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