Postponing Heaven: The Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi is a study in what Jad Hatem calls “human messianicity.” Though it pays careful attention to the details of its source materials, Hatem isn’t interested, for instance, in the Book of Mormon for its own sake. He’s interested, instead, in what the Book of Mormon (and Mormonism itself) is about.
That is, Hatem is interested in Christ.
This, in a nutshell, is what makes his work a model for the future of much of Mormon Studies. In Hatem’s hands, the study of Mormonism isn’t about Mormonism; rather, the study of Mormonism is about Christ.
What does it mean to be Christ? What does it mean to be a Messiah? How might different messianic conceptions lead people to be situated differently—redemptively—in relation to their worlds?
More, what differences are made in the flesh? Not just in history or doctrine or philosophy, but in the bloody, existential meat of a present tense, fully embodied life?
Taking a variety of “human messiahs” as case studies in Christ, Hatem treats human messianicity as a basic phenomenological category, not just for religious people but for people, period.
By human messianicity, he says, “I mean the disposition to desire to save others” (1).
Talking about “dispositions,” we’ve sunk a level deeper than particular actions. We’re talking about an “existential,” about something “belonging to the general theoretical structure of human being prior to any voluntary personal decision,” something that is “a part of the ethical constitution of human being and therefore finds expression in both ordinary and exceptional situations” (1).
Hatem sees this messianic ethic “as one of the two sources of religion (the other being the mystical)” (2).
If we take the Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi as exemplars of human messianicity, what might they collectively reveal about the core of messianicity? What might they reveal about Christ as Christ is manifest in the very structure of what it means to be human?
The book’s title gives its key theme away. These exemplars of human messianicity share something in common: they all “postpone heaven” for the sake of saving others.
Their relation to death (in particular) and time (in general) undergoes a profound transformation as they participate in the messianic.
Take the Three Nephites as an exceptional case that, writ large, can illuminate something about even our most ordinary experiences of human messianicity. The Three Nephites bear the image of Christ because they have postponed the moment of their own redemption for the sake of blessing others.
More and more, I’m convinced that this is the key. The key to Christ in time is time.
Mormons have been saying this for a long while now: isn’t religion, fundamentally, about time? Isn’t it, fundamentally, about the problem of time? And, especially, isn’t religion about inducing—practically, in the flesh—a baseline transformation in our default experience of time?
This is what’s at stake in conversion: time transfigured.
This is the substance of what it means to live life in Christ: to live time differently, to experience time in a way that renders it inconsequential with respect to our own arrival in heaven and pressing with respect to our response to the suffering of others.
This temporal transfiguration, exemplified by the Three Nephites, involves an inversion. Rather than time being a means to an end (e.g. heaven), time’s end is postponed such that all these means become ends in themselves.
Crucified with Christ, taking his name upon us, we find life animated now by “the desire that heaven give way to earth” (27).
This is the messianic gesture: heaven giving way to earth.