Friday, June 27, 2003

I have been thinking about the Historian's questions recently. Obviously I have never considered the issue of LDS voice in NT commentaries, but I suppose that there is probably some traditional Mormon aesthetic or 'flavor' that can be captured. (Unlike the other lectura of our most ancient and honorable invisible college I will not presume to speak of hermeneutics.) I suspect that at the moment there are at least two separate schools or 'flavors' out there. The most recent is characterized by absolutely vacuous obedience to precedent colored with an over-eager acceptance of orthodox positions in a vain attempt to demonstrate to the world that we are 1) Christians, while at the same time affirming to our selves that 2) we are still Mormons. I will pass by this approach without dignifying it with a further response.

The more traditional LDS approach to such things (Smith, Young, Pratt, Talmage, Widstoe, Roberts, J.F. Smith, Bruce R. McConkie, Nibley, to some extent maybe Holland) is to assert the existence of ‘Gnosis.’ In the first approach knowledge doesn't matter because, as we all know, only Jesus "saves" (after all, the Sunday school book says Joseph and Brigham said so).

The second approach, which seems to me to be informed by the salvific role of the temple, and knowledge in the temple, colored most LDS thought until 15 years ago and seems to be at the core of the Mormon "flavor" of writing. It is deeply Gnostic because knowledge is important. It is a good, or an ends, in itself. It does not require further justification.

This Gnosis can be acquired in many different ways. For Smith and Young it comes though fairly direct revelation. For Widstoe, Pratt, Roberts and McConkie it seems to be mostly a matter of study and faith, drawing from the “best books.” Nibley also does this, but there is more than a hint of mysticism that enters into his work (which explains some of the odd academic moves he makes. I don’t know whether the Sefer Zohar influenced Joseph, but it has sure left a mark on some of Nibley’s writing).

Traditionally we see these authors as representing very different schools. To some extent this is correct. Yet all of these schools share some common assumptions that are challenged by the current wave of neo-orthodox and protestantizing writers. A faith in Gnosis and the primacy of the temple (not unrelated subjects) are key among them.

All of these approaches have proved popular and highly successful with the saints. Note that revelation, mysticism and study are simply three different (and by no means totally separate) roads to Gnosis. The battle for self definition at this point in time is largely one of whether you accept knowledge as central to man’s to salvation, or (in more traditional orthodox terms) see it as being highly secondary or even irrelevant. I think it is safe to say that you will find writers who happen to be Mormon on both sides of this issue, but only the first characterizes a traditional “Mormon” approach.

I do not believe that this means that Mormon thinkers must always produce positive theories of knowledge. There may well be some areas of theology or history where this is not possible. Carefully constructed negative theories, or attempts to problematize the inherited framework, are also part of the traditional LDS flavor. Yet the only reason you would spend the time problematizing the "facts" is because what is believed is somehow important. I do not advocate that we be naive in our treatment of history and epistemology. Or even that we place too much faith in the knowledge that we have at the moment. Yet traditionally we have, and should continue, to put a great deal of faith in ‘knowledge’ as a concept.

I am sure in the end you will write your book however you want. And not being an expert in your subject matter I do not have to many concrete suggestions. But I think there are two facts that we can draw from the previous discussion. First, if you are looking for the Mormon flavor of scholarship you are going to be more involved with discovering and discussing information (in either a negative or positive way) than you are in homiletics, even though rather weak homiletics seem to dominate much of what is written for popular consumption at the moment.

Second, given your background and the sorts of experience you bring to the table your method for uncovering Gnosis will most likely be study (but who knows, maybe you were a born mystic and just haven't discovered it yet). Thus I think that you should bring as many state-of-the-art, outside resources and tools to this project as you think are appropriate. It is your comparative advantage. As for the actual task of discovering and unearthing little bits of Gnosis, given your cultural heritage I doubt you could stop yourself from doing it even if you tried.

Hope this helps
REASONING IN GOD'S PRESENCE: Your praises and farwells are far, far too kind. I will miss y'all as well. The Literary Critic -- who is not irrelevant (poetically or otherwise) -- makes the claim that hermeneutic theory is always subservient to revelatory praxis in Mormonism. It strikes me that the praxis is not only revelatory but also discursive.

Think of a curmugeonly high priests' group in which old scriptorians delightedly proof text with one another. On one level, such proof texting seems pointless. It aims at producing certain and unique answers by appealing to supposedly clear authority and inevitably flounders on the richness and opacity of the authority being cited. In other words, I can always find a prooftext going the other way. But it may be that someting else is going in such discussions, something other than a search for a uniquely correct answer. I was thinking about this a couple of months ago and wrote the following in my journal:

I have been thinking a little bit about why I read the scriptures. The thinking was sparked by a response in Slate to Drew Clark's article about the influence of Mormon theology on the position of LDS Senators in the debates over stem cell research. The post had the standard modernist, skeptic's tone of increduility about religious people. It said something to the effect of “I can't understand why someone would use a 5,000 year old book to decide modern questions.” Obviously it was talking about the Bible, and I suppose that it raises the question of scriptures generally. The easiest answer to this question is to say, “Because they contain the word of God, duh!” However, I think that there is a more subtle answer as well. The post assumes implicitly that looking to the scriptures is a matter of eschewing the weighing of competing alternatives and reasoning through to an ethical outcome. Rather, one decides issues by textual fiat. The problem is that this view hopelessly oversimplifies what it is that the scriptures actually say. It turns out that they are full of contradictions and moral ambiguities. The Book of Mormon exalts both Captian Moroni and the Anti-Lehi-Nephis. I don't want to go so far as to say that the scriptures provide no concrete guidance on issues, but I think it is fair to say that they often simply recapitulate the competing alternatives which the skeptic, freed from the authority of ancient books, must face. Often the scriptures don't act as a way of avoiding moral deliberation in favor of authority. Rather they relocate moral deliberation, couching it in terms of language and stories foreign to the purely secular cogitator. The value added, however, is that the stories are infused with God. He becomes a character in the deliberations, a person at the table. Seen in this light, the scriptures are not a way of avoiding moral reasoning. Rather than are a way of conducting that reasoning in God's presence.

RELATED IDEA?: You also might be interested in this post where I discuss history as a branch of moral philosophy.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

I also bid a fond farewell to the Lawyer. Your physical presence will be sorely missed (it's all about bodies, right?). While I think you may have come to consider me as poetically irrelevant (probably not an unfair judgement!), I have come to consider you as vitally significant to any Mormon intellectual hope. I thank you for your great thoughts and generous spirit. I will look forward--along with the Historian--to worshipping at the throne of your brilliance when you inevitably become a Mormon studies superstar (and much more!) in the near future.

A MORMON HERMENEUTIC: I agree with the Lawyer about the futility of attempting to articulate a "correct" Mormon way of reading. Such essentialism might prove useful for purposes of rhetorical strategy but not for philosophical coherence. I would have to say that the essence of a Mormon hermeneutic is precisely the refusal to foreclose any interpretive options, as they might prove useful in subsequent revelatory moments. At a profound level, a Mormon hermeneutic is always subsumed into a revelatory praxis. Put another way, for Mormons, reading is a question of living--the text from the past is inescapably a script for the present. For years I recoiled before the inevitable Sunday School instructor question: "How do we apply this scripture in our daily lives?" While such a question admittedly often serves as an excuse to disengage or even ignore the historical particularity of the text, a fact that most likely makes the Historian uncomfortable (and myself to some extent), this question seems vital to any discussion of a Mormon hermeneutic, past or present.

In other words, a Mormon hermeneutic is anything but an academic enterprise, interested in understanding history for history's sake. To the contrary, it seems clear to me that any Mormon hermeneutic is bound to be pragmatic, presentist, and performative. In Mormon minds, texts cease to be sources of absolute authority rooted in venerably pasts (think both the logic of cultural conservatism and the myth of historical objectivity) and instead become resources for revelatory reasoning in dynamic presents. Bound up with the question of a Mormon hermeneutic is the question of a Mormon philosophy of history. Joseph Smith relentlessly reads the span of sacred history through the prism of the dispensation of the fulness of times, hijacking the Judeo-Christian scriptures to respond to the imaginative needs of himself and his people. He pillages the canon with voracious creativity, feeling free to supply the stories and invent the interpretations he deemed necessary to his own quest to bring a people to the mount to gaze upon the face of God. Such folk historiography--or mythography--with its penchant for synchronism, anachronism, and syncretism, seems integral to a Mormon hermeneutic.

Is such a hermeneutic amenable to academic history and hermeneutics? Perhaps more than one might suspect. Certainly, postmodern philosophers of history like Hayden White have highlighted the ineluctable narrative, creative dimensions of history-writing. Stephan Palmie has illustrated the extent to which history is an act of faith, asserting that "history is, ultimately, an assemblage of collective representations positing realities that are--logically--beyond empirical proof." In a real sense, when stripped of its positivist pomposity, history is perhaps nothing less mystical than channeling the dead, than some specie of revelation--of pulling back the veil.

There is also the issue of Joseph Smith's creative literalism and thoroughgoing materialism to raise. Together these amount to a historicism more penetrating and expansive than can be found virtually anywhere. Joseph's hermeneutic of creative literalism--evident in his interpretation of the beasts as heavenly beings, his morphology of evil spirits (the bad ones have sandy-colored hair), among other instances--is remarkable because it is a literalism aimed not at shoring up but rather deconstructing theological certainties and cosmological fixities. Whereas literalism usually functions as a hermeneutic mode bent on suppressing complexity, Joseph's literalism does just the opposite, opening up a view of a multiverse so dazzling, weird, and dense that interpretation never ends. In this sense, it is somewhat analogous to James' radical empiricism, which pursued materialist and scientific premises into a universe so pluralistic that the sweet certainties that positivists ascribed to scientific inquiry became epistemological jokes.

It is arguable that hermeneutics--until relatively recently--has traditionally exhausted itself in establishing the interpretation to end all interpretations. In this sense, hermeneutics is curiously anti-hermeneutical, tempted as it is by the promise of some final resting-place of objectivity. If a Mormon hermeneutic does anything, it flagrantly foregrounds the hermeneutical, suggesting that life--even for God--is an unending succession of revelation upon interpretation upon revelation with no finality of sense in sight. This hermeneutic is radically attuned to an excessive cosmic reality that always outstrips the articulation of a single text or system. As such, a Mormon hermeneutic necessarily becomes an exercise in metadiscursive bricolage, a surveying of salvation history from the perspective of the end-time and a cannibalizing of all that has gone before in the effort to garner the power and persuasion to create the kingdom of God on earth. We must endlessly improvise and invent, cobbling together stories and sense in the face of the horror vacui that always threatens to swallow us and our God.

That's not a tall order, now is it?

Monday, June 23, 2003

MORMON ART: I don't know that I have a good answer to the Historian's question. (Actually, I know that I don't have a good answer.) However, I am not one to let ignorance or the absence of something of value to say keep my mouth shut. Also, I want to encourage blogging.

It strikes me that my father has spent his entire professional life grappling with a similar question, namely "What is Mormon art?" Having been around my father for his entire professional life, I have seen him work through this problem. Here is the basic trajectory that he has mapped out:

There are three possible ways of defining Mormon art. First, one can simply say that it is any art that is produced by a Mormon. This is problematic on two fronts. First, it makes art that is otherwise indistinguishable from "non-Mormon" art into Mormon art. Second, there are difficult boundry problems of who is a Mormon. For example, Cyrus Dallin's statue of the angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple ought to be a paradigmatic case of Mormon art. The problem is that Dallin was never baptized, although his mother was Mormon.

The second possible definition is to find uniquely Mormon stylistic elements. During the 70's BYU actually produced an eminently forgettable collection of essays in which this position was seriously advanced. People tried to argue that perhaps certain number groupings -- three's? -- or perhaps certain uses of light define Mormon art. This turns out to be problematic as well. First, it ends up being a bit vacuous, not to mention implausible. Again, it doesn't look as though Cyrus Dallin's Moroni gets to be Mormon art under this definition. More to the point, it narrows Mormon art in ways that are pretty disturbing. The Indonesian convert producing batiks of temples and prophets (such a guy exists; his work is really quite awesome) is unlikely to fit into the MFA produced straight jacket of stylistic definition.

My father adopts the third position, which is that Mormon art is defined by its content. It is art that depicts Mormon stories or themes. Alternatively, it is art that takes its primary source of meaning from some uniquely Mormon context. Thus, the fabulous baticks of the Fiirst Vision are Mormon art, but the otherwise un-Mormon batiks produced by the same LDS artist are not Mormon art. Another example is Mormon pine furniture, which looks almost exactly like other pine furniture produced in the nineteenth century. However, the Mormon pine was produced by the United Order Cooperatives and is physical incarnation of the law of concecration.

Incidentally, my father has been working on these and other ideas related to a theory of Mormon art for about twenty years. Thus far his thinking has occupied the medium of discussions with collegues, lectures to museum employees, family, etc., and the occasional basically atheoretical article. However, while he was in Cambridge for graduation, I pressed him to write a book laying out his theory of Mormon art. The idea would be to structure it around three basic questions: "What is Mormon Art?"; "How is it Produced?" and "What is it For?" If this book actually gets written, it will be a major (likely THE major) work on Mormon aesthetics (at least non-literary aesthetics). Furthermore, it would be a powerful illustration of Mormonisms ability to generate its own substantive theory on a major issue. Thus, I am enlisting your support in boulstering my father's resolve to actually write this book. Email him at tell him that it is a project worth pursuing and one that you would like to read. His email address is

Obviously, Mormon art is different than a Mormon hermeneutic. However, I suspect that there is a Mormon hermeutic of sorts. The problem is that I suspect that it is incomplete. That is, I think that there are powerfully Mormon ways in which the scriptures can be systematically read. However, I suspect that those readings neither exhaust the possiblity of legitimate (even for Mormons) readings nor do they always lend themselves to easy dialogues with other methods of reading.
A MORMON HERMENEUTIC: I recently posted a version of the following message to a group of LDS graduate students in religion. I post it here in order to solicit thoughts from the Elders on this topic that has long plagued me. It has been brought to the fore recently as a result of a new seminar at BYU this summer that is producing LDS commentaries and articles on the New Testament. The note is pasted below:

    I have never had a chance to systematically work through anything, but I have had a lot of amateurish thoughts on it. The problem is whether or not there is such a thing as a "Mormon hermeneutic". There are of course traditional hermeneutic approaches that fall under the headings of "historical" or "literary" criticism. Additionally, many people have worked out hermeneutic systems for various social and political categories focusing on liberation. As LDS, is there a particular method that is more philosophically "true" to our heritage? Is this even a valid question? A more basic question is whether or not our faith should be the controlling factor in our hermeneutics. But I suspect that most of us don't believe that our faith is irrelevant in our interpretations. If that is true, than how exactly does our faith affect our interpretations? Are we affected in the same way as any other believing Christian, or is there something different? It is the "something different" that I am trying to pin down. A similar question is being asked in the field of Mormon literature. Bruce Jorgenson and Richard Cracroft have debated this at the Society of Mormon Letters. For a sample of essays on this issue see some essays on Mormon criticism. Perhaps this debate can shed a little bit of light on the problem. The question is what does it mean to call something "Mormon literature"? What is the referent? Is it anything that is produced by someone who is "Mormon"? But what is a "Mormon"? Or, is it anything that deals with Mormon themes, subjects, and history?

On the subject of the LDS New Testament commentary, How will an LDS commentary look any different from any other commentary? If there are differences, what sort of methodological moves are being made? How are they justified? How do these moves related to other hermeneutical strategies? I would really love some thoughts on this, or at least some new questions that I might want to consider that other people share.

FAREWELLS: I wish to bid to fondest possible farewell to the Lawyer. His departure will no doubt be felt deeply in our midst for a long time to come. He has had a profound impact on my own thinking and will no doubt have a profound impact on many more disciples. I have every confidence that one day we will all be indebted to his insights into many key Mormon topics. In the not too distant future we will be basking in his fame, proud to say, "I know him!" I am also sure that the times we have shared with him will be enshrined in legend someday. Best of luck, my friend.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

A PERSONAL NOTE: Tonight is my last night in Cambridge so bear with me while I engage in a bit of self-indulgent reflection. Four years ago I was trying to figure out which law school to attend. In the end my choices came down to Harvard or Chicago. I spoke with lots of people and solicited lots of advice. I was even lucky enough to be able to talk with Elder Oaks. (He favored Chicago but thought that Harvard would be just fine). In the end it looked like both would be equally good places from which to launch a career in legal academia. I thought and prayed and thought some more. In the end I fixed on Harvard. One of my main reasons was because I felt that in Cambridge I could find the next generation of Mormon scholars, the people and minds that would face issues with the religious and intellectual self-confidence that Mormonism will need in this century. I felt that there was a discussion to be had and friends to be found in Cambridge.

Looking back on my legal education, I realize that in some ways Chicago would have been a better fit for me. I find that many of the professors whose work I am most interested in are at the law school on Lake Michigan. I have found my share of disappointments and frustrations with the intellectual life of Harvard Law School. As a legal academic if I was to do things over again, I think I might well go to Chicago. However, the feeling that ultimately brought me to the banks of the Charles have been fully realized. Here I have found the friends and scholars that I hoped for. For me the Metaphysical Elders have justified Harvard. In my intellectual life our meanderings and gropings toward Mormon thought occupy a uniquely important place. If anything intellectual that you and I do is remembered or meaningful a century from now chances are that it will be our contribution to an emerging Mormon view of the world. It certainly is unlikely to be my meanderings on contracts or jurisprudence. We have an intellectual opportunity that is nearly unique in world history: we are present at the intellectual birth of new, world-wide religion. Remember that despite giants like Pratt or Roberts, Mormonism is still very young. Much remains to be done. There has been no opportunity like this since Islam road out of the desert over a millennia ago.

More importantly, to me you are good friends, good Latter-day Saints, and good brethren in the priesthood. Come to Arkansas!