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Monday, June 7, 2004

Why do smart Mormons like post-modernism?

The editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things, Damon Linker, is a guest blogger over at the Mormon blog Times and Seasons. He taught at BYU for two years, and asks a question based on that experience that I've been curious about since my year as a student there:

One of the things that I found most interesting about the intellectual life of BYU is how many thoughtful Mormons . . . understand their faith in terms derived, at some level, from postmodernist thought. This is in radical contrast to Roman Catholics, who usually appeal to some version of Thomism — that is, a tradition of philosophical reflection rooted in a holistic account of the natural world, including natural (and supernatural) ends or purposes. Mormons, by contrast, often reject such naturalism. There are, as I understand it, at least two reasons for this. First of all, there is the apostasy, which can be described, at least in part, as a debasement or distortion of authentic Christian teaching by concepts derived from the Greek philosophical tradition. This is actually just a radicalized version of an argument that many of the Protestant Reformers made about the decline of the Church in the Middle Ages. As I understand it, it means that the Church Fathers (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, etc.) created a synthesis of reason and revelation many centuries before Thomas Aquinas made his own attempt to do so. The result was, supposedly, a dismal failure, with biblical religion coming to be interpreted in terms quite foreign to it.

He goes on to describe some philosophical issues, but I think he hit on the core of the appeal already. Here's my response:

It seems to me that post-modern discourse gives some Mormon thinkers a way to leap over the intellectual dilemmas not just of Thomism but of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and pretty much every intellectual tradition with roots someplace other than first-century Judaea, fourth-century Zarahemla, and nineteenth-century Nauvoo. Post-modernism is the smart Mormon's way to believe that the "great apostasy" drew a dark curtain across nineteen centuries of intellectual development without sounding like an anti-intellectual. It gives some people a way to think that, sure, Nietzsche said devastating things — but only about the decadent apostasy; none of it applies to us. And post-modernism offers the added benefit that, unlike the conservatism of First Things or anti-modernist intellectual movements, it seems eminently au courant. Wrapped in post-modernism, Mormonism can be at once radical, smart, and still authoritarian and absolutist! What more could you ask for?

Philosophically, I have no quarrel with Mormons who see resources in post-modern thought. But there's a history-of-ideas aspect to its appeal for Mormons. There are reasons that some Mormons find post-modernism appealing that have little to do with the coherence of the ideas and a lot to do with a religious-cultural predisposition to regard other Western intellectual and theological traditions with extreme suspicion.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 7 June 2004 at 6:12 PM

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Jim F.:

June 7, 2004 06:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Of course, it is certainly possible that those LDS who find post-modernism theologically interesting do so for the reasons you give, namely it gives us a way to eat our intellectual cake (suspicion of other Western theological traditions) and have it too. But do you have reasons for thinking that is a more accurate description than saying that its ideas are coherent? As a practicing Mormon and a teacher of both Heidegger and French philosophy, I don't think my reason for finding po-mo attractive is the one you state, though I could be wrong. People are notoriously wrong about their own motives. But the fact that I was interested in Heidegger, etc. long before I was interested in LDS theology suggests that I may not be wrong. Your account doesn't seem to me to apply to most of the other LDS academics I know who share my interests. So why should I think your description is correct?


June 10, 2004 01:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jim, I feel a keen irony in attempting to respond to your question, because my first exposure to post-modernism was in a class you co-taught in the Honors program at BYU in the winter of 1990.

Thinking about my own motivation, I wonder: If I had been better able to make sense of Heidegger, Gadamer, and some of the other writers on the reading list in your class, would I have found reasons to remain Mormon? I loved the ambition of the curriculum: I remember the course being titled something provocative like “God, the Universe, and Man,” but you would have no reason to remember me, unless you hold a special place for freshmen who have no idea how to write a philosophy paper! I signed up for the class in something of a last-ditch attempt to see if I could find intellectual resources to help hold together a rapidly failing testimony. (The givenness of Mormon truth seemed less and less given to me.) I found a great deal of value in reading Ricoeur, but found that my own passage from naiveté through atheism (or disenchantment) toward a “second naiveté” did not leave me with a sense of community with other Mormons.

Your class was rich and provocative. I have never experienced another educational environment in which the intellectual stakes felt as high as they did in my single year at BYU, but I also never found adequate personal justification to claim that “the church is true” or to regard the authority of the prophet as a satisfying criterion for distinguishing truths. I was not able to shake my sense that the basic epistemological issue for Mormons — “do I have a testimony?” — quickly establishes an appeal to authority — “the church is true” — that basically serves to insulate a powerful hierarchy from criticism. For all its metaphysical thinness, liberalism seemed to put better limits on power, and I have come to regard liberalism’s distrust of arbitrary power as one of my central concerns.

At the University of Utah, where I studied English literature and the history of philosophy, I distrusted “post-modernism” — and I know we’re discussing a lot of apples and oranges by using this phrase — in part because I felt like I had first encountered it as a justification of sorts for an authoritarian religious culture. (I am, after all, attempting to describe my own motivation. I want to be clear: I never experienced you as explicitly justifying or defending authoritarianism, but I also could not find any explicit or implicit justification for a critique of how power is actually used within the Mormon world.) At the U, post-modernism was a “leftist” movement; at BYU, it struck me as conservative. In neither place did I find what people called post-modernism helpful in answering the questions that motivated me. I wanted to know how to respond to the methods and discoveries of the sciences; I wanted to know how to respond as a religious person to the democratic and pluralistic values of American society; and I was more interested in the history of ideas than in philosophy proper. I found “liberalism” (another overly broad label) more compelling than post-modernism.

Eventually, I found resources in Thomas Kuhn, Alfred North Whitehead, William James, the theologian James Luther Adams (a disciple of Troeltsch and Tillich), and the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin to cobble together what I suppose amounts to an amateur’s historically-minded perspectivalism. I especially value Berlin’s “agonistic liberalism” — a recognition that there are multiple, incommensurable, competing “goods” in human life, and that although one may cultivate imaginative sympathy for other ways of life and other human values, one cannot actually embrace them all. This insight has allowed me to acknowledge that, for example, Mormonism remains “true” for my parents while no longer being what William James called a “live option” for me.

I haven’t really addressed your question, but I thought describing some of my own motivation might be helpful. I do think that the cultural bias within the Mormon community against the “philosophy of men” and the corruptions of the Apostasy must have some sort of impact within the intellectual community, even if it is redirected or reshaped. I put it baldly and in exaggerated form in my comment at T&S, because it does seem that Mormonism is inclined quite sharply away from the historical consciousness that is associated with modernism, and that some features of post-modernism may appeal to this cultural inclination.

My snarky assessment of motivation wasn’t aimed at you, but in a way it seems I had a memory of you in mind when I wrote it. I am pleased — even envious — to see Mormon scholarship continue to develop in such rich ways, and I wish I had been intellectually prepared to benefit more from the course in which I came to form my first impression of post-modernism. It’s probably unfair to suggest that the “core” of the appeal of any idea has more to do with its resonance with other cultural notions than with its own intellectual coherence, but I also know from experience that we often gravitate to ideas that seem attractive to us even before we fully grasp their cogency.

The only reason I think you should take any part of my intial comment as a serious description of the appeal of post-modernism is this: Ideas do not thrive simply on their intellectual merits. They have genealogies, relatives, and social lives, as it were, because they are at least tools as well as products of our lives as cultural and social beings. The intellectual concerns of Mormons to some extent grow out of their cultural and personal concerns. I was attempting to name a cultural concern — the status of Mormonism as a Restoration that overcame the Great Apostasy — that struck me as a contributing factor in post-modernism's appeal to Mormon students. In my reply, I've attempted to describe some of my own motivation and the context of my own ideas.

My question to you is this: If your interest in Heidegger preceded your interest in Mormon theology, did it also precede your commitment to the Mormon faith?

Jim F.:

June 11, 2004 05:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for sharing your story. I enjoyed reading it. Of course, as an active LDS I'm disappointed that we didn't find some way to engage you and make you feel at home amongst us, but I think these things are often quite inexplicable. I can tell the story of how I became a Mormon, but I can't really explain what happened.

You're right, I don't remember you. Being a freshman who didn't know how to write a philosophy paper would hardly make you stand out from anyone else. To be honest, I don't remember the class very well. With whom was I team teaching? However, I am reasonably good at remembering student faces, so perhaps if I were to see you I would recognize you.

I have a lot of respect for the thinkers you name as those on whom you have relied (though I don't know Adams except by name). Ironically, in my mind there are a lot of parallels between some of them (e.g., James and Tillich) and some of the things I find interesting in post-Nietzschean thought (the name I prefer to "postmodernism).

Did my interest in Heidegger, etc. precede my committment to the Mormon faith? No. I converted when I was 15. I had been a Disciple of Christ and was beginning to think about training to become a pastor. My interest in Heidegger didn't begin until well into my graduate career. Most of my graduate school work was dedicated to Hegel, but I began to be interested in Heidegger and hermeneutics (initially almost exclusively Gadamer) at about that time. That interest only developed fully after I began teaching. My work in contemporary French philosophy is much more recent, and I think it would be reasonable to say that it is part and parcel of the fact that I have begun to think more about how to talk about Mormonism philosophically. However, my understanding of the contemporary French is different than that one finds among most North Americans because I always read them through my Heideggerian lenses.

However, my initial interest in Heidegger had to do with the fact that I felt he could give a better foundation for providing a good account of human being and, therefore, for psychology. If there was a tie between my interest in Heidegger and my LDS faith, it wasn't explicitly conscious.

I have no doubt that in the course you took I didn't offer any grounds for a critique of how power is used among LDS. I think that hermeneutics can provide such a ground, but I also don't think there are many beginning classes in which it would be possible to discuss that. The problem is that few students in beginning courses have the intellectual maturity to deal with the question--either because they are too defensive or too anxious to find fault. In addition, few beginning students have the background necessary for a good discussion.

When you put the matter in the terms you did in the next to the last paragraph, they seem much more reasonable to me. Of course ideas have genealogies and social lives, as do their adherents. I imagine that at least part of the appeal of postNietzschen thinking to Mormon audiences is that it at least seems to offer a way of thinking that breaks with the tradition. (I have my doubts about how much of a break there is, but that's another question.) As such, it is not suprising that Mormons, who see themselves as part of a movement that breaks with the tradition, would be interested in it. But to say that is to say much less than you seemed to say in your initial post and in your comment on Times and Seasons.


June 11, 2004 05:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can't remember the other professor's name. (Peterson? He was in the psychology department.) I was a red-head with glasses,

I'll ponder the rest of your comments over the weekend. Thanks for your reply.


June 12, 2004 02:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am enjoying this dialogue between Jim and Philocrites very much. Although I was a classmate of Philocrites and am a practicing Unitarian Universalist minister, I cannot claim any special insight into LDS theology or its culture(s) whose operations remain opaque from the vantage point of the outsider.

I want to give a brief personal intellectual history and then ask a question to both Philocrites and Jim. My undergraduate education included reading in hermeneutics. I remember reading Hegel, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur but prefering a History of Religions approach grounded in the social sciences that favored key thinkers like Geertz, Weber, Levi-Strauss, and especially J.Z. Smith. I thought I had found a climax in such an approach in the work of Bruce Lincoln whose brief, brash, and confrontational essay "Theses on Method" I took as a personal motto.

However, in seminary I had the good fortune to work with Jeffery Kripal whose writings on the reflexivity of practitioner and scholar (see: Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom) opened some doors for me. Especially interesting was his intentional probing into the ethical dimensions of both religious (mystical) experience and scholarship.

So, my question to Jim is this: Is the apophaticism in your claim that "I can tell the experience of how I became Mormon, but I can't really explain what happened." ethical? And further, what are the ethical dimensions of giving students the tools to probe the power structures of (religious) institutions especially a system in which those students are deeply enmeshed without taking the next step and leading them through such an analysis?

And to both Jim and Philocrites: Can your interests in Post-modernism and Liberalism, respectively, be accounted for in the anthropology that each system suggests, that is the view of humanity that each puts forward, and/or are there theological concerns, perhaps related to a dialogical relationship between the human and divine, that has drawn you to your respective methods? (Here, I am wondering if there is more to Jim's interest in Heidegger giving a good account of the human and Philocrites' comments about Berlin's way of navigating in a world with multiple human worldviews.)


June 12, 2004 08:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jim, you commented on the problem of trying to tackle the question of how power is structured in Mormonism:

The problem is that few students in beginning courses have the intellectual maturity to deal with the question--either because they are too defensive or too anxious to find fault. In addition, few beginning students have the background necessary for a good discussion.

I can fully appreciate the dilemma. (The course I took was an upper-division course, though — which helps explain why I felt so unprepared to be in it. I had read some Plato and parts of Augustine's "Confessions" in my excellent History of Civilization course before enrolling in the class.) The basic issue I was struggling with was whether individual human beings — individual church members — have tools for recognizing when a truth claim properly belongs to prophetic authority and when it does not.

Mormons do talk about "free agency" and the "light of Christ" — ideas that seem primarily focused on an individual's ability to align themselves with divine purpose, and which therefore presuppose an capacity to discern God's purpose. But aside from the idea that "the glory of God is intelligence," I couldn't find a Mormon way to conceptualize how different intellectual disciplines should be related to each other. For example, can a prophet identify the truth or falsehood of a scientific paradigm? That's the sort of question I felt most keenly.

You noted that post-Nietzschean and especially contemporary French philosophy has some strong comparabilities with American pragmatism and with Tillich's theology. (He was a student of Heidegger's, after all.) I'd agree! I probably gravitated to Whitehead rather than to the post-Hegelians because it seemed that process philosophy maintained a more common-sensical approach to the knowability of a world beyond ourselves, but I never became a philosopher and so don't know whether Whitehead's epistemology really does bridge the gulf that he saw in Enlightenment philosophy. But he quite thoroughly criticized many of the same features of modern philosophy that the post-Nietzscheans have criticized. And the pragmatists — like Isaiah Berlin — set up a sort of pluralism that can seem every bit as relativistic as post-modernism. I think I preferred these Anglo-American thinkers to the continental philosophers because they seemed more historically-minded.

I have some more to say, but I'm going to follow up with more in a later post.

Nate Oman:

June 14, 2004 11:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

This is a very interesting exchange. I have to confess that I also find Berlin an interesting thinker. (Have you taken a look at Galston's Liberal Pluralism? A very interesting book, which restates some of Berlin's basic arguments in the context of the post-Rawlsian debates over liberalism.) I am curious about your claim as to his greater historical awareness. My understanding is that Berlin is not primarily making a sociological or historical claim about the plurality of values. Rather, I take him to be making a meta-ethical claim, namely that there are simply plural and incommensurable goods. (BTW, I have often thought that some of the language used in Mormon discussions of the Atonement -- e.g. the competing and incommensurable claims of mercy and justice, etc. -- has a certain Berlinian quality to it.) It doesn't seem to me that he is really making a claim about the historical or sociological genelogy of ideas per se.


June 14, 2004 05:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thom, you asked:

Can your interests in Post-modernism and Liberalism, respectively, be accounted for in the anthropology that each system suggests, that is the view of humanity that each puts forward, and/or are there theological concerns, perhaps related to a dialogical relationship between the human and divine, that has drawn you to your respective methods?

I'm not sure I understand entirely what you're asking. Are you asking whether liberal claims about human nature can adequately account for my own interest in Berlin's liberal pluralism? Or are you trying to get at something beyond what might have made an ethical-political approach — Belin's political philosophy — appealing to me personally? And then are you following up by asking whether I might have been trying to address a theological concern — a religious need — by reading a liberal humanist philosopher?

Or are you asking me something else? I never quite grasped what hermeneutics was all about, although the "hermeneutics of suspicion" was forever in the air at HDS!


June 14, 2004 06:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

There's a reason you didn't understand my question, Philocrites. The reason was because my question was unclear.

I think my question was rather artificially divorcing discourse about human being (anthropology) from discourse about the Divine (theology.) But, of course, one of the things that theology does is offer some idea of what it means to be human and what human nature is. So now I'm confused about what I was thinking.

As far as motivations go, I wasn't psychoanalyzing you or suggesting some agenda or anything. I guess I'm still trying to wrap my head around the intial question, "Why would LDS intellectuals be especially drawn to post-modernism?"

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