Thursday, January 08, 2004

THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS FOR THE SCIENTIST: I have been meaning to comment on the Scientist's posts below on genetics and theology. This is some of the more interesting stuff that I have read in a long time. I have just three points/questions.

First, you think that modern biology will not a more holistic approach to studying genetics, etc. in order to get beyond the misleading DNA-->RNA-->Us model. I wonder to what extent this is feasible. It seems to me that science has largely succeeded by eschewing such holistic approaches, and opting instead for narrower, more tractable problems. Might it be the case that scientific methodologies are not up to the problems that you put to it, and perhaps geneticists and biologists will simply have to give up on their claim that a reductionist, all-explaining theory is just around the corner? I am not making an argument one way or the other here, since I am too ignorant to do so. I am just curious as to your thoughts.

Second, once you move to studying multi-faceted systems, what happens to the nice causal model in science? I assume that this problem has come up before in scientific explanations, I am just curious as to how they deal with it. I am not a social scientist, but as a wanna-be legal theorist, I think of myself as a consumer of social science. It seems like this is a perennial problem in social science. We have theories that explain fairly simple phenomena under controlled conditions, but unlike a laboratory, we never really see social phenomena under tightly controlled conditions. One result is that sorting out causes becomes really difficult and most interesting forms of prediction become seemingly impossible.

Third, the link from misplaced biological paradigm to process based paradigm to process theology to Blake to Mormonism is intriguing, but I am curious as to what it might actually mean. It seems that at best what you have in an analogy: one emerging explanation of Mormon theology centers on some of the same concepts as one emerging explanation of biological phenomena. It seems that you can read the analogy in several ways. First, you can say that this is "a process moment" in intellectual history and both theories are simply reflecting the spirit of their times. Second, you can posit some deeper connection between the two. For example, you seem to be hinting at the idea that if process is a necessary component of a proper understanding of God it must also be a necessary component of a proper understanding of life and nature. Intriguing, but I would be interested in seeing you flesh out the connection. Is the process and holism of life a reflection of the process and holism of divine lives? Are we seeing the finger prints of God? Something else? Discuss.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

PHILO JUDAEUS AND ME- I have been rereading Armond Mauss' The Angel and the Behive. I am really quite enjoying it. The central sociological theory he employs is that religious groups oscillate between assimilation to the outside world and total rejection of it. At both ends of the spectrum the religious group in question risks annihilation, either by dissappearing into society or being crushed by it. Though Mauss' data is sometimes embarrisingly bad, for the most part he cannot be held to too high of a standard since the historical data just doesn't exist. Despite this shortcoming, the sociological theory's application to Mormonism is still quite interesting and cause for reflection. The argument is ultimately that some degree of assimilation is necessary for survival, but not too much. Finding this balance can be quite difficult, but it seems to me that Mormonism has successfuly done this, albeit differently at different times.

This reading has led me to reflect on my own degree of assimilation. In many ways I see myself as highly assimilated. Though I grew up in Utah, I never received any formal religious instruction (seminary drop-out...). I then attended college out of state where I was the only member. Now, I am at a prestigious university studying religion from non-Mormons. I see the boundaries between the world and the Gospel as pretty porous.

Judaism (Ancient and Modern) is an interesting point of comparison. Historically it has waxed and waned from exclusivity to assimilation. Groups such as Qumran were eventually wiped out while the disappearance of Diaspora Judaism is one of the greatest historical mysteries. Contemporary Judaism is literally fractured over this question. Philo and Josephus were two of the most enduring figures from antiquity, and both were highly assimilated, while remaining deeply committed to their Judaism. I have often looked to Philo as a sort of guide for how to balance one's peculiar religious identity with "outside" ideas. He did not shy away from them, but saw them through the lens of his religion (much like what Nibley has done with Mormonism). The problem with both Philo and Josephus is that they were preserved not by Jews, but by Christians. Perhaps this is no more than a historical accident that Judaism took one turn and Christianity took another, but it also may be instructive as to what levels of assimilation are viable in the long run. Even if Philo, or I, can master a certain level of assimilation, this does not demonstrate that such a level is desirable for the entire community. Later generations may judge me too close to the outside world for comfort and reject it. It seems that we are pretty solidly on an assimilation upswing these days, but no doubt this will begin to swing the other way. At the extreme ends, our exclusivism has breed fundamentalist offshoots, while at the other end we have bred apostate assimilationists. The swing back and forth is most likely necessary since the proper balance will constantly be in flux as the world around us changes. My self-indulgent reflections here are meant only to remind myself that I too must be flexible and not dogmatic about my level of assimilation.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

THE STRANGE CAREER OF MORMON STRUCTURALISM: Talk to any Mormon intellectual these days (especially a conservative one) about the temple and the concept of "sacred space" will almost immediately come up. The idea enters our intellectual vocabulary via Nibley and has its origins in the work of Marcea Eliade, a Romanian religious anthropologist who lived his professional life at the University of Chicago. (At times, Nibley seems to claim to have put forth the concept independently of Eliade while he was a graduate student at Berkley, but I will leave that issue to one side.)

As I understand it (a dubious proposition), Eliade was a structuralist. One might say that he was THE structuralist of religious studies. Structuralism is a theory that arose in linquistics and anthropology and is associated with the work of Levi-Strauss and Noam "I-usually-spout-off-about-stuff-that-I-have-no-particular-expertise-in" Chomsky. The basic idea is that there are certain archetypic structures that remain constant across different culture and times. Isolating and describing these structures provides us with an explanation of what is really going on in societies and cultures. (For those law geeks in the audience structuralism had its debut in legal thought – a decade or two late as usual – with Duncan Kennedey's "Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication".) One way of thinking about structuralism is to see it as a modern reappearance of the old idea of human nature dressed up in a sociological suit.

Eliade took structuralism into the study of religion, and purported to find certain reappearing features that remained more or less constant across a huge swath of different religions. Sacred space was one of his discoveries, and he pushed the idea by showing that lots and lots of religions had sacred spaces that fulfilled lots of the same functions. Late monotheism actually presented something of a problem for Eliade, since Christianity, Judiaism, and Islam all seemed to lose something in their conception of sacred space as they "progressed" and formalize their theology. The Kabba is clearly an elemental sacred space, but a mosque is less so. The Temple of Herod was a sacred space, but synagogues less so. Christian churches are a real problem. Eliade attributed this anomaly to the influence of Greek philosophy of monotheistic religious thought and experience.

What is odd is to look at the way that Mormon intellectuals pick up on and change structuralist concepts. Nibley loves the cross-cultural aspect of Eliade's structuralist sacred space. However, unlike Eliade, Nibley doesn't construe this as being a reflection of some elemental social fact. Rather, he takes it as evidence of apostasy and diffusion. All of the sacred spaces are trying, like Pharoah in the Book of Abraham, to copy the true order of the priesthood, even though they have forgotten the primal Adamic source of the concept. Eliade's saving account of the apparently anomalous case of Christianity also dubs nicely into Nibley's apostasy narrative, going so far as to name his favorite villain: Greek philosophy.

Notice how this changes the basic meaning of Eliade's concept. Structuralism claims to be able to reduce particular human phenomena to deeper, more fundamental structures. Thus ancient shrines, Bhuddist temples, and the Kabba are all reduced to the fundamental idea of "sacred space." Nibley neatly side steps this reductionism, by shifting its emphasis. Rather than Mormonism being but another reflection of the fundamental human condition, the human condition becomes but a pale reflection of Mormonism! This is what one might call an intellectually ambitious move. This is the kind of chutzpah that makes Nibley so much fun, and which separates him from your run of the mill Mormon scholar. The problem is that the move is somewhat isolating. Most structuralists will not be persuaded by Nibley's move and most Mormons are not even aware that he made it. Furthermore, like all baptisms of non-religious theories, it runs the risk of wedding our self-conception to a contestable theory. I mean, what is a Mormon to do with post-structuralism?