignty of God over events to be incompatible with vulnerability or free will. I am not entirely sure about the nature of Gods foreknowledge, but there are a number of consistent ways in which God can both have complete control over events but still be vulnerable emotionally to our actions. I don’t see knowing whether God is in the position of time traveller seeing what we choose in advance or in the position similar to a computer playing checkers where what we will choose is not known but the possibility of choices is known fully and the game is structured such that God is always able to get His desired outcome is really that important. Either way God ends up knowing the end from the beginning and having all power, while we still have our ability to make our own choices, and please or disappoint God with our choices.

    In either case, God is in the position to lead the church, while still allowing us to make our own mistakes. To me leading the church does not mean exercising complete control over all matters, but rather more only intervening enough to keep the church from going astray from the purposes that God has for it, which can be very different from what we may think.

    We already find in Alma, in Romans, in Deuteronomy, in the words of Christ, that God guides and directs all people and gives to each people that portion of His word that He sees fit in wisdom to give. So while we have the priesthood and the ordinances of the gospel and a particular mission to fulfill, God also works with others, as much as they are ready for, and for missions that may be tangential to ours in terms of playing out the drama of history. The hierarchical church is decidedly not even supposed to be infallible and there are procedures in the D&C for reversing the decisions of any level, including that of the first presidency. What we have now is not prefect, the organization and ideas of the church will continue to grow and change, usually improving somethings and neglecting others.

    The D&C says that everything is independent to act for itself otherwise it has no existence, so prior to being placed in a position of being agents unto ourselves we were still able to make choices in the sphere in which we were in. God gives us our agency by placing us in a position to act for ourselves and make morally relevant choices, which choices demand that we have the ability to choose evil, to harm and be harmed, as otherwise the choices are not actually relevant. We are also told that this life is a testing ground, we are being proven, as gold is proven, in the fires of affliction and torrents of sorrow. The promise is that each of us has the ability to choose good and receive life in Christ and reject evil and the death that comes with it, regardless of what our situation is, and that this choice is an easy one to make, regardless of how hard the situation or cross is, and that Christ has descended below all that we have to endure both in terms of testing and in terms of our own errors. Since each of us are different and in different situations, we can’t say what is hard for each other or glorify one persons suffering over another or say why a particular bad things has happened; we can just mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that need comfort, and seek to choose life and light ourselves.

    God though has the power to order events to answer a prayer to help get to work on time, if that is what He deems necessary for our growth and development and His plan for each of us. A cheeseburger is already highly nourishing, but eating it may not align with the nourishment that is right or proper for the one eating it.

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