What do you get when you jam 80 people enthralled with Mormon philosophy and theology into one room?
Answer: A very interesting conference.
I attended the opening session of the third annual meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology on Friday. Here is a recap for y’all:
10:00 AM – Alright I admit it – I showed up kinda late and missed the paper presented by Jennifer Lane of BYU-Hawaii. After a full day of snowboarding with Russ the day before and then hanging out with John Fowles and former ‘naclite J Max Wilson that night I was beat. (Who knew one could ache in so many new ways?) But I sort of regretted missing this presentation because the discussion afterward seemed pretty interesting.
11:00 AM – Brian Birch from UVSC gave a very interesting presentation dealing with the ideas of fideism, “belief systems that hold… on various grounds, that reason is irrelevant to religious faith”, and Reformed epistemology, which “seeks to defend faith as rational” by claiming it is so self evident or basic that it needs no defense. He actually didn’t make much of connection to Mormonism in the paper but he did conclude by saying he suspects that Mormons generally “are really fideists, who subsume reason, argument, and evidence under religious categories in nearly all cases of perceived conflict.” Now some around the ‘nacle (like John C. for instance) have openly stated belief that faith is fundamentally not compatible with reason in the end. I’m not sure that is true, and I wonder if folks like John Widstoe would disagree, but it is an interesting question.
12:00 PM – Lunch at the Westminster College cafeteria. Salmon salad. Wasn’t bad.
1:00 PM – A paper called “Atonement and Testimony” by Adam Miller from Villanova was read. The question being explored was how seeking a testimony is different than sign seeking. His point seemed to be that in its purest form all testimony is always a testimony of Jesus Christ; testimonies of all other things (BoM, JS, priesthood, etc) are merely pass-throughs to the ultimate testimony of Jesus. Further, he said to have a real testimony is to have revelation from and of Jesus Christ which is, in a real sense, part of salvation and atonement (literally becoming at one with Christ). He said that the messengers (prophets) ultimately need to be transparent and that the message (Christ) must shine through. Another point was that sign seeking was focusing on something other than the relationship with Christ and compared that to adultery by using the Joseph Smith quote saying all sign seekers are adulterers.
So based on my notes I liked a lot of things Adam had to say. But I might have only noted the things I liked so I can’t be sure of that. Other things I noted, like “testimonies don’t show things as they are but as they ought to be” and “we don’t have testimonies – testimonies have us” made a lot less sense to me. Unfortunately Adam wasn’t able to be there to read his own paper and so Jim Faulconer tried to help but was obviously only able to answer questions from his own point of view. If I get a copy of the paper perhaps I’ll post more.
2:00 PM – Ben Huff presented his paper called “Unity in Action and Unity in God”. He cited Aristotle in order to loosely define a “person” as “an origin of actions”. This is similar to the loose sense in which a corporation is legally recognized as a person. Another example is how a musical group becomes one as they all work together and together they are the “origin of action” of the music and without the parts the whole would not be the same. He compares this to the way our whole is not the same minus a limb or two. The idea is that the term “God” as being one God could refer to the single emergent “person” that is composed of the persons in the Godhead. (I should note that this is reminiscent of Covey’s “synergy” concept that I’ll post on as part of that series).
I really like this idea and think Ben is on the right track. There are lots of scriptures supportive of this subject that Ben alluded to as well (like the true vine verses). In the discussion afterward it became apparent that Ben has not fully considered at what point “persons” become irreducible in this loosely defined version. (If the Pratt/Skousen model of independently acting particles of intelligence were to be accepted then each intelligence atom would be such a “person” for instance.) Maybe we can get Ben to post his paper somewhere too.
3:30-5:00 PM – Blake Ostler and Dan Peterson discussed the Godhead. Blake gave lots of reasons why believing in metaphysical monotheism is a bad idea. He made some claims that stood out like that creation ex nihilo means there can be no real free will (this claim clearly scandalized the non-Mormons and a few Mormons in the room) and the notion that truly free willed person must always remain in some way mysterious even to God. Dan Peterson proved to be very affable and funny in person. He made some interesting points including showing how the word “Godhead” used in the bible does not mean Godhead as Mormons understand now but rather is synonymous with “Godhood”. He also wondered aloud if Orson Pratt had a point (contra Brigham’s opposing view) about the unity of Gods and our worship being of the whole (or as Brigham would say, the attributes) rather than a single person within the Godhead. Lastly he mentioned that we Mormons should not overreact to Christian positions and make ourselves full tri-theists or works-only preachers. Good stuff all around.
5:00-7:00 PM – Went to dinner with Thang regular and BYU philosophy student Craig Atkinson and well known Christian scholars and Mormon studies experts Carl Mosser and Paul Owen. Craig was intent on figuring out how on earth anyone could actually be a Calvinist, but while he and Paul went at it Carl and I had a very pleasant conversation. Getting just a glimpse of Mormonism through their eyes was very interesting. Oh, and the Chinese food was pretty good.
7:00-9:15 PM – Stephen Davis from Claremont McKenna College spoke followed by a roundtable with him, Blake, and Dan. Davis’s presentation was excellently written and researched and his manner was pleasant and charming throughout. The title of the presentation was “The Mormon Trinity and other Trinities”. He explained the various versions of the trinity ranging from modalism on one side (the heretical idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all just parts of one being) to tritheism on the other (the heretical idea that there are three Gods instead of one). He noted that Eastern Orthodox tradition leans closer to tritheism and that Western theories tend to lean closer to modalism but that both try not to stay in the middle of the two via social trinitarianism (the idea that the three members of the Godhead are one community). He conceded that Mormonism’s variation on social trinitarianism does indeed meet the classic seven hurdles for trinity believers. But says other things make it impossible for Christians to accept Mormonism’s version of the trinity as non-heretical for several reasons: 1. The idea (acceptable in Mormonism) of more Gods than the three we have to do with, 2. The notion that two of the member of the Godhead have permanent bodies. He explained that they have a much easier time accepting three persons in the Godhead than three beings in the Godhead (a distinction only a philosopher would make I suspect – but similar to the idea Ben discussed earlier.)
He also mentioned that the idea of “indwelling unity” that Blake loves seemingly wouldn’t work with beings with physical bodies and cited D&C 130:22 as pretty good evidence. Both Blake and Dan (incorrectly I believe) quipped that if that is a problem for us then it is a problem for him too because of Christ’s body. But that is actually incorrect because there would be no problem if only Christ had a physical body. I think the bigger issue is assuming that physical bodies would actually limit indwelling unity of mind which seems silly to me. I will also note that Blake was pretty dismissive of that D&C verse saying it was a later Orson Pratt addition. The irony is that he said that just moments after describing his hierarchy of authority as starting with canonized scriptures. Both he and Dan did readily concede a fallible canon though.
Among the best points I thought Davis made were the ideas that based on our religious claims it makes no sense for Mormons to care what non-Mormons think of us. I couldn’t agree more. Other than the dirty marketing that calling us non-Christians represents I am still baffled by the way we get so bent about not being included in the mainstream Christian club. The other great point he made is that he thinks more work ought to be put into studying where we stand on the questions of infinite Gods, a Head God with subordinates (including our Godhead), or simply traditional Trinity doctrines. I guess I’ll have to take that up here at the Thang, no?
So there you have it. Long enough for ya?