Saturday, November 30, 2002

A few further ruminations on the Literary Critic's aria, which is thoughtful enough that it deserves a much more thorough response:

You seem to be saying that ultimately all activity, human or divine, must be evaluated according to its historically contingent "cash value." The trick is to figure out what this means. You say in your post that our ambition is to create a "good society." By this, I assume that you are referring to the idea of Zion. However, I don't see how this doesn't simply collapse into a teleology. We are pursuing Zion, the heavenly city, here on earth; human and divine practices are continued or discared based on their ability to further that goal. The engine driving the process is a vision of an ideal society. It is the "ideal" here that seems problematic for a truely radical cosmic historicism.

I am inclined to view the issue not in terms of never-ending cultural criticism, but rather as a progression based on Mormon metaphysics. We all "start" as self-existent, autonomous individuals unconditioned by anything, even God. This is a condition very similar to that of "outer darkness," but with a caveat -- we have the ability to overcome it. We do this through increasing levels of connections with others. First we become associated with God as children. Next we become associated with other spirits in a premortal council. On earth we are here to learn how to become friends and lovers. We are then -- I would argue -- metaphysically transformed by the power of God's priesthood as we become sealed to others, most importantly our spouse. In these terms Zion becomes a way of talking about our telelogy -- a loving inter-connectedness towards which we move.
A final note on my Adam-God hymn:

I remembered that at some point The Millenial Star took a pro-Adam-God stance, printing editorials and reprinting sermons relating to the subject. I thought that "Sons of Michael, He Approaches," which first appeared in The Millenial Star in 1861 may have been in this period, so I looked it up. It seems that The Millenial Star was most active on the Adam-God front between about 1855 and 1857. After about 1860, Adam-God in general died down a bit, since due to opposition Brigham started to counsel against its teaching, although it continued to be taught in less public settings -- e.g. the School of the Prophets -- much later. Thus, the Adam-God timing for the first publication of "Sons of Michael, He Approaches" is not quite right for the "high" Adam-God period, but it would have been right on the edge.

The real question is how do we get Mack Wilberg to do an arrangement of this hymn?
During our last discussion, I believe that the Historian mentioned that he knew a grad student who was interested in writing a book on Mormonism and Hermeticism; a kind of faith-promoting, affirmative version of Brooke's The Refiner's Fire. Anyway, this afternoon I ran across an interesting factoid. It turns out that there is a Hermetic tradition in Shi'ite Islam. In their prophetology Hermes -- the founder of Hermetic philosophy, not the Greek god -- is identified with the prophet Enoch. I am curious as to how general this identification of the two is across religious traditions. It is certainly interesting in light of Enoch's prominance in Restoration scriptures.

Friday, November 29, 2002

Concerning interpretations of the Word of Wisdom:

A search of early church periodicals (Times and Seasons etc) for 'hot drinks' yielded only a handful of references, none of which fit a pre-modern physiology of humors a la Galen. The definitive earliest interpretation is Hyrum Smith in a speech transcribed for the Times and Seasons June 1, 1842 in which he explicitly links hot drinks with coffee and tea. Brigham and Widtsoe quote extensively from this text in their interpretations. Hyrum's talk is very interesting; according to him when God created man on the earth "he was a different being entirely to what he now is; his body was strong... his days were prolonged upon the earth; he lived nearly one thousand years.... but he has become degenerated." Later he states that God "has appointed the word of wisdom as one of the engines to bring about [the restoration of mankind to their pristine excellency and primitive vigor]."

In 1868 Brigham gave a talk recorded in the Journal of Discourses in which he describes 'poisons' in coffee, alcohol, tobacco that are responsible for their addictive natures, which a 'skilled chemist' could isolate, potentially from other foods as well, though there the poisons are more dilute and so less harmful. Hard to know exactly what his scientific understandings were, but it seems very likely he was aware of the isolation of nicotine, caffeine etc; or maybe he was extrapolating from the distillation of alcohol. In any case it seems to be a fairly modern rendering. There are several WoW discourses in the Journal in the late 60s and 70s, usually lumped together with economic encouragements to be independent from the East.

The first outright mention of caffeine I found was in Widtsoe's articles in the improvement era 1903-4 which later became his book Joseph Smith as Scientist. He mentions caffeine was discovered in coffee (and named after it) in 1821 and in tea in 1828. I've found three or four people that isolated caffeine about the same time, one guy named Ruger was probably the first in 1819 (he was asked to isolate the active ingredient by Goethe). No physiological scientific proof that caffeine was harmful came until long after Joseph Smith, though you'd have to say people knew drinking smoking etc were harmful forever. It's very clear.

Along the way I found lots of anti-cola polemics and even some anti-hot chocolate ones. Chocolate does have lots of caffeine and theobromine, and if drunk hot it is a 'hot drink' so according to our modern interpretation it is taboo. Unless we are willing to give up and say, it only applies to coffee and tea because that is what Hyrum said.

I'm going to go make some hot chocolate, I'm freezing in here.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Having heard objections from some of the elders about the Talmage quote, I have replaced it with one that is less Utah-centric and East-coast-phobic. However, since I like the Talmage quote, I include it here, just for the record:

"The facilities for study in the East are such as to readily assure me to stop here, were I to give way to feelings when making a comparison with the means of study at home. However, I must be no more attracted than is the bee which visits gay flowers in its quest for honey; its end is to return to the hive with its treasure, else it would die."

-James E. Talmage

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

In response to the literary critic's post I have two point. First, it reminds me of a conversation that I once had with Randy Paul, the founder of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. He said that in Mormonism both man and God are falling into (or through) the nihilistic abyss, but God winks.

Second, I think that the denial of the transcendent make sense in terms of rejecting ethical absolutism within Mormonism, but I am not sure you can universalize it to other areas. On the ethical issue, I think that the evidence is all around us. We don't have a real natural law tradition, "absolute" ethical norms are understood as commands by a divine person and disobedience to them is understood as a failure of love for that person. However, before the pragmatic, anti-foundationalist love fest begins, it is worth pointing out two problems. First, contingent ethical practices justified pragmatically by "what works," still need some criteria for what it means to "work." It seems that the system doesn't work without some kind of teleology (shades of transcendence?). Second, we might have a real metaphysics after all. Intelligence is eternal, as is life and truth. To even have an eternal, cosmic, cultural criticism we need eternal culture, which is only going to be possible if you make certain kinds of metaphysical claims about your theo-anthropology (shades of transcendence again?).
About the Word of Wisdom: I am extremely sceptical of the worth of reinterpreting our theology to harmonize with science. Scientific 'truth' and opinion is much too fickle a thing. If you read 'ethanol' into the word of wisdom for strong drinks you may have a good explanation for not drinking alcohol (liver disease etc) until scientists decide that a cup or two of wine a day is actually beneficial to your health. Smoking was considered healthy for many years by the scientific establishment. What about marijuana, which has not been proven to have any ill effects on health? What does the Widtsoe interpretation imply about drinking Coke or Barq's root beer, even if Joseph had Galen in mind? In other words too rigorously clutching to our scientific explanations we can miss the spirit (and the letter!) of the law. I've heard the WoW explained as merely a health code far too many times for my taste. Historically religions that marry their theology to some popular physic or metaphysic always pay for it in the end. We may be able to avoid some of that in mormonism through the discourse of continuing revelation, but overall I agree with the official church position on many scientific issues (eg organic evolution) which is simply "the church has no official position." I recognize the importance of reasonable explanations for the world-view of the times, as long as they remain subservient to revelation. Contrary to what the man may say, I believe that we have a revealed and changing theology, not a rational one, and that to some extent we will always be required to walk by faith in the absence of rationalizations.

I find the Galen-Widtsoe hypothesis rather compelling, and will do some looking into 19th century interpretations of the WoW. Caffeine was discovered as the active ingredient in coffee and tea and first synthesized by Emil Fischer in the mid 1890s. Fischer was the pre-eminent biochemist (and organic chemist) of the day and was at the university of berlin at the time. Widtsoe got his bachelor's in chemistry at Harvard and did four or five years of graduate work at Harvard before leaving for the university of gottingen, where he received his PhD in chemistry in less than a year (during the mid 90s). My interpretation: he wanted the PhD rubber stamp from a real chemistry department. While there and in subsequent years he would have been undoubtedly familiar and very impressed with Fischer's work (nobel prize in 1902), especially as it provides a solid reductionist interpretation of the WoW which was being emphasized more and more in the early 20th century. More to come,

The (disillusioned) Scientist

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Hey You Bags o' Blogs (don't know what that means),

The Henry James paper I sent you relates--somewhat obliquely--to my recent cogitations on the subject of Mormonism and historicism (prompted in part by the Marty piece). I am convinced that Mormonism is the most penetratingly historicist project around. It carries the constructivist premises implied in modern historical consciousness to their startling end, inscribing historicity as the fundamental condition not only of human life but of divine life as well (King Follett). This is a major event in the history of philosophy, because it treads where no other modern project has dared to go, effectively requiring a complete reconceptualization of established categories like culture and religion as well as an overhauling redefinition of the status of religious claims themselves. All historicist projects--from Marxism to deconstruction--implicitly rely on the the very conception of the Transcendent that their historicizing renders impossible. The Transcendent persists as an unattainable ideal upon which they can tragically impale themselves with noble, desperate, nihilistic fury (it's all about performance and emplotment). The reason that "God-talk" is not an option in modern historicist, secularist discourse is precisely because the Divine continues to be identified with this still intact but sadly impossible Transcendent. However, what happens when the Transcendent REALLY goes out the window, as it does in Mormonism, when an American discourse emplots the constructivist turn as a comedy that promises play and resolution rather than as a tragedy that prescribes pain and resignation? What happens when the theological becomes the anthropological, God becoming an "exalted man" who admits that He is also stuck like us with nothing more (or less!) than rhetoric and culture to work with (D&C 19)? The mainline Western philosophical tradition conditions us to interpret this final undermining of the Transcendent as a final defeat whose proper response is nauseated nihilism or cavalier skepticism, while Mormonism/American philosophy takes these premises as a revelatory opening whose proper response is engaged activism and sustained reflection. What a fascinating development!

A question that interests me is what happens to the status of religious claims when even God is nothing more than a rhetorician. There is no doubt that a leveling occurs. Referencing God no longer functions as a claim to absolute authority/the end of the discussion (where most conversations regarding religion and public discourse inevitablyget stuck). If the exalted man Himself is telling us that what He gives us is rhetoric rather than Reality, then religious claims cannot exempt themselves from the nitty-gritty of provisional, humanistic truth-making. Isn't this what Alma 32 points toward? All claims--even divine ones-- are alike subject to a process of experimentation (post-Enlightenment experimentation in the sense that a fuller range of acceptable data is admitted!). We have to learn how to perform cosmic cultural criticism (D&C 19). We must ruthlessly test all would-be truths, refashion them, reconceive them, outright oust them when we outgrow them. Doesn't Mormonism, in all of its insane ambition to "civilize and revolutionize the world," actually beg to be evaluated on the practical merits of its genius in creating a global Zion culture that will essentially bring the world and the Worldmaker together, rather than on the mystified authority of its for-all-time static rightness as "the only true and living church"?

I realize that this makes our claims to be heard more tenuous. We can no longer rest on the laurels of a perfect and finished Restoration. The Church's truthfulness can diminish or increase according to its immediate fruitfulness in changing the world. However, this millenarian anxiety about the possibility of the covenant collapsing is something that exists in our tradition, and something that we must reclaim. We can screw up! We can fail to fulfill our potential! Or, in the best case scenario, we can significantly slow the process of revolutionizing the world by being lulled into our carnal security about the all-is-wellness of Zion. We are left to hang in the wind, brethren, to live or die according to our capacity to create a "good society" that will unite the world and so prepare it for celestialization. Joseph Smith was convinced he could do it. Are we of such little faith? Will we hide behind the exemption clauses of transcendent religious claims when we have a theology (or cosmic anthropology) that renders such claims impossible?

Cosmic historicism includes the divine in its purview, forcing us to factor the equally culturally-bound actions of invisible premortal and postmortal agents into our assessments of our present situation. How do we talk about this? Or better, where to we talk about this? I think that this idea is too revolutionary for conventional academic philosophical discourse. Maybe the only genres in which it can be done justice is in creative writing of some kind (plays, poems, novels, personal essays, spiritual autobiography). That's the only stuff worth reading anyway!

Hope you enjoyed the performance,

The Literary Critic

Monday, November 25, 2002

I thought that the quotes in the box at the right side of the page nicely captured the source of the name as well as some of the spirit of the discussion. I, at least, see myself as bringing honey back to the hive, which need no longer refer to "Our Lovely Deseret" (I am full of hymnal references of late) since Zion has been steadily advancing her borders since James E. Talmadge's day.

I know. I need to spend less time blogging and more time doing real work. I can't seem to control myself!
I have continued my delving into our heritage of Adam-God music. Here is what I have found. First, my intiution about the dating of the hymn was correct. It was first published in 1861 in the Millenial Star, which would give it the perfect provenance for Adam-God. Also as I suspected, the unmodified version of “Sons of Michael, He Approaches” is even better than our current version (which is fast on its way to becoming my favorite hymn). Here is the unamended text from the 1948 hymnal, hymn 163:

Sons of Michael, he approaches! Rise, the ancient Father greet;
Bow ye thousands, low before him; Minister before his feet;
Hail, hail the Patriarch’s glad reign, Hail, hail the Patriarch’s glad reign
Spreading over sea and main.

Sons of Michael, ‘tis his chariot Rolls its burning wheels along!
Raise aloft your voices million In a torrent power of song;
Hail, hail our Head with music soft! Hail, hail our Head with music soft!
Raise week melodies aloft!

Mother of our generations, Glorious by Great Michael’s side,
Take thy children’s adoration; Endless with thy Lord preside;
Lo, lo, to greet thee now advance, Lo, lo, to greet thee now advance
Thousands in the glorious dance!

Raise a chorus, sons of Michael, Like old Ocean’s roaring swell,
Till the mighty acclamation Through rebounding space doth tell
That, that the Ancient One doth reign, That, that the Ancient One may reign
In his Paradise again!

Some of the changes are boring enough. In 1985 the hymn was set to different music, and the repetitions in the third line of each verse were eliminated to accommodate the new music. In addition, in the 1985 version “Father” (applied to Adam/Michael), “Head,” and “Ancient One” are no longer capitalized. I would write this off as an irrelevant typographical change, except that The Story of Our Latter-day Hymns explicitly states that the shift in capitalization was part of an effort to more correctly define Adam’s eternal role. We don’t want people to get any ideas of divinization from the capitalization.

The real fun changes, however come in the third and fourth verses. The 1985 version says that Eve is to “endless with thy seed reside,” while in the 1948 version she is to “endless with they Lord preside.” So we have here two shifts. First, Eve no longer “presides,” and second, Adam is no longer her “Lord.” It seems that we have three different stories that can be told about this change. First, we can say that Eve’s eternal authority is being down-shifted from presiding to residing. Second, we can say that Eve’s eternal position is being bettered in that Adam is no longer her “Lord.” Third, we can say that Adam’s eternal position is being down-shifted in that we are no longer referring to him as “Lord.”

The shift in the fourth verse is striking. In the 1985 version the ancient one once more preside’s in “his Father’s house.” This obviously has the effect of emphasizing Adam’s subservient status to his father. He is not the “our Lord and our God and the only one with whom we have to deal” (to use BY’s phrase) in this formulation. However, in the 1948 version there is no mention at all of Adam’s father. Rather, he returns to his Paradise to reign again. Thus we have the vision of Adam/Michael returning to the paradisiacal glory from which he decended (coming from another world with one of his wives, as BY taught?) as Lord and Head surrounded by the posterity who “have to do” with him.

In short, this is a truly great hymn; a hidden treasure of Mormon wierdness (in the best possible sense) and creativity.