Thursday, April 10, 2003

ON THE BODY: I am interested by what the Literary Critic and others have said about the body some months ago. Mormonism, we constantly emphasize, teaches that the physical body is an essential part of our salvation. This creates a certain natural affinity between us and certain strands of postmodernism--in particular, those strands which romanticize the particular, the embodied, the situated, the material. It is easy to take the arguments for the superiority of these to the immaterial and the universal as reasons why the body might be essential to salvation, or at least why we should celebrate rather than mourn our corporeality.

But what the Prophet offers with one hand he seems to takes back with the other. For he goes on to tell us that spirit itself is matter, albeit of a different kind that we cannot yet detect. If so, and if the body is essential to our progression, it seems that what our doctrine celebrates about the body must be something other than its materiality. Materiality (and with it, I suppose, particularity) we had before we gained our physical bodies. If it is so important that we, as the Literary Critic has written (more eloquently than this poor clerical mind can), have the capability to partake of one another's very substance, breathing in and out particles that have belonged to other bodies, then is there anything to suggest that spirits cannot do this as well as bodies?

This may be too quick, because we are told so little about this non-physical matter. Although matter, it presumably doesn't have any of the normal features of physical matter--if it had mass, wouldn't we be able to detect it? And if it doesn't have these features, then what is the common characteristic by virtue of which spiritual matter and physical matter can be included in a single category? Perhaps spiritual matter is matter not in the scientific but the Aristotelian sense--it is stuff that can assume various forms; it, like physical matter, is a kind of potentiality. If so, it might not have other features of bodies; it might not have location in the same way physical matter does. But this is conjecture only, and because we are told only that spiritual matter is in some sense the same as physical matter, I am in the dark about what advantages the latter has over the former.

What say ye, Elders?
ELDER HOLLAND'S TALK: I hesitate to join this august group having met so few of you in the flesh, but here goes. I think the Antiquarian is right to say that Elder Holland is trying to scare "straight" one segment of the Church, but that is consistent with the Lawyer's claim that his argument is worth contending with. Whether the appeal to children is sage counsel or shallow manipulation depends on whether the dangers to which Elder Holland points are real or illusory (and, I suppose, on whether he thinks they are real or illusory).

Whether or not one agrees with Elder Holland's specific argument, the kind of reason he offers for faithfulness is one we should be able to take seriously. More generally, the point is that the most important reasons for seeking salvation are not selfish ones but rather founded on our duty to others. Take the verse in Third Nephi 27: "And know ye that ye shall be judges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am." What is striking to me about this passage is the implication relationship suggested by the "therefore": the reason for being Christlike is (apparently) so that the disciples will not muck up their responsibility of judging. Parenthood, no less than responsibility to adjudicate, seems to carry with it duties that we cannot fulfill unless we learn to rise above ourselves, to have the Spirit, and so forth. Our children, then, should be among our strongest reasons for seeking to be made perfect through the grace of Christ. (Similarly, a convert I know gives as the reason he joined the church his desire "to have something true to tell his children.")

Of course, to get Elder Holland's conclusion, one needs some further premises: (1) that we fulfill our responsibility to our children best if we become Christlike and receive the Spirit; and (2) that we become Christlike and receive the Spirit best by wholehearted loyalty to the church. Elder Holland, it seems, holds both of these. Furthermore, many of his intended audience (those who "hold back" from wholehearted commitment) may share these premises--they may be holding back because it is easier, not because they believe their lukewarm attitude is really the best one to have. Scaring such members with the thought that their laxity may affect their children is good to the extent that it encourages them to work out their salvation with "fear and trembling." Most of us, I think, are in this category with respect at least to some of his examples (for instance, I at least am not as prayerful as I think I should be; being reminded of the blessings that come to children through a parent's prayer gives me further motivation for seeking to become more prayerful).

What of those who are "on the edge" because they really believe the edge is the right place to be? If it were the case that the edge is the right place to be, beliefwise, then Elder Holland's argument might still have some force, but it would be paradoxical. For then the argument would have to be that we should adopt mainstream false beliefs because having true beliefs will lead our children into even worse errors. Even if true, it would make loyalty to the church right only because it is the lesser of two evils, and would imply that we should deceive ourselves and our children. That seems hard to square with the commandment to bring our children up in "light and truth." Further, it raises a philosophical conundrum--can one decide to believe something on the basis of instrumental reasons that do not tend to establish its truth? (In Alvin Plantinga's example, can I choose to believe there is a duck on my head right now if someone offers me a million dollars to do it?) If not, then it might be the case that someone could recognize the risks that his intellectual doubts might pose for his children, but that would not give him the kind of reason for belief that would help him get rid of those doubts. The consequences to our children can provide us reasons to desire to believe, but not reasons to believe.

I think that the best interpretation of Elder Holland's talk is one that makes this paradox of merely theoretical interest--because he is not assuming, arguendo or otherwise, that the right place to be is on the edge. Appeal to our influence on our children is meant to provide motivation to discover the truth and to act on the truth we know, because more is at stake than our own salvation. It works against the background assumption that there are other grounds, in themselves sufficient, for believing wholeheartedly in the church. The desire to believe cannot be our only reason for believing; instead, it should be that which awakes us to experiment on the word--to find some other evidence that will allow us to believe.

Monday, April 07, 2003

I am also sorry that I missed the opprotunity to meet the fabled Antiquarian in the flesh at Yale. The Scientist insists that it was an awesome and exciting experience.
I am glad to see that the Antiquarian is back. Just for the record, I am less critical of Elder Holland's talk than he is. I have known a fair number of self-consciously self-defined dissident intellectuals that would describe themselves as believing Mormons, whose children have lacked any foundation in the church and gospel. Indeed, what seemed interesting to me was precisely the way in which Elder Holland's sermon offered a reason for conformity that was NOT linked to personal apostacy but to secondary effects. In other words, even if there is no such thing as intellectual apostacy, it doesn't follow that there is no such thing as "intellectual" failure in raising your children. It doesn't strike me as an inherently unreasonable or shallow argument, even if there is no one-to-one correlation between parental skepticism and child exit from the church.
I must say that I agree with the lawyer. My own personal experience and thought bears out the opinions of Reynolds and The Scientist. It seemed to me that Elder Holland (who I generally have great regard for) was involved in a rather shallow plan to scare one segment of the church membership 'straight.' After all, what do we care more about than our families and children?

But the main thrust of my post is actually directed towards The Historian. Do you know anyone at JTS or UTS (or in the local area more generally) that is doing research on 'sacred space?' I had a meeting with DR. B. last night and we began to discuss putting together a 'comparative sacred space' conference to commemorate the opening of our temple. We are hopping for something smaller and more diverse than what we saw at Yale with at least 50% of the papers being presented by non-Mormons on the Jewish, Catholic, Mystic or Muslim perspectives on sacred space. Do you think there would be interest in such a venture? Any suggestions as to who locally we should invite? If any of the other Metaphysical Elders have thoughts on this issue I would love to hear them.

I apologize for my rather lengthy hiatus,
ELDER HOLLAND'S TALK: I am curious as to what the Elders thought about Elder Holland's sermon on Sunday afternoon. As I understood, Elder Holland was essentially saying that more or less faithful members who adopt a skeptical or an iconoclasitic stance are likely to have children who fall away from the church. Noel Reynolds -- and our Scientist -- has argued that there is no such thing as true intellectual apostacy, and that it is always supplemented or motivated by some other kind of falling away. In other words (if I understand the argument), people don't leave the church because of reading Michael Quinn books. They leave the church because they no longer want to be Mormons for what ever reason, and Michael Quinn provides a useful excuse. I actually think that there may be some truth to this. I know people who are self-proclaimed intellectual apostates, yet I have read all of the books that they have read (and in some cases more books) and I still find myself firmly within the fold. On the other hand, Elder Holland seems to be pointing out a second cost to skepticism -- not in terms of personal falling away but in terms of the effects on children. I can think of families where Elder Holland's prediction holds true. I can also think of families where children "rebelled" against their parents by becoming ultra-straight-arrow Mormons. I am also thinking of the statement by either Aristotle or Plato (I think Aristotle) that no one should be allowed to study philosophy who has not reached the age of thirty, because of its dangerous impact on the youth. I am curious as to your thoughts -- particularlly our Literary Critic, who seems to be a perpetual young mens adviser.