Peer-Relationships, Power and Paradox

February 19, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 9:03 am   Category: Ostler Reading,Theology

In Blake Ostler’s seminal series on Mormon Thought, he proposes that the purpose of our existence is that God wants to have a peer-relationship with us. A relationship based on “love” in the truest sense of the word, where we and God are interdependent on one another for our mutual continued happiness and where we are not in a parent-child relationship, or a master-slave relationship, but a true peer to peer relationship.

There is a sort of Paradox to this. To achieve this peer-relationship, the ultimate step seems to be absolute submission.

In the Words of Neal A. Maxwell:

I am going to preach a hard doctrine to you now. The submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar. It is a hard doctrine, but it is true. The many other things we give to God, however nice that may be of us, are actually things He has already given us, and He has loaned them to us. But when we begin to submit ourselves by letting our wills be swallowed up in God’s will, then we are really giving something to Him. And that hard doctrine lies at the center of discipleship. There is a part of us that is ultimately sovereign, the mind and heart, where we really do decide which way to go and what to do. And when we submit to His will, then we’ve really given Him the one final thing He asks of us. And the other things are not very, very important. It is the only possession we have that we can give, and there is no lessening of our agency as a result. Instead, what we see is a flowering of our talents and more and more surges of joy. Submission to Him is the only form of submission that is completely safe.

Neal A. Maxwell

So How can this be? How is it that in order for us to have an equal relationship with someone, we must totally submit to them?

To explain my thoughts on this, let me first introduce another concept. In the late 50s, social psychologists developed what we now call the five bases of social power. These include, Legitimate, Referent, Expert, Reward, and Coercive (Please see the link for definitions, and sorry for using wiki. It is for expediency, I assure you.) I submit to you that all relationships depend on these forms of social power. As children, we defer to God for all five of the above reasons in our relationship, much like a child. In fact, we must defer to God in all these ways, just as a child must submit to their parents. Why? Because we do not have the capacity of self to be self-sufficient in these ways, either mentally, physically, or spiritually. But as a child grows up, and gains more self-sufficiency, enforced deference by means of coercion or rewards becomes less possible. Legitimate power also falls away, as the answer “Because I’m the mom” or “Because I’m the dad” becomes meaningless without the other powers to back it up. And eventually, we can know as much as our parents, and expert power thus also fades away. So we are left with referent power. There are two types of referent power, I would say. The one “based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder” and the other “based on a high level of identification with, admiration of, or respect for the power holder.” (see here) Or in other words, the one based on politics, and the other on integrity, trust, and love.

I propose that ultimately, this is the reason our Father in Heaven would have us submit our wills to him, and that he ultimately, is also submitting his will to us for the very same reason. It is, as Blake puts it, a “truly loving relationship where the happiness and growth of the beloved is the purpose and Goal of the lover.” (Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2, 3)

So the call for us to submit his will to God is not a paradox, but it is a reminder that he is already submitting his will to us.


  1. Yes, you guys are all probably on to something here.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 19, 2007 @ 9:37 am

  2. Interesting.

    I find sometimes I get perilously close to OCD when I focus too much on ‘what does God want me to do?’ ‘what is God’s plan for me?’ ‘how am I supposed to deal with where I am in life right now?’ And when that happens, I need to sort of back off, and actually stop praying about situations just to get over being obsessed by them.

    The way this gets back to the peer-to-peer concept is, when I get that borderline-OCD way, does that put me into the role of clingy, needy, friend? That’s not a good role to be in with another person. And if I feel God saying to me, “Back off and deal with this yourself,” it’s not rejection so much as Him telling me that I need to grow and take charge.

    Comment by V the K — February 19, 2007 @ 10:23 am

  3. I’m not arguing with this thought, but I wonder: how is it that God is “already submitting his will to us?”

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 19, 2007 @ 11:32 am

  4. BiV, his work and glory, indeed his very purpose, is our immortality and eternal life. I hope this is not too much of a simplistic answer.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 19, 2007 @ 12:07 pm

  5. Matt,

    Interesting post, there are a few different directions I am tempted to go. But first, I share BiV’s question; how is the fact of God’s making our eternal life his purpose a submission of his will to us? I can see how you could say that he has invested his will in bringing about our welfare, but I am not clear on how this is a submission in the same sense that we are asked to submit our will to him.

    When we are asked to submit our will, it seems we mean something about the fact that we naturally want one thing, but we should choose what we do not want because God told us to. Of course, we submit to him because we presume he knows what we really want better than we do. I don’t think it makes sense to say God submits his will to us in any similar sense. Where am I going wrong?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 19, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

  6. Jacob J,

    I submit to you that if we only submit to him because “we presume he knows what we really want better than we do.” this leaves us perpetually in a state where we are not equal to him in that he has rewards power and expert power over us. In other words, we are currently submitting to him as children. He on the otherhand is submitting to us as the good parent, He is putting our happiness above himself or (perhaps more accurately) putting us equal to or as part of himself. As Blake puts it he is making “Our purposes his purposes” (Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2, 3)

    He is thus submitting his will to us in that he is choosing unselfishness.

    We can not submit to him yet in the capacity he is submitting to us, because we are not yet his peers, but like a parent training up their child in the way they should go, He promises us that we can one day grow up to be his peer. It will be at that point where we co-equally are submitting our wills to one another, which we call love and often reference D&C 88:40 in regards to.

    in other words, I see the reason for submission must ultimately be based on referent power and our interdepedence. We should be submitting to God not because of the economic advantage it lends to us, but because we are dedicated to him in the same manner he is dedicated to us.

    I’m afraid if I go on, I’ll just get more redundant (and worse, flowery) in what I am saying. I’ll stop here and see if you can help me see if I am taking you down the wrong path.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 19, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  7. In order to have a peer-relationship with someone, you actually need to be a peer. We are not now, so submitting to his will reveals the pathway to peership.

    That said, I don’t buy into the idea that the goal is to be equal peers, mostly because that is demonstrably impossible in most cosmologies. Even Joseph in his most explicit descriptions identified us as being potentially Kings and Queens, then remarked that God is King of Kings.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 19, 2007 @ 12:44 pm

  8. J. – I am thinking more in terms of social equality. God may be greater than us all, but I think he is perfectly willing to treat us as though we are socially equal with him.

    I guess I have to ask, if the Goal is not for us to be equal peers (at least in the social sense) then what is the goal? I am more than willing to entertain the strengths and weaknesses of this and alternative points of view.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 19, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

  9. The problem of this approach is raised by the question of how God is submitting to us. The question is, what is “us” in this sense? Clearly God is doing what he is doing out of a responsibility to us. That is it is a response to the call we give. But how does he respond? How does he know how to respond without attempting to master us. This is a non-trivial point.

    Further what is more interesting is that by taking up this authentic response to *us* he may then act in a manner identical to a master-slave relationship.

    I think this an important issue and I hope to address it as I get further into Blake’s book. But while Levinas and Derrida can be seen as attempting to deal with ethics in this fashion I’m not sure it is ultimately successful. That is we can talk about true peer relationships but it isn’t necessarily clear how we move from this to practical “oughts” regarding practices to one an other.

    Comment by Clark — February 19, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  10. Matt,

    It seems your first paragraph of #6 captures the equivocation I was trying to point out. You are clearly using the word submit in two different senses when applied to us and to God. You say this explicitely when you say we submit as children and he submits as a good parent. My problem is that you seem to be conflating these two different senses of submit in the post, especially in the conclusion of your comments:

    I propose that ultimately, this is the reason our Father in Heaven would have us submit our wills to him, and that he ultimately, is also submitting his will to us for the very same reason.

    I think you are making some good points, don’t get me wrong, I just think you need to be careful to make this distinction. The kind of submission Maxwell is advocating in us is not the same kind of submission God gives to us. As J. Stapley points out, it is not really possible to have a peer relationship when one is not a peer. So for now, it seems entirely appropriate to submit to God due to his Expert, Rewards, Legitimate, and even Coercive power.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 19, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  11. Even Joseph in his most explicit descriptions identified us as being potentially Kings and Queens, then remarked that God is King of Kings.

    This is a good point. We aren’t equal in authority.

    However, I’m not sure that this is necessary for the kind of peer relationship Blake discusses. The assumption is that one can only be a peer if one is equal in power or equal in responsibility to things seems wrong to me. (Further the distinction Joseph makes there is a kind of temporal difference that is permanent given eternal progression)

    The question though is an interesting one. How does one defend the idea of unequals in power or knowledge being equal peers? I think Blake’s approach (coming out of Levinas) is that a peer relationship is to be true to the Other as Other. That is it is essentially non-violent and a letting-be rather than a dominating. However there are problems with this view.

    Comment by Clark — February 19, 2007 @ 2:04 pm

  12. It seems to me then, that accordingly we would not be truly peers, but God would treat us as peers anyway. That seems odd to me. That said, I don’t have a the technical background to truly engage the topic.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 19, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  13. Do we not eventually graduate from one level to another. I remember Truman Madsen pointing out the progression of Joseph from being servant, then son, then friend. Are we not all able to make such a progression in the relationship?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 19, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

  14. I really like the points raised in this discussion. I believe that God is striving to create a “peer” relationship with us, but that it can take time.

    Here is a scripture I found in the Old Testament last year, which I think illustrates the point nicely. It is in Hosea 2:16-17:

    The prophet writes regarding a future time…

    And it shall be at that day, saith the LORD, that thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali. For I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name

    As far as I can tell, both Ishi and Baali are Hebrew words that could be translated roughly “Lord”, but Ishi connotes a more intimate “husband” peer-like relationship while Baali connotes something more like a master-slave relationship.

    The idea of a marriage (covenant) relationship is in my mind the best analogy of what God is trying to help us achieve in our relationship with Him. These words of Hosea express this idea to me quite eloquently.

    Why would God compare his desired relationship with us to that of a marriage relationship? In a true marriage both parties submit their wills to each other. We are to become “one” with God.

    Every time I contemplate this idea, I am both humbled and amazed at exactly how much “God so loved the world.”

    Comment by Travis O — February 19, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

  15. I think what it comes down to is that peership isn’t analyzable in terms of power-relations.

    Comment by clark — February 19, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

  16. It seems like one problem you are facing with this post Matt is the lack of a definition of a peer. Some people seem to think being peers must mean being equals. How are you using the term peer? Can I ever see myself as a “peer” with my parents? How about with my grandparents? If I can now be considered a “peer” with my venerable grandfather (who turns 92 this year) then you are using the term peer in a more loose way than I commonly use it. But of course if we are ever to be “peers” with Jesus Christ we would have to be using the term peer even more loosely (to say the least).

    Then again — if we are all beginningless perhaps the things that separate me from feeling like I can be a peer with my grandfather will disappear in the spirit world. So who knows…

    Comment by Geoff J — February 19, 2007 @ 4:20 pm

  17. But aren’t power relations inevitably what we have, clark? We say God has always been God. IF this is the case, then God is independently who he is. But we will always rely on the atonement for any future state. Essentially are eternally dependent, not that that is a bad thing.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 19, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  18. J.,

    Why do you say we will always rely on the atonement for any future state? Do you mean that if we make it to some good state in the future we will have gotten there by virtue of grace extended by the atonement? Or do you mean that at all future times we will be dependent in each moment on the atonement for our state? I agree with the first possible meaning, but not the second.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 19, 2007 @ 4:52 pm

  19. What Geoff said. I think we need to throw “peer” into the trash can, right there along with “love.” On the one hand, God will always be above us, but on the other, anyone we love with the pure love of Christ is a peer – including God. And vice versa.

    Nice post, Matt.

    Comment by Eric Russell — February 19, 2007 @ 10:01 pm

  20. Ok, I will attempt to clarify.

    In loose terms, submission of will means we are putting someone else’s will as a priority above our will or to make someone else’s will our will. When God saw he was in the mist of us, and saw our need for help, so that we could be able to progress. He made our need his need. Our happiness and Growth became his purpose and goal. I believe we can not achieve that growth equal to him until we make his happiness and gowth our purpose and goal, instead of our own happiness and growth. And I think that is ultimately what is meant by giving our will to God.

    Now I don’t think we will ever be equal in Authority, but I think that is because Our Father will Always have greater referent power over us. (much like Geoff’s grandpa will always have greater referent power over Geoff.) And perhaps due to that, our Father in Heaven will also retain his Legitimate power, not because he holds the position and title King of Kings, but because he IS the King of Kings.

    Beyond that, I am having some difficulty explaining what I mean by peer in this situation. It is tied up in imagery in my head. I’ll think on it somemore, and see if someone else can capture what I am trying to say.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 19, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  21. Matt: He made our need his need.

    I agree with this. But I suspect this conflicts with your preceding comment that “submission of will means we are putting someone else’s will as a priority above our will or to make someone else’s will our will”. Our needs and our will are often not the the same things. God certainly does work to help us with our needs but he does not submit to our will. The problem is that we are idiots compared to God and our will is all wrong a lot of the time. God knows that our present will often leads us away from what we mostly deeply want and need so he pleads with us to trust him and conform our will to his will. (I’m sure you agree with that.) So I think it is accurate to say his will aligns with our needs; but it is totally inaccurate to say that God’s will conforms to our wills.

    As for the peer relationship — I do think that there is a sense in which we can have a peer relationship with God. As I mentioned, Joseph taught that we a co-eternal with God and that opens theological doors to peer relationships in the eternities in ways that could never happen if one assumes creation ex nihilo. Jesus called his disciples his friends at times and I think he meant it. So there is definitely rooms for some level of a peer relationship between us and God.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 20, 2007 @ 12:06 am

  22. Geoff, good point, it is possibly more accurate to say he submitts his will to us than he submits his will to our will. I guess I was having a hard time distinguishing our will from ourselves, but there is seemingly a solid difference. I think part of the issue is that we are really talking about a one to many relationship and not a one to one relationship.

    For peer relationship, I guess I am thinking in computer terms of a peer to peer network…

    Comment by Matt W. — February 20, 2007 @ 8:11 am

  23. “But aren’t power relations inevitably what we have, clark? “

    Well, if you are a Nietzschean, then yes. If you are a Heideggarian, then no.

    Comment by clark — February 20, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  24. Clark, you have a bad habit of making statements which assume an above average level of understanding of philosophy. I am neither of the above, having studied or understood neither.

    In my post I am talking about social power, ie- the power’s we have to influence others or the powers we have which make others defer to us socially. If you could explain, say at the eighth grade level, a way that a relationship can exist where neither component influences or defers to the other, I’d really appreciate it. Otherwise, I am afraid your Jargon is at a high enough level to be unintelligible to we mere mortals beneath.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 20, 2007 @ 1:17 pm

  25. Sorry, I though that if you were talking about power then you’d be familiar with where the notion comes from. But one needn’t know the details of these beliefs to recognize that not all agree with your statement. Which was all I was really saying.

    Comment by clark — February 21, 2007 @ 11:51 am

  26. No biggy, Hope I didn’t come across as too harsh. My Source for power goes no deeper than any other business man. I am going by Gary Yukl’s “Leadership in Organizations”. I am sorry for the rudeness of tone above.

    Anyway, I am sincerely still interested in how you’d respond to the question I stated earlier, namely: What is a way that a relationship can exist where neither component influences or defers to the other, and thus has some form of social power over the other?

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

  27. The idea that all there is are power relations entails a metaphysical thinking based upon power. Entities become locuses of power. Yet the notion of love undermines such a view. In any case the easiest answer is that the burden of proof is on those arguing that it is all power relations.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think power relations are important. But in thinking that way one is artificially narrowing down how one can think about issues. In effect you are denying the idea of love or real relationships of the sort Blake brings up.

    The issue then becomes an impasse over assumptions. There are ways to address this, although they become a tad complex. (Which is why I brought up Heidegger, he engages with Nietzsche on this point in a series of lectures – although things are even more complex than that and I’ll not get into it)

    Ultimately the criticism I’d raise of thinking in terms of power relations is that it denies the notion of real creation, real creativity or spontaneity. Where does power come from if all there is are power relations? If we buy the notion of creation then for any system of power relations we can have something inexpressible in terms of those power relations. Something beyond and transcendent. This origin then undermines any power relationship.

    I should add that some see at least some evidence for that in Nietzsche’s thought as well. Although its a debatable point.

    Comment by clark — February 21, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  28. Ok Clark, I am trying to grasp what you are throwing my way, but I have some questions.

    1. re: Entities become locuses of power. Yet the notion of love undermines such a view. I think you are here saying that love undermines this view because “love” can not be a reaction to power. Now I am still not happy with this word “love”, since it can have so many different meanings, but since you are using it, why can’t love be a reaction to referent power? (In that referent power is identifying strongly with someone else.)Is not love ultimately a synonym (and subgroup) of referrent power?

    2. re: it denies the notion of real creation, real creativity or spontaneity. Where does power come from if all there is are power relations? Is not the Mormon answer that is has always existed? Seriously, if we have always existed, and our father in heaven has always existed, then hasn’t the “power” always existed? Isn’t “real creation” a form of ex nihlio creation which we reject anyway?

    Thanks for sorting through this with me. I appreciate it.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2007 @ 12:48 pm

  29. Well, yes, the problem is that the word is very equivocal. However I’m trying to remain in terms of the terminology Blake uses. However the idea is akin to the old idea of hedonism as the basis of all ethics. If we do good just to feel good and not out of true altruism then to critique altruism in terms of this is circular. Yes a person who thinks power is all there is can still use the word love. But clearly they aren’t using the term the same way others are.

    As to your second point, to say that individuals have always existed is not to say that spontaneity is impossible. But certainly a complete and utter determinist could make such a claim in LDS thought. But we have to distinguish creation ex nihilo from spontaneity.

    Comment by Clark — February 21, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

  30. I think I must have skipped where Blake dealt with this or it’s not in Chapters 1-2 of Book 2(The ones I’ve worked through). I admit I did skip a lot of the part on I-Thou. Perhaps I will have to go back for a closer viewing. Can I beg you for some page numbers to look for this on? From my reading of Blake he leaves love basicly undefined. Perhaps he defined it in book one. I define altruism as giving without expecting a return. I’m not sure how it relates to power here.

    I’ll leave the ex nihilo and spontaneity alone for now, but may bring it back in a future post…

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2007 @ 1:50 pm

  31. I don’t recall him arguing on this point. It’s more an unstated premise. (He may address it later, but when he talks about “authentic peer relationships” this is what he is ultimately getting at)

    Comment by Clark — February 21, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  32. To add, Blake’s view of free will which is a stated assumption would also undermine the “there’s only power” view. Libertarian free will demands a kind of spontaneity. He argues for that in volume one. But one need not adopt Libertarian free will to have problems with power as metaphysics.

    Comment by Clark — February 21, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

  33. I wish we could fish Blake in for his thoughts on this. I can’t help but feel you are making assumptions about his meaning and would love clarification from him. Be that as it may, I am not looking so far as power as metaphysics, but just trying to analyze power in relationships specifically. Can two things have a relationship with one another without some form of social power being in play? I feel like our father asking us to submit to him falls in this category of social power and leadership. I feel that eventually our father would like to see his leadership develop to the point where we have more of a partnership, where we are deferring to one another via referent power. (That said, I am not sure it can ever be an equal partnership)

    Now back to altruism. If Altruism is selfless concern for the welfare of others, I think an issue is how far we take this concept of selflessness, as an overly literal interpretation would have us exploring whether rocks are included in others and whether thinking about this concern erases selflessness.

    If we can limit others to beings we can identify with, then we are in a scope of referent power.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

  34. Can two things have a relationship with one another without some form of social power being in play?

    Clearly not. However the point is that they don’t need to be determinative.

    Comment by Clark — February 21, 2007 @ 2:46 pm

  35. Yukl notes that we do have opptions under a power situation, he lists them basically as: commit, comply, or resist. I guess I would agree that social powers influence us, based on my reading, they do not control us. Is that what you are getting at?

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2007 @ 2:54 pm

  36. To a degree. An other way would be to say that any description of events in terms of power is always incomplete and thus unsatisfactory. Something essential is left out.

    Comment by Clark — February 22, 2007 @ 11:04 am

  37. And what is that something essential, in your view?

    The more I think about this, if we consider self a participant, then the more powers even apply to self. After all can’t altruism be define as defering self-referent power to the referent power of another?

    Comment by Matt W. — February 22, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  38. I think the something essential is always what exceeds our knowledge. That is the attempt to state the essential and think that we’ve completely understood is in error.

    This is, I suspect, key to Blake’s thought as well even though he comes at it via process thought. But he also makes use of Levinas for whom that kind of infinity in people is key.

    Comment by Clark — February 22, 2007 @ 12:00 pm

  39. If this something essentional is so beyond as to be ineffable, I’d say it is only more unsatisfactory than the incompleteness of power, which would return us to the discussion of power, as the cost-benefits there are much more realistically attainable.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 22, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

  40. Why is it unsatisfactory?

    Comment by Clark — February 22, 2007 @ 1:05 pm

  41. Because it is ineffable, and thus incomprehensible. It can not be effectively utilized to any understandable benefit.

    More to the point, If we define this ineffable as X, Power as P, relationships as R, and desired results as H, we could say

    X+P+R = H

    and since X is incomprehensible, we need to focus on P and R as the items we can control in our quest to derive H.

    Does that make sense? ( I already have my doubts, but will hit send anyway…)

    Comment by Matt W. — February 22, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

  42. But it isn’t ineffable in the sense of incomprehensible. It’s just a product of our finite nature. We don’t have the time or resources to comprehend everything so we have to make decisions. Those decisions are always a matter of taking and rejecting. Something is always left out. It isn’t ineffability in a mystic sense but merely an acknowledgement of our finite natures.

    A big difference.

    Comment by clark — February 22, 2007 @ 9:38 pm

  43. I’m not sure I see the big difference between not having “the time and resources to comprehend” and “incomprehensible”. If we don’t have what it takes to comprehend something and are thus unable to comprehend, isn’t it, for all intents and purposes, incomprehensible to us?

    The problem I see with my equation is that if X is not constant, and H requires absolute exactness, the equation is worthless.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 23, 2007 @ 10:08 am