Thursday, July 24, 2003

EXCOMMUNICATIONS: Sunstone has posted two essays online by Lavina Fielding Andersen and Armand Mauss discussing "ecclesiastical abuse." FYI.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003


HELLENISM AND APOSTACY: As the Historian points out, the dominate way in which LDS intellectuals these days conceptualize the Great Apostacy is as the Hellenistic take over for Christianity. I actually think that this idea is on the ebb. For example, no less a place of Nibley-centricism than FARMS has published articles attacking the thesis. (See, e.g., Dan Graham & James Siebach, "Philosophy and Early Christianity," FARMS Rev. of Books 1999, here) Certainly, this move will make the Historian happy, given his HDS proclivities. However, it strikes me that it has actually been a pretty productive thesis. It has given LDS intellectuals a certain skepticism towards intellectualism, but one that requires a fairly high level of sophistication to really "get." I think that this is a healthy prophylactive. Furthermore, it has opened up the possiblity of alternative scriptings of the great apostacy. Prior to the advent of the Hellenism thesis, I think that it was mainly scripted in LDS theories of history in terms of priestcraft and wickedness. If you look at the Hellenistism thesis it is really quite different and suggests that we have the ability to be flexible in our reconceptualizations. Furthermore, even as the Historian and the Literary Critic diss the thesis for its essentialism, it is worth pointing out that the critique of essentialism is part and parcel of the critique of the legacy of Greek thought, and I can't help but suspect part of rejection of essentialism's appeal lies in the lingering force of the Hellenistism thesis.

Incidentally, the thesis was not originally propounded by Hugh Nibley. On this -- as on it seems virtually every other issue of theoretical reflection on Mormonism -- the person who first set up the ground rules and framed the basic issue was B.H. Roberts. Check out is Outlines in Ecclesiastical History. It would be interesting to see if Roberts was aware of Harnack. Since they were near contemporaries, I suspect not since there tends to be a one or two generation lag in Mormon thought. On the other hand, Roberts was very clearly aware of contemporaries such as William James and Josiah Royce.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

ESSENTIALISM: I was struck by the Historian's thoughtfulness in his recent post (not because it was uncharacteristically thoughtful, but rather because he was especially characteristically thoughtful). A cost/benefit analysis of essentialism is in order. As noted, the chief virtue of essentialism is its rhetorical force in mobilizing and motivating people to achieve specific objectives. Seductively coherent ideologies of identity--whether Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, or Mormon-centrism--serve as rallying standards that can help groups of people to establish their validity and respectability in the kingdom of culture. Many poststructural theorists have been reluctant to part with essentialism on these political grounds, even though they see it as philosophically problematic (as the Historian points out in his discussion of historical methodology), a stance best articulated by the postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak, who argues for what she calls "strategic essentialism"--the self-conscious deployment of essentialist rhetoric to realize desired and deserved political ends.

However, as the Historian perceives, the virtue of essentialism may in the end be a most pernicious vice. Recent cultural theorists who identify themselves with cosmopolitanism have questioned whether such essentialism actually performs the work it claims to do. The thought has been that essentialism is a necessary evil in which ethnic and/or religious minorities must engage in order to secure recognition of their distinct contributions to the larger culture. More often than not, however, such essentialism polarizes parties so dramatically that they only acquire more ammunition for their wars of self-aggrandizement. It only isolates and atomizes, confirming each particular group in its own sense of uniqueness rather than creating the level playing field that such a rhetorical strategy was supposedly conceived to create. In the end, then, it may merely serve as further grounds upon which one group can continue to dismiss another. This dismissal may be transacted in the politest of terms, as when a European or Euro-American liberal academic appreciates from a respectful distance the achievements of an essential African culture without seeing how that culture has anything to do with his or her essential European culture. It calls up a false image of circulating atoms of a priori cultural essences, discrete and hermetically-sealed. Everything remains safely--and condescendingly--in its proper place. The essentialist logic of benighted racism thus continues in the essentialist logic of "enlightened" multiculturalism. In both paradigms, identity quashes difference.

Mormonism certainly engages in such an essentialist discourse of purity. The Truth is a transhistorical constant lost and reclaimed repeatedly over the course of time, a specific sacred knowledge that must be restored and relearned. In this scheme, Mormon restorationism is a garden-variety form of nineteenth-century Christian primitivism, complete with its facile linkage of authority with originality, purity with primevality (Homi Bhabha would be proud).

While many might see this as the essence of the Mormon message, I see Joseph as outgrowing this paradigm pretty quickly. Whether you chalk it up to overweening ambition or divine inspiration--or both--Joseph comes to see the "dispensation of the fulness of times" as much more than a slavish regurgitation of an original and only Truth. I think Joseph's acute sense of being at the end-time and thus of having the entire span of sacred history as his theological smorgasbord changed him from an otherwise banal Christian primitivist into a pragmatic historical experimentalist. He began to privilege his prophetic present over the prophetic past. He came to see prior revelations as adaptable resource rather than authoritative source. He became sufficiently sensitive to the dynamism of human action not only to recognize but to revel in the necessity of constant revision and revelation.

In this scheme, the dispensation of the fulness of times is much more than a ritual reenactment of the sacred past as an assertion of sacred originality and divine authority. It is a profound recognition of the simultaneous usability and dispensability of tradition in the quest to weld the diverse family of Adam together in a world that demands endless improvisation. Indeed, the dispensation of the fulness of times might be read not as the culmination of traditional purist and essentialist conception of salvation history, but rather precisely as an undoing of that conception. Indeed, one of the things that God seems to tell Joseph that is different about the final dispensation is that it will be characterized by the full disclosure and demystification that is anathema to essentialist discourse, which always seeks to conceal the inevitably messy and mongrelized nature of reality (D&C 121).

I think God and Joseph give us an idea of what they mean by this in D&C 19, still the most breathtaking revelation in our canon. In this remarkable moment, God and Joseph tell us that the purist discourse of heaven and hell used in all of the prior dispensations was nothing but a rhetorical ploy, a bit of strategic essentialism that actually obscures the complexity of cosmic reality. Could this be the drift of the dispensation of the fulness of times--God's auto-deconstruction of his own rhetoric, even to the point that He dares to reveal Himself as nothing more (or less!) than an exalted man, one of us? If such a conception is tenable, then Mormonism is an all-out assault on essentialism, a rejection of the simplistic and simplifying discourses of heaven and hell, apostasy and restoration, etc. It envisions cosmic history as unfolding in considerably less elegant terms. The hermeneutic of the dispensation of the fulness of times is thus a hermeneutic of suspicion, attuned to the holes in discourses that purport to be whole, a fact attested to in everything from Joseph's heretical sense of the incompleteness--even incorrectness--of the Bible to his dizzying description of exaltation not as steady state of transcendence, but rather as an eternal struggle among "everlasting burnings" (here he applies the tropes conventionally associated with hell to heaven--deliciously perverse!).

These radical strands of Mormonism would suggest that all revelations form part of an eternally ongoing cosmic cultural criticism in which we attempt to develop more fruitful ways of saving each other. And, as the Historian perceptively notes, that revelations derive their force not from their timelessness but rather from their timeliness, from their emergence from and application to specific historical problems rather than from their transcendence of context altogether. Indeed, Mormonism dares to ask what the use of timeless, transcendent Truth would be in a universe in which even God struggles and strives amid the contingencies of cosmic reality, experimenting with rhetorical strategies that he later disavows.

Needless to say, this is a most eccentric reading of Mormon salvation history. I blame my heresy on the Historian for his thought-provoking post. I think it resonates at least in part with his concerns (at least I hope it does) and may open the way to some meaningful resolution. Let me know if I'm right.

IDENTITY AND SUBSTANCE: There is far too much in the Historian's post below for me to respond to right now, especially since I am deeply immersed in the mysteries of Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code. (When does an insurable interest in goods promised but not yet tendered arise?) However, my intuition is that whatever the temptations of rejecting essences altogether may be, we probably do need to at least think in terms of kernels. The reason is that the notion of an essence serves at least two important purposes. First, it provides identity, a way of understanding what it means to be who you are rather than someone else. Conversely, the denial of essence seems to carry with it the danger -- or virtue, depending on your point of view -- of diluting and destroying identity. What is more, my intuition is that in the end one doesn't escape the notion of essences after all and simply subscribes to some other -- perhaps unstated -- essence. Having given up on understanding what it means to be Mormon we settle for being "Christian" or being "religious" etc. It seems that the result is rather vapid and solves the problem by simply relocating and then forgetting about it. The second virtue of a kernal is that it provides us with some sort of substance. Without it, it seems difficult not only to figure out who we are, but also to figure out what we are saying. For the Historian it seems that the problem of the kernal is less about essences and appearences than it is about historical methodology. The whole idea of kernal and husk seems to distort and prejudge historical inquiry. Furthermore, it seems to be impossible to use historical methodology to establish the precise contours of kernal and husk without assuming the outlines of precisely what you set out to find. Hence the concept seems circular and methodologically suspect. This is all probably true. In the end, history isn't my discipline so I probably lose less sleep about this sort of thing. (What about insurable interests, I ask plaintively to the abyss but the abyss tells me nothing about pre-performance allocation of risk!) Perhaps kernal and husk are not concepts that can be usefully used in respectable historical writing. However, to the extent that this requires the anhillation of identity and the silencing of the Restoration I say so much the worse for historical methodology. Of course this doesn't mean that we can't handle our kernals and husks with a good deal of tenativeness or approach them with a critical eye. I just think that we probably want to keep them around...

Sunday, July 20, 2003

ADOLF VON HARNACK In a discussion about anti-Judaism in the scriptures in church last week, I was asked rather directly whether I believed that the scriptures were political documents or divinely inspired texts. Admittedly I was somewhat shocked by the question and I answered it badly. I tried to respond by asking why the person was making such a distinction. Why must there be an either/or? The question, however, has made me reconsider exactly what I believe the relationship between the “Gospel” and the “world” to be.

I received some points to ponder this afternoon while I was reading Harvard professor Karen King’s new book, What is Gnosticism?, which deals with the question of ancient and modern constructions of Gnosticism. It is an excellent read, and has a fascinating chapter on the great scholar of early Christianity Adolf von Harnack. Harnack retold the story of early Christianity in a powerful way that still has profound influence on historiography today, over a century later. He wrote about the place of Christianity in its historical context, and noted that it was inextricably linked with both the Judaism and Hellenism of its day. However, he saw these features are historical accidents, the historical husk that surrounded the pure kernel of true Christianity. When these two forces unduly affected Christianity, its essence was occluded and either a Judaized or Hellenized form of Christianity was taken for the real thing. Thus, all ancient heresy could be traced to one of these two influences, either being too Jewish or too Hellenized.

So what did the essence of Christianity look like for Harnack? Not surprisingly, it looked like the liberal Protestantism of his day. Harnack’s methodology is familiar to many Mormons. The LDS concept of apostasy and the Protestant version of the history of Christianity share a lot of common ground. Of course, the conclusions are different. When we tell the story, the pure essence of Christianity looks a lot like late 20th century Mormonism. But the structure of the story is the same. Do Mormon’s take their cue from historians such as Harnack who criticize the Hellenization of Christianity through Catholicism? I am not sure. I know that many LDS scholars such as Hugh Nibley have relied upon Harnack. However, this kinship in thought may not be from direct borrowing, but it may emerge from a complex world of thought about apostasy and return to origins shared by both Harnack and Mormonism, such as that described by Dan Vogel in Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism.

Whatever the origins of the shared beliefs, my question is about the validity of the methodological strategy. Both Mormons and Harnack criticize Christianity for having adopted Greek philosophical thought. Yet, they are both willing to admit a certain level of historical “mixture” with the Gospel. Mormons even have historicism built into their theology of revelation, recognizing that some aspects of the Gospel are given only for specific times, like polygamy, or even the Word of Wisdom. Other passages even suggest that many more commandments are given to humanity in their weakness, within the bounds of their cultural framework (D&C 1:24). God works through “language,” the ultimate human construction to teach them. The question is whether what is being taught transcends language, or culture, or Hellenism, or whether it is so bound together that it cannot escape. Harnack (and many Mormons) believes the former. There is a kernel and a husk.

The ultimate irony of Harnack’s hierarchy of beliefs that understands the Gospel and the world around it as separable is that such a method is solidly Hellenistic! The notion of essence and appearance, of substance and accident, are ideas worked out by Greek philosophers of antiquity. The very language he uses to save the Gospel from Hellenism is a product of it!

Mormons desire to arrive at a historically transcendent form of Mormonism, no doubt, based on our belief in a Restoration, a return to pure origins, something that has been practiced and believed by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and then Joseph Smith. The problem doesn’t stop there, for the link between the early world of emergent Mormonism and routinized 21st c. Mormonism must also be made clear. The search for an essence that has been transmitted throughout time is no easy task, historically or theologically.

My question is whether the search for an essence needs to be abandoned all together. It is a powerful rhetorical tool, but it often leads us to take too much for granted, to stop seeking, and to rely on a flawed epistemology that cuts us off from revelation. We must be closer to our Heavenly Father. To believe that our revelations, both personal and institutional, are always a product of their time, spoken in “weakness” after the manner of our own language, does not diminish them, but rather makes the continual forging of a new relationship with God imperative. Just some thoughts.