Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year unto each and every one of you blessed souls!

For the Lawyer, on the question of teleological necessity that you keep trying to catch me on, you can now (re)read my 12/6 critique of deterministic teleology in our venerable archives. Tell me what you think. Sophistic or substantial?

For all, I have a wacky reading of the Book of Mormon as an auto-deconstructive text in my Bowdoin honors thesis that I think speaks to some of the questions recently raised. My reading is done in terms of race--white Nephite record-keeping selves vs. dark rose-blossoming Lamanite others--but I think that it would speak to the radical reversal of the traditional Deuteronomic linkage of righteousness/racial superiority and riches/prosperity that the darkly tragic Book of Mormon supports. I am always impressed that the topic to which Christ devotes so much of His time while in the land of Bountiful is the prophecy of the Lamanites' fruition and their primary role in the construction of Zion (3 Nephi 19-23). Tell me if you're interested.

For the Historian, I want to hear more of what you really think about Mormonism's coherence. Because you are a kinder, gentler soul than some of the rest of us (sadly, I'm speaking for myself here), I fear that your voice at times gets swallowed up in the drive for Mormon unity. Can you specify what your biggest questions/problems are in our ongoing Mormon philosophy debate? What gaping holes do you see in our (particularly my) assumptions about things? Is a genuinely Mormon perspective possible? I hope that my recent blog about Mormonism as a space of nonidentity wherein all good stuff can gather in a ceaseless process of cosmic cultural exchange might illuminate these questions. Such a view of Mormonism dwells on the paradox that it may locate its exceptionalism precisely in its encyclopedism, effectively defusing some potential problems of essentialism as well as providing a means to honestly recognize and reconceptualize the place of definite non-Mormon elements in Mormonism. This raises another set of problems regarding epistemological imperialism--does Mormonism blunt the hard particularity of other discourses in the process of transmuting them into Mormonism (Burton's "fallacy of gleaning")? On another level, does a conception of Mormonism as a space of nonidentity, a fluid form, a metadiscursive method (and all my other lame alliterative catch-phrases) make for a life too difficult for your average person? Does it not provide enough to hold on to? Or is the immediate experience of the "good society" engaged in eternal conversation to make the cosmos a better place enough? Does it matter if it's not enough? Isn't this what Gods do? We (especially I) want to hear more from you.

For the Scientist, if we've got animate matter, then maybe we have to start talking about degrees of animation/intelligence. Perhaps the regularity of something like the dust of the earth is due to a lower level of intelligence, which corresponds to a lower level of dynamism and unpredictability. Science is thus an incredibly useful tool for managing certain levels of matter/intelligence, a tool that is undoubtedly in the kit of any God. Is there anything viable in chaos or complexity theory that might help us here? Maybe this is why physics and chemistry seem like sure scientific things, but once you start to get into biology and more complex organisms, the ground starts to get a little shaky.

Have a good one, guys. This conversation is Mormonism as far as I'm concerned.
LEGAL ANIMISM: I have been reading Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s The Common Law, and I came across some stuff that reminded me of our discussions of animism. There was a very wide spread phenomena in "primitive" legal systems to treat inanimate objects as having fault based liability. For example, if you are cutting down a tree and the tree falls on you and kills you, your relatives hold a trial in which the tree is convicted and cut to chips. In English law into the 19th century there was something called deodand, which referred to objects used to commit a crime. The objects had to be named and valued in the inditment and if found guilty were confiscated by the crown. Thus, if I stabbed you with a knife, the knife would be tried along with me for your murder. Holme's argues -- persuasively I think -- that this was premised on an animism that viewed the objects as morally culpable (or at least deserving of vengence). He argues -- less persuasively I think -- that one can trace the concept of legal liablity to this idea. However, the idea that objects can commit crimes is interesting, and suggests a moral structure for the universe's regularity. King Benjamin seems to make a similar point when he talks about how the dust is better than we are because it always obeys God. However, to the extent that animated matter becomes morally laudable for acting in regular ways in conformity with God's will, where does that leave our moral aspirations? Is our goal to really to become just like rocks?
Note: the full archives for The Metaphysical Elders are now available.
Perhaps an answer to the question posed by the Historian below is the business cycle. Prudent investment and hard work leads to economic growth; growth leads to profligacy and "irrational exuberence" (to use Brother Greenspan's term); which leads to over extension, contraction, and recession. It seems that not only does this function as an economic model, but more importantly it functions as a way of structuring politics. We look to political leaders to rescue us from recession and judge them as failures when they let us slide from prosperity. On the cosmic scale, it is an awfully petty story, but it is one that seems to replicate a cyclical idea of (economic) apostacy and restoration. I actually think that there is quite a bit of truth to the claims of Eliade and others that secular instiutions tend to replicate the forms and emplotment of religious world views. I actually blogged elsewhere about this a while back, making a comparison between the idea of sacred space and the concept of a public forum in free-speech jurisprudence.
On the arrow of time:

It seems that Mormonism posits two trajectories for time and ordering. One the one hand, the Kingdom of God (the second coming has already begun with Elijah coming to the Temple) is growing and becoming stronger; in a sense, progressing and becoming increasingly ordered. On the other hand, the world is unraveling creation by turning it into chaos. This seems to occur primarily at the site of moral degeneration. This latter part seems to be very much a part of a previous generation's romantic construction of their own past, and perhaps this is what all generations do as they are displaced: they wax nostalgic about the "good old days" when people were good and so forth. The oldest documents complain that children don't respect their parents anymore! So in Mormonism we combine a sense of nostalgia for a past purity with a future eschatological purity. The ordering principle hear seems to be morality, and this is the message of all apocalypse.

For secular society, it seems that the ordering principle is replaced by things like wealth and other quantifiable successes. How does this engage the issue of prospertiy and sin?
I am very intrigued by the Scientist's deconstructionist reading of the BoM on the point of prosperity. I think I will use that in the future. It definitely seems to set a paradox...the blessings of God sow the seeds of their own destruction. More needs to be done on this "cycle of prosperity" than just identifying it. Rather, I think we need to explain it in the BoM's own terms, that is in providential ordering. In what way is this cycle useful for God's ultimate purposes? I also think that the distinction being made between individual and communal prosperity is important, but I am not sure exactly how yet. (or maybe we just leave it deconstructed and rejoice in the paradox itself... that sounds like religion to me!)

I do think it is important to note that politics/economics and religion can never be seperated really, especially when dealing with ancient religion. My question is how explicit should we make this, and how dogmatic should we be about it?

Concerning the deuteronomic promise of the BoM... I not only think that there is a connection, but a very very close connection. I hope to publish this sort of thing some day, so for now just the highlights. Consider that Jeremiah, a close personal friend of Lehi's family, is one of the most likely authors of Deuteronomy! His prophetic book is very similar lexically and is being produced the exact same time that Josiah "finds" the Torah in the Temple. To me, it seems that this sort of message is not just a theodicy of poverty, but also of foreign domination under the Assyrians and later Babylonians. Lehi looses hope in this promise ever being fulfilled in Israel, so there is a new exodus/creation in order for the promise to be fulfilled.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Dearest Friends,

The Lawyer has said it! The value of the Metaphysical Elders--and cosmic life in general--does indeed lie in friendship. I think that part of Mormonism's uniqueness resides precisely in its exaltation of friendship to epistemological status, to a mode of engagement with cosmic cultural reality. This of course is intimately related to all of my ranting about Mormonism as a pragmatic metadiscursive method rather than a classical religious creed. In my utopian dreams (which I clumsily attempt to realize in my daily life), Mormonism is a flexible mode of engagement with the Other, an ethics of conversation (D&C 121?), a politics of nonidentity. Mormonism is a form rather than a content, inasmuch as its content is ever shifting as new influxes of revelatory information come in. It is a grand universalism that is always in the making as it eternally encounters new strands of cosmic culture and invites them in and is invited in. Above all, it may be a theory of council that illuminates how conversations like the one we are having on this website can be transformative. I actually think that this discussion of Mormon conversation illuminates many difficult problems of the Mormon conversion imperative. If we imagine Mormonism as a space of nonidentity, a radical openness to all good things, then we can reinterpret conversion as convergence through a kind of conversation in which parties willing to "believe all things," interested more in edification and friendship than one-upmanship and contention, come together and in the course of talking to each other are mutually converted to the construction that they create together as they interact.

Well, I'm coming over to see you all now, so I probably can stop. I realize that the above is very abstract and sketchy, but I hope it resonates at least a little bit.

To Friendship,
TWO CHEERS FOR MAX WEBER: I agree with the Scientist that it is hard to claim that the Protestant ethic was a sufficient cause of modern prosperity. However, I think that there is more to the claim than the idea that Calvinists work harder. If you think that the private (as opposed to corporate) acquisition of wealth is not ipso facto wrong, then you are likely to create a different set of social institutions. The tendency is to find the cause of the west's prosperity in technology and science. However, I think that Weber makes a good case that this is mistaken. Rather, he argues that it was the combination of Western (specifically Roman) notions of legality coupled with Protestantism. The Protestantism provided an ideological basis for recasting Roman law in a form congenial to market economies, and Roman law, in turn, provided the basis for the modern notions of property and contract that are the engines of economic growth. There is, of course, one big problem with Weber's thesis -- at least on the level of legal sociology. He cannot explain England. According to Weber the impersonal formalism of Roman law provided the basis for mass market transactions. The problem is that some of the earliest stirrings of capitalism came in England under the common law, which lacks the formalism that Weber thought accounted for the economic catalyzing power of Roman law.

I actually find Weber interesting for Mormonism because in many ways we are a very New England religion, descended from Calvinists, and animated at times by an odd kind of post-Puritianism. Certainly, the Mormon striving for Zion has powerful affinities with the Puritan ideal of the city on the hill. On a legal note, it is interesting to look at the way in which the early approach to law in Deseret mirrored the early approach to law in Massachusetts Bay. Both systems banished the common law and tried to create an indigineous legal regime based on the codes of the Old Testament. Both legal systems eventually collapsed before the onslught of the common lawyers. Likewise, I wonder if the affinity of modern Mormons with the prosper in the land sectionsof the Book of Mormon (to the extent that we have such an affinity) isn't a kind of subterranean Puritanism.
What is the Metaphysical Elders about from the point of view of Mormon theology? What is our project? At one level it seems to be conceptual. We want to figure out how to make sense of our intellectual position in light of Mormonism and vice versa. However, as the Scientist (correctly in my view) points out, persons are more fundamental than concepts. So is our enterprise ultimately parasitic and secondary? Probably. On the otherhand, perhaps the value of the Metaphysical Elders lies in friendship. In the Apology Socrates seems to argue that philosophy promotes friendship. Joseph declared in Nauvoo that the fundamental principle of Mormonism was friendship, and Brigham said that Joseph's greatest accomplishment was that he made heaven and earth shake hands and become sociable together. Thus my question, is there some notion of philosophical or intellectual friendship that is peculiar to Mormonism? Can we use the idea of friendship to come up with a Mormon approach to intellectual and/or theological disputes? A hint: perhaps Adam-God is inspired so that we have something fun to talk about!

Your friend, The Lawyer
Some thoughts for the Literary Critic:

I suspected that the Literary critic might charge at the red cape of my use of the word metaphysical. I am curious, however, at what level his antifoundationalism kicks in. Let me propose four kinds of necessity:

LOGICAL NECESSITY: This is the idea that certain beliefs are held because their denial would lead inevitably to self-contraditions. Thus, for example, Aquinas says that the claim "There is truth" is logically necessary because to deny it is a truth claim.

ONTOLOGICAL NECESSITY: This is the idea that certain beliefs are held because they are implied by the nature of being. For example, many classical theologians have argued that God is ontologically necessary because all being is caused, implying that their must be some first cause to it all.

METAPHYSICAL NECESSITY: This is the idea that there are certain arrangements that are part of the universe but are not implied by logic or being itself. For example, if I was a classical physicist I might argue that Newton's Laws are metaphysically necessary. There is nothing about the concept of being that dictates Newton over Aristotle, but it just so happens that we live in a Newtonian universe rather than an Aristotilean one.

TELEOLOGICAL NECESSITY: This is the idea that certain arrangments are necessary in order to accomplish certain ends. For example, suffering is necessary in order for Christ to understand us.

Now obviously any particular one of these claims may ultimately collapse into the other one. However, I think that they are useful starting points. My question is this: the Literary Critic seems to say that Mormonism denies ontological necessity and perhaps logical necessity. What of the other two sorts?

A final point, to the extent that Mormonism is about a denial of the search for origins (a nice point, I think), does it simply replace them with a fundamentalist telos? We can't find an original stable point from which we can reason forward to absolute conclusions; however, we have some absolute end from which we reason backwards to absolute conclusions? My point in asking the question is not to rejustify some moribund philosophical probject foreign to the Restoration, but rather to push on the ideas presented by the Literary critic to see where they go.

To the Scientist: Wow! I have provoked millenial revolutionary ire! I agree that positing a one to one correspondence between righteousness and prosperity is a big problem. I also agree that there is an inconsistency between positing a necessity in the move from righteousness to prosperity but not in the move from prosperity to pride. (Incidentally, it seems that Nibley has a similar inconsistency going the other way.) Finally, I agree with your criticism of Nozick. It is arm chair sociology, but it is fun nevertheless. Incidentally, I think that his point is slightly different. He doesn't argue that the wordsmiths resent the market because it doesn't reward them. Rather he argues that the wordsmiths resent the market because it doesn't reward them for being wordsmiths, ie for being smarter than everyone else. The market simply rewards those who satisfy the desires of others. As for liberal education, I am all for it, nor do I think it need be justified in economic terms. So, incidentally, was Robert Nozick. He was, after all, a philosophy professor, and you can't read something like his The Examined Life or Socratic Puzzles without getting a sense of his committment to liberal education. However, as you point out, this is a peripheral issue to the major one that you raised.

I wonder to what extent the kind of problem you point out with natural laws of prosperity is endemic to a providential world view. If you say that God intervenes in time to bless people, you must come up with an account of why it is that certain people are not blessed. Alternatively, if you say that God constitutes the universe so that certain activities lead to blessedness, you must come up with an account of why sometimes they don't. The deutronomists response is simply to say that those not blessed are sinful. The deist's response is to say that God does not intervene. The Scientists response is to deny that God sets up natural laws, at least of prosperity. Can we come up with a response that does somehow make sense of the apparent arbitrariness of blessings, or at least with the exceptions to general trends -- ie wickedness never was happiness, but there do seem to be some apparently happy, wicked people.
From libertarian ontology to communitarian teleology: A response to the Lawyer.

First let us dispense with Nozick. What I offered was not an intellectual criticism of capitalism, but a scriptural criticism of the pursuit of riches (and learning!). Nozick's idea of intellectual is 'wordsmith' -- people in the humanities and academia who are jealous of the money and prestige afforded to businessmen and technocrats. This idea is not unfounded and warrants futher sociological investigation. When making empirical claims, show me the data. It seems to me that proto-wordsmiths in colleges often end up making triple digits in consulting firms, or more likely go on to use their rhetorical skills in law school and the legal profession. The way is certainly open for these people to be successful financially and socially should that be their desire. This makes me believe there may be something else besides this materialist envy at work. Perhaps, just perhaps, a liberal education is actually beneficial in that it can help us to critically examine the metaphors we use, the world-view we subscribe to, help us to understand other world-views and set up a rational discourse between cultures, and most importantly have empathy for the experiences and sufferings of others. I see Nozick's idea as an important component for understanding academic liberalism but do not see it as sufficient, nor related to scriptural indictments against both the rich and the learned.

To make myself clear on the matter of aceticism and material blessings from God: it seems that I am accused of putting us in hairshirts again, bad Cartesian dualist! My argument is not that God cannot and should not give us material blessings. Of course God wants us to enjoy life, be happy, find joy. My argument is simply that we cannot make a one to one correspondence between worldly success and righteousness. This natural law does not exist, our lives are too dependent on initial conditions and circumstances. I believe that God really desires that we progress and become like him, and sometimes this will prohibit our material success. I believe God wants us to truly experience joy not just be materially comfortable. Importantly he wants us to seek Him, not riches or learning. The deuteronomistic readings of Israelite history esp. in the books of Kings and Chronicles make me nervous because they ascribe failure or destruction to wickedness with such a one to one correspondence. I am comfortable with saying that the Northern Kingdom (or Nephites) as a people were destroyed because of their wickedness. I just don't want to apply that criteria to every success/failure on a personal level in all circumstances in scripture or life. The idea that sickness / suffering is caused only by sin (mortal or premortal) is prevalent at the time of the Savior and one that he rejects. This is not to say that sin cannot cause suffering and or failure; it is only to say that sin is not the only cause.

What I don't understand is why people insist on making a one to one correspondence of righteousness and prosperity, but fail to continue the cycle and insist on a one to one correspondence of prosperity, pride, and destruction. The lesson of the BofM cycles is that they are linked, again and again. It is not riches or learning per se that is problematic, it is pride, the great stumbling block to Zion. When our selfish desires for money and knowledge (with an emphasis on enmity and competition, being richer, smarter than the next guy) disrupt our relationship with God and fellow man, we are keeping ourselves and the church from developing a zion society. This pride can be from the top down or the bottom up; it is the desire, not necessarily the money itself. Our theology is very much relational; we have talked about the divine as having the capacity to relate to all immediately. There is an emphasis on sealing of families and the whole human race. This is the grand vision of mormonism: people, not things or ideas. To the extent that we want to progress we need to use our freedom to choose connectedness: to move from the starting point, a disconnected libertarian ontology, to the end point, a communitarian teleology (the Literary Critic's words).

About the Weber remark about protestant idea of identifying godliness with material prosperity: yes, there is truth to the fact that if you are a calvinist and believe that you need to show your election through your good works, you will bust your behind to make good. It's not clear to me though that with the new economic freedom, technological progress, population growth, freedom from the plague etc that started the early modern period, that we can point to the protestant work ethic as the cause of our prosperity. Maybe in the sense that the mideval Catholic focus was somewhat otherworldly and anti-body in its dualism this contrast is reasonable. But Mormonism has always been a practical religion, very concerned with building, creating, improving our material plights in life, in enjoying dancing, music, art, etc. I think this is possible without equating wealth and righteousness. (Ask brother brigham)
Free markets and scientific insight through technology have brought us collectively much prosperity and wealth, and I do see that as morally good, even inspired of God. This does not excuse our individual obsession with either riches or science (or law, literature, or early christianity) or the imperialism and inequality of modernism. I see capitalism and science as having crucial flaws that may be tolerable for now, but when I get a chance I'll drop both like the two-edged swords that they are and join Zion.

With millenarian revolutionary ire,


Monday, December 16, 2002

Two responses to the two points brought up by the Scientist:

I can understand his urge to purge the scriptures of the apparent link between righteousness and economic prosperity. I like the move towards collective rather than individual prosperity but even here, I am skeptical. Think of the Book of Job. Job starts out as being blessed. Furthermore, he is not just apparently blessed. The narrator is at some pains to make it clear that Job is a righteous guy who has been blessed by the Lord. Indeed, this sets up the problematic for the whole narrative. It is very clear to me that part of what Job has been blessed with is property. He has lots of camels, wives, and children. Part of what he is curesed with is the loss of these things. Furthermore, he gets blessed at the end by getting back his wealth. Admittedly, the epilogue is probably a later add on. (Or is it? Perhaps it simply offends our post-existentialist sensibilities so we want to lop it off.) However, I still think that the link between prosperity and righteousness is clear. Elsewhere, Abraham is blessed with flocks, land, and other indicia of material success (posterity). This, of course, offends all of our anti-consumerism sensibilities. (We are in Cambridge after all! Check out Robert Nozick's essay "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism") But I don't think you can really read it out of the scriptures.

Nor do I want to. My reason is not that I want to be blessed with riches for going to church or doing my hometeaching. Rather, it is that I find the image appealing precisely because it implies some kind of godly sanction for human flourishing and the enjoyment of prosperity. I prefer this vision to one of acceticism and the denigration of lived, material life. Good food is good! Beautiful things are good! Material peace and comfort are good!

Obviously, we are still left with the problem of poverty. This, it seems, has two parts. The first is the problem of theodicy. If God gives wealth to some, why not to others? However, I don't see that this question of theodicy is different than other questions unimplicated by notions of wealth. If God heals people, why do some people have horrifically painful diseases? These are not easy questions, and I am not sure that I have seen any good answers yet. On the other hand, I don't see why an anti-consumerist bias should make me more upset over one question than the other. The second problem of poverty is practical. What should I do in the face of poverty? Here, I think, the answer is pretty clear: you ought to try to alleviate it. This may mean that the only morally acceptable response is to give all that you have to the poor. Certainly, this is what the New Testament seems to be saying. I am not sure what to make of this ethic, other than to say that I think it is utterly unworkable. C.S. Lewis had a nice solution: you should give enough that it is economically uncomfortable. However, I don't know precisely what he meant by economically uncomfortable, nor am I supposed clear if the standard is supposed to be objective or subjective. Also there is the issue of counterveiling scriptures, e.g. Jesus rebuking Judas for criticizing the woman who bought ointment rather than donating to the poor.

A final point. I think that human want is a genuine evil. Certainly, the poor might be humble and beloved of the Lord and this is good. Certainly, wealth presents inevitable moral dangers. (But what doesn't?) However, I think at the end of the day that starvation, grinding poverty, and the rest are bad things. Solutions to these problems, however, seem to lie in economic growth. What is amazing here is the economic growth that the west has experienced in the last 400 years. It is possible to buy a ten pound bag of flour in the U.S. today for under a dollar. In terms of real improvements in people's material well being over the course of human history this is an absolutely incredible phenomena. We are talking about an increase in people's real levels of wealth -- and concominent increases in things like nutrition, life span, and the like -- by hundreds and hundreds of times. What is interesting is that Max Weber posited that a necessary part of this shift from grinding poverty -- the norm of human history -- to unprecedented prosperity was a Protestant ethic that DID identify godliness with material prosperity. I don't deny that this is a dangerous idea; nor do I deny the very real moral problems presented by unequal wealth distribution. On the other hand, I am unable to get myself to believe that increases in aggregate levels of wealth are without moral significance or are universally morally detrimental.

I don't think that this answers the Scientist's questions about a natural law of personal prosperity, or the pride cycle of the Book of Mormon. I do think it suggest that there may be something of value in the ethic of godly materialism that he finds so disturbing.

My second point goes to his discussion of the progress of history:

Marxism as a project of progressive historical explination is as dead as dead can be dead. As an empirical matter it was bankrupt in Marx's own time (the plight of the workers steadily improved over the course of the 19th century), and I have yet to read any subsequent modification that makes it make sense. Class bias and the rest are useful tools of local analysis in some situations. They are not good explinations for the progress of history.

I think that there may be something to Francis Fukiama's neo-Hegeliansim. Perhaps the teleos of liberal democractic capitalism is where it is at. As a matter of political or economic prediction perhaps he is correct. Liberal democracies seem awfully stable. Market capitalism isn't flashy but with small but steady growth rates it has left every single historical competitor in the dust. On the otherhand, history has a tendency to surprise people: the ancient polis, the Roman Empire, and medieval feudalism looked like stable end points as well. Their may be explinations of these things as well. Douglas North has a wonderful book called Structure and Change in Economic History in which he argues that periods of stability and instability can be explained by changes in exogenous factors bearing on the optimal size of military units (ie. city, nation, empire, etc.), changes in the marginal producitivity of various economic arrangments and the like. I don't really buy the whole thing, but it is a fun read.

A deeper level, liberal democracy seems like an awfully sterile spiritual telos. I would much rather throw my lot in with Brigham, Joseph, and the rest to await the impending destruction of the nations. The only problem is that if the prophets of liberal democracy are right, it could be a very, very long wait...
Our conversation about embodiment is presupposing the Cartesian dualism between mind and matter. How can we ask the question about the necessity of "being materially instantiated" when what Mormonism teaches is that we are already always materially instantiated, as "there is no such thing as immaterial matter?" The question of the metaphysical necessity of embodiment is displaced by the fact of the inescapable embodiedness of everything. The question becomes, as the Lawyer aptly put it, "why does our embodiment take the particular form that it does," on this earth at this time, I would add.

But stepping back for a moment to some level of meta-reflection, I am interested in how conundrums and paradoxes like these may point toward the idea of Mormonism as a critique of necessity and originality. For whatever reason, Mormonism does not seek meaning in mysterious origins or some necessary ground of being. We are taught that God had a Father, who had a Father, etc., which raises the real possibility that the Gods themselves may not know the details of their priomordial genesis eternities ago. They are inheritors of cosmic cultural traditions as well as cosmic genetic codes, just like us. In other words, Mormonism seems content to say: there's stuff, and there's always been stuff; there's God and He comes from a long line of Gods. This certainly flouts Western philosophy's craving for pure origins and all-explaining necessity. But it seems very possible that our Godhood may not depend on having the answers to these supposedly all-important questions.

So how do we read this critique of originality and necessity? Is this a weakness that we must make up for, by seeking inspired ultimate answers ourselves? Or is this a strength, a more or less calculated pragmatic turning away from first things, causes, and origins towards last things, effects, fruits? Joseph certainly makes salvation a matter of the moment, a matter of revelation relentlessly suited to present needs and future desires. Does the very structure of the Mormon story imbricate us in an inevitably circular discussion of origins and necessity that should tip us off to the fact that knowing such things doesn't really matter, even for the Gods? This certainly doesn't mean that such discussion is unimportant or unhelpful, but maybe our tradition provides more of a mocking non-answer than a coherent explanation to such ultimate questions. What say ye?

Sunday, December 15, 2002

I have been thinking about the Scientist's question about bodies in light of our heated (even tearful) discussion on Saturday night. It seems to me that we actually have two questions here. The first is not so much a question about bodies as it is about embodiment. What is it about being materially instatiated that is necessary? The second question is about bodies. Why does our embodiment take the particular for that it does?

Both of these questions, as posed by the Scientist, assume a teleological or normative answer. The idea is that the necessity of bodies in the plan of salvation serves some purpose and that a proper answer to this question consists of an account of these purposes. I would point out, however, that there is – in Mormonism at least – the possiblity that the answer is metaphysical. That is, bodies are metaphysically rather than teleologically necessary because it is simply the nature of what is that one must have a body in order to become a god. I say “in Mormonism at least” because it seems that this is an answer that is only made possible by the denial of ex nihilo creation. In a world in which all that is reflects the mind of God, it seems that you must make everything teleological. Hence the Aquinian theory of natural law and all the rest. However, as we discussed in one of our early meetings on natural law, this doesn't really make sense within Mormonism.

Suppose, however, that we say that the answer to these questions is not metaphysical. I am inclined to agree, but I am not sure what the source of my intuition is. Anyway, the Scientist seems to be saying that the answer is something like the need to learn to master and interact with matter. As he rightly points out, this seems to lead to a kind of dualism that can be disturbing. (“We could all be in hair shirts before two long.” Wonderful phrase!)

It seems to me that there is another problem with the “mastering stuff” as a complete answer. The problem is that it answers only the question of embodiment, but tells us nothing about bodies. Is there some reason that we couldn't learn to master elements, etc. in a body that had six arms, three legs, and fourteen eyes? (Maybe there is something about this in the Literary Critic's beloved passage from Joseph on the beasts of Revelation). At this point, however, it seems that we have an answer in the fact that God himself is embodied in a form like ours. One might object that this isn't really an answer at all. Why is God embodied in that way? To which we might answer that God is embodied that way because His father was embodied that way and so on. In other words, it is bipedal gods all the way down. Or more philosophically, the answer to the question of bodies is metaphysical even if the answer to the question of embodiment is teleological.

This, however, seems really paradoxical. The reason is that my intution is that embodiment is logically prior to any particular idea of bodies. It seems that the logically prior queston should be metaphysical and the logically anterior question should be teleological. Put in more concrete terms, it seems more intuitive to say that God is metaphysically required to provide a plan that includes embodiment but may choose the form of the embodiment than to say that God chooses a plan that provides for embodiment but is metaphysically required to choose the form of the embodiment.

Then again perhaps it is not so paradoxical, since it looks like Ostler's account of natural laws – in the sense of physical laws not of Aquinian ethics. According to Ostler, God can turn such laws on or off, but cannot choose the form that they take when they are turned on. Hmmm...

Is any of this making sense?
A note about natural law and the thesis of the Book of Mormon:

The Lawyer has previously remarked that the thesis (or at least one of the major theses) of the Book of Mormon is that if you keep the commandments of God you will prosper in the land. I think there may be a tendency in late 20th century mormonism to read 'prosper' as some kind of economic or worldly success at an individual level. It seems to me likely however that this is meant in a societal sense for the people of the Nephites, much as the Old Testament discourse focuses on the House of Israel as a society at least until you get to Ezekiel 18 and exilic times. The ties with the OT are striking in that this BofM thesis is similar to the Deuteronomistic theology of the compilers and editors of many OT texts in post-exilic times. IE they read the historical and political successes and failures of the Hebrew nation as an indication of their righteousness, particularly the devotion to Yahweh as opposed to the false idols and worship so prevalent in palestine (but interestingly nearly absent from the Nephite/Lamanite cultures). Perhaps this similar theology comes from the similarity in time between Lehi's exodus, the Babylonian captivity, and the development of the Deuteronomistic outlook. Have BofM scholars written about this? Maybe it's such a fundamental tenet of Judeo/Christian thought that it's obvious. But you do seem to be missing the apocalyptic vision or ecclesiates 'vanity vanity all is vanity' idea in the Book of Mormon.

But I digress; I want to return to contemporary Mormon interpretation of prospering in the land. The interpretation that there exists some natural law by which we will prosper if righteous seems very prevalent to me. In other words if I am righteous and a good Mormon, then I will have attributes which lead to me worldly success, it is a natural automatic thing. I have heard people explaining the apostles this way: not that you have to be successful in a worldly way to be an apostle, but that it does always work out that way because people good enough to be called as apostles will naturally succeed in business or law. I find this interpretation unbearable. The BofM makes it clear that riches and prosperity lead to complacency in spiritual matters, forgetting God, and pride; these lead to destruction and pain and the cycle starts on the up phase again when we humble ourselves and repent. Why should it be the case that worldly success being predicated on righteous attributes is a natural law, but that pride can be separated from riches or great learning? Why is not the riches/pride link also natural law? Why can you separate the steps of the cycle? It is saying that we are better than the Nephites and can avoid pride in spite our prosperity and in spite of the bjillions of cycles they go through to their final annihilation. (does this destruction deconstruct this BofM thesis, or at least this interpretation?) The one to one link between prosperity and righteousness that is suggested by a natural law is untenable. Clearly circumstance, initial conditions, even the Hand of God are key; many saintly people have nothing, very very few if any of the learned and rich have great spiritual resources. I want another interpretation of righteousness and prosperity than the Deuteronomistic / BofM thesis as seen from this HBS viewpoint.

Concerning the arrow of progress in history:

The vision of the king in Daniel 2 struck me today as a reminder that these cultures saw the arrow of progress running in an opposite direction that does secular modern history. The first kingdom is seen as gold then silver, brass, iron clay etc clearly showing a degeneration and loss of knowledge and power; as the Historian says an increase in chaos over cosmos. The evolutionary paradigm shows how complexity and order can actually increase (as long as it's an open system, with energy from the sun etc, this does not defy the second law of thermodynamics or entropy) by natural selection. This is what drives us forward from apes to social man to evolve language, culture, society and so forth. Of course for the secular it is the modern revolution and especially science that really is the height of human ability, thought, and power. The arrow of progress points forward (or it did until very recently). If you look at this in the chaos/cosmos mythic sense, it is very strange. In ancient mythic religion it is the irruption of God into the world that is necessary to restore cosmos--witness the stone cut out of the mountain without hands that fills the earth and the establishment of God's kingdom in the last days. Note the emphasis in mormon scripture that 'God can do his own work' and does not need the help of the learned and rich, and the emphasis on the divine irruption into the world to correct the chaos created by the sectarians. The apostacy paradigm definitely is a degenerative one. (so is hermeticism--the lost mystic knowledge of the ancients.) All this makes me wonder exactly what is it that has replaced the divine in modern thought? What is the ordering principle which makes cosmos out of chaos? It strikes me that the answer may be natural selection, or the struggle between everything to survive, which is a problematic answer at best. Alternatively it is our own genius through trying to order the world and provide meaning ourselves through science and the humanities (existential angst being the unavoidable logical end). Perhaps you can help me come up with a modern cosmos ordering principle that acts to increase progress through history (marxism anyone?) but I find my feeble answers extremely bleak.

Cheerfully yours,