Truman G. Madsen was a renowned philosopher, teacher, and biographer and regarded as one of the greatest LDS thinkers of our time. One of his goals as a founding senior fellow of the Wheatley Institute was to bring academic experts and civic leaders “to the fire” at BYU.
In honor of this goal, the Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man series feature leading scholars of faith, who are oftentimes not LDS themselves, giving them opportunities to discuss their work on the foundational relationship between faith and reason.
Watch and read the annual Truman G. Madsen Lectures on Eternal Man by navigating to the sections below. We hope you enjoy these lectures and learn from them as much as we have.
Our country is in a crisis. The economic barrel has a rotten bottom. We have all seen valuables fall through it, lose their value, and become worthless. Within the search for what makes values valuable, we face many questions. Why have so many lost so much? Surely among the causes of the economic collapse are a preoccupation with mammon, greed, devotion to materialism, and especially a misperception of the human.Far too often in our society the human has been degraded and drained of values. Frequently many today feel or are told, either explicitly or implicitly, that they are unworthy and failing. Many devout Christians are counseled to repeat ad nauseam: “mea culpa.” They are told to ingest the confession “I am unworthy.”
Such admonition may be warranted in some cases. But, used generally, the confession “mea culpa” breaks the spirits of those who are trying to follow Jesus and fail to hear Jesus’ invitation: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (RSV, John 16:24). Our Bibles and related literatures and especially Jesus’ message invite us to perceive the dignity of the human. Adam is the joyous pinnacle of God’s creation.
Truman G. Madsen, the former distinguished occupant of the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU, has been my friend for decades. I spoke to hundreds of his students at the BYU Jerusalem Center in East Jerusalem when he was the director, and I have been with him numerous times when I have spoken here at BYU. He is a man of deep thought and pristine integrity. He is clearly surrounded by many luminaries here in Utah. I will never forget his wife, Ann, whom he always treats with impressive respect, telling me that she was confused before she introduced me to the incomparable Hugh W. Nibley in their home. I recall her saying: “Do I lead Muhammed to the mountain, and, if so, which one is Muhammed?” Obviously, I was stunned to be compared with a scholar who a close friend, a Harvard professor, claimed was absurdly brilliant. Let me say now that Truman and Ann have been cherished friends, and they are sparkling jewels in BYU’s illustrious crown. I am grateful and honored to be invited to present the first Truman G. Madsen Lecture. Surely he and Ann will appreciate the importance of perceiving the dignity, even divinity, of the human. Yet we must always remember that human dignity and divinity are only conceivable because of God’s grace. Perceiving human divinity requires conceiving God’s absolute sovereignty.
The historical Jesus has been my passion for most of my scholarly life. In 1980 I coined the term “Jesus research” to denote a new phase in the study of the historical Jesus. In my own study I have often perceived Jesus taking sides with His fellow Jews who were disenfranchised and treated with disrespect. Jesus called for human dignity. He shared with all His followers the name He used when calling on God: Abba, Father. As Truman G. Madsen showed, names are not mere labels; in antiquity, especially in Second Temple Judaism, God’s name had awesome power. Jesus’ life and message were devoted to restoring the worth of the human by helping all to realize that God loved them infinitely (cf. Matthew 10:19–31).
At the conclusion of the most important Dead Sea Scroll, Rule of the Community, we find a low estimate of the human:
What, indeed, is the son of Adam among your wondrous works?
Born of a woman, how can he dwell before you, he whose kneading (is) from dust and whose corpse (is) food for maggots? He is (but) a discharge, (mere) pinched-off clay whose urge is for the dust. What can clay and that which is shaped (by) hand dispute; and what counsel does it comprehend? [1QS 11.20–22]
The low evaluation of the human is also reflected in early Greek thought. For example, influenced by the Eleatics, Leucippus (5th century BCE) and Democritus (460–457 BCE) concluded that the human, as real being, is merely a chance conglomerate of atoms (atomous), the solid, invisible, and indivisible particles in nature. Democritus thought the soul is also made up of atoms, but these are round and fine. The soul and the body perish. Although Democritus is one of the most prolific ancient authors, only fragments of his ethical works remain. It is easy to see why human evolutionary thought, aided by revelation, left behind perceptions of the human as “hooked atoms becoming entangled” (tōn agkistroeidōn atomōn sumpeplegmenon). In atomism there is no room for a gracious and loving God or for revelation; and human dignity is inextricably bound with both. Far more precise and perceptive than the atomists’ cosmology is Joseph Smith’s claim that in all elements and in our refined spirits “dwells all the glory.”
The purpose of this lecture, in honor of Truman Madsen, a distinguished philosopher and theologian who has been a close colleague for over thirty years, is to shift the focus from human depravity to human divinity. The guiding light will be provided by the ancient scriptures. In them we find more than speculation; we confront revelation. Those who have ears to hear spiritual words will hear God’s affirmation of the dignity of the human.
In this lecture, I will focus on seven issues: (1) positing the equality of all humans, (2) clarifying that the cor malum (the evil heart) is not to be confused with the yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination), (3) exposing the historical truth that scripture indicates humans are clothed in dignity, (4) recognizing the fundamental importance of beginning with human dignity in bioethical research and medical practice, (5) displaying in a new light the biblical truth that humans are created imago dei (in the image of God), (6) exploring the scriptural injunction that humans are categorized as divine, and (7) concluding with a grand inclusio to show the oneness of all humans.
I. Equality of All Humans
We begin with a perception of the equality of all humans. According to the account of creation in Genesis, the human was Adam; that is, Adam was both male and female. The ish, “male,” and the isha, “female,” came from one being: Adam.
As is well known, the story of human development continued. The process in human advancement was gradual and painful. “In the beginning all men were created equal,” said the rogue priest named John Ball at Blackheath, outside London, on June 12, 1381. Ball uttered these comments during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The peasants had been severely overtaxed to make up for the taxes that would have been paid by those who perished in the Black Death when England’s population fell from almost six million to about three million. Ball’s words were quoted, without notation, in Congress on July 4, 1776, by the authors of “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The equality of all humans is grounded in the originating acts of One Creator.
(the Evil Heart) Is Not to Be Confused with the
(the Evil Inclination)
Philosophers and theologians have focused on the problems in human history and the reason for evil actions. Sometimes a thinker attributes the evil in the world to the cor malum (the evil heart). Other great minds choose to focus on the yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination).
One of the most brilliant human literary achievements is 4 Ezra. This apocalypse was written by a Jew who was emotionally distraught over the burning of the Temple, God’s House, by the Romans in 70 CE. He sought to explain human failures to be obedient to God by contemplating the cor malum; that is, each human inherits from Adam a malignant heart. Perceiving the loss of the Holy City and the Temple, this Ezra, with the smoke of a burning city seemingly entrenched in his nostrils, bewails (with words that have echoed in my mind for decades): “O Adam, what have you done? (O tu quid fecisti Adam?) For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.” Ezra knows of “an evil heart (cor malum) . . . which has alienated us from God.” The height of ancient Jewish reflections on theodicy are contained in this apocalypse; the seer’s questioning is so profound that the Archangel, Uriel, must confess his ignorance, telling Ezra: “I do not know” (sed nescio). If archangels must confess ignorance, it is evident that knowledge will depend not on human achievement but on human reception of revelation.
Much more prevalent in Jewish thought is the concept that God gave the human inclinations for good or evil and that each one has a choice. For instance, the Book Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, composed around 150 BCE, emphasizes free choice. God created the human with free choice (see Sirach 15). God is not responsible for evil or sin, because the Lord “does not do what he hates (ha gar emisēsen, ou poiēseis)” (NRSV, Sirach 15:11). The “evil thought” (cogitamentum malum) is also known to the author of 4 Ezra, and it seems to be a tradition he inherited to explain why many are led astray from life to death, but the tradition does not represent his own position that is found in his concept of cor malum.
God created humans with an “inclination” (רצי). This noun indicates the humans’ power to make free choices for which they are responsible. The inclination is not a supernatural cosmic force like the Angel of Darkness of the Rule of the Community; as John J. Collins states in Jewish Wisdom, the inclination depends on human violation. As Sirach, the wise Jerusalem sage, perceived in the second century BCE, God is powerful, but he allows humans the ability to choose their own ways in life. The concept of an evil inclination is developed in Rabbinics.
Let us agree now that the cor malum (the evil heart) reflects misperception and that it should not be categorized with the yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination). A much more appealing explanation of human failure and sin is found in an apocalypse written shortly after 4 Ezra. In 2 Baruch, most likely in response to Ezra’s explanation of the cor malum, we hear Baruch’s perspicacity: “Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam.” Truman Madsen rightly follows the insight of the Baruch-Jeremiah tradition: “The fall did not destroy individual freedom, initiative, or accountability. It did not impose sinfulness—or absolute depravity—upon Adam or upon any or all of his children.” Each of us is responsible for hearing God’s call and for responding to receive salvation and redemption.
III. Humans Are Clothed in Dignity
Far too often our dignity is maligned. When we suffer abuse or misfortune or rejection, we are not alone. We have texts based on traditions that clarify that for three millennia those faithful to God have been ridiculed, abused, and martyred. Closer to our own times are words that have not yet been heard. Let us pause and listen to the words of the granddaughter of a slave: “Neither the slavers’ whip nor the lynchers’ rope nor the bayonet could kill our black belief. In our hunger we beheld the welcome table and in our nakedness the glory of a long white robe. We have been believers in the new Jerusalem.” These words seeped out of the symbolic conceptual world of Margaret Walker (1915– 1998). While slaves may have felt naked, they could by faith conceptualize wearing “a long white robe.” That means they were clothed in dignity.
Our Bible and the extended scriptures reveal that dignity is innate in each of us. Dignity is an inheritance. In an unpublished paper, Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasized that dignity will exist as long as one lives and fights for human rights. For King, dignity is a movement. King’s essay on “Dignity” is preserved in the Stanford University King archives; it was found by Dr. Yolanda Pierce of Princeton Theological Seminary. King’s thoughts help us grasp the sociological importance of perceiving that we humans are clothed in dignity.
IV. Human Dignity and Bioethics
I now move into bioethics, which is an area that must be broached today as we evaluate the status of the human. In proceeding, I must confess that while I have devoted my life to mastering the Dead Sea Scrolls, the biblical apocryphal works, and the biblical texts, I am a mere novice in the study of bioethics. Should the concept of human dignity operate within the study of bioethics?
Ruth Macklin is a premier American medical ethicist. She eschews the concept of dignity as presented by the president’s bioethics commission and found, for example, in Human Cloning and Human Dignity. She finds the concept of “human dignity” too subjective and unnecessary. Macklin argues that medical ethics should be based on autonomy; that is, a respect for the autonomy of persons. She contends: “Dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content.” She laments the lack of a precise definition of “human dignity” in the president’s council report, preferring the one published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the United Kingdom: “One is a person whose actions, thoughts and concerns are worthy of intrinsic respect, because they have been chosen, organized and guided in a way which makes sense from a distinctively individual point of view.” Although she prefers this defection, Macklin rejects “dignity” as a concept for treating patients, claiming that dignity causes confusion in practice and method. I cannot agree that autonomy is a clear concept and that “dignity” should and can be reduced to “autonomy.”
Persons at “the edges of life,” to borrow a phrase from Paul Ramsey, such as the unborn, newborn, comatose, and elderly with Alzheimer’s, remain vulnerable with only autonomy as a shield against abuse. Without the concept of dignity in medical research and practice, we will see more abuses as in the notorious 40-year-old Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In this study 399 African-American men were caught up in lies: 28 of them died of syphilis, 100 died of related complications, and over 40 wives and 19 children also suffered. Such experiments were going on in the USA while the Nazis were experimenting on humans as if they were worthless animals, a practice that was exposed (horrifically) and condemned by the 1946 Nuremberg War Crime Trials. We all should be aware of the differences here being explored. We should memorize the first element of the ten-point code of ethics that concluded the Nuremberg tribunal: “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.” Moreover, laws protect the innocent and weak; thus, laws must protect the dignity of those who are not capable of issuing a voluntary consent. Cloning a full human being must not be condoned; with cloning there would be no more dignity and no more morality. Medical ethics must not seek to prolong life beyond accepted limits; death and finality make life precious and meaningful.
The last few decades have seen a struggle between virtue and principle based bioethics. If some experts fear that dignity has theological or religious overtones, then we should make it clear that theology is fundamental in perceiving human dignity and that in theological reflection and research there are controls against abuse and misperception.
We have seen that dignity has a long and illustrious history in the sacred traditions that have defined American culture and Americans who are sick. These traditions help define the moral life. In recent decades, dignity is often described as respect for persons (as in the 1979 Belmont Report). Human dignity helps define ethics in biology and medical practice; it is also evocative of some of the defining insights found in the humana vitae of the Pope and is reflected in the natural law theory. Medical ethics should be informed of the sacred traditions and the importance of dignity in human living and dying. The human is not one of the animals; the human has dignity and divinity. If medical moralists affirm human dignity and that special awareness in humans of the sacred, what Rudolf Otto in Idea of the Holy (1917) called the “numinous,” then human healing will be attuned to that “deep innate sensitivity to something sacred” that leads, as Madsen sees, to “responses of wonder, awe, and reverence.”
V. Humans Are Created Imago Dei
According to the first book in the Bible, Genesis, God created the human in the likeness of God. Recall Genesis 1:26:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind [םדא] in our image [ונמלצב], according to our likeness’” (NRSV). The author continues: “So God created humankind in his image [ונמלצב], in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV, Genesis 1:27). Here we find
the earliest biblical reference to the human as God’s “image.” The authors and editors of Genesis repeatedly emphasize a fundamental truth: “In his own image God made humankind” (NRSV, Genesis 9:6).
What does it mean that the human is in “God’s image (tslm)”? That opaque claim or revelation seems to mean that humans are like God in some uncertain way. We must not be misled by the modern meaning of tslm; today that noun means the image taken by a camera. The perceptive and learned Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch helps us comprehend the meaning of that easily misunderstood noun, tslm. He translated Genesis 1:26 as follows: “And God spake: Let Us make Adam (a representative) in a form worthy of Us as is commensurate with being in Our likeness.” Hirsch notes that tslm denotes “the outer covering, the bodily form.” It also signifies “all the compassion and love, the truth and equity and holiness of the Divine Rule.” Hirsch continued: “The bodily form of [the human] already proclaims him as the representative of God, as the divine on earth.” The human has “the calling of being ‘godlike.’” The mission of the human is “towards the holiness of God.” Humans represent God on earth, and they share with God certain qualities, such as goodness, spirituality, and divinity. When humans are morally perfect, they are like God; but that is possible only with God’s help.
In Western theology, the concept of the “image of God” is known as imago dei. About the time the canonical Gospels were composed, an early Jewish author, perhaps in a Hebrew original, highlighted the tradition that the human was created “in the image of God.” In Vita Adae et Evae—the Life of Adam and Eve—the term imaginem dei, “the image of God,” appears three times in chapters 13 through 15; one of these times the term is imaginem dei Jehova, “The image of God, Yahweh” (14:2) Another declaration is heard from God: “Behold, Adam! I have made you in our image and likeness [et dixit dominus deus: ecce Adam, feci te ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram]” (13:3).
In that same century, the century of Hillel and Jesus, and most likely about the same time, the author of 4 Ezra revealed he knew that the human was formed by God and “called your own image (et tua imago nominatus).” The author of this masterpiece knew that the human “is made like” God, and all things were created for the human.
In the eighteenth century, those living in the North American colonies suffered greatly by the insults and inhumanity suffered because of the insensitivities of King George III. Did no one in Great Britain note the suffering over here? Did no one observe that the imago dei of those in the colonies was being tortured? Yes; listen to Robert Burns’ “Ode for General Washington’s Birthday”:
See gathering thousands, while I sing, A broken chain, exulting, bring
And dash it in a tyrant’s face, And dare him to his very beard, And tell him he no more is fear’d,
No more the despot of Columbia’s race!
A tyrant’s proudest insults brav’d,
They shout a People freed! They hail an Empire sav’d!
Where is man’s godlike form?
Where is that brow erect and bold, That eye that can unmov’d behold
The wildest rage, the loudest storm That e’er created Fury dared to raise?
. . .
Art thou of man’s Imperial line?
Dost boast that countenance divine?
Each skulking feature answers: No!
But come, ye sons of Liberty, Columbia’s offspring, brave as free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, The Royalty of Man!
It is invigorating to see Burns’ perspicacity apparent as he salutes the dignity of the human as the American patriots resist the tyrants who deny others’ “godlike form.”
VI. Humans Defined as Divine
Some biblical texts move beyond the concept of imago dei and suggest that the human is even divine. Note, for example, that Psalm 8 contains these thoughts:
You have made them [human beings] a little lower than God [םיהלאמ],
and crowned them with glory and honour.
[NRSV, Psalm 8:5]
Some translators shun the obvious meaning of the Hebrew and prefer to suggest the author meant to indicate that humans are “a little lower than the angels” (KJV) or made “a little less than divine” (Tanakh). The Hebrew text and meaning is clear; while in Middle Hebrew, Jewish Aramaic, and Mandean the noun may denote angels or even demons, in the time of Israel this noun, ’ĕlōhîm, meant “God.” Professor Madsen insightfully rejects Nietzsche’s claim that humans were created a little lower than the worms and also the misinterpretation of Psalm 8, rightly stressing: “We were made and intended to become a little lower than the ’ĕlōhîm, or gods.”
The divinity of humans is crystal clear and was often lost in less accurate renderings of the Hebrew. Humans are worthy of being crowned with glory and honor because they are only “a little lower than God.” Surely we should lift up for refltion the following insight or claim: “The glory of God is intelligence.”
Our interpretation of Psalm 8 is supported by another comment in the Psalms. In Psalm 82 we find the following:
I say, “You are gods [םיהלא], children of the Most High, all of you.” [NRSV, Psalm 82:6]
Humans are not only like God; they are gods, according to this text and tradition. But there is a catch; the verse continues:
“Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” [NRSV, Psalm 82:7]
Humans are gods, but they “shall die.” What context or somatic lexicon or sociology of language helps us to comprehend the meaning of this verse?
Has this difficult verse appeared in later texts? Yes, it is quoted by Jesus, according to the Fourth Evangelist. Recall the following passage:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?
If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken),
do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world: ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” [RSV, John 10:34–36]
It is best not to ignore or over interpret such challenging claims and concepts; suffice it now for us to perceive that the human is special in God’s sight and in God’s scriptures; indeed, the human is divine, even a god. The ancient psalms are even lifted up by Jesus, according to the Fourth Evangelist, to highlight the dignity and divinity of the human.
VII. Human Oneness
We are all the same in the sight of God. We have one Creator. As Paul said, we are all one in Christ Jesus. Jew and Gentile, Mormon and Methodist, male and female, black and white—we are all one. All cultural distinctions erode in the face of the awesomeness of creation, the mystery of black holes, and the continuing search for the invisible particles or waves that combine to produce, with God’s grace and power, a human being. As we reflect on our dignity and divinity, we must remember that the imago dei is never affected by sin or by any handicap.
That truth is often brought home to us by a story. A soldier finally was able to come home from Vietnam. When he arrived in San Francisco, he called his parents. He is reputed to have said: “Mom and Dad, I’m coming home, but I’ve a favor to ask. I have a friend I’d like to bring home with me.”
His parents assured him that they would love to meet him.
The son continued: “There’s something you should know. He was hurt pretty badly in the fighting. He stepped on a land mine and lost an arm and a leg. He has nowhere else to go, and I want him to come live with us.”
His parents reassured him that they would help find him somewhere to live.
The son advised: “No, Mom and Dad, I want him to live with us.”
The parents replied that this burden was too much to ask: “Someone with such a handicap would be a terrible burden on us. We have our lives to live, and we can’t let something like this interfere with our lives. We think you should just come home and forget about this guy. He’ll find a way to live on his own.”
The son hung up the phone. Later the parents were informed by the police that their son had been found crumpled in an ugly heap beneath a tall building. When the parents identified their son, they observed his body. He had lost an arm and a leg in the war. He was the one “with such a handicap.” He was the “something” they “should know.” He was the one who had “nowhere else to go.” He was the one who had lost a leg, an arm, and a home. He ended his life knowing he could not burden his parents. A young person who had given much for his country and suffered severely died believing that those who brought him into the world failed to recognize that he was still bearing imago dei, “the image of God.”
John Wesley is famous for referring to a spiritual experience that changed his life. On May 24, 1738, Wesley recorded that he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Many savants assume Wesley was using a metaphor. He was trying to put into words what he had experienced. During his time, spiritual greats claimed that they felt a fire within them. The heat was caused by the indwelling of God’s power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. A similar experience of feeling the “enervating and energizing” power of God or the Holy Spirit was shared by Wesley T. Benson with Truman Madsen.
Today Methodists are asked if they are going on to perfection. If possible, we answer. We say that with God’s help we are striving to go on to perfection. When other Christians laugh at us and claim we are misled, we are prone to reply: “Well, then where are you going?” Methodists believe that moving on to perfection is possible when humans have exhausted their efforts and admit they have fallen far short. Then God provides what is missing by divine grace. Methodists call God’s intervention on our behalf “prevenient grace.” As William J. Abraham has written lately in Wesley for Armchair Theologians:
Can we really set limits to what God can do to eradicate sin this side of death? Wesley was convinced that this kind of pessimism fell short of what God had done when he inaugurated his kingdom in Jesus Christ. We really can have victory over moral evil in this life, not by our efforts but by divine grace.
That is, God supplies what we lack to obtain perfection. It is not clear if this perfection is possible on earth or only in our postmortem existence, but it is certain that Jesus, according to Matthew, exhorted: “Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NRSV, Matthew 5:48). Gracious; is that really possible?
To make the complex more comprehensible, let me use an analogy. If you were out in the bay but the boat sank, and you swam toward a distant dock but collapsed, unable to complete the swim, you would sink and drown. But if someone on the dock casts a rope that is a lifeline, then you can be pulled to safety. The rope is like prevenient grace. It is unwarranted, it is unearned; but you know that you are saved once you feel your feet on the wood of the dock.
Truman G. Madsen brings such reflections within the world of Mormon theology. In Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism, he writes:
For Joseph Smith, the person, whatever his acts, must be changed into a condition variously described as sanctified, perfected, glorified. The ethical life is requisite but not sufficient for the realization of holiness. The envisioned end is not only the changing of behavior. It is changing the behaver.
Such wisdom is heard from a crowd of witnesses and from many corners where God has been experienced. Moving back behind Truman Madsen, Joseph Smith, and John Wesley, we come to Paul, who said: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (RSV, 2 Corinthians 5:17). We become a kainē ktisis, “a new creation.” God wills for us to be created anew; God wishes for us to receive the immortality we lost in Eden. As S. Kierkegaard pointed out, we must will to accept God’s gift fully and perfectly, since purity of heart is to will one thing.
We have seen a consistent adherence, in many diverse texts, to holding in tension both the human’s frailty and the human’s divinity. When confronting truths that transcend human conceptuality, great minds sometimes succumb to juxtaposing opposites like divine determinism and human freedom. This rhetorical form appears in Deuteronomy 29–32. The contrarieties that characterize the Gospel of John also are not to be edited out—both Jesus’ utter dependence on God and Jesus’ unity with God are held in tension by the Fourth Evangelist; this is the way the human transcends categories that are too terrestrial. Human cognition is not lived out in the either-or of life; it is phenomenogically lived in the both-and of human finitude; that is, by stating and affirming opposites we clash categories and transcend the blindness inherited in language that has evolved for over three million years, mostly by gatherers and hunters. Reflecting on what I have perceived reminds me that I have again merely paraphrased Madsen and “the Prophet” who understood that “by contrarieties . . . truth is made manifest.”
Perceiving the dignity and divinity of the human must not be misunderstood. It is not Feuerbach’s divinization of the human. It is not removing belief in God with a belief in man. The dignity and divinity of the human begins and is permanently grounded in God—a profound experience of God—and a deep belief in God’s continuous movement toward and uplifting of the human. It is a perception revealed in scripture and affirmed by Jesus Christ.
Such experiences are not limited to but are often realized in “the art of music.” As Hans Küng points out: “The art of music is the most spiritual of all symbols for that ‘mystical sanctuary of our religion,’ the divine itself.” Küng rightly comprehends that the boundary between music, “the most abstract of all arts,” and religion, is “wafer-thin.” We can experience how music can speak and “in the end say something inexpressible, unspeakable.” In “the midst of music the ‘ineffable mystery’” can appear. And in the mystery is revealed the divinity of humanity.
Recognizing our dignity and our divinity, let us help all to find a home. With the election of a president who represents all Americans and with the hope of a truly “United” States of America, let us open our homes with a perception of our human divinity. Reflecting on Jesus from Nazareth, we learn that love is unconditional. We are to love our enemies; that is to be taken literally. It means God’s creatures are to be loved, even those who are considered unlovable. All humans are worthy of being clothed in dignity; after all, all of us are created imago dei. Ephrem Syrus shared a thought for us to contemplate:
Blessed is he who always retains in himself remembrance of God, for such a person on earth is like a heavenly angel, constantly celebrating the Lord with fear and love.
The portrayal of the human as divine and in the form of an angel is well known and ancient, appearing in 2 Enoch, the Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, the Apocalypse of Sethel, the Prayer of Joseph, the Prayer of Jacob, the History of the Rechabites, and the Testament of Solomon.
We have finished our journey for now, perceiving how anthropology is grounded in biblical theology. The dimensions of this lecture in honor of Truman Madsen are adumbrated in Joseph Smith’s words: “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” For spiritually advanced viatori, anthropology becomes pellucid only within theology.
Our forays into sacred traditions and spiritual reflections about human nature are in their infancy. There will be unfinished tasks when all of us have crossed the bar.
In conclusion, humans approximate truth by crafting and refining questions that have dogged them for about three million years. The best answers often appear as the most refined questions:
What is the human [שונא] that You have remembered him? And what is the son of man [םדא ןבו] that You have noted him? [Psalm 8:4]
Indeed, as in all our introspective probing, our “primary gesture is toward inner echoes, toward, as it were, the nerve-endings of the spirit.”
 See Truman G. Madsen, “‘Putting on the Names’: A Jewish-Christian Legacy,” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 1:458–81.
 James H. Charlesworth’s translation; see Rule of the Community and Related Documents, vol. 1 of The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with English Translations, ed. James H. Charlesworth, 10 vols. (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck]; Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994–2006), 1:48–51.
 For Greek texts and translations, see Geoffrey Stephen Kirk and John Earle Raven, “The Atomists: Leucippus of Miletus and Democritus of Abdera,” chapter 17 of The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 400–426.
 For the Greek translation, see Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, 410.
 Joseph Smith, in History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51), 6:308; see also Truman
 John Ball, in Simon Heffer, ed., Great British Speeches (London: Quercus, 2007), 14.
 For the Latin text of 4 Ezra, see Robert L. Bensly, The Fourth Book of Ezra: The Latin Version Edited from the MSS, vol. 3, no. 2, of Texts and Studies: Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature, ed. J. Armitage Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895; reprint, Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967), specifically, 37 (4 Ezra 7:118); see also Der Lateinische Text der Apokalypse des Esra, ed. Albertus Frederik Johannes Klijn, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, bd. 131 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1983).
 The Fourth Book of Ezra, trans. Bruce M. Metzger, in Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, vol. 1 of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (hereafter OTP), ed. James
- Charlesworth, 2 vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983–85), 1:541 (4 Ezra 7:118–19).
 In OTP, 1:538 (4 Ezra 7:48).
 In OTP, 1:531 (4 Ezra 4:52).
 See OTP, 1:540 (4 Ezra 7:92).
 Also see OTP, 1:538 (4 Ezra 7:35).
 See John J. Collins, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 83.
 2 (Syriac Apocalypse of) Baruch, trans. Albertus F. J. Klijn, in OTP, 1:640 (2 Baruch 54:19).
 Madsen, On Human Nature, 100.
 Margaret Walker, “We Have Been Believers” (1942); emphasis added.
 In this section, I am indebted to my colleague, Professor Abigail Rian Evans.
 Ruth Macklin, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept,” BMJ 327, no. 7429 (20–27 December 2003): 1420.
 Genetics and Human Behaviour: The Ethical Context (London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics, October 2002), 121 (12.2); www.nuffieldbioethics.org/ go/ourwork/behaviouralgenetics/ publication_311.html; quoted in Macklin, “Dignity,” 1420.
 For example, see Paul Ramsey, The Patient as Person: Explorations in Medical Ethics, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2002); also see Ramsey, Ethics at the Edges of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).
 See F. Daniel Davis, “Chapter 2: Human Dignity and Respect for Persons: A Historical Perspective on Public Bioethics,” Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, D.C.: The President’s Council on Bioethics, March 2008); www.bioethics.gov/reports/ human_dignity/chapter2.html.
 See Evelyne Shuster, “Fifty Years Later: The Significance of the Nuremberg Code,” The New England Journal of Medicine 337, no. 20 (13 November 1997): 1436–40.
 See, e.g., Abigail Rian Evans, “Saying No to Human Cloning,” in Ronald Cole-Turner, ed., Human Cloning: Religious Responses (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 25–34; also see Evans, “Should Human Cloning be Permitted? A Response,” in Sally B. Geis and Donald E. Messer, eds.,
The Befuddled Stork: Helping Persons of Faith Debate Beginning-of-Life Issues (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 185–95.
 See now, James F. Childress, Eric M. Meslin, and Harold T. Shapiro, eds., Belmont Revisited: Ethical Principles for Research with Human Subjects (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005).
 Truman G. Madsen, Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 72.
 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch: Volume 1, Genesis, trans. Isaac Levy, 2nd ed. (Gateshead: Judaica Press, Ltd., 1989), 29–31.
 Forthe Latinof VAE, see W. Meyer, Vita Adae et Evae (Abh. d. I. Cl. d.k. Ak. d. Wiss. 14; Munich: Verlag der K. Adademie, 1878). For the English translation, see Life of Adam and Eve, trans. M. D. Johnson, in OTP 2; specifically, 2:262 (Vita 13:2, 14:2, 15:2).
 In OTP, 1:543 (4 Ezra 8:44).
 In James Barke, ed., Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Glasgow: Fontana/ Collins, 1983), 319–20; emphasis added.
 Madsen, On Human Nature, 107.
 D&C 93:36; see Madsen, “Introductory Essay: The Temple and the Restoration,” in Madsen, ed., The Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, Religious Studies Monograph Series, vol. 9 (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 3.
 See the excerpt of a letter from Wesley Taft Benson to Truman Madsen (6 November 1965) in Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 353, note 22.
 William J. Abraham, Wesley for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 85.
 Madsen, “Chosenness: Implications and Extensions in Mormonism and Judaism,” in Raphael Jospe, Truman G. Madsen, and Seth Ward, eds., Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2001), 140.
 See Menachem Elon, Human Dignity and Freedom in the Jewish Heritage, Proceedings of the President’s Study Group on the Bible and Sources of Judaism (Jerusalem: The Presidential Residence, 1995 [in Hebrew]).
 See Dennis T. Olson, “How Does Deuteronomy Do Theology? Literary Juxtaposition and Paradox in the New Moab Covenant in Deuteronomy 29–32,” in Brent A. Strawn and Nancy R. Bowen, eds., A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick D. Miller (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 201–13.
 See Paul N. Anderson, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel: Its Unity and Disunity in the Light of John 6 (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1997).
 See Madsen, Eternal Man, ix; also Joseph Smith, Opinion, Times and Seasons 3, no. 21 (1 September 1842): 901.
 Hans Küng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1992), 33.
 See my comments in David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids and Cam- bridge: Eerdmans, 2007), xiv–xvi.
 Ephrem Syrus (Ephraim the Syr- ian), A Spiritual Psalter, trans. Antonina Janda (Liberty, Tennessee: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 2004), 14.
 See Charlesworth, “The Portrayal of the Righteous as an Angel,” in George W. E. Nickelsburg and John J. Collins, eds., Ideal Figures in Ancient Judaism: Profiles and Paradigms, Septuagint and Cognate Studies, no. 12 (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1980), 135–51.
 History of the Church, 6:303; quoted in Madsen, On Human Nature, 107.
 Charlesworth translation.
 Madsen, Eternal Man, viii.
Daniel Robinson, fellow at Oxford University, presents the 2009 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man. This lecture was delivered on September 17, 2009.It is always a pleasure to return to BYU. Tonight, however, a certain melancholy is added to pleasure, for I have the honor to contribute to a remembrance of Truman Madsen. I have a vivid recollection of the first time I met Truman and Mrs. Madsen. Their qualities were so fully evident in their dear daughter, Emily, that I had the distinct impression I had known them for some time. In just a few minutes, I recognized Truman as a man of great depth, great goodness. Those of you who knew him well must miss him mightily.
Eternal Man sits comfortably within my taxonomy of books. Many books are thick but somehow thin. A few books are thin but somehow thick. Eternal Man is this sort of book, the kind that has you pausing frequently to reflect on a seemingly innocent sentence charged with meaning. The final chapter of the book begins with the passage from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici. It reads:
“There is surely a piece of the Divinity in us, something that was before the Elements, and owes no homage unto the Sun. Nature tells me I am the Image of God, as well as Scripture: he that understands not thus much, hath not his introduction or first lesson, and is yet to begin the Alphabet of man.”
Sir Thomas Browne was eighteen when he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. Completing his undergraduate course of studies in 1626, he undertook his medical education on the Continent, at Padua and Leiden. Religio Medici displays the author’s extraordinary literary style and also his frequent departures from orthodoxy. The work was placed on the proscribed list by the Pope, thus ensuring an even wider readership. He was very much a patron of “the new learning,” so recently and influentially advocated by Sit Francis Bacon. Was he, then, ahead of his time, a forward-looking and sophisticated skeptic?
Alas, the record is mixed. Indeed, the record of Sir Thomas Browne’s entire age is mixed, and in ways that might well inform our own epoch. In 1660, when Sir Thomas was already an established and celebrated figure, the Royal Society was founded. For a number of years, it was gestating in the form of what Robert Boyle called “the invisible college.”
Then, with the restoration of the Stuarts, the society received a royal charter and in little time could claim the most accomplished membership of any learned body in history—Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, John Locke. It was this society that played so central a part in the cultivation of what we now take to be the modern scientific worldview. Although never elected a fellow of the Royal Society, Sir Thomas was a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, a comparably forward-looking and scientifically oriented body.
So much for 1660. What about 1662? This, too, is an important year in the calendar of human judgment. It is the year in which Rose Cullender and Amy Deny were found guilty on thirteen counts of what the law referred to as “malevolent witchcraft.” Their case was heard before one of the great judges in British history, Sir Matthew Hale. The women were executed and the widely advertised trial proceedings were taken as a model closely followed across the sea in a place called Salem. Thus, as the Royal Society worked diligently to unearth the material facts of earthly life and the laws of their relationship, the British legal system attempted to refine the procedures for identifying witches and imposing just penalties. Not only was Sir Thomas Browne present at the trail, but he composed a notable essay acknowledging the fact of witchcraft and dismissing skeptics as closet-atheists.
We are surely a less than consistent species. One further bit of evidence on this point is again supplied by Sir Thomas, this one rather amusing. He offered something of a lamentation on the means by which our Creator saw fit to have us procreate. He regarded the required conduct as revolting and ridiculous, wishing instead that we might have increased our number as he says, “like trees without conjunction.” Nonetheless, he and his wife produced no less than a dozen children in eighteen years of marriage, in this case, reality gaining the upper hand in its relentless encounters with theory and speculation. What of “the alphabet of man?”
For this, let me turn from Sir Thomas Browne and his 17th century to Wolfgang Köhler in the 20th century. Psychologists will recognize Köhler as one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. He had a profound effect on both physiological psychology and cognitive psychology, and certainly anticipated much of what has come to be called “cognitive neuroscience.” All that, however, is not my reason for turning attention to Köhler. Instead, it is the book he published in 1938 titled The Place of Value in the World of Facts.
By this time, Köhler was on the faculty at Swarthmore, having emigrated from Germany—and away from the rising power of the Nazis. In the first chapter of that work, he reflects on what Max Weber had referred to as “die Krise der Wissenschaft.” Literally “the Crisis of Science,” the phrase is better understood as the crisis within the learned professions at large, chiefly as represented within the major colleges and universities, institutes and foundations.
The crisis had risen to visible proportions in World War I when the once politically neutral and officially “objective” undertakings of science were now redirected to serve national and narrow political interests. Weber’s was one of the more audible voices proclaiming the objectivity of science—the vocation of science. For all its failings as a serviceable guide to life, it was nonetheless the rational model of human understanding in its fact-gathering mission. For Weber, what World War I had made clear is the ease, the speed with which such a limited and dispassionate mission is transformed into a blunt instrument with which to condition and control the gullible.
Weber was wrong on so many important matters that I am reluctant to bring him into tonight’s discussion. I doubt many still take seriously his casual linkage between the Protestant ethic and capitalism. (It seems to me that as of now the only unapologetic capitalist in significant numbers are to be found in China.) I also doubt that the aspiration to develop a value-free social science is either realistic or properly informed.
Value, as Weber would have it understood, must be at the very foundation of free inquiry itself, not to mention the essential ingredient in what we take to be the integrity of science. What is of continuing importance is Weber’s reflection is just this recognition of the lack of objectivity, this recognition of the tendency of the social sciences to serve masters rather than truth. What is also of value, but surely unintended by Weber, is the clarity and cogency of his attempts to comprehend human nature with sweeping theoretical inventions and cherry-picked data, all focused by an ideological lens designed to conceal a veritable world of troubling exceptions. This, I leave Weber now, with warranted haste.
It is at just this point that Köhler should occupy our attention. He recognizes that the crisis, if anything, is now greater in 1935 than it was fifteen years earlier. He speaks of a conversation—really a debate—he has had with an editor friend, a man of letters. Köhler takes the part of the man of science, insisting that the scientific worldview is what is needed to overcome the crisis. The editor will have none of this, insisting that what science produces is a large number of half-truths and false facts. Köhler finds such a claim to be oxymoronic, for how can a fact be false? The editor makes his case without much difficulty, and I shall follow his lead here.
Suppose we are confronted by that proverbial visitor from Mars, visiting Earth in order to determine the sorts of creatures who live here, thereupon returning to Mars to submit a full report. Let us say the visitor locates a book titled, “The Physiology and Chemistry of Human Life.” He corroborates the contents through long interviews with leading scientists. Returning to the Mars, he offers this summary: “A human being is a body that is 50-75 percent water. The percentage of water depends on the total amount of fat. On average, each human being is comprised of enough sodium chloride to fill three salt shakers. In the infant stage, the average amount of potassium is between seven and eight grams.”
Now, I could continue with this, listing all of the salts, the bone mass, and muscle mass, as well as an inventory of reflexes and characteristic movements. There would be a limitless number of facts to report, each of them expressed with great accuracy and based on systematic and scientific study. The question that arises, obviously, is whether the Martian community, in possession of all of these facts, has even the foggiest notion of just what a human being is. Offered as an answer to the question, “What is a human being?” this body of facts constitutes a deception—a falsehood. In the editor’s terms, these are false facts.
What concerned Max Weber nearly a century ago, and what troubled Wolfgang Köhler’s friend in 1930s, is now so thoroughly ingrained in our culture as to go unnoticed. It is more or less taken for granted—by persons facing the moral and social dimensions of life in the modern world—that the surest guide to the right decisions and the right attitudes will be supplied by science. The behavioral problems presented by their children will be dealt with either by way of pharmacology or behavioral science. Problems arising within marriage should be submitted for treatment by trained counselors.
Morality itself, for which there are specific brain mechanisms, is a cultural phenomenon, the details of which fall within the province of anthropologists and social scientists. To locate the correct position, to take on matters of political and social consequence, one need consult only the most recent polls, generally broken down by gender, socioeconomic status, level of education, and regionally. The question is simply one of finding the “norm” that one matches up with and then, by a kind of retrofit, adjusting one’s perspective accordingly.
However, before considering whether or not science is the right sort of guide in all such areas, it is important to recognize the guidance it has already provided has a surprisingly vacillating character. A timely, if controversial, example is drawn from the scientific understanding of homosexuality. I say “scientific,” but only in so far as the fields of psychiatry and psychology are included within the larger scientific framework.
We might begin with where matters stood, or came close to standing, about thirty years ago. Representative of the movement of thought within psychology and psychiatry at the time is 1976 essay by Gerald C. Davison titled, “Homosexuality: The Ethical Challenge.” Recall that this appeared two years after homosexuality had been removed from the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.
Davison notes the success therapists have had in treating those homosexuals desirous of transforming their sexuality and becoming “normal.” There is no hint in the article of homosexuality being in any sense “immutable,” genetic, or controlled by brain mechanisms. Rather, the author appeals to fellow clinicians to weigh the possibility that what is being treated is not a disease in the first place, and that the goal of therapy in such cases may have more to do with considerations of social acceptability than of mental health.
This was taken at the time as a measure of forward thinking, a liberation from psychiatry’s labored “medical model” which regarded any departure from conventional attitudes and behavior as a sign of possible pathology. Recall that at this same time, there were initiatives within psychiatry to employ direct brain stimulation to assist the “inveterate homosexual” to overcome his disability. Davison’s 1976 essay is thus usefully contrasted with that “medical model” that had held sway for so long.
It surely contrasted sharply with Franz Kallman’s 1952 “classic” study of the genetic foundation of homosexuality. Kallman not only reported a high concordance of homosexuality in identical-twin pairs—100 percent, an all-time record—but related this to the then firmly held clinical judgment that which such sexual departures from the norm were part of a larger psychodynamic malfunction; part of what Kallman himself referred to as “an originally disarranged sex constitution.”
Well, where do matters stand on 2009? Today’s litigation surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage routinely features data from published scientific articles establishing that one’s sexual identity or sexual impulse or sexual conduct is—or is not—inborn, resistant to change, expressive of the function of specific neural pathways, etcetera.
The influential journal SCIENCE offers an illustrative piece of research in a 1991 Simon LeVay article titled, “Differences in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men.” Just in case you are interested in the main effects, it was found that the relevant cell groups associated with male sexual behavior were twice as large in heterosexual men as in homosexual men. I think it is fair to say that had such a finding been available in the 1950s, it would have been a conclusive proof that homosexuality is a pathological condition, as evidenced by the homosexual’s “abnormal” cellular morphology.
If I might be permitted an aside here, there are many instances in which, as a result of therapy or pastoral counseling or deep inward reflection, men and women abandon homosexuality and undertake lives of loving and intimate association with members of the opposite sex. One wonders whether, in these cases, the relevant portions of the hypothalamus undergo some degree of hypertrophy. Of course, just to ask the question is to expose the perspective as just the sort of simplification of Köhler’s editor to be so characteristic of the scientific reduction of the human condition.
I must emphasize that I have neither the competence nor the conviction that would allow me to decide how best to understand homosexuality. History teaches that what the law permits, it encourages. With Edmund Burke, I am disinclined to jettison whole traditions and institutions that have served humanity well. With Burke, I am especially disinclined when the argument favoring a radical change rises no higher than a claimed “right “or a mere conjecture posing as a fact of nature. I offer these remarks on the scientific understanding of homosexuality to make clear the putative “facts” of science not only carry cultural and political weight—no matter how carefully concealed—but very often seem to be shaped and even “discovered” by way of factors that are themselves ineliminably political.
It is in this connection that the shifting status of homosexuality is again revealing. In the early 1970s, reacting to the classification of homosexuality as a treatable mental disorder, well-organized protesters appeared regularly at the offices and meetings of the American Psychiatric Association. Clearly, in response to their petitions—some would say harassment—the APA Board of Trustees agreed to remove homosexuality from the DSM. It is worth noting that when this action was then submitted for a vote, it was approved by only 58 percent of the general membership.
Quite apart from the spectacle of a professional medical association essentially asking for a show of hands on such a matter, the result in 1974 made clear that a substantial number of practicing psychiatrist disagreed with the action. Alternative designations were used over the intervening years but by 1987, the position of the APA was still at variance with what had long been accepted by the World Health Organization.
Again, this is not a commentary on the homosexuality within a clinical, or for that matter, broadly social context. No e-mail, please! It is instead, a reflection on the social sciences when the complexities of human behavior and human values are filtered in such a way as to serve a political end. It is to abandon the mission to understand in favor of the impulse to control.
To understand an event is, among other considerations, to be able to explain it. Thus, when we claim to understand something, we make explicit an adopted position on the nature of explanation itself. Productive disputes within the philosophy of science continue to focus on the nature of explanation and on the manner in which a scientific explanation differs from what would be acceptable of expected in other areas of inquiry. Of course, central to these disputes is the question of just those features that an event must have in order to render it suitable for scientific explanation.
Generalizations are hazardous in matters of this kind, but there’s widespread agreement that events best suited for scientific treatment are those that allow repeated measurements with a view toward subsuming them under general laws.
There are good reasons to reject this model of explanation as being applicable to the human condition; applicable to important events in human history, individual lives, in social and political contexts. Yes, complexity is surely one barrier to this form of scientific explanation, but it is not the only barrier and it might not be the only one. The major barrier, I submit, arises from the fact that significant psychological and moral engagements are highly individuated. Let me clarify this by way of example.
Let us recall the dates June 16-19, 1815. In what is now Belgium, over these several days, Napoleon’s forces engaged and were vanquished by coalition-army led by Wellington. A Google search of the terms “Battle of Waterloo—Facts” turns up seventy-eight thousand hits. Scores of volumes have been written about the major participants, about Napoleon, about strategies formed and abandoned. To be sure, a sufficient number of features are there to establish that, in fact, a battle took place. That is, there surely are features common to all encounters classified as hostile military engagements.
Beyond these features, however, each such engagement is unique. You cannot replace Napoleon with someone else and still have the Battle of Waterloo as we understand it. This, for the obvious reason, that understanding the Battle of Waterloo requires a large measure of understanding Napoleon as well. It is to understand motives and aspirations, thought-processes and earlier conditions disposing one toward one set of values over others. It is, as best as we can, to get into the mind and the life of a specific person and to see things as he does.
Let us narrow the scale and scope. How might we understand anyone? We might begin by locating that person within a species and then taking stock of how that species is distinguished from others. Note, however, that it is not for science to legislate which characteristics are legitimately included and which are irrelevant as we set out to understand someone. We may have good reason to include factors reasonably taken to be as important as species-membership: the characteristics of telling jokes, keeping pets, living under a rule of law, and loving God.
Presumably, though, not all will agree on the relevance of every identifiable feature. There will be general agreement that some things true of almost all human beings are not found outside the human community. For the longest time, language was thought to draw the dividing line. Aristotle was inclined to the view that it is our ability to comprehend and frame universal propositions render us distinct, as far as he could tell, from nonhuman forms of life.
It is as we pick and choose among candidate features that we are, metaphorically speaking, assembling the alphabet of man. The features, taken one by one, then call upon us to assemble them in a manner that generates a coherent, accurate, and intelligible story. The story, never quite complete, is to serve as an explanation—an explanation of what makes a given life distinctly human, different from others, fulfilled or unrequited; an explanation of what confers a special identity on a given historical epic, a given culture, a given achievement, distinguishable from others of its kind.
Obviously, if we choose an insufficient number of features, we will have too few letters in our alphabet, and thus find it impossible to write certain words and sentences. Reduction as science is a summons to economize. It is an explanatory strategy with a noble heritage. We refine it with an instrument we call Occam’s razor—the principle of parsimony—and we take proper pride when we are able to explain the widest range of phenomena with the fewest causal elements.
Good results are achieved this way. It is a great achievement to discover the force required to impart acceleration to an object is determined by the mass of the object. We praise Newton for that discovery, which, among other things, would help men reach the moon and then return safely to the earth.
It surprises some to learn that Newton was a consistent advocate of explanations based on Aristotle’s notion of final causes. Granting that celestial dynamics is governed by the law of universal gravitation, Newton—attempting to explain the whole picture—takes recourse in his Principia to what he calls “the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Intelligent design? Clearly, he was the victim of the “God delusion.”
It is a measure of Newton’s greatness that he understood how the choice of a method and the choice of an event will come to dictate the very logic of our explanations. If all one seeks to explain is the fact of acceleration, one need not know more than the force applied to a given mass. If, instead, a larger question arises—how do we best explain the fact that the relationship is lawful in the first place?—no number of repeated observations will be helpful in any way.
One must be careful in handling a razor. Occam’s razor is no exception. It is sharp and, wielded carefully, it can strip away much that is irrelevant and distracting or based on little more than prejudice or superstition. Had it been used as intended, those unfortunate women in England and Salem in 1662 would have had a kinder fate. Certain guidelines have been proposed for those who would use the razor with precision and care. At all cost, one is to save the phenomena, as the expression goes. What is meant is that no metaphysical presupposition, no mode of measurement of explanation should be adopted where the net effect is to lose the phenomenon of interest.
But herein lies the problem, for the maxim that would urge us to save the phenomena is of very little help in establishing just which phenomena are to be identified and preserved. We are all well aware, for example, of saintly and heroic acts. We may attempt to cover these with the term “altruism,” now applied indifferently across very different “phenomena.” Taking “altruism” to be nothing other than some form of sharing or self-sacrifice of advantage to others, even of disadvantageous to oneself, we now have a range of phenomena answering to the same term: altruism. With a strategy of this sort, the following account is both illustrative and inevitable:
“To investigate when chimpanzees might aid either humans or each other, researchers studied thirty-six chimps at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda that were born in the wild. In experiments, each chimp watched a person they had never seen before unsuccessfully reach for a wooden stick that was within reach of the ape. The person had struggled over the stick beforehand, suggesting it was valued. Scientists found the chimpanzees often handed the stick over, even when the apes had to climb eight feet out of their way to get the stick and regardless of whether or not any reward was given. A similar result with thirty-six human infants just eighteen months old yielded comparable results.”
What can one say? This is not the occasion for critical appraisal of research methods, nor am I at all skeptical about instances of nonhuman animals providing aid to others. Clearly, if the phenomenon of interest is no more than handing over a stick, and if that action illustrates and even exhausts our developed conception of altruism, then evolutionary accounts of how such behavior favors the survival of the species become credible, if not convincing.
But handing over a stick cannot be the phenomenon of interest to one seeking to understand the nature of moral judgment and the sense of duty guiding conduct toward others. If that is the subject of interest, then the observed overt behavior stands merely as a symptom calling for a diagnosis. We really can’t say anything about it unless we know the motives and desires and judgments that combined in such a way as to render the behavior something of an imperative from the actor’s point of view.
I have used the metaphor of the alphabet of man several times now and as the very title of my remarks this evening. We can’t be casual in choosing the letters that will form our vocabulary here because we cannot be casual in assembling stories that might more fully disclose our defining nature and the possibilities immanent in that nature. Using Occam’s razor is too often to deny ourselves of a vowel or two, perhaps a much-needed consonant. How do we gauge the size of the alphabet? I answer, from the stories already told, from human history and the study of lives.
One story originates with the Big Bang, which in time, distributes cosmic material in such a way as to render life possible. We are constituted out of the stuff that makes stars and galaxies, and to that extent, we seem to have the mark of the original maker in our nature. To that extent, we are of nature. On the evolutionary account, a biogenetic account, very long seasons and favoring conditions would mover life toward ever more complex modes of expression.
On that same account, ours is an evolved nature, but here the evolutionary part of the story comes to a screeching halt. It does not show us by what process we came to be the cultural, political and aesthetic creatures we are; the moral creatures who, in their better moments, create the conditions supportive of a perfectionist impulse. The story that was written from life in the cave to the present time is not anticipated in any of the earliest stages or phrases. All animals provide some form of shelter for themselves, but this surely is not a model of the Acropolis or the Cathedral at Chartres, neither of which was intended for shelter.
Patterns of aggression are found throughout the animal kingdom, but only we are prepared to die for a principle, for a belief in something higher and more significant than our individual lives. I mention these things not to excite vanity, or to relegate the balance of creation to some secondary and unimportant status. Rather, I list just a few of the many parts of the overall story, the telling of which requires a robust and flexible alphabet.
Herodotus tells us of an encounter—probably apocryphal—between that man of legendary wealth, Croesus, and that man of legendary wisdom, Solon. Wishing to assure himself that he is as majestic as he believes, Croesus invites Solon to the palace and asks him to name the man who Solon regards as the most fortunate. He is put off when Solon names Tellus, a man utterly unknown beyond the perimeter of his own city. Solon explains that Tellus had served valiantly in the military and was a source of great pride to his friends and family, revered in life and in death, and buried with full honors.
Undaunted, Croesus asks who might occupy second place, only to learn of two more unknowns, Cleobis and Biton. These, we discover, are the virtuous sons of Cydippe, priestess to the goddess Hera. Seeing that the oxen had not been yoked and that their mother would be late in performing her temple duties, the young men yoked themselves to a cart and ran more than five miles, bringing their mother to her appointed rounds in a timely fashion.
Utterly exhausted, they found a shade tree and passed into a gentle sleep while, inside the temple, Cydippe supplicated Hera. Praising her sons for their manly virtues, she begs the goddess to allow her sons to die the most fortunate of men. Cleobis and Biton never awaken. Their young lives ended at a time when they had so fully realized the excellence of thought, of sentiment, of duty, of honor.
There is something within us. It is useless to search for a name for it. If we attempt to hold it in consciousness, it darts away. If we count on a crowd around us to acknowledge it, by applause or earthly reward, we run the risk of losing it. It seems to be repelled by what is merely earthly. Those of its features which we can glimpse more readily in other lives than in our own suggest at once a moral an aesthetic dimension, something of a harmony and proportion and fitness.
When it is sensed or felt, no matter how fleetingly, there seems to be an expansion of the very terms of life itself. Sir Thomas Browne was content to call it a “Spirit.” Having thus identified it, the good doctor concluded with these lines, as do I:
“Whosoever feels not the warm gale and gentle ventilation of this Spirit, though I feel his pulse, I dare not say he lives: for truly, without this, to me there is no heat under the Tropic; nor any light, though I dwelt in the body of the Sun.”
 Browne, Thomas. Religio Medici. (1642)
 Kallman, Franz. “Comparative twin study on the genetic aspects of male homosexuality.”(1952) The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 115, pp.283 ff. 285.
 Choi, Charles Q. “Selfless Chimps Shed Light on Evolution of Altruism.” LiveScience. 25 June 2007. https://www.livescience.com/4515-selfless-chimps-shed-light-evolution-altruism.html
 Browne, Religio Medici.
The greatest joy of all is to pay tribute to a very remarkable human being, and a man who I am privileged to call a friend. I’m very honored to give this lecture in his memory. Even though this is not the first Truman G. Madsen lecture, it is the first since he has departed from this earthly abode. I very much feel his presence with us here this evening, as do all of you who knew him, I’m sure.There are few people in the world who have had the capacity to represent the beauty, the integrity, and the authenticity of their own tradition while at the same time reaching out with an embrace to genuinely respect and engage the other. This was the remarkable man that Truman Madsen was. It is a special joy for me to be able to give thanks to our Heavenly Father this evening for those gifts of mind, heart, and soul which so many of us were blessed to enjoy. Those gifts continue to accompany us as his presence is indeed, I believe, an everlasting one. Again, my thanks for this opportunity.
I think that even though my topic is less academic than those that have been chosen in the past to honor Truman Madsen, it is no less relevant and part and parcel of whom the man was and is for us. To him, study and knowledge was not purely a matter of embellishing and enhancing and enlarging one’s mind and one’s knowledge. It was, of course, and is and must be a vehicle for engagement with the world.
The Jerusalem Center is not only a wonderful jewel in Jerusalem, as you all know (and I would say, and I’m sure many of you would agree, that it is in fact the most beautiful building, certainly the most beautiful modern building, in Jerusalem), but it very much embodies the spirit of representing a tradition that does not seek to be isolated and insulated, but seeks to engage the world around it. A little vignette which particularly stands out in my memory in association with Truman and Ann is the Sabbath festivities that we used to be able to celebrate.
When my family was young we could bring them all over because we couldn’t travel from where we lived over to the center on the Sabbath, as orthodox Jews, and we were able to enjoy the Center and the Passover Seder meals that we used to hold. We would have food prepared by wonderful Muslim cooks and chefs. Some of you will remember Nasser and his tribe of loyal collaborators who learned every single special dish that is popular in Provo and Salt Lake City, and did it with such aplomb. There was this wonderful Muslim kitchen staff preparing a traditional Jewish celebration that was led by a rabbi for Christian Mormon students.
This was surely a most wonderful manifestation of the spirit of genuine brotherhood, mutual respect and the kind of, if you like, little microcosm of the potentialities of the possibilities of genuine peace that we pray and aspire for in Jerusalem. When it comes (because in my opinion it is a matter of when, not if), it will have ramifications way beyond the particular geographical context itself. I think it has ramifications for a variety of reasons, some of which I will allude to this evening.
I’ve been telling a number of special friends this evening that I am the beneficiary of the financial downturn. Because of my work, I was playing the role of ambassador for Judaism to the religions of the world, traveling three quarters of the time. Now I’m only travelling sixty percent. And the major downturn, in terms of my travel, is to the United States where I was coming every two months, and now it’s far less. But when I come here, I discover that this is where the cutting edge of the English language is, despite my accent. I am always discovering new words. On one recent trip I was introduced as a well-known “Dialoguean.” I have never heard this word, “Dialoguean.” They explained to me that a theologian who is involved in dialogue is a “Dialoguean.”
Okay, but in my experience most people called “Dialogueans” are really “Monologueans.” I would like to prove that I can be a “Dialoguean” and not a “Monologuean.” Therefore, I will do my best to do something which, you will appreciate, for clergy in any denomination is not an easy thing to do. That is, to limit my monologue so that we can have some discussion, interchange, and exchange both around what I wish to present to you and issues that may be germane that you would be interested in my comments. As some of you know, whether I’m qualified or not has never stopped me from expressing a comment.
I actually want to dwell upon a very particular initiative in the Middle East, in the Holy Land, but would like to come to address it, and its significance and its potential, from a broader context, from a broader vista. That broader context is the response to the question which, I’m sure, must bother very many of us and is certainly a source of distress for me. And that is the reality that we face when we look at the world that in so many places, religion often seems to be more the problem than the solution. In so many places of conflict, religion seems to be inextricably bound up in exacerbating hostility and not in calming it. It does not seem to create a better understanding, communication and collaboration between the parties.
It is true that most places that are addressed as religious conflicts are nothing of the sort. Sri Lanka, between Sinhalese, and between Hindus and Buddhists, was essentially a territorial conflict. Kashmir, between Muslims and Hindus, is a territorial conflict. Northern Ireland was a territorial conflict. And the Middle East, the conflict between the Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and the Arabs, is a territorial conflict. It is not, in essence, a religious conflict.
By way of illustration, I would refer to the six day war in 1967 when the key protagonists were Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt on the one hand, and Moshe Dayan and Levi Eshkol of Israel on the other hand. All of whom were, if you will excuse my prejudicial remark, at best agnostics, if not atheists. They did not go to war over theology. They went to war over territory. And the conflict in the Middle East is essentially a territorial conflict. Nevertheless, it is clear that religion is used and abused in the context of that conflict, and not only in the Middle East–it happened in virtually every location that I referred to, where people portrayed these as religious conflicts. They were not in themselves, and are not in themselves, religious conflicts. But this still then begs the question: Even if religion is not at the heart of those conflicts, why is it, all too often, more part of the problem than part of the solution?
While I’m sure that there are many different aspects that need to be considered in seeking for an answer to that question, the one particular aspect I’d like to focus upon this evening—and it is particularly germane within the Holy Land, within Israel and the Palestinian territories—results from an understanding of the inextricable connection between religion and identity.
Religion seeks to give meaning and understanding to who we are. It is accordingly bound up with all the different components of human identity–as individuals, as members of families, of communities, of nations, indeed, as part of humanity, as part and parcel of the cosmos. As religion seeks to give meaning to these different components, they are inextricably bound up. Religion is inextricably bound up with them. These components of identity tell us who we are. By definition, at the same time, they tell us who we are not. Therefore, in addition to affirming our own self-understanding they, of course, create a certain degree of separation between those who are not exactly part of those specific components.
This is not necessarily in itself a bad thing, and there are those who have erroneously jumped to the conclusion that this is an obstacle to the advancement of human well-being. The fact that I am part of a family does not mean that I need to in any way be alienated from another family. It means that the nature of my relationship, however, is a different one.
However, because identity gives me an understanding of who I am not, there are contexts in which, when my identity feels threatened, I will be alienated from the other. In that context where there is conflict, I may even seek to denigrate the other and search for my own self-affirmation and even self-justification, sometimes even at the expense of the other.
Because those components of identity have often been used destructively, there have been naïve idealists–like John Lennon, for example–who have thought that it might be a solution for humanity to eliminate these differences. In his rather lovely but actually very disingenuous song “Imagine,” he has those words: “Imagine no more countries; it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to fight or die for, and no religion too.” This is disingenuous, and modern society has demonstrated the depth of its disingenuity more than ever before. People need these components of identity in order to not only understand who they are, but for their psychological and spiritual welfare. Undermining them and eliminating them actually leaves people rootless, floundering and seeking for new forms of stimulation and stability.
Indeed, modern social scientists have pointed to the proliferation in modern societies of drug culture or of violence and of abuse of self and others as searches for stimulation on the part of the bored or, above all, on the part of those who are deracinated, rootless, who have been dislocated from those sources that have given stability and solidity to their own self-understanding. In other words, somebody who does not have these components of identity that I have referred to before is easy fodder for the exploitation of any kind of cult or ideology that easily manipulates people, sometimes for the most destructive ends and goals. The answer to the abuse of identity is not the elimination of identity, but it is more constructive engagement in a more positive way.
A lot of that has to do with the degree to which components of identity feel secure in a wider context. Let me use here, by way of illustration, for what might seem to be a rather theoretical presentation so far, an image of a spiral. If you think of components of identity as circles within circles, they can either be circles that open out into the wider circles and then enrich them or circles which are isolated from the wider circle because they feel alienated and unwelcome within those wider circles. The challenge, therefore, for every educator of every kind of description is to facilitate that the components of human identity emerge, spiral-like, to enrich and enhance the broader society. But they will only do so if the smaller component feels welcome in the broader context. If it feels alienated from the broader context, then it will shut itself off.
Now, this rather theoretical discussion is what I think is taking place within the context of different communities in situations of conflict. And, because religion is wrapped up with identity, when people feel alienated from their broader context, then the way they understand their own identities—and, therefore, the way their religious self-understanding comes to bear—tends to reinforce those perceptions of the wider context in which they function.
To tell the truth, if you look at the prophets of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, you see two clear, distinctive roles. There is, of course, the role we assume that is that of the prophets: to challenge the community; to try to move the community beyond their own self-satisfaction and egocentricity; to allude to the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the need for a more compassionate, expansive humanity. But prophets only do that, or the prophets that we have within our canon only do that, to the people living securely in their land. When the people are in exile, the prophets do not challenge them to be more expansive.
There their role is a very different one. It is a nurturing role, trying to give the people a sense of hope, a sense of stability, a sense of the value of their own identity–to preserve it with a hope, with a future, with a confidence, that there will be a tomorrow in which they will be able to return to the land, when they will be able to reestablish their own stability and security, when they will be able to live freely once again. So you can see that from the classical times of religious advocacy, there are these two roles that relate to the conditions in which people find themselves: Religion as essentially a nurturing force for people when their identities are threatened and they are facing all kinds of dangers, and the role of religion to essentially expand the consciousness and the engagement of the individual.
So getting back again to identity. Identity should be the vehicle by which we not only affirm our own stability of who we are, and of what our values are, and of what our affirmations are, but it should be the way and the vehicle by which we enrich the broader context of society. It tends to be the reverse when we do not feel welcome within the broader context, and there is nothing more dramatic of being unwelcome in a broader context than a conflict–especially a violent conflict, especially situations of war. And many of you will be familiar with the popular social scientist of a generation or two ago, Robert Ardrey, who pointed out how identity is always strongest in situations of conflict. It is much harder to nurture it in situations of tranquility and peace.
In situations of conflict, people, therefore, want to affirm which party they are part of, and in this process they tend to assume a self-righteousness in the conflict, a sense that justice is on their side, that the claims they are making are the right ones. And in order to affirm that, they tend to denigrate the other, and to claim that the other’s position lacks the authenticity and the legitimacy and the justice of their own. And because religion is bound up with identity, it assumes these particular roles. Not only of nurturing those who feel they are in a sense of conflict and threat, but actually exacerbating a sense of self-righteousness within the community, and even of disparagement and demonization of the other who is perceived at the threat.
So this abuse of religion, I believe, is a function of both individual and collective psychology in situations of alienation, of where people do not feel that they are truly brothers and sisters of another community or another context. And, indeed, what we call today fundamentalism (which, as it tends to be used more often than not in relation to the Muslim world, is actually an inappropriate term because fundamentalist originally comes from a certain literal attitude towards scripture; nevertheless, when we use that term it tends to mean “forms of violent extremism”) are manifestations of some kind of alienation. They are reflections of the fact that certain communities, in a particular context of Muslim communities in relation to Western society, do not feel that they are accepted, that they are respected.
We all know that proximity of the insecurity complex to the superiority complex, and, therefore, of the reaction to the sense of humiliation or of disregard and disrespect. It tends to lead to a hostile approach towards the broader context, the community from which it is alienated and does not feel a part. (Indeed, one might say that any violence, even domestic violence, is a manifestation of alienation of one kind or another.)
And therefore, the abuse of religion that continues to plague our planet is a manifestation of alienation of different communities in social and political contexts where they do not feel accepted, where they do not feel committed to be a part of the broader well-being of society at large. And in this context, in order to enhance their own vulnerability and alienation, seek to portray themselves, understand themselves, view themselves as the righteous, as the godly, as opposed to those who are without righteousness and who are the godless. And thus we see the abuse of religion that leads to very often the exacerbation of conflict, rather than its amelioration.
In the Middle East, the unfortunate truth and reality is that everybody is alienated, and that everybody in our part of the world feels vulnerable, and that everybody thinks it’s somebody else’s fault. We just see ourselves in such totally different paradigms. Palestinians see themselves as vulnerable in the face of what they see as Israeli military might and power. But Israel is made up of people who are not only historically traumatized but contemporarily traumatized by continuous conflict in what they see as a mass of hostility in the in the Arab world and the Muslim world at large in which Palestinians are perceived as a fifth column.
The Arab Muslim world in particular sees itself as the victim of Western colonialism, imperialism, consumerism, and globalization, whatever you want. Everybody else is to blame, and nobody thinks that they have the responsibility to actually reach out to the other and to affirm the dignity of the other in order to be able to create the spirit of healing that is so essential to bring any kind of lasting peace to the Holy Land and to the Middle East, as indeed with any other part in any other context of conflict. But here, perhaps, the historical dimensions have exacerbated the sense of collective and mutual and disparate injury that pervades the context of the Middle East.
This situation has become even worse in recent times, in the last decade. I was at pains to point out at beginning that this is a territorial conflict. But because it involves people with identities, and because in most parts of the world–and certainly in the Middle East–those identities are rooted in a religious heritage, religion becomes part of the weaponry of that conflict. These are the sources, the texts, the memories that are used to reinforce self-righteousness on each side, and are used as weapons to demonize the others involved in the conflict. In the past, the religious dimension may have been at least on low burner, and there was a general acknowledgement that the conflict was territorial. The possibility of resolving that conflict seemed much simpler, because if it’s a territorial conflict, then it can be resolved through territorial compromise. But in recent years it has been increasingly portrayed as a religious conflict. More than that, the parties themselves sense that dimension increasingly as each side tends to raise the hype of its own particularity, its own particular claims at the expense of the other.
I’m able to travel in the Arab world, and I travel more and more increasingly in the Arab world, and there are some wonderful opportunities and developments taking place. I am able to do so because I not only have an Israeli passport, but I also have a British passport. But as I travel around the Arab world and even broader, the larger Muslim world, I discover that most Muslims today, or at least a very large number of Muslims, really believe that the holy sites of Islam, on the Haram ash-Sharif, the Temple Mount, are genuinely in jeopardy from the majority of Israelis and indeed, in their eyes, the majority of the Jewish world. In their eyes, the Jews seek and have the malevolent intent to bring about the collapse and the destruction of those shrines of Islam in order to build the third temple.
Now, I certainly will not deny, and I’m sure it will come as no surprise to any of you, that orthodox Jews pray every day and look forward to the establishment of the third temple, but Orthodox Jewish tradition teaches that we cannot do that ourselves. In fact, Orthodox Jewish tradition teaches that because the site of where Solomon’s temple stood is inherently sacred, and because we do not have the rites of purification that were there when the temple stood in order to purify us in the first place to be able to go onto that site, we are not able to do so. It’s a catch twenty-two situation. And therefore, there are–in fact those of you who were in Jerusalem will remember and will have seen–there are signs around the Temple Mount, especially, at least, on the western side, telling Jews not to go onto the Temple Mount, signed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Because the normative Jewish teaching is that Jews should not go there.
Now this is going to sound a bit strange coming from an orthodox rabbi (but those of you who know me know that my views are not totally conventional): Thank God Israel is a secular society, and people do not have to listen to what rabbis tell them. I say that genuinely and sincerely because I don’t want people to do what rabbis tell them because they feel have to do it. I want them to do it out of conviction, and out of genuine commitment to that. Therefore, I believe in what is essentially is an American wisdom born out of the American experience –that religion flourishes and is healthier when it lives in creative tension with a political structure, not when it is part of it or is in some way maintained by the political structure.
As a result, there are Israelis who define themselves as secular who do go on as tourists onto the Temple Mount. But the vast majority of orthodox Jews like myself have not set foot on it. And when I tell Muslims around the world, not only in Arab countries but even in Southeast Asia, that Judaism in fact is guaranteeing the exclusive Muslim control on the Temple Mount, they think I am just telling them a pack of stories just to get them off my back. They don’t believe me.
This fear that Islam is actually threatened by the Jewish state and by the malevolent intentions of the Jewish people is now widespread. Within the Muslim world, there is a perception that this is a conflict about saving the holy sites of Islam for Muslims. And for Jews, of course, there is an increasing sense (which I would rather unsurprisingly feel is a little more justified) that there is a total denial within the Muslim world of the historical attachment of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland, and to this particular location, and to its own holy sites.
And in this context, of course, the poor Christian communities are caught in the hammer and the anvil. Not only in terms of their security reality on the ground, but essentially they are marginalized in terms of the claims and interests of Islam and of Judaism in context of this conflict. So, what has happened in the last decade or so is that this territorial conflict has increasingly been portrayed as a religious one. Indeed, the second intifada was known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the uprising for Jerusalem, for the holiest site in Jerusalem.
This is a very dangerous process because, as I said before, if it’s perceived as a territorial conflict then it can be resolved in a territorial compromise, but if it’s perceived and portrayed as a religious conflict between the godly and the goodly on the one side, and the godless and the evil on the other side, then we are condemning ourselves to ongoing bloodshed, unceasing suffering and pain. (And I might say, time is not on the side of the Jews, not on the side of the state of Israel.)
Therefore, it was against this particular context of the inextricable relationship between religion and identity, and the way religion has been abused within this context and increasing so in recent times, that in 2002, a very important initiative took place. Thanks to the engagement of the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, and thanks to the providential connection between Canterbury and Al-Azhar, arguably the most important institute of Islamic learning, in Cairo, the head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Sayyid Muhammad Tantawi, hosted the first-ever gathering of religious leaders of the Holy Land. And we had the then Sephardi Chief Rabbi leading a delegation of five rabbis, and the personal appointee of Yasser Arafat at the time on behalf of the religious interests of the Palestinian authorities as well as the head of the Shari’a Courts, together with two or three other leading Sheikhs, the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, and one Bishop who gathered together in Alexandria, as I say, under the auspices of Al-Azhar, facilitated by the government of Egypt, unquestionably influenced by the impact post-2001, September the eleventh (where there was a need for governments to be able to show they were on the side of good religion, as opposed to bad religion), bringing together for the first time ever in history religious representatives of the institutions of the three faiths of the Holy Land.
This gathering was both wonderful and pathetic. Pathetic in that it took 2000 years–well, okay, that’s an exaggeration. Never in the 1300 years since the establishment of the third of these faiths have the religious leaders ever come together. But, wonderful, thank God, that we were able to do that, despite the fact that violence was raging in the streets of Israel as well as in the Palestinian territories.
This gathering issued a very important declaration, the Alexandria Declaration, which was the condemnation of violence in the name of religion as the desecration of religion, and the call on the part of all three faith communities for peace and reconciliation so that the conflict may be brought to an end. It didn’t bring the conflict to an end, but it did do something of enormous significance: It created for the first time a dynamic of interaction between the religious leaders, the leaders of the different religious communities in the Holy Land.
While a number of things happened in the course of the years thereafter, within the last few years we have been able to capitalize upon that initiative and establish, for the first time ever, a permanent Council of the Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. And it has that long name in order to emphasize that, as opposed to the meeting Alexandria, it’s not just individuals’ ad personam who are gathered but the institutions themselves. And this is the first time ever that we have formal structure of the institutions of Christian leadership of the traditional Christian communities in the Holy Land, of the Palestinian Muslim leadership, and of the institutional Jewish religious leadership.
Now, these institutional structures are in themselves not what I would call prophetic. By prophetic I mean religion (as mainline Protestants tend to use the phrase) “speaking truth to power,” challenging the political structure. They do not do that because they are actually part of those structures. The Christian situation, of course, is better.
But, as I’ve indicated, that’s a more marginal component in the context. The heads of the Muslim Shari’a Courts and of the Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs are all appointed by government. Therefore, they are subject to their authority, if not subjugated by political authority. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is an institution in which its leaders are elected every ten years through a political process, in which political parties have their vested interests. Therefore, by definition, the personalities who are going to be at the head of the establishment structures are not likely to be people who have vision that seeks to challenge the political structures and move people beyond the place where they are in any particular given moment. In that sense, religious leadership in the Holy is “clericdom” rather than prophetic religiosity. That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant, because these institutions still represent the communities. They are, therefore, representative of the identities of the communities that are in the context of this conflict.
Now, in the past, those that have tried to bring about a resolution of the conflict in the Middle East have tended to ignore religion, sometimes aggressively so. When one sees the terrible things that are done in the name of religion in our part of the world, and in many other parts of the world, it’s not beyond one’s understanding that there should be such an inclination on the part of secular politicians. By way of illustration, let me refer to the famous handshake on the lawn of the White House between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
When that took place, there was no identifiable Palestinian religious leader to be seen. There was no identifiable Israeli religious leader to be seen there. They were intentionally kept out. The message, implicit or otherwise, was “You religious people keep out of this because you are only going to mess things up. If we are going bring about peace, it’s going to be because we have nothing to do with religion.”
And as I say, while I can understand it, while I can be sympathetic to it, it is a total fallacy. Not only is it a fallacy, it’s a boomerang because, like all aspects of nature that abhor a vacuum–especially where you have identities that are rooted within religious traditions—if you seek to essentially eliminate the presence of constructive religious voices you are inviting the destructive religious voices to take center stage. You are inviting the most alienated, and therefore the most extreme and aggressive elements, to torpedo the process, because you are saying, by eliminating the religious presence, “This process is inimical to your interests. You are at best a hassle, at worst the enemy of this process.” And therefore, you encourage the extremists to torpedo the process.
While I’m not suggesting any equivalency here, whether it was Hamas or Islamic Jihad on the one hand, or whether it was Baruch Goldstein who murdered innocent Muslim worshippers at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque in the cave of Machpelah, or the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, all of them did what they did in the name of their own religious understanding, believing that’s what God wanted them to do. There was a conspiracy of extremists who all believed that the peace process was inimical to God’s interests.
If you don’t want that to happen, then you need to make sure that the voices of religion that say “this process is God’s interest” to be seen and to be visible and to be part and parcel of the process. Put simply, if you don’t want religion to be part of the problem, the answer isn’t to eliminate religion. The answer is to ensure that religion is part of the solution.
The Council that we have established, in its declaration, expresses its commitment to three particular goals. One is keeping avenues of communication open between the religious leaders in the Holy Land, to try to torpedo conflagrations when these are in danger of erupting. The second is to combat incitement and defamation. This Council has now convened academic institutions from the Palestinian authority and Israel together with certain American academic institutions that have particular skills in this area to do a non-partisan assessment of textbook materials used both in the Palestinian authority and in Israel on images of the other, so that this Council can give an imprimada of what is kosher, or halal, or acceptable material, and what in fact is defamatory and incitory and destructive. But the third element that this Council declared as its purpose was to support every political initiative to bring about the resolution of this conflict, so two nations may live side by side in peace.
Now, obviously, amongst the religious leaders there are different conceptions of exactly how you reach that goal, or what that end game would look like. But the vast majority of the world, and I’m even afraid the vast majority within Israeli and Palestinian societies, are quite unaware of the fact that their religious leadership declares a commitment not only to peace and reconciliation, but that they want to be part of it. They want to support political initiatives in order to bring this about. This has enormous potential, but it’s really problematic to get it through to the political and the secular diplomatic minds.
Therefore, we started a series of meetings that already took place with people like Condoleezza Rice, with Tony Blair, with the presidents of the Council of Europe. We took both Chief Rabbis, the major Sheikhs, both Patriarchs, two Bishops–and a partridge in a pear tree–we took all them to Washington, where there were meetings in the Senate and with Congress.
The main reason for this is to try to be able to educate politicians to understand the importance of the religious dimension. (I say again that even if these personalities are not the prophetic voices who can bring about change in perceptions, they are critical for any kind of political initiative to be able to succeed in the Middle East.) And I am distressed to say that the importance of this has not yet managed to sink into the consciousness of those engaged most genuinely and sincerely in trying to bring about a resolution of this conflict. I don’t know how many times George Mitchell has been to the Middle East since the Obama administration was established. He has not met with a single major religious leader, neither Muslim, Christian, nor Jewish.
Therefore once again, the United States–which can be the only real arbiter, or certainly the only leader of any capacity to bring about a breakthrough in terms of the deadlock and the mutual alienation and fear which comes about by the fact that everybody sees themselves as vulnerable and everybody thinks somebody else needs to take the initiative–the only real broker that can lead a process in cooperation with other components, Europe, United Nations, Russia today–the only one that can lead that, the United States, is again making the same mistake of creating a message or an image that religion is at best an irritant to this process, if not the enemy of the process.
You guarantee that therefore religious communities feel, “This process must be inimical to my interests because they are intentionally bypassing us.” That way you guarantee that even if you make strides ahead, they are going to be undermined somewhere along the line by communities who are not going to be at one with you instead of engaging them and making them part of the process.
We’re in an educational process here. This is an educational initiative. As I say, for most of history, the religious leaders in the Holy Land haven’t even spoken to one another. We now at least are getting them to communicate. We are now at least getting these declarations in which they are seeking to support constructive initiatives. We need to try to change an understanding, in terms of political culture, of the role of religion within this context. I’m not arguing for religious leaders to take the place of political leadership–God forbid, especially with the material that we have within our neck of the woods. That would be disastrous. But I am saying that politicians will never succeed in terms of bring about a lasting resolution of the conflict if they do not engage religious leadership.
Therefore, to repeat once again, if you don’t want religion to be part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution. No initiative in our neck of the woods, and in many other parts of the world, will really succeed to be sustainable in any long term sense if it does not engage that religious dimension. In engaging that religious dimension, allow religion to be true to its most noble nature, it’s most noble purpose of not only nurturing the identity of individuals and communities and of their own particular affirmations, but to be a source of blessing to humanity at large, of being a source of peace in the name of the one whose name is peace, for the betterment of all humanity, of all society.
 “Imagine,” MP3 Audio, track 1 on John Lennon, Imagine, Ascot Sound Studios, 1971.
It’s a signal honor to be asked to speak at an event associated with Truman Madsen. I, like countless others, have been profoundly affected by his work, his life, and his testimony. I had only one encounter with Professor Madsen when I was a student here at Brigham Young University, and I guess you could call it my exit interview with him. I expressed at that time my desire to continue my studies at the graduate level and eventually secure a teaching position in the humanities. Professor Madsen suggested that I might consider something more practical instead. I resisted his counsel, so he said he would give me his blessing contingent on one promise: I would have to assure him that I would never return to BYU with my hat in my hand, asking for work. So I want him to know, wherever he is, that I was invited here tonight.
In 1818, as the poet John Keats nursed his beloved brother Tom through the final months of a hopeless struggle against tuberculosis, he wrote a sonnet about his own fears that he, too, would die before his pen could glean the wonderful riches of what he called his “teeming brain.” By the next year, the disease had indeed caught hold of him, and he burst forth in a creative flood of poetry, producing a string of odes that are still the staple of many an English major’s diet: “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and others.
As winter turned to spring, the torrent of words spilled over the borders of his poetry and into his letters, where he contemplated the grandeur of the human race and the wellsprings of his own imagination. To his brother George, he wrote: “There is an electric fire in human nature, tending to purify; so that, among these human creatures, there is continually some birth of new heroism; the pity is, that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.” He opined that Jesus may have represented a heart and a system completely pure, before his words were written and revised by men interested in the pious frauds of religion. Like so many his age, Keats was disheartened by institutionalized systems of religions that almost universally emphasized human depravity and inherent guilt, while themselves doing more to justify than to alleviate human suffering. But something would not let him give into despair as he wrote hopefully (and I believe with an attitude of envisioning Christ’s splendor), “Even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of—I am however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness.”
He continued that, while unsure of his own conclusion, he was confident that a superior being could not but be pleased with his struggle to make sense of it all. In his rather comical analogy he said, “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine.” At the least, whether he pled to God or to his brother is unclear: “Give me this credit: do you not think I strive to know myself? Give me credit.”
The image is a haunting but a hopeful one, “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness.” It suggests, as it did for Keats’ entire cohort of romantic poets and for myriad others, not just the reality of a realm of eternal truth behind the shadowy idols of the present, but a realm that beckons to us, through faint traces of memory that pierce the long night of forgetfulness. I want to consider tonight some of the implications of what we could call this secret life of the soul, and what might be and has been revealed therein.
The novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has recently referred to “the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, . . . that haunting ‘I,’ who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the ‘I’ we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves.” We all know the sensation of having failed to live up to who we are, the sense that there exists a different “I” than the one sometimes manifest through our actions. This perception is engrained in our very language of self-justification. “I wasn’t myself,” we might say. Or, “you are better than that,” a friend or relative might tell us after disappointing course of conduct. Who is this “I” we are referring to in such instances? It could be just an idealized self we have failed to manifest, except the sense is too strong that it is our actions that are unreal or fall short of an actual standard that already exists in some form. In other words, is our most plausible candidate for this other “I” a hypothetical self we might someday be? Or is it rather what George MacDonald called, “an old soul,” a self with a long history that provides the contrast with current patterns of behavior?
One of the earliest church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the second century, felt only the second hypothesis could explain the remarkable decision of an individual to abruptly reserve the course of one’s life in quest of a better. This, he reasoned, can only be because when we sin, we sense we are falling short of who we really are and were. He believed only memory of the past, not imagination about the future, could be a credible prompt to such repentance. In the midst of lowly actions, our souls sometimes resonate with the dim intimations of a heavenly past and evidence of a more supernal destiny than the one our poor choices foreshadow. As Clement wrote, we at some point come to a vague reminiscence of better things and desire to renounce our iniquities and “speed back to the eternal light, children to the Father.”
But it doesn’t require the sense of guilt to turn our gaze backward in time in a quest for self-knowledge. One contemporary philosopher finds other common linguistic formulations reveal hidden insight into our souls’ nature and history. “I . . . have the intuition,” John Knox writes, “that I—this very self—might have been born of different parents, indeed as a different species of animal. And this intuition is very strong with me; I think it is sound. If it is, then that very fact may imply that my birth and my beginning are two different things.”
In other words, if you can say meaningfully, “If I had been born in Calcutta,” then you are presupposing an independently existing “I,” who preexisted your birth in Orem or Panguitch, and might have been born elsewhere. What shines forth in such utterances, John Knox argues, is a deep core of identity that could have been manifest in any number of ways or places. Such a hypothetical statement could never be taken as proof of human preexistence, but he believes that that the ease and naturalness with which we can say such things is evidence of a deep, even unaware, assumption on our part that we really do intuit an eternal self behind the contingencies of our own mortal form and history.
That intuition is more rigorously analyzed in one of the greatest works of introspection and soul examination in the Western tradition. Writing his Confessions at the end of the fourth century, St Augustine begins with a series of questions: Where do I come from? Was I anywhere before I was in my mother’s womb? Why does nothing satisfy the deep hunger of my soul? Why in spite of my success, my fame, my friends and family does this great chasm remain? Because it is not filled with God, he determines, nothing except God can fill the cavern of my soul. But how can that be? How can I possibly have such love for a God I have never seen?
To answer this question, he does not look to the natural world to theology or philosophy. Instead he turns inward and journeys ever deeper within himself because God, he concludes, must dwell in that same place where, in the moments of still solitude, we come face to face with all the great loves of our life. It is of course, in memory that such forms dwell, and this is where we encounter God. Strangely, he continues, this recollection is also our initiation, but how can this be?
His argument turns out to be a great psalm of wonder and praise. In his quest of knowledge for God, he writes, “I will pass beyond this power of my nature, rising by degrees unto him who made me, and I come at last to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images. When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought for, and something instantly comes. Others must be longer sought after, which are fetched as it were out of some inner receptacle. All these doth that great harbor of our memory receive in her numberless secret and inexpressible windings, to be forthcoming and brought out at need.”
And now, across the span of almost fifteen hundred years, we hear his words foreshadow those of Keats: “For even when I dwell in darkness and silence,” he notes, “I discern the breath of lilies from violets, though smelling nothing. . . . These things do I do within, in that vast court of my memory. For there are present within me, heaven, earth, sea and whatever I could think on therein, besides what I have forgotten. . . . nor do I comprehend all that I am.” And then, he finally comes to this great revelation: “The images in my mind of mountains, billows, rivers, and stars–all those things that populate my memory–could not be there unless at a prior time I actually saw the mountains, billows, rivers, and stars, because if a thing is imprinted on the memory, it must have first been present.”
But what of God and the life of godliness? “For when I seek thee, my God, I seek a happy life.” How can that be possible? Clearly by analogy, those who seek God and the happy life must have been happy once, just like the New Testament woman who lost her coin. She would not have found it if she had not remembered it, and she would not have remembered it unless she had previously known it. Knowledge of God, Saint Augustine concludes, must then be memory of God. C.S. Lewis said something very similar. He wrote, “My own experience is a rather ‘devastating desire’—desire for that of which the present joy is a reminder. All my life, nature, and art have been reminding me of something I’ve never seen, saying, ‘Look! What does this, and this, remind you of?’”
As it happens, few if any religious or philosophical ideas in the history of Western thought have experienced such widespread fervor followed by such precipitous decline to the point of erasure as the belief that Augustine here expressed, that these faint intimations betoken a life before birth, lived in God’s presence. The story of why the idea of preexistence suffered recurrent suppression is complex, and involves shifting theological winds that pushed it aside: the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the overshadowing of free will by grace, the removal of God to realms of incomprehensibility and inaccessibility. All these militated against the idea.
But the story of why the idea persisted, surfacing time and time again in spite of anathemas, purges, and orthodox resistance, is more simple. This idea has demonstrated greater intellectual power than its alternatives. Over its three thousand plus years of history, the idea of preexistence has been invoked in a large array of arguments, and the philosophical and theological work that it has performed is immense. Origen was convinced that it gave the most persuasive background to a world so variegated in its populous beings. Some Neo-Platonists opted for preexistence because, simply put, it was more symmetrical and aesthetically satisfying than a universe where humans were endless in one direction only; they suddenly appear on the scene of eternity.
In the seventeenth century, Cambridge Platonists had recourse to preexistence because, among other merits, it gave the most logically coherent account of the soul’s origin, with fewer problems than the Catholic version that God creates the soul at birth or the Lutheran version that the parents created it at conception. Preexistence was employed by philosophers like Immanuel Kant to ground a theory of free will and theologians like Julius Müller to justify human accountability. Its most conspicuous use in the nineteenth century was to give a more coherent account of the justice of God, as when Edward Beecher wrote almost a thousand pages on the topic to explain our immersion in a life of pain, sin and suffering.
Any one of these topics could fill hours in the telling, from the ancient Greeks and Christians and Jews to Medieval mystics to Renaissance humanists to American transcendentalists like Emerson and Alcott to the poet Robert Frost. All these people arrived at the idea of preexistence through deduction, inference, or as a desperate measure to make sense of other religious and philosophical problems. But today I’ve chosen to keep the focus, not on the intellectual rationales that sustain the scaffolding once it was up, but on what we could call the most intuitive dimensions behind the foundations themselves. I want to survey what we could call the history of intimations of premortality, or what I called earlier, the secret life of the soul.
Today seems a propitious moment to emphasize this approach because of recent developments in the God debates: the New Atheism that was referred to earlier. Terry Eagleton is no choirboy but a seasoned Marxist critic. And he has recently taken the secularists to task, not for failing to answer the right questions, but for failing to even ask them. Science has gone a long way toward explaining our world, he explains, but it has yet to explain “the kind of commitment that human beings make at the end of their tether, foundering in darkness, pain and bewilderment, who nevertheless remain faithful to the promise of a transformative love. . . . Maybe,” he reasons, “reason is too skin-deep, and science does not go back far enough.”
To quote Marilynne Robinson again, in her Dwight H. Terry lecture on religion at Yale she refers to the lamentable triumph of scientism in the human sciences. One result, she remarks, is the odd practice of “defining humankind by exclusion of the things that distinguish us as a species.” What she means is that curiously, those things that are most closely wrapped up with what it means to be human—the inner life that defines us, those things that defy measurement or analysis or reproducibility—cannot be taken too seriously in the intellectual pursuit of self-understanding. More specifically, there has been for some time an arrogant and yet provincial modernism, holding that, “the experience and testimony of the individual mind should be excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human beings.”
One problem with modern approaches to the human being begins with the assumption that there is no qualitative distinction between the animal and the human. But as the scientist John Polkinghorne has observed, “Our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life.” G.K. Chesterton put the case rather more simply. He said, “It sounds like a truism to say the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey, and it sounds like a joke to say the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. This human creature is truly unique and different from all other creatures.”
Now, acknowledging this difference, I want to emphasize, does not require a religious perspective per se, since it is embraced by any number of atheist philosophers, such as John McTaggart, who affirmed the eternity of the human soul, or Thomas Nagel, who wrote that it is hardly credible that the appearance of that miracle called the human mind can be explained in the same way we account for the emergence of mammals. What all these commentators have in common is a shared conviction that the fullest understanding of what it means to be human must come from taking more seriously the personal, the subjective, the intuitive, the inner world we inhabit, filled with its private but very real yearnings, loves, and hopes, for they are what actually nourish, guide, shape, and ultimately define us.
Principal among these sources of insight and illumination is a kind of vague longing, a straining for residual particles of light that Keats described. What Keats felt, and Augustine plumbed, was a sentiment as universal as hunger and thirst. Even Freud acknowledged that almost everybody had an innate desire to connect with something eternal and oceanic, and, in the final analysis, that is why the doctrine of the preexistence has never died out. As I said, any number of rationales for the preexistence has been articulated, but the idea has erupted into poetry, letters, sermons, and philosophical texts over the centuries, impelled by something more fundamentally human than syllogistic argument. I believe that it is only the coming together of the rational and the affective, or the emotional–only the doctrine’s pull on both the heart and the mind–that can explain its tenacious grip on the human imagination, despite the best effort of emperors, priests, and secularists to expunge the idea from Western thought.
Let me give you a brief survey that will illustrate this point. “The oldest religious system we are aware of,” writes Jean Bottéro, “is the religious system of ancient Mesopotamia, dating from the fourth millennium B.C.” One of that civilization’s creation narratives recounts an assembly of gods, convened to plan the making of humans under extraordinary circumstances. According to Atrahasis, an Akkadian poem dating to about 1700 B.C., a minor race of deities inhabits the earth, doing the work of the greater supreme gods. They sculpt the mountains, dig the rivers, irrigate the land, but so burdensome does their labor become that they unite in protest and plan to go to war against the seven ruler gods. These greater gods convene a council to consider the problem, and one of their number proposes a brilliant solution: they will create a new race, they will call them humans, and they will make them out of clay. But if they are to perform the work of the gods, they decide that they must infuse that clay with the divine element. So they take a god and sacrifice him and take his spirit and put it into the clay tabernacle of these humans. According to this Mesopotamian myth, the foggy recollection of our ancestry remains, but it so shrouded in oblivion that we will never aspire to return to our home and threaten the dominion of the gods.
In the process of its mortal incarnation, the soul is reduced to a distant and pale shadow of immortality so that we would never seek it again. And thus is established a pattern that will persist for almost 4000 years. Cultures and peoples inside and outside Christianity will simultaneously assert memory and forgetfulness of pre-earth life. The proof of the first is the yearning, the haunting echoes, and the traces of the eternal that clearly persist in human consciousness. As for the oblivion, well, we can only imagine or infer a series of explanations. A recurrent form memory takes is melancholy. Sadness itself does not betoken loss, but that variety that goes by the name of nostalgia does. Nostalgia is rooted in a perceived chasm that separates present conditions with the happy experience or past now lost to us. Sometimes the sadness is indistinct enough that we grope feelingly toward the nearly effaced memory.
Empedocles was an ancient Greek philosopher who took the melancholy of his human condition as a whole to point unmistakably to a happier preexistent life. “I wept and shrieked,” he wrote, “on beholding the unwonted land where Murder and Wrath, and other species of Fates and wasting diseases . . . [prevail]. From what honor and how great a degree of blessedness have I fallen here on earth.”
Plato, his more famous successor, turned to the theme of preexistence in half a dozen of his works. He used logic, analogy, and deduction to make his points, but he also relied upon the simple human experience of falling in love. Human love, he was convinced, was an imperfect echo of an earlier knowledge of a more perfect beauty. Previously, he believed, beauty was radiant to see at that time when our souls saw the blessed and spectacular vision. Beauty, he said, can only be experienced by someone who has seen as much in heaven. But how do we know that this mortal love is not the real thing? How do we know this is an echo of a more perfect form? Because, as he writes elsewhere, we spend our lives searching for our soul mate. And when we find each other, he writes, “the two are struck by their sense of love, by their sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another even for a moment.” And yet, he says, it is obvious that the soul, even of every lover, longs for something else, but his soul cannot say what it is.
From Mesopotamian and Greek sources alike, belief in the preexistence made its way into the very early Christian church. An early vociferous opponent of the idea was the church father Tertullian in the second century. He thought preexistence was a dangerous idea; it made us too like God, he worried, and he thought he’d found its Achilles’ heel in the soul’s failure to preserve a memory of that prior estate. I cannot allow that the soul is capable of a failure of memory, he says, and then he elaborates a series of related objections: How happens it that the knowledge of the intellectual faculties fails, which are supposed to be so superior? Why and how does the soul forget, only to remember again?
In the seventeenth century, a group of churchmen known as the Cambridge Platonists would answer Tertullian’s query. Why should it be surprising, they reasoned, if the soul cannot recall all that has passed, when in the brief span of life, we have again forgotten so much? “For who can call to mind when first he here saw the sun, or felt the gentle wind?” Henry More was the most prolific memory of this group. He was sure there was proof of the preexistence in those traces of memory that do remain. The “Idea of a Being absolutely and fully perfect . . .” he said, “is Naturall and Essentiall to the Soul of Man, and cannot be washt out . . . by any force or trick.”
Where, he said, could that have come from? He wrote thousands of lines of poetry elaborating the doctrine of preexistence as the most plausible explanation. “It seems indisputable,” he writes, “there is an actual knowledge in man of which those outward objects are rather the reminders than the source. The mind of man may be jogged and awakened by external objects, but those outward senses do no more teach us of eternal truths than he that wakes up the musician taught him how to play.” One of his poems begins: “I would sing the Preexistency / of human souls, and live once more again / by recollection and quick memory / all that is past since first we all began. / But all too shallow be my wits to scan / so deep a point.”
A kindred spirit in this regard was Benjamin Whichcote, a contemporary who noted: “No sooner doth the truth of God come to our soul’s sight, but our soul knows her as an old acquaintance.” Another of the group, Nathaniel Culverwel, in trying to account for human recognition of ideas and universal values, similarly refers to “seeds of light scattered in the soul of man, which fill it with a vigorous pregnancy that brings forth innumerous and sparkling posterity.” Other thinkers from Descartes through the nineteenth century commonly invoked preexistence to explain the innate sense of universals, of morality, and of God.
Echoing the Cambridge writers, the philosopher Kant confessed, “There are only two things which fill my soul with endless wonder: the starry sky above, and the moral law within me.” Whence could we have acquired that moral faculty which intuition told him was not a simple social or cultural acquisition? Kant would eventually come around preexistence from three separate arguments. His most un-philosophical sounding argument is based entirely on the human sense of self. It’s neither logical nor empirical, but it is intuitive. Kant asks us, does it make sense to believe that a being invested with an infinite potential and eternal future and a divine nature could just have come into existence through casual sex or happenstance? It is difficult to believe in the eternal existence of a being, “whose life has first begun under circumstances so trivial.” If we could see ourselves and other objects as they really are, we should see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures which did neither begin with our birth, nor will end with our death.
In these same centuries, defenders of preexistence are returning to the objection raised so long ago by Tertullian, trying to explain, if we had a preexistence, why we have forgotten it. If the Babylonians had imputed the veil to the gods through jealousy and insecurity, wanting to keep us at a safe distance from godlike aspirations, Christian theorists suggested something more like mercy was at work. One English poet, Abel Evans, conceived of the entire human race as the fallen angels from the war in heaven. In his version, God casts them—that is, us—all out but decides to let us expiate our crimes with time served on earth. With questionable mercy, God imposes by way of preparation for our descent here long drafts of the river forgetfulness. The resulting human condition is one that dulls the shock of our cataclysmic expulsion from heaven, like a narcotic.
But at the same time, the vague memory torments the soul, Tantalus-like, with reason and memory alike, that feed but cannot satisfy an inarticulate longing for home. Though we are entombed in flesh in a fallen world, the physical travails pale alongside the horror of a fettered spirit, displaced from heaven. “We had been inexpressibly more miserable,” another eighteenth-century author concluded, “if we had retained the full memory of our former Glory.”
In a later century, the greatest poet of the age, the German Goethe, suggested a personal belief in some kind of human pre-mortality–stages of preexistence, he said, on our way to a glorious future. As to why we cannot remember any of it, he wrote to his friend Johannes Falk, “the former states or circumstances through which we . . . have passed, were too insignificant . . . for much of it to be, in the eyes of Nature, worthy to be remembered.” Then he admitted his intuitions about the human soul and its potential were greater than even for his evidence for God himself: “If there is not a God, yet, perhaps, there will be one.”
With Goethe we come to the greatest modern flowering of modern poetry: the Romantic Movement. Most Mormons are familiar with Wordsworth’s great ode describing how we come to earth, “trailing clouds of glory.” Latter-day Saints may celebrate it, but generations of scholars have been embarrassed by Wordsworth’s intimations of a pre-earth life, admiring the poem, but treating its theological content with a deafening silence. Wordsworth begins his ode with a meditation on the mystery of human melancholy. Given the beauties of the world we inhabit, the laughter of children, and the richness of nature, how can we explain that nagging sense of loss, that in his words, “there hath passed away a glory from the earth”? The answer, he senses with equal power, lies in the only spiritual anthropology that makes sense out of this human condition. “It must be that we experience at our birth what it actually is,” he wrote, “the loss of a greater Eden we once knew.”
In an interview after his poem was published, Wordsworth was too embarrassed to own up to his own belief. “I think it right to protest,” he said, in one of his conversations with Isabella Fenwick, “against a conclusion . . . that I meant to inculcate such a belief [in the preexistence]. It is far too shadowy a notion to be recommended.” Still, he could not resist defending what he had felt. “For there is nothing [in scripture] to contradict it,” he wrote, “and the fall of Man presents an analogy in its favor.” And then the inner Wordsworth speaks, “To that dream-like vividness and splendor which invest objects of sight and childhood, every one . . . if he would look back, could bear testimony.” Or, as he had phrased the case in his poem, “there is a presence which is not to be put by.” So if Wordsworth’s conservatism was ultimately sufficient to impel him to a formal disclaimer, it took the form of Galileo’s confession as he murmured before his inquisitors, “And yet it does move.”
The case of Samuel Coleridge was perfectly parallel to Wordsworth. In a magnificent sonnet to his sleeping child, Hartley, Coleridge ponders the possibility that “We liv’d, ere yet this robe of flesh we wore.” He even imagines that if he found his child had died, he would know it was from shock at his fall from heaven into this lower sphere. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge tries to insist that he doesn’t really believe in this descending and incarcerated soul as anything more than a poetic device. At the same time, however, he confided to his friend Thomas Poole, that he had often experienced the feeling of a pre-mortal past. To his friend John Thelwall he said, “If you have never had [intimations of preexistence] yourself, I cannot explain [them] to you.”
What we find in every case I have mentioned so far is that, although the cardinal insight leads to wonderful poetry, sound philosophy, or even good theology, it begins as pure intimation, prompted by introspection, meditation, or reflection upon a sleeping child. Human intuition, not logical deduction, is the starting point.
One nineteenth-century Biblical student helps us see why this might be so. Wilhelm Benecke came to religious studies late in life, after a career in business. He was materially prosperous, but tragedy intervened to rob him of wife and child alike. The agony of personal loss combined with the intellectual incomprehensibility of human suffering to plunge him into a spiritual crisis. It is at this point in his life, he writes, that a mysterious mentor appeared, under whose tutelage he emerges from despair in a story has the ring of legend. He said a man with “an apostolic appearance and bearing,” whom he met by chance, led him to “the fountain of all solace” by bringing him to look upon this life as a short period placed between a preexistence and a future existence.
Benecke found that this doctrine once furnished him with the key for the solution of all his religious and philosophical doubts. He kept his personal understanding of his sublime theodicy to himself through years of exile from Hamburg during the Napoleonic wars and during years of wandering abroad, but eventually he returned to Heidelberg, the seat of German philosophical and theological training. There he took up religious studies and produced, in 1831, a highly regarded exposition of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. There he proposed human preexistence as the only workable solution to the problem of original sin and human suffering. Other theologians were shocked by his stand, though they acknowledged him “one of the finest theologians of our time” and “one who has few peers.”
This is the case that Benecke makes for preexistence: because God inhabits a spiritual world, and this is a fallen, mortal one, revelation is necessary, if there is to be any communion at all between the two realms. Our powers of reason and sensation are insufficient to penetrate beyond the visible world. What spiritual certainties we do attain to cannot emerge in a vacuum, but they are present in our hearts and souls nevertheless—it’s as if we speak fluent German before we have learned a word of vocabulary. We can sing a sacred hymn though we have never learned the words or the music. Yet, we do speak the language of spiritual recognition, he wrote. In no other sphere do we find a certainty which our intellect did not provide. So it can only be the outgrowth of that which we find ourselves endowed with in our entrance into the world, as a gift in the germ. In other words, we somehow come to have a sense of certainty about certain supersensible propositions that was not logically derived. If conviction about such truths takes root or resonates, he says, it can only be because like is responding to like. We must come already equipped with the language or background to make sense of these spiritual intimations.
Preexistence then, in his argument, represents not the consequence of reflection; it’s the very precondition for the possibility of attaining to any spiritual knowledge we have. It is not a mere religious proposition, nor even one truth among many. It is the condition of all other eternal truths that can be known. Spiritual memories, in this case, are like the footprints in the snow: they tell us whence we have come. But of perhaps greater importance, they are the grammar that allows us to decipher the only language that penetrates our soul. And they are the aspect of self–an eternal self–against which we measure the reality and the value of all which we experience in this world of sense.
Preexistence, like many other myriad intimations of the human soul, cannot ultimately demand ascent on the basis of purely human feelings. Certainly memory is as prone to its own errors as our other faculties. But the reasons why preexistence has faded from the religious landscape have nothing to do with the roots of the idea in the inner life of the soul. As a Cambridge classical scholar wrote not too many years ago: “However many readers believe that their soul will survive death, rather few, I imagine, believed that it also preexisted their birth. The religions that have shaped Western culture are so inhospitable to the idea of preexistence that you probably reject the thought out of hand, for no good reason.”
A case in point comes from a highly regarded biblical commentary. Noting the allusion to premortal existence in the ninth chapter of John, you may remember this is where Jesus passes through the temple and there was the man who was born blind, and his disciples ask, “Who did sin, this man, or his parents?” And Jesus says, “Neither [one], but that the works of God should be made manifest.”
Most commentators recognize in this episode a clear assumption on the part of his apostles that there was a preexistent life. Here is what a rather well-known scriptural commentary says about this belief in the preexistence: “There is something majestic in this conception of a fundamental justice woven into the very web of life, running through all things, and working itself out in everything that happens to us: a conception which leaves no room for whimpering or whining or self-pity or railing against fate.” Majestic and effective. Nevertheless, our commentator concludes with unexpected curtness, “surely it is much too crude and easy a solution.” For those who value the strains of the soul over the strictures of convention, however, simplicity has never been a barrier to beauty.
Question: Your examples [are] from the Western tradition. Can you give a non-Western example of this “human intuition”?
Givens: No. There are, as I understand, and am superficially familiar with, other traditions of the preexistence in Egyptian texts and in Hittite texts. There are extensive beliefs involving transmigration and reincarnation, more in the Eastern tradition than in the Western. But I felt that I was already showing brashness and presumptuousness enough in pretending to try to cover the Western tradition, so I will leave the Eastern to someone else. I will just add that the American transcendentalists like Bronson, Alcott, and Emerson, and many others of the nineteenth-century were themselves profoundly influenced by Hindu and other Asian traditions.
Question: As a child raised in the Lutheran faith, when I would play pretend games, I would give myself names along with my playmates, and I always chose names like Joanna and Christina and similar names that sounded beautiful to me. After I joined the church and had an outpouring of genealogical information about my father’s ancestors in Germany, the names of the ancestors that I found on the roll of film were Joanna and Christina, and the other names Catherine, with a “C.” (I loved the name Catherine spelled with a “C.”) All of those names that I loved as a child were in the genealogical records. Could you comment on the possibility that the Spirit of Elijah is related to the intuitions and intimations that you’ve described and how that might fit into the proto-Indo-European poetics where eternal fame and memory of the dead is the most important definition of civilization?
Givens: Let me just say this: the thing I love about political debates is they teach you how to just ignore any question you don’t want and pretend to answer it with a different one. Most of us are familiar with near-death experiences. That seems to be a phenomenon that transcends culture and time; they tend to have certain commonalties wherever they’ve been recorded. They’re not quite as well known, but there have been several collections in recent years that have been made of pre-birth narratives as well. Some of those are particular to Mormon theology and to Mormon culture, but there have been studies that have collected similar kinds of stories about contact with or intimations of people from the preexistent world, especially in the African subcontinent. So, what you’re describing has this peculiar caste in Mormon theology, being associated with the Spirit of Elijah, but it does seem to be a rather universal phenomenon. I actually cover that in my last chapter in the book on preexistence.
Question: When we talk about “pre” and “post,” or “simultaneously,” we’re generally talking about time. Modern science seems to indicate that there may be states of existence that are outside of time, and I know early Christians talk about eternity being outside of time. I was curious how that plays into what you’re talking about.
Givens: Mormons are virtually unique among Christian traditions in defining eternity differently. Going all the way back to Neo-Platonic traditions, eternity has always been defined in atemporal terms. In other words, God is that being who inhabits a realm outside of space and time. Mormon cosmology collapses that kind of dualism, because Mormonism is radically materialistic. Mormonism simply extends the present into an eternal future so that eternity simply becomes an endless continuation of the present. What this means is that the significance of preexistence will have a different valence for those inside the Mormon tradition and those outside.
I’ll give you just one example of this. One of the ways in which Kant argues for the human preexistence is in his belief that we are free. He recognizes, as most philosophers do, that free will is a very, very difficult proposition to prove, but he said the fact that I feel guilty when I do something wrong is, in and of itself, proof to me that I could have acted differently. So I know that I’m free. But how can I be free if I’m a material entity embedded in a causal chain of events that have material causes themselves? In other words, there’s no way to step outside of this causal chain that we’re imprecated in and find a place that we can act spontaneously out of a genuinely free will.
Yet Kant says, I know that I am free. He solves the problem by positing a kind of preexistence, a functional preexistence, related to what he calls “noumenal man.” In other words, he says there is a phenomenal aspect of the self–a material, this-worldly aspect of the self. There’s also a dimension of the self that is not subject to the constraints–the contingencies–of space and time in quite the same way. One could say that he is believes that there is an aspect of the soul that exists outside of time and is therefore free from this causal chain of events and can act as a genuinely spontaneous and free will. So, in many cases when people refer to eternity, it’s not clear if they’re talking about something that is right before the creation of the world or something outside the framework altogether.
Question: With your work in Mormon studies, in furthering the cause of faith and intellect together, and with the Mormon studies program at Claremont, do you see further opportunities for Mormon studies to hit the mainstream? Might it become not just something that’s centered around BYU but, in a larger historical and comparative literature sense, an opportunity to discuss what we believe in an academic world?
Givens: Mormon Studies is a two-edged sword. Mormon Studies faces the same kind of challenges that Women’s Studies did and that African-American Studies did. I remember, for example, a statement made by Maya Angelou, who was listed in a literary dictionary as an African-American female author. She said, I resent that. I’m not an African-American female author. I’m an author; I’m a writer. No one defines William Shakespeare as an Anglo-Saxon male writer.
The problem is the problem of ghettoization, and yet there seems to be a period of transition that every subculture, every minority group has to go through. First you ghettoize them. At least by doing so, you acknowledge their existence as a significant entity in their own right and attribute to them an important cultural identity and heritage. But at some point, that entity has to become assimilated into the broader culture of which it is a part or they’re going to continually be patronized and ghettoized.
I see a similar problem in the case of Mormonism. For many, many years, in the American religious tradition, Mormonism was completely ignored. There was a Puritan narrative of religious history in this country, and then suddenly in the last generation people realize, “Wait a minute. There’s a whole flowering of American religious traditions that are indigenous, that don’t have anything to do with Puritan roots.” Suddenly, Mormonism is becoming incorporated into that narrative.
It’s a struggle that Mormonism is in the midst of. On the one hand, Mormonism wants to be recognized as having a significant theology, a significant cultural heritage and tradition, but at the same time, it wants that story to be told in the larger context of American history and American religion. One solution that I’m trying to enact in my own work is represented in a book that I’ve just spoken about. Rather than write a book about Mormon preexistence, I write a book about the preexistence and suddenly, you see this enormous and vibrant conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years, in which Mormonism has a really important role. But you only see that if you see the larger conversation. That, ultimately, is the kind of Mormon studies that I think we need to be pursuing, in which we are integrating Mormonism into broader disciplinary conversations.
 John Keats, Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, ed. Richard Monckton Milnes (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Co., 1848), 176.
 Ibid, 176-77.
 Ibid, 177.
 Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 109.
 Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century; Hermas, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria, ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts, Sir James Donaldson, and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 217.
 John Knox, “Pre-Existence, Survival, and Sufficient Reason,” American Philosophical Quarterly 32.2 (April 1995): 176n.
 Saint Augustine. Confessions of St. Augustine. (Auckland, NZ: The Floating Press, 1921), 264. Accessed May 8, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.
 Ibid, 266-67.
 Ibid, 267.
 C.S. Lewis, “To Mary Van Deusen” (March 3, 1955) in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, Volume 3, Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 583-584.
 Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith, and Revolution : Reflections on the God Debate. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 37.
 Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 37.
 Ibid, 22.
 John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, US: Yale UP, 1998), 2.
 G. K. Chesterton, “The Everlasting Man,” in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Volume II (San Francisco, US: Ignatius, 1986), 166.
 Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), vii.
 Empedocles, “On Purification,” no. 390, 128.
 Plato, “Symposium,” in Plato on Love, ed. C.D.C. Reeves (Indianapolis, US: Hackett Publishing Co., 2006), 49.
 Henry More, “An Antidote Against Atheism,” 1.3.5, in Philisophical Writings, 1:13, 17
 Henry More, “The Pre Existency of the Soul,” Philosophical Poems, lines 468-473.
 Benjamin Whichcote, Sermons, iii. 17.
 Nathaniel Culverwel, On the Light of Nature: A Discourse (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable & Co., 1858), 81.
 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (Raleigh, N.C.: Generic NL Freebook Publisher), 136.
 “An Impartial Inquirer After Truth,” A Miscellaneous Metaphysical Essay; or, An Hypothesis Concerning the Formation and Generation of Spiritual and Material Beings . . . (London: A Millar, 1748), 68.
 Sarah Austin, ed. And trans., Characteristics of Goethe, From the German of Falk, von Muller, 3 vols. (London: Effingham Wilson, 1833), 1:78-84
 William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” in Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson and Ernest d Selincourt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 460-62
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Sonnet on Receiving Letters,” in The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach (New York: Penguin, 1997), 121.
 Letter to John Thelwall (19 November 1796) and Letter to Thomas Poole (1 November 1796), in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols., ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), 1:260-61 and 1:246.
 Wilhelm Benecke, An Exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, trans. Friedrich Wilhelm (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1854), xii-xiii.
 M. F. Burnyeat, “Other Lives,” London Review of Books 29.4 (22 February 2007).
 John 9:2-3
 George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1952), 8:611.
Stephen H. Webb, professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, presents the 2012 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man discusses how Christianity today, for all of its global success and growth, remains a divided and fragmented faith. This lecture was sponsored by The Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University and delivered on November 15, 2012.
This lecture is a great and humbling honor for me. When I first started a serious study of Mormonism, I read the works of two men. The first was David Paulson, and I would like to dedicate this lecture to him. Although I never had David Paulson in the classroom, I would be very pleased to be counted as one of his students. The other scholar was Truman Madsen. His book Eternal Man was unlike any theology I had ever read. I did not even think such theological views were possible, let alone that they could be delivered in such refreshingly inspiring and engaging prose.
Reading these two men convinced me that I was going to be in for a transformative and joyous ride with Mormon theology, and I have not been disappointed. On the day I was putting the final touches on my book Jesus Christ, Eternal God, which includes a discussion of Mormon theology, I was rereading the Book of Mormon. I don’t think I had really seriously read the preface that Joseph wrote to it, and I was very happy to find in the preface that Joseph used those very same words as my title, calling Jesus Christ the eternal God. That confirmed to me that I had found a kindred spirit.
With Mitt Romney’s defeat in the presidential election, it might be tempting to say that the Mormon moment is over. I think that would be short-sighted. It is probably true that the media will turn its attention elsewhere looking for something new that will sell the news, but I think interest in Mormonism sparked by Romney’s campaign has the potential to open up a Mormon moment of much greater duration and lasting significance. This longer moment is what I call the new Mormon Ecumenicism.
Ecumenical means ‘of worldwide scope or application’ and Mormonism, with its impressive overseas growth, is clearly ecumenical in that sense. But ecumenical also means ‘the attempt to restore unity to Christian churches separated by history, doctrine and practice.’ At its best, the ecumenical movement tries to show how the various branches of Christianity are all nourished by and contribute to the same root. The ecumenical movement, unfortunately, has fallen on hard times. Old theological battles have not been won or lost, and little progress has been made by replacing theological dialogue with social engagement.
Nonetheless, there is reason to suspect that Christianity is on the verge of potentially radical transformations. The rise of a truly global Christian community is breaking down not only geographical barriers but also doctrinal walls that have kept churches divided for centuries. A fresh start is needed, and what better way to revisit Christianity’s past and to re-envision Christianity’s future than to examine one of the youngest branches on the Christian tree?
The Mormon branch of Christianity is young, but it is also gnarled with the wisdom of the ancient past. Scholars categorize Mormonism as an example of nineteenth-century restorationism. Many of the early leaders of and converts to Mormonism were inspired by Joseph Smith because they did not find what they were looking for in any other church. Lots of people in America’s frontiers shared this general dissatisfaction with the state of Christianity.
I grew up in a restorationist church that is part of the Campbellite-Stone tradition. For us, restoration meant going back to the Bible. We thought that the only way we could counter the forces of secularization was by rising above history in order to return to a simplified version of the New Testament church. Mormon restorationism is unlike this or any other version. For Mormons, restoration requires an arduous work of reconstruction that leaves no room for a nostalgic view of the past. Rather than abridging the gospel, Mormonism dares to maximize it in all of its lush complexity. So much of Christianity’s richness was discarded in the early Church’s struggle for institutional stability and theological consensus. Those hard-fought theological battles left scars. They were not so much healed as they were covered up by the questionable medicine of amnesia.
Joseph Smith’s most important intellectual virtue, it seems to me, was an ability to look into the past with an utterly fearless and therefore expansive, not contractive, imagination. Christianity today, for all of its global success and growth, remains a divided and fragmented faith. What if Mormonism could help Christians find the unity that is so central to our common witness to Jesus Christ?
Early Mormon thinkers like the Pratt brothers and Brigham Young, following Joseph Smith’s lead, were drawn to the speculative prospects of ideas like divinization, materialism, and ongoing prophecy. Their eagerness to explore the intellectual train of a fully embodied divinity strengthened them in the struggles they underwent for their faith. Mormonism spread far and wide, but many of its most important ideas about God did not sink very deeply into America’s theological terrain. The idea that God is embodied, in particular, had little appeal to America’s emerging class of professionally trained theologians. They were eager to prove that they were the match of their European peers and anxious to salvage, by the end of the nineteenth-century, the moral ideals of Christianity from Darwinian materialism.
All of that has changed today. Theologies of the body abound, for example, driven by the goal of overcoming dualistic theories of the mind and the need for better understanding of God’s relationship to the material world. Scientists continue to discover new forms of matter while philosophers speculate about how novel properties can emerge from the interaction of relatively simple physical systems. Physicists have poked so many holes in the atom that there seems to be little left of our common sense preconceptions of what matter is. The physical world is not as solid as it once appeared to be.
The scientific mysteries and metaphysical complexities of matter indicate that the time is ripe to reconsider the old Platonic axiom that God is pure spirit. If so, then Christian theology might be ready for transformation every bit as momentous as when the Church Fathers made the crucial decision to align themselves with the best of Greek philosophy. Like all restorationists, Smith taught that the Church had lost sight of its original message. Many Mormon scholars have identified the alignment of Christianity with Platonism—or, to use more colorful language, Augustine’s baptism of Plato—as the source of theology’s decline. Caricatures of Plato’s philosophy should be avoided, but we should not shy away from recognizing Plato’s achievement in being the first philosopher to articulate immaterial entities. Plato’s metaphysical breakthrough, when appropriated by Augustine, became Christianity’s common sense.
The idea that God, the soul, and all heavenly realities are immaterial, however, pushed the divine beyond the reach of most people’s imagination and (according to the Mormon account of Church history) separated the institutional expression of the Church from its revelatory ground. The removal of God from the realm of sense perception resulted in a crisis of religious authority. The systematic ambition of creedal formulations increasingly took the place of testimony and prophecy.
Note that the problem that plagues Church history from this perspective is not institutionalization in itself. The saints, unlike radical reformation groups, are not wide-eyed decriers of the impulse to organize religious sentiment in hierarchical structures. Unlike churches in the radical reformation tradition, the saints are not nostalgic for a form of primitive Christianity that preceded Christendom, the period in which Christianity united cultural, social, and political authority in Western Europe. The saints are thus not tempted to privatize Christianity by denying credibility to any and every political authority and withdrawing from the world of social responsibility and civic engagement.
The problem with creeds, when seen in the light of what I would call a metaphysical reading of church history, is that dogmatic consensus grounded in the philosophical abstractions of an immaterial world view can never do justice to the reality and power of Jesus Christ. Whatever else it is, Mormonism is a reminder that the past is never completely over, gone, and forgotten. Roads not taken can appear out of nowhere as possibilities for future exploration. Options and alternatives that once seemed closed can open up in surprising ways.
As a Roman Catholic, I believe that the early Church was guided by divine providence towards creeds and hierarchies that were necessary for institutional survival and theological coherence. Christianity had to set itself apart from the violent world of pagan mythologies, gnostic fantasies where gods fought each other, and a cosmos governed by neither mercy nor law. Most of the alternatives to Christianity portrayed the material world as evil, a proposition that struck many people in the ancient world as common sense, given how short and painful life could be.
Even the gods who were sympathetic to the human plight could hardly be bothered to take notice of human souls trapped in heavy, decaying flesh with its fleeting pleasures. The better gods kept their distance in the heaven, above all the cruelty and carnage here below. In this cosmic drama, the gnostic one, humans were nothing more than a sideshow with no one to save them and no guarantee of a happy ending.
The early Church took a variety of measures to turn back the tide of these metaphysical fables with their monstrous spiritual implications. Theologians posited that God created the world out of nothing in order to show that matter was under God’s complete authority and thus not mired in evil. The immortality or preexistence of the soul was denied in order to make sure that everyone understood that God has no competitors—or even allies—in his status as the only eternal being. The doctrine of Providence began eclipsing the belief of human free will in order to assure the faithful that God is in control of the universe.
Arguably, all of these positions were good, rightful, and needed in their day, and they were affirmed by devout followers of Jesus Christ for the best of reasons. Nonetheless, there might be reasons in our own time to give their alternatives another look.
Mormonism is about more than matter, of course. A strong case can be made for the importance of other Mormon teachings in the revival and reunification of Christianity today. The question of matter, however, for me lies at the heart of modern perplexities about religious faith. Atheism is widespread because so many people think that every aspect of existence can be reduced to a set of physical causes. Even while scientists keep pushing the limits of our ability to imagine what matter is, what the world needs now is what it has always needed: a renewed and renewing sense of the reality of God.
How can God matter to the modern world when people today have a worldview that is so thoroughly enmeshed in the physical world? This is where Joseph Smith’s revelations about the nature of God have the potential to guide the Church into a new age. Could it be that Smith, who had virtually no formal education, put in motion ideas that could overturn all of western theology and philosophy? That claim sounds incredible, but it is actually very plausible.
The world of ideas today seems to be stuck between a rock and an empty place. That is, between the hard, reductive, yet scientifically successful explanation of all things by reference to material causation and the insistence that our minds, as well as all that we most value in life, are not the product of arbitrary and random physical forces. The mechanical view of matter treats nature as a machine that follows the laws of strict causal determinism which leaves no room for freedom. Immaterialists respond to reductionists by insisting that our minds are not identical to our brains.
Our thoughts and ideas are real, but they do not occupy physical space. Reductionists scoff at the possibility that anything could exist without being located somewhere while immaterialists bemoan the picture of our world bereft of all the qualities that make human life meaningful and unique. The debate between these two camps seems interminable and unceasing. Is there a solution?
Mormon metaphysics opens the possibility of a third way between these two alternatives. Plato invented the idea of immaterial substances when he argued that our knowledge of something is really our knowledge of an idea of that thing. Matter, for Plato, was simply unknowable because our knowledge of matter is limited to the form it takes. Matter by itself, therefore, is close to being nothing, since it has being only when it is formed in some fashion. Aristotle is often thought to have had a better, more positive view of matter, but his definition of matter is pure potentiality left as a lifeless opposition to the pure actuality of God.
The theologians who adopted the philosophy of Plato and his students were more concerned about the Greek insistence on matter’s eternity than the problem of matter’s knowability. Following Augustine’s lead, they put a stop to matter’s eternity by positing the idea that God created the world out of nothing. This had the effect, however, of making matter even more mysterious, since there is no analogy to human experience for someone being able to create something out of nothing. After Augustine, only something immaterial could be eternal, and a great gulf opened up between the divine and everything else.
Smith began bridging the gulf between spirit and matter with his first vision, in which he saw God the Father and God the Son as two individual and fully embodied persons. He could have denied the reality of what he saw by treating his vision as an example of how God, infinite and mysterious, accommodates himself to our finite state by appearing to be something he is really not. Or he could have treated what he saw as simply an empirical fact. That is, he could have treated his vision no different from seeing a couple farmers walking down the road. He did neither of these, I think. Instead, he accepted the reality of what he saw while at the same time affirming the even greater reality of what all Christians will see in heaven.
In other words, he inferred from his vision that the world consists of multiple levels of physical reality rather than simply two kinds of substances, one material and one immaterial. Christians have always believed that our physical bodies will be transformed in heaven, and thus, deeply hidden within Christian faith, is the acknowledgement of matter’s potential glorification. Smith provided this belief with a truly cosmic foundation by showing how the very criterion of becoming spiritual entails the perfection, not the evacuation, of material existence.
Joseph Smith did not live long enough to develop his convictions about matter into a full-fledged theological worldview. That task, though, is taken up by an early convert named Orson Pratt. There was nothing in Orson Pratt’s background to suggest that he would end up being Mormonism’s first systematic metaphysician. His intellectual labors were but one piece of his missionary work. He was the first Mormon missionary in Scotland, where he absorbed the heated debates about science and religion that were prevalent in Edinburgh. He took to writing pamphlets, almanacs, and books in defense of Smith’s revelations, but he was more than an apologist. In fact, he was a creative and quirky thinker of a kind that was common in the fourteenth-century, but increasingly rare in the twentieth, when higher education became professionalized and the various fields of knowledge isolated by specialization.
I am convinced that Orson Pratt was one of the most inventive, fascinating, and bold thinkers of nineteenth-century America. I am also completely aware that he was absolutely wrong about many of the scientific ideas that he proposed. It is true that, like most intellectual adventurers, he had too much confidence and too little self-criticism. His mind was endlessly active and his conjectures always original. Pratt put Smith’s vision of the continuity of spirit and matter to work by showing how it could be used to dismantle much of Western philosophy and point the way toward a totally new theological foundation for Christian faith.
An unabashed atomist, Pratt defined matter as “every substance in space, whether visible or invisible.” He thought material substance consists of “inconceivably minute, solid, hard, impenetrable, immutable, atoms.” For Pratt, atoms are both eternal and intelligent, by which he means that they have the capacity to feel or apprehend each other. This capacity is how intelligence comes into the world. Intelligence begins, then, with a rudimentary kind of awareness and grows from there.
Pratt’s most creative application of his theory of matter is to the theology of the Holy Spirit. The third member of the trinity has always been a somewhat overlooked and neglected aspect of the divinity. Augustine defined the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. That does not give it much independence as a divine person in its own right. The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, means wind or life, which is an apt image for a force that is unpredictable or emotional. The New Testament also calls the spirit our advocate, consoler, and comforter. The Spirit inspires us to keep following Jesus after his ascension to heaven. Clearly, the Holy Spirit has tasks that make it distinct from the Father and Son, yet traditional theology hesitates to affirm any difference between the three due to the conviction that God is immaterial. If God is immaterial, then God cannot be divided. Even the work that God does in the world has to be one.
The ancient rule of the Church is that what one member of the trinity does, they all do. They act in absolute concert and harmony. It is this theological rule that has kept theologians from devoting sufficient attention to the distinct reality of the Holy Spirit’s power. By affirming a material God, Mormons have a more robust understanding of the individuality of each member of the trinity. For Pratt, the Father and Son are embodied beings in a way that the Holy Spirit is not.
The Holy Spirit is a kind of super material substance that is in a class of its own. He often called it the ‘holy fluid’ because its substance was uniquely available and universally distributed. The Holy Spirit is a kind of gravitational force that, rather than pulling physical objects closer to each other, lifts this spiritual substance of every object toward higher levels of perfection. Pratt’s theology of the Holy Spirit never became Mormon doctrine, probably because he did not give an adequate account of Joseph’s revelation showing that the Holy Spirit has its own body with its own specific form. Another theological problem is that Pratt appears to elevate the Holy Spirit above the Father and Son in terms of importance and power. These theological deficiencies, however, do not take away from Pratt’s philosophical prescience.
Since Pratt’s time, philosophers and theologians have been scrambling to reformulate the basic propositions of Western metaphysics in order to keep up with scientific advances. Process philosophers talk about matter in terms of events which are so intimately related to each other that they can be said to ‘feel’ each other. The field of emergent order studies argues for top-down causation to explain how novelty emerges from chaos.
Quantum mechanics suggest that the smallest particles just might exhibit some of the traits that we ordinarily associate with human freedom. String theory has given rise to speculation about multiple universes (which was a favorite topic for Pratt following Joseph’s vision) or “worlds without number.” In biblical studies, scholars are just starting to realize how deeply corporealistic the Israelite understanding of God was. The same can be said about the Stoic influence on the apostle Paul.
In fact, an index of how far we have come from the New Testament world is that when most Christians hear Paul talking about the spirit, they automatically assume that he is talking about an immaterial substance when it is much more likely that he accepted the Stoic view of the material constitution of divinity. What would it mean for all Christians today to recover a sense of the real physical power and presence of the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps the most important legacy of Pratt’s voluminous writings is to make the case that a material God, besides being able to share our joys and sufferings, just might be even more mysterious than an immaterial God. After all, a material conception of the divine requires us to reconceive the majesty of the physical world in ways that the sciences have not yet fathomed. Only if matter is not perfectible does its attribution to God disparage and denigrate God’s glory. It certainly makes it easier to understand God’s love for us as well as God’s willingness to suffer on our behalf if we let matter into the heart of divinity.
Surprisingly enough, the Mormon view of God might not, at the end of the day, look so different from the Roman Catholic position. Indeed, Mormonism and Catholicism have a lot in common. In spite of the fact that Joseph Smith had little contact with Roman Catholics during his formative years, the two traditions share a love of ritual, an affirmation of the holiness of space, a robustly conservative moral tradition, a respect for the necessity of religious authority, and a strong sense of a community of believers that transcends the limits of time to include the dead. Mormons and Catholics also share a conviction that the material world can convey the substance of the divine. They express this conviction in different ways.
For Catholics, everything about matter is concentrated into the singular moment of the Eucharist. Mormons, by contrast, have a very Protestant understanding of communion. This confused me when I first began studying Mormonism and talking with Mormons. How could Mormons have such a creative view of the ultimate destiny of matter and, at the same time, have a low, pragmatic, and somewhat informal view of the Lord’s Supper?
The answer to that question came to me when I began to realize that Mormons have their own version of transubstantiation, which is located in a different theological place than Roman Catholicism. Both Catholics and Mormons believe that Jesus Christ initiates, instantiates, and consummates the process of redeeming material creation so that our hopes and dreams for eternal fulfillment in God include our whole bodies. For Catholics, transubstantiation is dramatized in a quite literal way in the Eucharist, where the bread and wine become the first fruits of the eschatological economy of Christ’s abundantly capacious body. For the saints, Eucharist is a symbolic meal providing a visible lesson—indeed, a tactile reminder—of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.
You should know that Catholics believe that Mormons have imbibed a bit too deeply of the Protestant critique of ritual which turns communion in to an inward and subjective journey and away from matter. This reading of Mormonism is seriously flawed, I think, because it looks for transubstantiation in Mormon theology in all the wrong places. Mormons can appear to treat the Lord’s Supper as a memorial affair because the saints actually locate transubstantiation in the potential for every event, no matter how mundane, to convey God’s grace.
As Elder Holland said in a talk entitled Of Souls, Symbols and Sacraments (and I love this quote): “A sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers. . . . [F]rom time to time—indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate—we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with him, and in so doing gain access to his power. Those special moments of union with God are sacramental moments. . . . These are moments when we quite literally unite our will with God’s will, our spirit with his spirit, where communion through the veil becomes very real. At such moments we not only acknowledge his divinity, but we quite literally take something of that divinity to ourselves.”
Matter itself in Mormonism is bursting with transubstantiating power. Everything we do should rise to the occasion of the Lord’s Supper. Where Mormons focus their imagination of transubstantiation the most is in the afterlife. No Christian tradition has ever had such a concrete, specific, and creative view of heaven. Every good thing we do in this life the saints believe, we will do in the next, only with pure joy and greater results. In the next life, the saved will exercise power over matter sufficient to create and rule new worlds.
The true limits of matter will be discerned as the necessary condition for matter’s rehabilitation from every evil, and all false limits on matter will be lifted. The cosmos, which Mormons believe is already infinite, will multiply exponentially. Transubstantiation will become the law of the cosmos, not just a Sunday morning ritual, and the glorious body of the resurrected Lord will be at the center of it all.
If a Mormon moment can usher in a spiritual vision worthy of our modern materialistic age, then I welcome it wholeheartedly as a providential ripening of Smith’s prophetic vocation. No other branch of the Christian tree is so entangled in complex and fascinating ways with the earliest and most neglected doctrines of the church, and no other branch extends so optimistically, embracingly upward and outward as it stretches toward a cosmic and Christ-centered horizon.
Question: I was interested in hearing your view about materiality and the vicarious rituals that Mormons engage in in the temple—baptisms for the dead and such things—how that relates to your vision of Mormon materiality and how that relates to ancient Christian thought as well.
Dr. Webb: I think the temple rituals are really where the transubstantive imagination of Mormonism is at its strongest and clearest. Mormonism, like Catholicism, tries to articulate a bond between the living and the dead. One of the most significant things the Protestant Reformation did was draw a very hard and fast line between the living and the dead. The Protestant reformers did not want and did not believe in any kind of interaction between the two—praying for souls in purgatory, for example, and the idea that angelic beings or people in heaven could intervene and we could actually interact with them. These were things that were ruled out of the Protestant theology, and I think Christianity suffered from that.
Clearly, I think one of the many things that Joseph was doing to repair that breach, if you will, was to try to cross that barrier between spirit and matter. I think Joseph had a real sense that the power of the spirit, whether it be the Holy Spirit itself or the spirit of God, is a real power, a power that really connects. I think that when you don’t have that sense of the Holy Spirit as a real, physical power that actually connects matter to matter, then some of these rituals—whether it is in the Catholic Church, in terms of purgatory, or in the Mormon Church, doing baptisms for the dead—don’t make sense to modern Christians. That is where I think Joseph Smith has a lot to teach us and actually has something in common with Catholicism.
Question: I really appreciated your insights about the potential of our church to speak to and forge bonds within the Christian body. Since the Mormon movement spoke beyond the Christian body as well (the entire country, in some ways, was looking at our church and our culture), are there ways that your Mormon ecumenical moment speaks not only to Christians but to those of other faiths or those of a non-theistic background? Does ecumenism only extend to the Christian body, and if so, why?
Dr. Webb: I think it does, because as Christianity becomes more connected globally, one of the central questions on the table is, “What about the relationship of Christian theology, as it developed in the West, to the Greek Platonic metaphysics that it adopted and assimilated?” So if you are a church like the Catholic Church or the Mormon Church, any church with global connections, what do you do in seminaries? What do you do in training? What do you do when you educate people in other parts of the world about your faith? Do you insist that they also absorb not just the faith, not just sacred scripture, but also all of the philosophical accoutrements that were pulled along with that?
I think that is a very complicated question. Do you ask Christians in Asia or Christians in Africa to have the metaphysical foundation of a very Western-style philosophy that is not a part of their tradition at all? I think, increasingly, we will see that the Platonic system can’t be imposed globally. If it can’t, that is going to mean some very important things. That means that Christianity is going to open up again—not only to real diversity, not only to accepting a variety of forms of expression of Christianity as all part of the Christian tree. There will continue to be squabbles about who is the biggest branch or who is the branch closest to the roots, but I think there will be an opportunity for all Christians all over the globe to go back and say, “What would have been the alternative history? What would Christianity have looked like if it had not taken certain metaphysical paths?” Of course, the Mormons will be ahead of the game in that sense, if you will, because they are a form of Christianity that already had not taken those paths. They already had pulled out of the past ideas and practices and beliefs that were discarded because of that particular trajectory. I think that is why Mormonism and Mormon beliefs will play a crucial and fascinating role in some discussions yet to come.
Your other question was about the atheistic world. I think the most pressing need for any philosophy of religion today is to deal with the question of matter. The reductive theories of human nature just proliferate, and people in higher education, people in the elite culture seem to hardly believe in freedom and free human agency anymore. There has got to be some way of rethinking Christianity’s view of matter and making human agency seem more real to people. Again, that is going to require a really different thinking through of matter.
The Platonic tradition really did end in a certain kind of dualism so that the soul or the mind is not really connected to the body. For the past 300 years or more, or at least since Descartes, philosophers have been squabbling about whether it is possible to have an immaterial view of the mind and how it is possible to connect the mind and the soul to the body. By the way, most philosophers have given up on that so now they are just trying to work through a reductive materialism. Matter is all you have. No supernatural, no spirit, no soul, no freedom. I think the most pressing need, really, with talking to unbelievers, is to rethink what matter is and to have a Christian version of materialism. If my reading of Joseph Smith is right, something that we really need to do as philosophers of religion is, once again, prepared for by—and has already been done to significant extent with—Mormon theology.
Question: This is something I have been wondering about for a while. You know how you were talking about the philosophical accoutrements? A lot of times with atomism and materialism, there is this automatic go-to towards determinism, which takes away a lot of moral responsibility. How can materialism work and still have free will? The only thing I can think of is some sort of chance, but I don’t know.
Dr. Webb: Well, I am hoping my study of Mormon theology will explain that to me. These issues aren’t easy, but clearly, we have to change our view of matter. If you define matter in terms of causal determinism, if you think of the explanation and understanding of matter as being exhausted by describing its causal nexus, then yes, materialism is viciously against any form of humanism, religion, or Christianity—any view of human freedom. I think there is a way to think of matter other than in that kind of mechanical model. By the way, I think science itself is pointing in these directions. No one knows what is happening causally on the quantum level, so the deeper you get to the roots of matter—whatever matter is—the less clear our theories of what causation actually is.
Question: Could it have something to do with chance? In quantum theory, the idea of collapsing wave forms, it is either there or not there at the same time?
Dr. Webb: Right, the indeterminacy of locating an electron.
Question: What I am wondering is, could some form of indeterminism allow agency?
Dr. Webb: Here is my view of that. There has been a lot of interest by Christian theologians, thinking about chance. Maybe chance is the magical doorway back into human freedom, since there seems to be chance—randomness—not only in biological systems but in the smallest of physical systems. Perhaps that is the way that we can think of freedom because the causal loop isn’t closed. I think that is a dead end. Chance is chance. Randomness is randomness. I don’t see how that leads to freedom, and I don’t see how God works through chance unless it is not really chance.
I think most of these discussions of chance have led nowhere. There have been some very interesting attempts to recuperate, if you will, the role of chance as a potential in thinking through some of these issues. The much better way to go is to think about the relationship between God and matter and to think about the potentiality of matter to be an attribute of the divine—in other words, to think of matter in new ways. I think that can perhaps usher in a better understanding of the relationship between freedom and matter.
Question: In approaching this topic, I would be interested in how you see this conversation between not only the Mormon faith and the Catholic faith but through Christianity and the world at large. How do you see that developing, given the fact that for a lot of it, we as professors, university students, and people who have the time and attention for higher education are grasping at the straws and barely broaching the subject? How do you see this conversation really affecting the individual and the world at large?
Dr. Webb: The conversation between Mormons and creedal Christians or other Christians?
Question: Yes, especially the breaking of the lines, the boundaries between certain doctrinal differences.
Dr. Webb: I am very optimistic about that. I think it is really just beginning. Bob Millet has done wonderful things, such as dialogues between Mormons and Evangelical Protestants. There have been some great things going on. I think the potential for dialogue between Mormons and Catholics has not been tapped at all. There has been very little done for that. The potential to me is perhaps infinite.
You have to start small. You have to start with conferences, with books, with your neighbors, and you just have to start talking about these things. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about Mormonism, and I think Mitt Romney’s campaign did a lot of good. I think people are now thinking about Mormonism and willing to think seriously about it. I think the anti-Mormon prejudices are dissipating, like the anti-Catholic prejudices started dissipating by the 60’s. They were very strong in America. Protestants didn’t think Catholics were Christian or even trustworthy people.
I see the same thing. I think that we are experiencing the last bubble of anti-Mormon prejudice. It is just going to go away. The Mormon Church is too true to Christ, too generous, too charitable, too interesting, the theology is too biblical, and it is too fascinating to be dismissed like that. The more people know about Mormonism, the more they read about Mormonism, the more they think about it, the more these dialogues will happen. That might be up to your generation to do as well.
Question: Mormonism’s description of itself as the restoration of all things goes beyond the restoration of early New Testament Christianity and reaches back into the Old Testament quite substantially, particularly where you situate the idea of transubstantiation in temple ritual, which is definitely strongly connected to Old Testament thinking. I wonder if you have any comment about Hebraic elements and ancient Hebrew thought about matter and God and how that relates to Mormon thinking?
Dr. Webb: One of the things that I love most about Joseph is his Christocentric reading of the Old Testament. Before a more immaterial view of the divine became widespread and became the consensus in theology, early Christians read the Old Testament as a testament about Christ. For example, when the prophets or other people in the Old Testament saw God—and they did see God a lot—the early Christians said, “Well, what they saw when they saw God in human form was Jesus Christ.” When Ezekiel in Chapter 1 saw a human figure, divine, sitting on a dome, Christians said it was Jesus Christ. They might not have known it was Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ already is a fully embodied person with a spirit body, to use Mormon language, who was working in the world and was preparing the way for his own incarnation.
That is a beautiful reading of the Old Testament. You can trace out the exegesis of Ezekiel 1 and you can see them worry about that when you have a turn to immaterial divinity, because Jesus can’t have a form before the incarnation. So what was Ezekiel seeing? Well, he was seeing the God, the one God who was momentarily appearing as a human form but that wasn’t really who God was. So Ezekiel didn’t really see God, did he? So the Christological reading of the Old Testament drops out.
Another example of that is the role of Christ in creation. The apostle Paul says that the world was created in, through, and for Jesus Christ. Christ was at the foundation of the world. The early Christians believed that and preached that. This is another one of those doctrines that drops out of Christian theology. Not completely, but pretty much does. Why does it drop out? Well, when you have an immaterial understanding of the divine, as I think I said in my talk, what one does, they all do. There is a unity there that you don’t want to divide. So you can’t assign creation to one member of the trinity. You can say that God created the world, or maybe God the Father, but you don’t say that God the Son created the world. You don’t say Jesus Christ created the world. I was very moved when I started understanding and studying Joseph to realize that he understood that Jesus Christ is a creator. There are things like that that I think do affect our reading of the Old Testament and what the Old Testament is all about. These issues are at stake, and they are very important.
 Orson Pratt, The Essential Orson Pratt (Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1991), 32.
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Of Souls and Sacraments,” BYU Devotional Address, January 12, 1988.
I was reading some of Truman [Madsen’s] works this morning and I wish I had the chance to know him. I wonder what he would think about some of the things that are happening in philosophy at the moment, in particular hermeneutics and phenomenology, which are the approaches I work on the most fully. Hermeneutics refers to the philosophy of interpretation, the interpretation of texts in particular, the phenomenology to the study of experience and it seems to me that both of those are very central to Mormon faith and to what I was reading from [Truman Madsen] and so hopefully this will do him a bit of honor tonight.
The title has slightly changed. It still says something very similar, “Faith and Fidelity: Thinking Through Faith Today.” Why should we think about faith today? Sometimes thinking deeply about matters of faith can feel threatening to people, it can raise uncomfortable questions, sow seeds of doubt, or imply that one does not really believe with one’s whole heart and soul. And yet, can we really help it? Is thinking about what we do and who we are not an essential aspect of what it means to be human? Some would say the most important part of us is this. Must faith necessarily be opposed to deep reflection?
It seems to me that even if it were possible to believe without thinking, that would hardly be desirable. Thinking through faith is desirable on several levels. On the one hand, it is a way of taking seriously our beliefs and convictions, facing questions or doubts squarely, acknowledging that we live in a complicated, diverse world where not everything can easily be interpreted in the light of faith. It is in a kind of honestly, a way of admitting our humanity, including its finitude and insecurity. On the other hand, thinking through faith also seems essential for articulating beliefs coherently and convincingly, not only to ourselves, but also to others. Thinking about our faith helps us to say something more about it than we could otherwise. Something about how it hangs together and why it matters to us, which is maybe particularly important in traditions in which mission and evangelism are central.
What does it mean to think through faith? Is it an attempt to eliminate any sort of mystery or secrecy, to dismiss the most deeply held assumptions, to expose sacred commitments to the cruel light of abstract rationality? What does thinking mean today and what does it mean to think about faith? For Christianity in particular, more than other religious traditions, faith has often meant doctrine. Many Christians use the term orthodoxy “right belief,” as a stamp of approval, as equivalent with affirming correct doctrines and assertions.
My sense is you don’t actually in your tradition use the term in that way, but it is used by a lot of Christians. Those who do not believe the right things, who get something wrong about assertions about God or other aspects of the faith are labeled heretics and are often in the tradition excluded or even eliminated. Getting the facts wrong can be dangerous. It seems to insinuate that one does not genuinely believe. Much of the Christian tradition has used reason, especially as expressed philosophically, in order to prove statements of fact that God exists, or that certain propositions about God are true, meaning that they are correct and can be verified rationally or maybe even empirically. That is often referred to as apologetics, as an attempt to defend the faith through reason. Many such apologetic endeavors, both today and in the past, use philosophy as a rational discourse which provides categories and language for solid and well-reasoned defense. This particular interpretation of apologetics and what it means to defend Christian faith is actually rooted in a particular time period.
It emerged especially in response to scientific and industrial revolutions and the intellectual period known as the enlightenment which challenged religious presuppositions and beliefs more rigorously than any other period in human history. The particular concepts of faith and reason on which both critics and defenders of Christianity usually draw, were developed most fully in the modern age.
Maybe you have heard of Descartes who is usually considered the first modern philosopher. He has this project of doubting everything that can possibly be doubted in order to get to the absolute bottom line, the most fundamental thing that can possibly be doubted, which turns out to be himself, so if he is thinking, then he must exist. Descartes was into geometry and math and he did important work in science, so this was a sort of scientific approach. The way in which the sciences and math think through this and have these basic axioms, [was the way] he wanted to do philosophy. We have these absolute foundations and when we have that, everything else can be built from there.
That is what truth then comes to mean, this kind of rational project will be that we have a basic foundation and then we rigorously go from there. The problem with that project was that it was increasingly questioning certain kinds of beliefs. Beliefs about miracles, can we prove them? Did they really happen? If you can’t prove them empirically, then they must be superstition. This ended up becoming quite problematic for many Christian beliefs.
We talked over lunch with some people, most philosophers today are atheists or at the very least agnostic but that has actually radically changed recently. Increasingly in the larger culture and even in certain strands of philosophy, we do not think about truth and rationality anymore in this sort of Cartesian way. That is actually good news for religious believers. What I would like to explore tonight is this change in thinking about thinking, especially by some contemporary philosophers or philosophical approaches, and what that might mean specifically for thinking about and through faith. Let me give you two examples of this different kind of thinking about truth, and then talk about some implications of what it might mean for faith.
For several reasons, philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur make a distinction between truth as verificational correspondence and truth as revelation or a manifestation. Modernity and science think of truth essentially as statement of fact that can be verified. Something is true if it corresponds to a state of affairs. I could make some sort of claim about how many people are in this room, I am not going to attempt it because I am terrible at guessing numbers, and somebody could go around account every person and verify that that corresponds.
It is a true statement, or wrong as the case may be, if it corresponds to the actual number I could make a claim about the weather or the time. You could look at your watches, or now-a-days people look at cellphones, and that would tell you whether my statement is true or correct, but that is not the only way to talk about truth, and it is actually inadequate to a great many aspects of human existence.
Even though the kids sort of realize, I don’t know how many of you grew up reading the books about Amelia Bedelia. Her employer gave her all these instructions; she takes them all literally and this is rather problematic. Only this marvelously baked pie can redeem or remedy these situations. Truth is about much more than this sort of simply correspondence to facts. Something is true also when it reveals or manifests or uncovers something. A painting or a piece of music can convey truth, can say or show something true. And yet, that is not a truth that can be verified or really corresponds to anything in a simply, straight-forward fashion. It is much deeper and more complicated than that.
Heidegger puts that difference in terms of what he calls calculative thinking and meditative thinking. Calculative thinking is the kind of thinking that we are really getting very good at. Most of the large culture does this, it is the kind of thinking that gives us technology and numbers. It all comes down to zeroes and ones I’m told, not that I would have any clue how that works but we get better and better at that. It is all about speed, calculation, and numbers. But we forget that what he says is this other kind of thinking, this meditative thinking, philosophy means love of wisdom.
That is very different than this sort of calculation, it is about who we are at our deepest level and that takes time and pondering; it is more about depth. This calculative thing tends to be very superficial and move very quickly. You need time to think about truth, and Heidegger thinks this is central to what it means to be human and that the danger of technology and of the age that we are in is that we might forget to do that kind of thinking altogether, which he thinks a greater threat than just about anything else. Heidegger talks about this primarily in terms of the truth of art or the truth of poetry or something like that. Paul Ricoeur who is a French protestant philosopher applies this notion of truth as manifestation, specifically to the Christian scriptures.
So what does that mean concretely? Ricoeur claims that the biblical texts are true because they speak authentically about our condition and because they reveal something about the divine. We must look closely at primary religious experiences and texts in order to think authentically of what religious beliefs do and how they understand themselves. “[Religious] discourse,” [Ricoeur] maintains, “is not senseless, but it is worthwhile to analyze because something is said that is not said by other kinds of discourse, ordinary, scientific, or poetic, or to put it in more positive terms, it is meaningful at least for the community of faith that uses it either for the sake of self-understanding, or for the sake of communication with others exterior to the faith community.”
The biblical texts then, are at the very least a genuine witness to the ways in which a community understands itself and can possibly also provide indication of truths that might be revelatory even to people outside of the community. Ricoeur counsels us to “try to get as close as possible to the most original expressions of a community of faith, to those expressions to which the members of this community have interpreted their experience for the sakes of themselves or for others sake.” For him, that means the biblical texts are the most original documents. Obviously you can still ask about whether the actions of religious believers correspond to their beliefs or to the text that represent them, but this sort of talk about faithfulness or internal correspondence is crucial.
There is an important difference in the way in which modernity speaks about truth and reason, and the way in which we can and maybe even must do so today. The modern age assumed that it was possible to reach some absolute foundation that was indubitably true. From this foundation, everything else can be examined and judged. Faith has always found itself on the defensive, judged by parameters external to it and imposed from without. Something is true if it can be proven objectively from some neutral position that anyone can occupy if he or she is divested of all prior assumptions and beliefs. We increasingly recognize that there is no such neutral or absolute standpoint but that we always make sense of things from within particular communities and against certain horizons of understanding.
Even science is sort of realizing that—how we observe the way a particle moves influences what we can measure about it or, what Einstein did with relativity as well. The context in which one measures something matters to what one is measuring. That does not mean that horizons cannot shift, that we cannot take up different positions, that we cannot question our assumptions. Conversion would be impossible if that were the case, but it does mean that it is not possible to operate entirely without any assumptions or to get outside of any context or horizon whatsoever.
There is no entirely objective or neutral position, no place completely divested of assumptions or context. Instead, we always speak from within a particular context and tradition. Ricoeur shows how this is immensely helpful for thinking about faith because it is the thinking that happens from within faith and from its starting point, instead of being imposed externally or demanding that one first dismiss all faith assumptions and sever all connections to community and tradition as the modern age would have wanted us to do. Faith is not judged by foreign parameters like those of science but instead has its own criteria of meaning. By paying careful attention to the ways in which faith speaks about itself, biblical texts or other expressions of faith, we can ascertain the kinds of truths it needs to communicate.
In Ricoeur’s words, such a discourse makes claims both to meaningfulness and to fulfillment such that new dimensions of reality and truth are disclosed, that the new formulation of truth is required. The biblical texts project a world that they invite us to inhabit. We are challenged to envision ourselves differently. “In effect, what is to be interpreted in a text is a proposed world, a world that I might inhabit, and wherein I might project my ownmost possibilities.”
Hence, the biblical texts not only speak authentically of our situation and concerns, but they also unsettle and transform us by inviting us into the world they depict, a world that can challenge our assumptions about reality and provide new ways of living. For Ricoeur, this is what the notion of revelation is all about. He says, “I would go so far as to say that the Bible is revealed to the extent that the new being unfolded there is itself revelatory with respect to the world, to all of reality, including my existence and my history. In other words, revelation of the expression is meaningful as a trait of the biblical world.” Throughout his work, Ricoeur engages in careful depictions of the biblical world and of the various sorts of texts that we find in the scriptures and the ways in which they interact with each other and with our contemporary situation. Biblical truth emerges as we listen to and interact with these texts and the world they paint for us.
While this has not simply become arbitrary where I can claim whatever I like and is meaningful for me and true for my own context, it is the fear that many people have about post-modernism, and in particular hermeneutics, that is, they are utterly relative and everything depends on context and so nothing really means anything. That is really not what hermeneutics as a philosophical discipline is about. There is on the one hand, a kind of faithfulness to the text, but this is what is called the hermeneutic circle. If you want to understand a literary text, you look at the author and what we know about him, what happened in the time period, and the kind of context in which the person is writing. You look at other texts from the author so they shed light on each other, you look at the sentence in the light of the whole and the whole in light of what the particular sentences mean, you look at the way it was received in the tradition, how it interacts with our own context, what makes sense to us, what it means to us, etc. Other interpretations matter, there is a sort of history of interpretations. There are all these different ways of circling back and forth and those check each other. It is not arbitrary; it cannot mean anything that you want. There are a variety of interpretations, but there are also a variety of interpretations that really are very bad or don’t work. The circle helps, and discernment about the truth of the text helps in terms of checking it by this constant cycling back and forth.
Ricoeur formulates this attitude as follows: For hermeneutical philosophy, faith never pierces an immediate experience, but always is mediated by a certain language that articulates it. For my part, I should link the concept of faith to that of self-understanding in the face of the text. Faith is the attitude of one who accepts being interpreted at the same time that he or she interprets the world of the text.”
That is the hermeneutic example. Let me give one other example from the phenomenological tradition. The study of phenomenology is not primarily texts, but experience. Jean-Luc Marion, another contemporary French philosopher, strongly argues for the rationality of faith today. As Christians he says we have an obligation to reason, “even, and especially when someone faithful to Christ confronts the rationality of the world, he or she confronts it with reasons and for the love of wisdom.” Reminding us of Justin martyr and other early Christian thinkers, he says, “to witness” can designate making an argument as much as giving one’s life, to philosophize as much as suffering martyrdom. He contends that this is a particular kind of rationality, namely one of faith or love, not of scientific proof or correspondence, what he calls a higher reason that contrasts to a Cartesian rationality obsessed with certainty and concerned only with objects.
Such a focus on facts and objects misses what is most important to us, not just in religious terms, but even more generally in regard to any feelings or experiences that really matter to us. This felt immediacy concerns what is closest, whereas the rationality of objects concerns what is furthest away. As in the immediacy of feeling we experience ourselves without distance, so the distant knowledge of object doesn’t really help us at all. We do not stand opposite ourselves, but we sense what we are and are what we sense most intimately, namely in pain and pleasure, hunger and thirst, sleep and fatigue, but also in hatred and love, communion and division, justice and violence.
From all this, we know very clearly that the common rationality of objects knows nothing about what is most intimate and can do nothing about it. So, he distinguishes then between two types of rationality—one of certainty that is concerned with objects, the Cartesian approach where you have a subject and everything else is an object. So, Descartes is trying to get at certainty instead a kind of thinking that is much more intimate than our dealing with things, and he talks about that as a kind of assurance.
The difference in these types of knowing may be best expressed in the title of one of Marion’s recent books, Le Croire pour le Voir which, roughly translated, means, believing in order to see. This turns on its head the usual dictum, “seeing is believing,” so it is “believing is seeing.” For Marion, believing is a form of seeing, and the phenomenon we may not be able to experience unless we believe. We all recognize the phenomenon of finding beautiful what or who we love. Another who does not love as I do, sees nothing beautiful there. For example, I recently moved to New York and I am having a hard time seeing new Yorker’s love of the city, on the other hand, I have no problem whatsoever seeing Estonian’s love for their city; I lived there much longer. So the eyes of love enable us to see differently. Marion contends that this is not irrational or purely emotional, but that love has a particular rationality and it is possible to think about it deeply and rigorously. Love provides evidence, it is a kind of knowledge, though not the knowledge of certainty that Descartes and modernity celebrated.
The ancient Hebrews knew this. We read in the scriptures that Adam knew Eve and they had a baby. This is a different kind of knowing than the kind that Descartes talks about. Marion stresses this sort of connotation of love as a kind of knowledge throughout this work. So it is not about certainty, in fact, one of his most recent books is called negative certainty where he says that we gain knowledge of certain phenomena. We do not gain a knowledge of certainty, but a knowledge that we can never know certainly but that we can know in a way that has its own rigor and rationality. Marion calls on Christians to peruse this rationality of love and to think deeply about their faith by stressing that reason or knowledge can take different forms and that some are more useful or appropriate for matters of faith and others.
So, let me bring together what I think these very brief summaries of what Ricoeur and Marion give us. Truth does not mean that something corresponds to the facts or can be verified by observation, but it also refers to uncovering the ways in which something is meaningful or speaks authentically to who we are and how we experience reality. Knowledge is not just about certainty but also about insight. Such knowledge is gained not only via objective and abstract rationalizing or distant observation, but also by intimate experience and encounter.
Knowledge requires recognizing all the ways in which insight depends on a particular context and frameworks of understanding within which it is acquired. This means in particular that truth or knowledge are not obtained through some external or neutral standpoint but it is also emerges from within and often this internal thinking has much better access to meaning and truth. All these are the case for many aspects of human experience, but they are particularly appropriate for thinking through faith and religious experience. If there is a way to think of truth and knowledge in these alternative ways that are more appropriate to matters of faith, what does that actually mean concretely? How can these insights about the nature of truth and knowledge help us think through faith?
Let me again, more briefly, give two examples of how contemporary philosophy might give us some insight about this. First, let me pursue Marion a little bit further. As I mentioned, Marion is a phenomenologist and the philosophical approach of phenomenology studies the basic structures of experience, so by looking at experiences carefully, describing them in great detail, conversing about them, bearing them in our imagination, comparing them to memories about the experience and so forth, phenomenology tries to ascertain their meanings, their truths.
Unlike modernity, phenomenology is not interested in proving whether a particular experience corresponds to some external reality, rather it takes the experience as it presents itself on its own terms and tries to ascertain its meaning from within its context via careful description. There is nothing remotely religious about this at first. Traditional phenomenology examines very mundane, everyday experiences for their meanings and structures.
I think water bottles are usually a particularly prevalent example because they tend to be there when they talk about these things. Or books, I’ve seen them hold up books and talk about the front and the back and how we experience the book and you see one side of the book and yet you don’t experience the visual side, you experience it as a book because you have seen books before and you have turned them around and you have opened them and so you do not experience visual objects, two sided or whatever, you experience book, and it means something to you and so this is the way in which we try to examine what experience means.
Marion employs his phenomenological methodology in order to talk about religious experience or to show what it might mean to have an experience of God, an experience of revelation, or we might say a religious or spiritual experience. Such an experience, he claims, is of a particular kind because God is infinitely other and infinitely beyond what we can imagine, an experience of the divine must be excessive, overwhelming, bedazzling. It is what he calls a saturated phenomenon: Something we cannot grasp or control, an experience that cannot be predicted or created. It comes entirely out of itself, not from us, but to us.
Think about the way we talk about sort of following religious experiences as these sort of overwhelming events that radically change how we live our lives or how a whole community understands itself, presumably this is the way you talk about Joseph Smith or maybe even very personal experiences. They are very mind boggling, they really change the way we live our lives. This kind of experience overflows what we can make sense of in ordinary terms. It is far richer than an encounter with an object. Consequently in Marion’s view, this provides the parameters for religious experiences which we can then describe and justify philosophically with these terms and categories.
We can think through experiences of revelation rationally, i.e. philosophically, and show their truth in a way that makes sense and shows or manifests their inherent meanings. Note though, that these are not external parameters imposed upon the experience of faith, but that they are internal to it, imposed by itself and from within itself. The experience of faith is thought and depicted on its own terms as it presents itself, as it is actually experienced.
Emmanuel Falque,an even younger French philosopher, employs phenomenology somewhat differently in order to talk about the most intimate experiences. He talks about birth, suffering, death, the flesh with all its chaotic passions and drives, it seems to be a favorite phrase of his, eros, sexual difference. He has a phenomenology of marriage that he develops, this begins not with religious experiences per se, but he starts with the human experience and then he uses insights from the tradition, Bernard of Clairvaux, Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and other sorts of things, and he talks about concrete religious experiences and practices such as the sacraments in order to enrich and challenge standard phenomenological accounts of such experiences.
For example in his first book, he engages in a close reading of Heidegger as a kind of finitude and our being toward death. If you have read any Heidegger you know that death is really central for him. To show that these fundamental experiences of despair, suffering, and death are not close to a Christian experience or precluded by them in light of problems of salvation and resurrection as Heidegger sort of claimed, that Christians cannot really appreciate death because they immediately jump to the resurrection. He says, no, we can give a sort of Christian account of suffering, of death, of finitude.
We might say that, and in fact he does it specifically form an analysis of Christ, Christ’s anguish in the garden, and that can then surface as a sort of guide for the way we understand our own suffering. We might say that while Marion starts with religious experience as a given and employs philosophical categories in order to articulate in such a way that it gives a wider coherence and legitimacy, Falque starts with a more common human experience and then shows that the religious experience provides insights that help us think more deeply and more authentically about these fundamental aspects of human experience. They are both using phenomenology but they are using it a bit differently.
Although Marion and Falque probably push analyses of spiritual and religious experience the furthest, such discussions are by no means particular to these two thinkers. Many other contemporary philosophers, most of them are French I should admit, examine such topics. Jean-Louis Chrétien focuses on prayer, love, vocation, beauty, vulnerability, and other themes of that sort, Jean-Yves Lacoste examines liturgy and what he calls our being before God. Michel Henri speaks of incarnation, conversion, life, the words of Christ.
Giorgio Agamben considers messianic time, the vocation of the church, and political structures and the transformation of economea and liturgia where we got our word economy and liturgy from in early Christian communities and their theologians. It is true that most of these are Roman Catholic thinkers working in France, or in the case of Agamben in Italy, but I think there is no reason why their descriptions should not apply to more generally Christian or indeed any religious experience, especially since France is more or less secular, if not atheist at this point. In fact, if their descriptions are to have philosophical validity, presumably they must also work for the religious traditions or at least have a wider import. Some American thinkers are indeed beginning to go in that direction, though I am not going to give you all that tonight or you will get very tired of me talking.
I think you can hopefully see already some of the ways that might work for your own tradition and it might apply there. Let me say a little bit about what I think are the implications of this contemporary philosophical work for our topic tonight. I see two ways in which philosophical discussions have significant potential for religious communities and help us think through faith today.
On the one hand, these new philosophical approaches provide a manner of thinking through faith for religious believers themselves. Thinking about faith deeply and seriously, depicting it carefully, ascertaining its meaning (or maybe its many meanings) is surely useful for the community of faith. It helps make sense of what believers do and what they say about themselves. It declares the face of faith to itself but also explains it to others, maybe even defends it against attack by articulating its internal coherence and validity.
This is not an attempt to reduce revelation to sterile rationality, rather it is a description that tends to faithfully represent the manifold aspects of religious experience, both in its concrete particularity but also in its more general structure and commonalities. On the other hand, I think philosophical work is useful also to the philosopher and maybe even the anthropologist outside the community. It helps make sense of what religious believers do, why they act in certain ways (to some secular people in very strange ways), what their practices mean and why they entail such strong loyalties and passions, and it also aids us in understanding why religion has always been an important part of human existence and why it is not likely to disappear anytime soon.
This, it seems to me, is worth exploring for philosophers if they are generally committed to understand the human condition and the most fundamental aspects of human existence. The slogan at the very beginning of philosophy in Socrates is “know thyself.” If it is really about knowing who we are at the deepest level it seems to me that religion is an important part of that. Yet, thinking through faith in this way is really quite different from traditional, modern, conceptions of apologetics. It is not about providing proof, but about ascertaining meaning; not external verification, but about internal coherence; not about certainty but about manifestation.
It begins with faith instead of ending with it. It starts from within the community, instead of being imposed from the outside. It is not a desperate attempt to defend one’s faith as meaningful, but in fact proceeds from the assumption that it already has meaning and significance and that this meaning is worth exploring and explicating. It is not an attempt of proving that God exists and that religious events and experiences occur in some abstract fashion, but rather begins from the experiences and practices of faith, and shows how they make sense and shape our identity.
By doing so, it helps us think more fully also about faith, about the very nature of faith, about what faith might mean today. Throughout this talk I’ve used faith and belief more or less interchangeably. That is what we often do. I have pointed out an opening that faith is often taken to be synonymous with doctrine or a statement of belief which seeks agreement or adherence. I believe is taken to mean that I agree to these statements, I adhere to this doctrine, I can sign onto this teaching or set of propositions. I believe generally suggests that I think such and such, a teaching is true and corresponds to some external reality.
In closing, I want to suggest in light of what I have said about contemporary thinking about religious experience, that faith is maybe better understood as fidelity or faithfulness, instead of merely as agreement with statements of doctrine. In fact, several contemporary thinkers both inside and outside religious communities draw such a distinction between belief and faith. Sometimes I think the distinction gets a bit too strong.
The contemporary atheist philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy makes this distinction more starkly in wondering why faith might still be necessary today. “Faith, in any case, is not adherence without proof or a leap beyond proof, it is an act of a person of faith, an act that as such is the attestation by an intimate consciousness to the fact that it exposes itself and allows itself to be exposed to the absence of attestation.” Christian faith, then, is a category of an act of intimacy that misses itself, that escapes itself, then Christian faith is distinguished precisely and absolutely from all belief. It is a category sui generis that is not like the lack of, the dearth of, not a state of waiting for, but faithfulness in its own right, confidence, and openness to the possibility of what it is confident in.
Faith consists of entrusting itself to the word of God, which for an atheist philosopher it seems to me, is a fairly strong statement. Although he is not personally a believer, he has written extensively about how this still matters today and is essential to being human.
To be oneself as much as possible and thus being a human as much as possible means nothing more than being faithful to this opening or to this infinite going beyond of the human by the human. Faith is the relationship of fidelity. Faith takes the shape of fidelity to someone who is not of this world, and who as a result, is not someone outside this world either, but who is to be understood in terms of this relationship of fidelity. The question is whether you are able to remain faithful to something that infinitely exceeds you. Faith designates action or doing, not just assertion.
Another contemporary philosopher defines the idea of faith not as the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather as living subjective commitment to an infinite demand. Faith is understood as a declarative act rather than as an enactment of the self. The French Christian existentialist thinker, Gabriel Marcel also draws this distinction between faith as belief and faith as fidelity, and shows how fidelity requires steadfastness through change, how it is a creative process in which I commit myself even in the face of uncertainty and doubt.
In fact, the book which collects a bunch of his essays is called Creative Fidelity. Faith then is about practices, about what religious communities do, and about commitment to these communities and practices. And that is in fact how the thinkers we examined earlier talk about faith: It is about religious experience, about religious practices or about self-understanding of the religious community, and the texts such as the Bible that speak about this understanding and experience most authentically. Faith then is much more about how we live our lives than it is about what ascertains we agree to, that is not to say that doctrine or teachings do not matter, but rather that faith in them is less about mental agreement than about fidelity to them. Even doctrinal statements ultimately only make sense within a faith that lifts and a community whose practices are shaped and informed by such beliefs
While it is possible to create some personal religions (our culture seems to be very into this at the moment), practices, symbols, and rites give meaning to our lives [and] they are much richer and more meaningful when they are predicted and grounded in community. Yes, these meanings must be made our own, must always be appropriated anew, but they become meaningful as they are experienced and lived. Ricoeur speaks of this as the second naiveté where symbols and founding stories can be reinvigorated by thinking deeply about them and re-appropriating their meaning within a changing culture and new situation.
Our society craves community and is starved for genuine and faithful relationships. Religious communities have a genuine potential to provide meaning to our increasingly fragmented lives through the ways in which we live with each other and the ways in which we are faithful to each other. It seems to me that the Christian tradition has far too often focused on correct belief or doctrinal orthodoxy and the enlightenment obsession with certainty and verification has exacerbated this sense that we can only believe what we can prove rationally and that belief means agreement with propositions. Such narrow definitions of faith can commit us to being highly suspicious of doubts or questions and seeing any kind of thinking through faith as dangerous, or even as a kind of betrayal.
This makes life very difficult for anyone who feels the natural human tendency to raise questions from toddlers or teenagers (who seem constitutively disposed to ask questions) to any serious adult living in the contemporary world and grappling seriously with pluralism, science, and the diversity of faiths. It must be possible to be generally committed to community and still have honest questions about some of its convictions and practices.
If faith is more about fidelity than about correct opinion, then it speaks more deeply of our commitment to community and our faithful participation in the practices and rituals that gives meaning to our lives within the community as they flow out of and are informed by the lived and living faith of this community. Faith is less about propositions or statements I agree with or can affirm in my head than it is about the practices in which I participate, mind, soul and body, and the community to which I am faithful, even beyond doubts and questions. Faith is fidelity. It is not just about what I hold to be true, but to whom and how I am true.
 Paul Ricoeur, “Philosophy and Religious Language,” Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, Trans. David Pellauer, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 35.
 Ibid, 37.
 Paul Ricoeur, “Naming God,” Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, Trans. David Pellauer, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 223.
 Ricoeur, “Philosophy,” 44.
 Ibid., 46.
 Jean-Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner et. Al. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 146.
 Ibid., 142.
 Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 53.
John W. Welch, professor at Brigham Young University, presents the 2014 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man, speaking on the parable of the Good Samaritan and its application to friendship and to eternal progression.
President and Peggy Worthen, the Wheatleys, the Madsens, and friends of Truman, thank you for your presence and for your support of the Wheatley Institution’s efforts to strengthen the core institutions of ethics, family, and society. I have been humbled by this invitation.
Thanks especially to this splendid Wasatch Chorale. The words in the opening musical number could not have been more suitable to our subject this evening: “Tend your sick ones, O Lord Jesus Christ; rest your weary ones; bless your dying ones; soothe your suffering ones.”
At this event Truman Madsen is sorely missed. When I agreed to be a backup speaker for the very ill David Bentley Hart, I had hoped for several reasons that he would be well enough to be here. Really I wanted to hear him, and I hope we can have him here at another time in the future. I hope that what I will say will resonate with his deep interests in the early Christian fathers and his eagerness to extract from ancient texts insights that might “fruitfully be brought into living contact with contemporary questions.”
I am thankful for help from Barney Madsen who is well on his way toward the completion of Truman’s biography. And also for Emily Madsen Reynolds who has struggled alongside me in my efforts to explore a number of possibilities as I finally settled on the title for tonight’s lecture.
But most of all, we are here to pay tribute to Truman. He was an amazing Samaritan in many ways. I was indelibly blessed to know him when I was a student in his philosophy classes, to work with him on the boards of FARMS and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and to enjoy many personal connections. I hope to say something now that would make him rock back, grin, put his hand on my shoulder, and, nodding, smile with his patented pure joy.
Let me begin with a word about my title: “Plumbing the Heart of Social Institutions: Revealing Truths from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” Knowing how Truman relished the playfulness of words, yes, the triple entendres in this title are intended. I realize that it is unrealistic to offer the world today any kind of panacea for all of its horrendous atrocities and perplexities, but I still hope to say something relevant as well as revealing, something not just on my mind but also in my heart. In plumbing the depths, in keeping us true or plumb to the world, and in having us think about the pipelines that interconnect our social relations and spiritual lives, I love how the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals new ways to see the world, new insights into rightful thinking about duties, and eternal realizations that other people are always with us. These thoughts go to the heart of all human relations.
The story of the Good Samaritan is familiar the world over. Biblical scholars, even the most critical, agree that if Jesus said anything, he told this story. Secular legislators in many states and countries have adopted Good Samaritan laws to encourage and protect even bungling people who stop to help those in dire need. I believe that this parable is generic and compelling enough that it can serve as a common paradigm of ethics, values, and social institutions in every culture, and thus everyone interested in establishing justice and promoting the general welfare can draw important social capital from this timely and timeless tale. I would nominate this parable as the paradigm to use in strengthening our core institutions.
My interest in the parable of the Good Samaritan goes back many years, to the 1970s when I began reading books about the Jewish backgrounds of Jesus’ parables. But 20 years ago, a new insight into the meaning of this parable was stunningly put in my path. That insight came while my wife, Jeannie, and I happened to eavesdrop as Malcolm Miller explained to a group of tourists the Good Samaritan window in the Chartres Cathedral in France. Soon I realized that there was much more to this parable than a simple story with the headline: “Man Helped on Way to Jericho.” Over the last 20 years I have devoted considerable time to researching, writing, movie consulting, travelling with Jeannie to photograph stained glass windows in France, looking for obscure works of art depicting the Good Samaritan in museums all over Europe, speaking at conferences and firesides, publishing articles about this parable, and coming to understand why this parable is often given a place of honor close to the high altars of Gothic cathedrals. In all of this, Jeannie and I have become deeply impressed that this parable epitomizes the plan of salvation and offers the master plan for actuating beneficial human relations. I want to acknowledge her priceless contributions to our development of this understanding. For years, she and I have talked of these things as we have sat in our house, walked by the way, lain down at night, and when we have risen up in the morning. And then she goes out and feeds the homebound, visits the sick, and tends toddlers, the least of these. Her steady schedule of compassionate service qualifies her, more than me, to expound this text.
Like all parables, this story can be read on at least two levels, so that those with ears to hear would hear, and those without ears to hear would still hear at least something. Indeed, the Prophet Joseph Smith affirmed that the deeper symbolic meanings in each of the parables “were all plainly elucidated” by Jesus to his disciples. This double level of meaning is not surprising because with this one story Jesus actually answers two questions: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 25, 29).
At the first of these two levels, this parable is a report of an all too common occurrence on the robber-infested road that went down precipitously from the rocky heights of Jerusalem to the sandy bottom at Jericho, near the north end of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on planet earth. Jericho was famous in antiquity as a winter spa for the self-indulged aristocracy in the world of Jesus’s day. Read at this level, it is a story of flesh and blood, meanness and misfortune, hopelessness and indifference—but also of compassion, healing, and selfless service. The compelling and expansive moral of this story has made it one of President Thomas S. Monson’s favorite texts, because it leads us in the pathways of perfection, gives new lease on life, and applies to everyone in the world.
The words in this story have been carefully selected. The Greek yields interesting nuances.
When it says that the man fell among thieves, the Greek is not kleptoi but leistai, bandits, outlaws.
When they stripped him of his raiment [all one word] the word for stripped is ekdusantes (they undressed or disrobed him), the opposite of endusantes (to get dressed). These participles come from the verb endu?, a lot like the root behind the English word “endow.”
When the Samaritan had compassion on him, the word is esplanchnisthe, the word used for divine compassion.
And when he pours on oil and wine, he gushes it out generously.
He took care of him that night and when he departed, he paid the innkeeper to take care of him, using same word, epimelomai—in effect asking him to take care of the wounded man just as he himself would have cared for him.
The Samaritan’s promise to repay when he come again is more than just covering the costs but also promising to reward the faithful innkeeper.
Enriching, and not detracting in any way from its moral mandate, a second level of meaning sees this parable as being profoundly allegorical, laced with specific details that have been intentionally included in the story to support its very evocative symbols that convey deep religious and eternal-man meanings. This was the traditional Christian meaning that I first caught a glimpse of twenty years ago in Chartres. In with this masterful allegory of the plan of salvation, the Master effectively answers the first question last, and then the second question first.
Read in this symbolic way, the parable is clear that the man who descended from Jerusalem represents all of mankind, coming down from a holy beginning.
The thieves or robbers represent Satan and his minions.
When they strip the traveler, they do not take his goods (which the parable never mentions) but they literally strip or undress or disrobe him, wanting something he has brought from above.
The wounds represent sins or disobedience.
They leave him half-dead, having suffered one death but not the second.
The priest and Levite, who are there by chance, do not stop to help but we are not told why. They saw but turned away, and passed by on the other side. There may have been several reasons for this, both legitimate reasons (such as a fear that they might thereby become the next target of the robbers) or conveniently concocted excuses (such as the possible inconvenience of contracting some minor impurity).
But a certain Samaritan who came, evidently not by chance, saw the half-dead man, had divine compassion, and went to him.
Bound up his wounds, and binding more than wounds, he covenantally bound the man to him.
Generously he administered soothing or healing oil.
And likewise wine to wash away the sins, to cleanse, and to give drink to comfort him and to dull the pains.
Putting him on his very own beast (or body, as the Greek has been read), he took him to an inn, stayed the night with him, and when he left the next morning, he gave the innkeeper two d?naria, silver coins equal to two full days’ labor, and promised that he would return and reward the innkeeper, covering at least whatever costs he might incur.
Christians as early as the second century saw the figure of the Good Samaritan as a reference by Jesus to himself, perhaps turning the tables on those at the temple in Jerusalem who had previously derided him saying, “Speak we not well that thou art a Samaritan?” (John 8:48). Indeed, it makes sense to see this Samaritan, the rescuer, as the savior of this fallen man, who had fallen prey to this band of robbers. Both Jesus and Samaritans were despised and rejected. Both Jesus and this Samaritan brought the man to safety. Both disappeared from the scene, asking no payment, only our thanks, appreciation, and imitation.
Moreover, Christians at least as early as Origen in Caesarea at the end of the second century AD saw the man who went down as representing Adam and his wounds as being the result of disobedience. His falling among the robbers represented the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the loss of his garments was the loss of immortality. His being left half-dead represented his expulsion from the presence of God, the suffering of a spiritual death but not yet the second or physical death. The priest and the Levite represent the law and the prophets; the Samaritan is Christ; the inn is the church, the pandocheion, which receives all (pan); and the promise to return refers to the Lord’s second coming.
Origen himself attributed this understanding to the presbyteroi, the old members of the church who had been taught by the apostles themselves.
This interpretation of the parable was the basis for these depictions of the Good Samaritan in the famous twelfth- and thirteenth-century stained glass windows of world famous French cathedrals in Chartres, Bourges, and Sens in western Christianity. In the East, this understanding also informed this little-known Byzantine mural on the back side of the icon screen in the Greek Orthodox chapel in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai.
This understanding of the parable prevailed throughout Christianity until the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century, but the Enlightenment overvalued certainty and geometric analysis at the expense of allegory and synthesis. It is too bad that when Descartes said “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum), he didn’t say, “I think ego sum” (cogito ego sum), for ego sum is the Latin for I am, as in the divine appellation, the I am that I am. Actually, perhaps Descartes should have stopped while he was ahead and just said, “I think, therefore I think.” That, after all, would have been a most indisputably certain statement.
While modern scholarship typically dismisses all allegorical interpretations, insisting on reading texts only in their original historical contexts, I reject that dismissal in this case on several grounds. First, what if Jesus originally intended his parables to be understood at two levels? Then the symbolic reading is integral to their original historical context. Second, the limited secular reading precludes too much, for any legal norm, precedent, rule, or ideal is already—like an allegory—a generalization, abstraction, or projection that rises beyond a mere statement of fact.
Thus, I enlist this classic story tonight, together with its theological overtones. Although this parable “has been subjected to countless interpretations down through Christian history, and [thus] the secondary literature on it is immense,” the potential of this seminal text has not been exhausted. What more might this parable teach us?
Since it appears that every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan was consciously and brilliantly chosen by Jesus, out of each of these details we can construct an agenda for developing ideas to strengthen ethics, community, family, and society. For example, the road down to Jericho was obviously dangerous. While we are all called to rescue half-dead travelers on life’s roadside, as Martin Luther King Jr. insisted, more than a Band-Aid solution is needed. Among Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams was his hope that
one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.
The parable also features the oddity that all of these travelers are traveling alone. No one in the ancient world traveled alone. Too many things could go wrong. People listening to Jesus as he told this parable might immediately have thought to themselves, “Why on earth would this man have gone down that road from Jerusalem all alone? What was he thinking? Of course the robbers would get him!” But the solution is not to dismissively blame the wounded man for his own misfortune but to realize that all of life’s travelers need mentors, companions, trainers, friends, bishops, and teachers to help them understand the risks and even to walk together with them through perilous stretches of the path.
The parable speaks of injuries, both of bodily wounds and the loss of clothing and property, to say nothing of the loss of dignity and confidence. Can we imagine the humiliation and shame that the wounded man must have felt not only to be ignored by the priest and the Levite but also to have to be helped by a Samaritan, and then to be taken to a public place where everyone knew of his misfortune? Legal justice might see that such a man has medical care and receives damage payments, but victim recovery calls for a more robust concern for victims, for programs that counteract society’s propensities to dehumanize and blame the unfortunate, and for the promotion of social principles that bring to life an all-encompassing engagement with the rule of compassion. Anyone interested in victim awareness might want to use, as a sourcebook, Christopher D. Marshall’s superb treatment of the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, entitled Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice, just out in 2012.
The parable identifies not just neglect but blatant turning away as one of our main social ills. While the priest and the Levite come close enough to the victim to see the problem, they both turn away to the opposite side and keep going on their own way. To “pass by on the other side” they may even have had to leave the road and go out of their way in order to distance themselves from this problem. This detail cries out for efforts to encourage people to turn toward and not away from each other. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Masters of Love,” reports research by psychologist John Gottman, who has studied thousands of married couples to figure out what makes them either masters, or disasters, of love. His research finds that all people, throughout any given day, make requests for connections, what Gottman calls “bids.” When one makes a comment to a spouse or neighbor, he or she is typically not just imparting information, but rather requesting a response, a sign of interest or support or connection, however momentary. Presented with a bid, the other person now has a choice. He or she can either respond by turning toward or turning away from the person who has made the bid. Gottman’s research has found that these bidding interactions have profound effects on marital and social well-being. By observing such interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94% certainty whether couples “will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy, several years later.” While Gottman’s research bolsters common sense conclusions with quantified scientific support, the world really needs to look no further than to the parable of the Good Samaritan to know that turning away is always detrimental, undesirable, and in many cases even disastrous.
But maybe the priest and Levite were simply unprepared to help and therefore turned away. Maybe they came without bandages, wine and oil, or any ability to help this fallen man. Specialists in organizational behavior know that all performance problems boil down to either an ability problem or a motivation problem. And usually if people have the ability to help and feel confident that they are competent to serve, they will be much more likely to have the motivation to do so. Programs that offer skills development could enable people to deal with the predicable problems that inevitably arise in political, community, or family situations.
The richness of this text also reminds us that things are not always the way they appear. Indeed, turning subjects over often reveals that we have gotten things upside-down.
One of the first lessons we try to teach students at the Law School is that their initial reading of an assigned case is woefully inadequate, that their natural impressions are often misdirected, if not 180 degrees wrong. In his answer to the lawyer, Jesus gave that legal scholar much to think about beyond his normally predispositioned thought.
So we must allow for the possibility that we do not understand everything that we should understand. As Truman’s friend Steve Covey often said, “We must seek to understand more than to be understood.” What could improve family, business, and civic relationships better than a pervasive attitude among all people to sincerely strive to better understand before forming opinions or taking action?
Often, the first step toward wisdom is to understand that the highest good is not necessarily what we think it is. The Lord has said as much: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). The inverted sayings of Jesus similarly offer important reorientations in thinking about human nature, ethics, society and eternal goals. He said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39). “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). And as Paul stated of Christ, “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that through his poverty ye might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Truman Madsen was similarly prodigious in redirecting our thoughts by spinning out clever truisms that I like to call Trumanisms. When theologians belittled the idea of an anthropomorphic God, worried about bringing the divine down to the level of man, Truman spun the idea around with the neologism “theomorphic man,” bringing man up toward the level of God, and adding “God became man so that man could become God.” When some “despaired of religion and then made a religion of despair,” Truman responded that they have it “exactly backward.” Finding a religion of joy, you enjoy religion.
Turning again to the Good Samaritan, the parable can teach us startlingly unexpected things. It can shock us to find our own judgmental predilections exposed. We notice immediately that it was the lowly, despised Samaritan who came to the rescue and not, as we would have expected, the public official (the priest) or the dutiful functionary (the Levite). By this unexpected turn of events, we as listeners are arrested, realizing that our strongly conditioned social tendency to place people into stereotyped classes has led us wrong. And indeed, this parable, which is often invoked as Jesus’ social commentary on relations between Jews and Samaritans, actually says nothing about the ethnicity of the man who went down from Jerusalem. For all we know, the traveler could be an Essene, a Galilean, a Gentile, or even another Samaritan. Subsuming that fallen man—or any of our neighbors, employees, or fellow citizens—under some kind of ethnic grouping or social subset already starts us down a steep descent that ends in debilitating discrimination and the paralysis of polarization.
To counteract these problems, our recently retired BYU Law Professor David Dominguez has pioneered an expansive approach to justice. He calls his project “Samaritan Justice” and it has become for him a way of life. I point to his work as a model for bringing principles of the Good Samaritan and objectives of the Wheatley Institution to life.
Standing normal expectations on their heads, Professor Dominguez insists that “a Samaritan is willing to shock the sensibilities of on-lookers and listeners—willing to scandalize traditions because of a higher calling of justice. . . . Samaritan Justice calls out the least among us to demonstrate the most important lesson of life—yes, the Greatest Commandment.
David and his students worked up close with troubled kids incarcerated in Provo’s juvenile detention center. It was those kids, David says, “Who introduced us to Jesus and what it means to love with heart, mind, soul, and strength” and what it means, as Micah says, to “do justly,” “love mercy,” and “walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8).
At the same time, David served the residents in the South Provo Boulders apartment complex, many of whom are desperately poor. Of them he has said, they “open our eyes to the greatest riches of the kingdom. In fact, Samaritan Justice claims that unless you see such transformation in the despised of our society, unless you witness these glimpses into the kingdom of heaven within us, around us, and through us, there is no living testimony, only an echoing of someone else’s faith.”
In his courses, David combined theory with practice. He taught his law students to explain technical due process rights and court procedures “so that the children and their families can [effectively] advocate conditions for release at detention hearings.” At the same time, he worked to promote new cultural bridges and deeper inclusion in the human family, while empowering young detainees to change their social status. To do this, David “structured opportunities for those young [people] to restore healthy relationships as valued members of a family, school, and society” and to “collaborate effectively with a full range of diverse community representatives: local leaders, school administrators, juvenile probation officers, judges, two universities, and many others.”
David’s Samaritan Justice, which is a variety of restorative justice, uses a full range of legal problem-solving situations “as an opportunity to teach us all new roles in relation to each other: youthful ‘troublemakers’ learn what it means to be trusted teachers; detention staff practice mediation skills; ethnic local leaders participate in the juvenile court system as “court monitors”; university students present pertinent legal information to incarcerated children while serving as mentors.”
Thus, whether a person in America is religious or not, this parable offers to everyone a real way to model the transformation of society and at the same time to be transformed. As David warns, even the best of our usual interpretations of the parable “come up short.” Why? As David concludes: “Because they stop before dealing with the biggest claim Samaritan Justice makes: if you are doing Christian work, all ‘inns’ and ‘innkeepers’ had better beware, because they will never be the same again; they too will be revolutionized; they too will experience new life and be ‘born again.’ Samaritan Justice warns the jailhouse, ‘We will turn this place of hurting and despair into a space of healing and hope.’ ”
Revolutionary, yes? Joseph Smith said, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolution[ize and] civilize the world, . . . to cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.”
This Samaritan Justice approach can only be strengthened by further LDS insights to help people think more effectively about human nature, needs, and duties.
For example, in a clever double-reversal, Truman once said of the Declaration of Independence’s pronouncement that all man are created equal, “Jefferson should have written that all men are uncreated unequal.” Truman’s comment embraces several of Joseph Smith’s teachings: that man is eternal (D&C 93:33) and thus in an important sense uncreated, and that premortal spirits were different in the beginning (Abraham 3:19) as they will be different in their degrees of resurrected glory (D&C 76). This view of man fundamentally inverts the way we think about each other. If every human being, like the traveler coming down from Jerusalem, can be seen in some sense as having been “in the beginning with God” and being with no end (D&C 93:29), then human needs and interests are literally indispensable, and no amount of ignoring, shunning, incarcerating, or mistreating is ever going to make less desirable people evaporate. Human beings are not accidents on the road of mindless permutations of molecules equally destined for a pointless disintegration into lowly oblivion, no matter how much any self-absorbed personality might want to wish them away. Sensing this permanence turns daily trivialities into matters of eternal consequence, either for better or for worse. And when we recognize that human differences are not all bad—and how could they be if they are of eternal essence?—this helps all humans to deal less judgmentally or disparagingly toward others who are somehow unlike themselves. The objective of society is not to be indifferent to those differences or to remove all those differences, but to recognize wherever possible the usefulness of differences and to assist all people to progress within their several or individual capabilities, whatever they may be. That attitude alone would recast the entire human drama.
In addition, since differences are inescapable and always with us, how can we break social stalemates, all of which come from seeing the world in terms of differentiation, in terms of an us/them or a right/wrong? Here too, as Truman often said, Mormonism does not see things as an either/or but as a both/and. And what did he mean by this? Mainly, I think, he wanted people to see human nature and human existence non-dualistically, for dualism untempered usually leads to dueling, competition, and strife: a thirty-years war, trench warfare, overzealous advocates, those who champion long range needs vs. others focused on short range needs.
Academically, where it is said that emotions are so high precisely because the stakes are so low, proponents of science square off against advocates of religion; we pit publishing against teaching, reason vs. revelation, realism vs. idealism, grace vs. works, the “ought” vs. the “is,” spirit vs. matter, or a metaphysic of oneness and moral order vs. a metaphysic of multiplicity and moral relativity.
Unfortunately, these battle lines are often drawn with an attitude of winner-take-all. While it certainly will not be easy to reduce these perplexing tensions, Truman passionately believed that all could grow beyond two-dimensional arguments. In 1989, he wrote:
Is there a religion in the world where the stronger the conviction of its truth and goodness, . . . the stronger the commitment [to the compatibility of] ideals heretofore thought to be theoretically and practically impossible, . . . of pluralism and [of] freedom that recognizes the individual in full and total richness, [while] at the same time [recognizing] the common ground of divine birth, divine nurture, and divine potential, [with] the prophetic promise of divine reunion for all men[?]
When faced with a choice, I believe that Mormon thought will always promote fullness over barriers, completeness over consistency, and the search for all that the Father has, even if that means that life appears to be overloaded, rationally unprovable, and torn by competing values and obligations that pull, stretch, and expand our souls in many ways.
Constructive progress toward a both/and solution begins by thinking in the face of gridlock that there must be another way. For example, the priest and the Levite might not have stopped to help the wounded man, thinking they didn’t have time or because they lacked courage. But in actuality they simply passed by, not even bothering to think, “Maybe I could wait here a few minutes and recruit someone else to help who might be coming this way and together we could do what none of us individually could do.”
Desiring to find a Samaritan solution opens the mind and heart. I sense that a person who is open to the idea of seeing the parables of Jesus in multiple ways will be more likely to be sympathetic to the idea of dealing with the difficult problems of life and society in a greater variety of ways. This engenders a view that sees life as complex and multifaceted and a desire to create unity within plurality coexisting within a network of beneficial tensions. Try making music on a violin without tension on the strings! Parties may be necessary for elections, but partners are essential for governance.
To dwell another moment on this point, common sense, the American spirit, and Mormonism often find ways to break through frozen road blocks by introducing a third dimension to avert deadlocks, just as boards of directors benefit by having an odd number of voting members.
The idea of a triadic presidency—a president with two counsellors, which is the LDS model of leadership—offers an example of a remarkably effective triangular order that echoes leadership principles found in the unity of the three members of the Godhead. Wisely, the American Constitution set up three branches of government—the executive, legislative and judicial—all three of which are equally important in enabling government to stand stably, like a tripod, even on uneven ground. Any economy benefits from the triangularity of three sectors—the governmental, commercial, and voluntary non-profit sectors—all cooperatively performing their essential parts. The idea of covenant marriage envisions a three-way configuration involving God, a husband, and a wife: “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Seeing marriage as a three-party covenantal arrangement protects it from the all-too-frequent break ups due to two-party breakdowns.
How are these threesomes, and all people, going to navigate their way through perilous contemporary waters? Without wanting to diverge too far off my main subject tonight, let me simply suggest that the answer to this question lies in better understanding the inalienable relationship between rights and duties; here we are again in the arms of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which raises head-on the question of moral duties. Who had a duty to stop and show compassion to the one who had fallen among the thieves? What factors gave rise to that duty? As I have written recently in the Law School’s Clark Memorandum, I am concerned that modern society sees the relationship between rights and duties backwards, but perhaps the Good Samaritan offers ways to correct that shortfall.
Briefly stated, my point is that the idea of duties has fallen on hard times lately as the rights trajectory of the twentieth century has taken center stage. While I certainly applaud these important steps forward in strengthening rights, I hope that the twenty-first century will see a reciprocal emphasis on duties, to bring this disparity back into balance.
Implicit in this balancing act lies a crucial point. The world usually thinks that because I have a right, someone else has a duty, namely, for them to fulfill my right. Classical contract theory, for example, which describes the relationship between two parties to a contract, says, “If I have a contractual right, then you have a duty. If you have a right, then I have a duty.” And that is true as far as it goes. But duties and rights are not polar opposites. Indeed, because every right confers some power, either to act or to prevent someone else from acting, and because every power is innately laden with some sort of duty—for all power is necessarily used either for good or ill—and finally because it is intuitive that people have a duty to do what is good, therefore with every power-conferring right comes some duty. The world is not a duty-free shop! Consequently, as I see it, in every right, power, or privilege that I have, I have some duty. And the greater the power a person has, the higher the duty. This is most evident in cases of high-level fiduciaries, but in cases of weaker powers, obligations also exist but at lower levels. Thus, if I have the right and therefore the power to drive, with it I have the duty to obey the traffic laws, to drive carefully and respectfully. Because I have a right and power to speak, others have a duty to let me speak, but I also have the duty to speak honestly and fairly, and to reciprocate by listening.
I believe it will lift society and strengthen core institutions if people realize that rights and duties go hand in hand, if they read and talk more about duties and responsibilities, tell stories about people who did their duty even under difficult conditions, and encourage students to write more about the interconnectedness of rights and duties.
Joseph Smith sensed this as well. He was wary of rights without duties. He championed the guarantee of freedom but only so far as the use of freedom “aids in the fulfillment of duty,” and he opposed what some were calling “human rights” when their use was intended to “foment divisions” and detract from civic unity. Beginning in 1948, Mahatma Gandhi insightfully insisted that to go together with the famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there should be a Universal Declaration on Human Duties. Perhaps the Preamble, at the beginning of the Constitution, might come to be seen as our Bill of Duties, going hand in hand with the Bill of Rights, at the end of the Constitution.
All of this brings us, again, back to the parable of the Good Samaritan. As mentioned above, the early Christians understood the priest and the Levite as representing the Law of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, and so the medieval window makers surrounded this stage of the parable with images from the life of Moses. Thus, while the priest and Levite fell short in their duty to be of physical assistance to the fallen man, helping as far as their capabilities allowed, they should not be vilified for not saving fallen man, for they did not have the power to do that.
And at the same time, think about the willingly compliant innkeeper who collaborated with the Good Samaritan. Why did this innkeeper undertake the responsibility to care for the wounded man, perhaps even for a long time? While he may have hoped that the Samaritan would actually come that way again, what Jewish innkeeper would have trusted a Samaritan to return to make good on that promise? And didn’t he realize that it might adversely affect business if he took this bleeding, groaning, wounded man into his inn? As the parable is set up, the innkeeper had a power, a fire, a loaf of bread, and shelter overhead, and thus he had a duty to give.
There are many answers to the question, why should and do we serve? Each of these reasons should be examined and articulated.
King Benjamin’s masterful oration gives many reasons why we, like this innkeeper, should do our duty to serve. Reasons include, because it gives us joy, because we have been commanded to or have covenantally agreed to and will be judged on how we do, but more compellingly because we have received benefits from God and others, and can repay those debts only by serving in return. And more essentially because, when we are truly converted, we cannot do otherwise, and we should be true to whom we really are; and in the end because when we serve with the Master, we come to know the Master’s voice, which we should hear, know, and follow. As President Monson has said, when we contemplate the words of King Benjamin, that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17), “an entire vista of opportunity is unfolded to our view.”
Surely part of that vista is the realization that the world today is more like an interconnected village than an open frontier sparsely populated by unrelated people. Much wisdom is to be found in John Donne’s famous meditation that begins, “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Which brings us to another, final truth I find revealed in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable teaches us that, permanently and inevitably, life is not a solo operation. Every person is inevitably our neighbor whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, even if it is inconvenient to do so. Other people in need will always co-exist with us in each stage or sphere of our eternal existence. The end of all of life’s journeys, therefore, is communion with other people. Embracing this reality transforms who we think we are and what we ought to do. Through the system of pipelines and lifelines that connect us all with all other people flows this clear and revealing truth that other people are always with us.
Unforgettable for me was Truman’s demolition of the foundation of Sartre’s Existentialism of extreme individualism. Whereas Sartre had said, “Hell is other people,” Truman happily countered, “Heaven is other people!” His proof: we cannot be saved without our kindred dead.
And what would heaven be without other people? Joseph Smith boldly taught, “The same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2). A few weeks later, on May 21, 1843, Joseph Smith said, “I do not wish to be a great deal better than anybody else. If a prophet was so much better than anybody else was, he would inherit a glory far beyond what anyone else would inherit and behold he would be alone, for who would be his company in heaven?” No one, and who would want that?
In a strong sense, every human being here on earth is a spirit child of the same heavenly parents. And this invites us to rethink the spurious Western notion of self. Normally people think that morality is doing what is best for “oneself.” But Polonius’s line, “To thine own self be true and then thou canst not be false to any man,” begs the question, what is this self to whom I should be true? If one’s self is more than just one’s body, as it surely is, then why should the self not include other people, all of whom are inescapably a part of our eternal selves? I for one would feel that I had lost more of my self if I were to lose Jeannie than if I were to lose my hands, my feet, my eyes, or my ears. Thus, helping other people paradoxically turns out to be helping our selves, while ignoring others harms our selves.
This ethic of other people is concisely stated in the Golden Rule, which is found in the Sermon on the Mount and in various forms in most religious traditions. Jesus said, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12); Hillel, the compiler of the Mishnah, said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the whole Torah.” God himself epitomizes this rule in affirming, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39), basically meaning, as he wants immortality and eternal life for himself, so he will do unto us so that we can have the same and become like him, so we can all belong to each other.
As Truman was wont to say, “How can we know who we are until we know whose we are?”
Understanding the self in this expansive way makes morality not just a matter of drawing a circle large or small enough to include or exclude certain other people. The parable of the Good Samaritan countenances no such malleability of morals. The man who had fallen among the robbers, whoever he was, was a part of the self of every priest, Levite, or Samaritan passing on that road, whom they needed to love so that they could love that part of their selves.
Even Jesus understood that he was not alone. Truman liked to wander amidst the gnarled olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we are confronted by a small sculpture etched into a wall. It depicts Jesus kneeling at what appears to be a rough-hewn altar. Seeing this Truman wrote,
We are gripped by a sense of total exhaustion. Christ’s body not only kneels but stretches out under the weight upon him—drawn, spent, limp, anguished, writhing under the strain. . . . Even with his inherent gifts of divine intrusion, he still could not turn this oppressive grinding millstone alone. A moment came, the record says, when ‘there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.’ And then ‘he prayed more earnestly’ (Luke 22:43-44). Out of all the panoply of heaven, who would be sent as a celestial Samaritan on this mission of mercy? Someone he knew? Someone who knew him? And how was power transmitted on that awful and tormenting night?”
So, even the Samaritan could use a Samaritan.
While we don’t have answers to those questions, Truman continued,
One truth emerges. If he could not go it alone, neither can we—not without his strengthening us. To endure and overcome the world, our all is required. But our all is not enough. It must combine with his. Only he can lift us to the full reaches of our potential. Much in our secular society says, “Oh, yes I can. I can do it my way.” But that is disabling vanity. . . . For those of us near despair who cry, “Oh no, even with him I cannot go through with this,” he replies, “I can lift. I will heal.” That night he was stretched to reach both human extremities— to the petulant and proud, and to the depressed and despairing.”
And now, let me draw this story to its conclusion by asking, who are you in this parable? What is our “reader response” to this story?
Are you the man who went down? Yes. Surely we have all come down; we are all injured, and are all in need of a rescuer, a savior. Consider this painting by Vincent Van Gogh, one of the very last he painted as he desperately hoped that someone would come to his rescue. As you can see from the profile of the face of the man being lifted up onto the Samaritan’s horse, art historians believe—based on a sketch of his profile made right after he had died—that Vincent painted himself into this poignant scene in this ever-generative parable.
Or are you the rescuer who shewed compassion? Yes. We are that person too, for we are not just politely invited, but commanded to “Go and do likewise,” to become, in effect, saviors with the Samaritan on Mount Zion (Obadiah 1:21). The Greek word here for “likewise” is homoi?s. It is a strong word, not just meaning “as, or something like” but “in the same way, of the same nature, of equal greatness or importance.” With this moral mandate to do precisely likewise, a broad duty exists, not just to help people we happen to chance upon but also others we seek out. Since Luke’s text does not say that the Samaritan just happened to be there, I like to think that the Samaritan was out looking out for people to help; he came prepared with oil, wine, and bandages. Perhaps this was not the first person he had rescued and taken to that inn.
And how about the priest and the Levite? Certainly, we are priests and Levites too, for there will always be things that we cannot do, as much as we might want to fix certain problems or to heal wounded or grieving souls. As much as we try, and as much as restorative, distributive, or social theories of justice should strive to make up all inequities or losses as possible, there will always be injuries that are beyond our ability to repair. For those, we all must look to Jesus Christ and wait upon him for the things that only he can do.
And what about the innkeeper: Are you an innkeeper? Most certainly we are. We are our brother’s keepers. If you have any power, any station of trust in a family or society, or any sacred vocation or church calling, then you have the good fortune to serve those under the reach of that power.
And don’t forget the robbers. Aren’t we sometimes robbers too? I’m afraid so. We beat up on each other, wounding and harming as we go.
So we are everywhere in the parable, and the correct answer to this exam question is “all of the above.” I believe that it would it strengthen all social institutions if people saw the parable of the Good Samaritan this way, and cast themselves in all of its roles, realizing that we are not just role playing but are playing for keeps.
At the center of all that I have said tonight is the sacred heart of Jesus Christ, overseeing this all. He cast himself as the Samaritan. He binds us to himself. He brings us to the inn. He promises to come again, and he tells us to go and do the same as he did.
Although the world wishes to see human relations and social institutions in purely secular veins, it is the living water of Christ that flows through the connecting vessels, the channels of our souls, to bring these principles to real life. With apologies to Descartes, we can say, “I am a branch. Therefore I am.” Relationships are the fundamental realities. “I am the vine, ye are the branches, . . . without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
But not only does the Samaritan represent Christ as the rescuer, there are hints that the man who comes down from the Holy Place also represents Jesus, who–like us–became flesh. Yet another interpretation saw the man who came down as representing not only the first Adam, but also the second Adam or Christ. For as we survey the wondrous cross, Jesus too was beaten, wounded, stripped, had people cast lots for his raiment, and was passed over by Jewish and Roman leaders who did not come to his help.
Jesus knew that not everyone would be able to believe what he said when he declared, “I am the light and the life of the world.” He still invited them in, saying, then do what you can. Do what I teach, which would be epitomized by his parables and especially the Good Samaritan. And if it works, you will know that whereof I have spoken I have spoken truth (John 7:17).
Under the feet of the Christus statute in the Copenhagen Cathedral, an inscription reads, “Come unto me.” And a second below it promises, “And lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world” (Mt 28:20).
And so it is that in and through the blood of Christ and through the restored and restoring gospel of Jesus Christ, we can be made whole—all of us, as a whole, reunited—and enjoy life eternal, which is what the good lawyer, whose questions triggered this timeless parable, thankfully sought.
 Ola Gjielo, “Evening Prayer.”
Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 98.
 Conference addresses in April 1977 and April 1992.
 As I have I have discussed in some detail in BYU Studies, 38:2 (1999).
 See John W. Welch, “The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols,” Ensign 37 (February 2007): 40-47, and Liahona 31 no. 2 (February 2007): 26-33.
 Matthew 13:15; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 98. In Matthew 13:18-23, Jesus gives the symbolic meaning of the parable of the Sower; in Matthew 13:36-43, Jesus declared the meaning of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares.
 See especially Christopher D. Marshall, Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 13-176. Even if Marshall might reject the idea that the Good Samaritan was intended to be “a thinly veiled self-reference” to Jesus, he still insists that “the Samaritan in the story does what Jesus himself is portrayed as doing throughout his career, especially in the Gospel of Luke: he brings a divine like compassion to bear on abject human need, disregarding the conventional boundaries of ritual and religion to do so” (26).
 Martin Luther King Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967.
 By Emily Esfahani Smith, June 12, 2014.
 Truman G. Madsen Interview with David Fiske 1982 – Truman G. Madsen Journal Fall 84-85, Box 6, in possession of Barney Madsen.
 Truman G. Madsen, Why I Believe, 219.
 These quotations come from David Dominguez, “Samaritan Justice: Empowering Culturally Diverse Communities to Prevent Local Schools from Becoming Pipelines to Juvenile Prisons,” http://d10.cgpublisher.com/proposals/108/index_html, or from an email from him to me on November 13, 2014.
 DHC 5:516-518; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 316; Willard Richards Journal, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1980), 234 (July 23, 1843).
 Reported by Charles Randall Paul, “Four LDS Views on Harold Bloom: A Roundtable,” BYU Studies 35, no. 1 (1995): 193.
 Truman G. Madsen, “Jerusalem the Branch,” TGM Journal 1989, Box 7.
 John W. Welch, “Toward a Mormon Jurisprudence,” Regent Law Review 21:1 (2008-2009), 95-96. Available athttp://www.mormoninterpreter.com/?s=welch+jurisprudence&submit=Search.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “On Being a Good Neighbor,” in Strength to Love (1963), quoted in Goodwin Liu, “Martin Luther and the Good Samaritan,” Clark Memorandum (Spring 2014), 35.
 John W. Welch, “The 21st Century as the Century of Duties?” Clark Memorandum (Spring 2013).
 Welch, Toward a Mormon Jurisprudence, 99.
 See the work ofWesley Newcomb Hohfeld, including Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Legal Reasoning, 23 Yale Law Journal 16-59 (1913).
 Of the twenty or so legal propositions advanced in the statement on governments and laws in general (D&C 134), over half of these assertions of rights are qualified, limited, or tempered by conditions, provisos, or exceptions.
 As he stated in his 1844 presidential campaign brochure, Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.
 See Richard L. Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth: Essential Writings by and About Mahatma Gandhi 185 (2006).
 See e.g. Declaration of Responsibilities and Human Duties, Globalization.icaap.org (2002) http://globalization.icaap.org/content/v2.2/declare.html (an example of an attempt to realize Gandhi’s idea); see also Press Release from the United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization, Declaration of Human Rights and Responsibilities , Written in Valencia, Presented to UNESCO Director-General (April 28, 1999) available at http://www.unesco.org/bpi/eng/unescopress/1999/99-92e.shtml.
 Hymn 219
 King Benjamin’s profound ethical logic is discussed in John W. Welch, “A Masterful Oration,” in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,” (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 77-82.
 Conference address, April 1990.
 John Donne, 3 Works of John Donne 574-75 (1839), accessed at http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/meditation17.php.
 Recorded by Willard Richards, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 204.
 As my friend Howard A. Christy has especially taught me.
 Source needed.
 Truman G. Madsen, The Sacrament: Feasting at the Lord’s Table, 8.
I am grateful to be with you tonight brothers and sisters and friends, and appreciate this kind, very kind, overly kind invitation. I am honored to be invited to deliver the Truman G. Madsen lecture. Truman Madsen had a way of blending seamlessly his academic training and philosophy and religion and his spiritual knowledge and conviction. One of the first books was Eternal Man. It stirred my soul and sent my mind reeling. Reading it I began to appreciate that Mormonism was able to hold its own amid the great religions of the world, that it was more than capable of withstanding rigorous study and scrutiny. As a young man, one of my most precious possessions was that book, which I now try to read at least once a year.
Consider or reconsider the following, rather bold, stunning remark by Joseph Smith, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” Hence, if somehow by some unfortunate means people begin to misconstrue God, they will never really grasp what man is.[*] Truman Madsen pointed out that, to the extent that this teaching about the true nature of man has been blurred or dismissed, many imponderables and paradoxes have arisen in theological anthropology. Consider some of these. In the centuries following the Savior’s ascension into heaven, the deaths of his Twelve Apostles, and the loss of the keys of the priesthood within the Church of Jesus Christ, questions arose and debates ensued regarding many theological points, particularly the nature of God and the Godhead. Issues that received special attention included, “What is the relationship between the Father and the Son? Was Christ a created being or was he co-eternal with the Father? Is Christ subordinate to the Father or is he equal in might, power and glory? Who or what is the Holy Spirit and does that spirit proceed from God the Father, God the Son, or both the Father and the Son? Are there three divine beings, two gods, or one God?”
In an effort to satisfy the accusations of Jews who denounced the notion of three members of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as polytheistic, and at the same time to incorporate ancient but appealing Greek philosophical concepts of an all-powerful, moving force in the universe, the Christian church began to redefine the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They adopted a strict monotheism, the belief that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, but ontologically one being. This belief demonstrated an absolute distinction between the superiority of mind and the inferiority of created things. It also reflected the total transcendence of a deity existing outside time and space, a God incomprehensible and unknowable, the incorporeal Almighty, without body, parts, or passions, unchangeable through all time. In short, creedal statements emerged over centuries of theological debate over the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—statements which would, in time, become the heart of Christian doctrine.
What was the result? One Christian scholar observed, “The classical theological tradition became misguided when, under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, it defined God’s perfection in static, timeless terms.” All change was considered an imperfection and thus not applicable to God, or as one group of evangelical Christian scholars put it:
The inevitable encounter between Biblical and Classical thought in the early church generated many significant insights and helped Christianity evangelize Pagan thought and culture. Along with the good, however, came a certain theological virus that infected the Christian doctrine of God, making it ill and creating the sorts of problems mentioned above. The virus so permeates Christian theology today, that some have come to take the illness for granted, attributing it to divine mystery while others remain unaware of the infection all together.
The redefinition of God that had been formalized and codified through Christian councils created quite naturally a very different view of man. A number of years ago, the Christian theologian, Emil Brunner, spoke of the divide between God and man. He wrote this:
There is no greater sense of distance than that which lies in the words Creator—creation. Now this is the first and the fundamental thing which can be said about man: He is a creature, and as such he is separated by an abyss from the divine manner of being. The greatest dissimilarity between two things which we can express at all— more dissimilar than light and darkness, death and life, good and evil—is that between the Creator and that which is created.
It is only natural for those who believe that God and humanity are basically of a different substance and thus of a different race to also believe that God is a totally unattached and uncreated being, to conclude that there was a time when only God existed and thus that the creation had to be ex nihilo, out of nothing. For there to be anything in the universe to which God would turn, or upon which he would rely, in constructing the worlds, for example, is to suggest the unthinkable. Theologians could never even entertain the notion that element is as eternal as He. Unfortunately, as Karen Armstrong pointed out, the adoption of such doctrine “represented a fundamental change in the Christian understanding of both God and the world.” This doctrinal view “tore the universe [and the children of God] away from God,” thus transforming the inhabitants of planet Earth into “an entirely different nature than the substance of the living God.”
Yet another belief arising in the early Christian centuries, which served to broaden and deepen the god-man chasm, was the doctrine of human depravity. It postulates that as a result of the rebellion and fall of our first parents, the human family inherits genetically the sin of Adam and Eve and a nature so bent, so warped, that humans do not really have the capacity to choose the right or the good on their own. This tenet, still fundamental to much of Christendom, was elaborated and codified by Augustine, and then resurrected by Luther and Calvin and other leaders of the Reformation as one of the fundamentals of the faith. That distance between deity and humanity certainly persisted and perhaps even expanded by Joseph Smith’s day. About that distance Richard Mouw, at Fuller Seminary, said
While Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy espoused [very different—indeed opposing—metaphysical systems], with Joseph arguing for a thorough-going physicalism and the founder of Christian Science arguing for thorough-going mentalism—they each were motivated by a desire to reduce the distance between God and human beings. These two reduce-the-distance theologies emerged in an environment shaped significantly by the high Calvinism of New England Puritanism. I think it can be plausibly argued that New England theology, while rightly, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, stressing the legitimate metaphysical distance between God and his human creatures, nonetheless at the same time fostered an unhealthy spiritual distance between the Calvinist deity and his human subjects.
You will recall that young Joseph Smith found himself unable to find either comfort or clarity through a study of the Bible. Given the various competing interpretations of the Biblical text. Richard Bushman offered the following, I think very perceptive, assessment of the challenge Joseph faced. Richard wrote, “At some level, Joseph’s revelations indicate a loss of trust in the Christian ministry, for all their learning and eloquence, their clergy could not be trusted with the Bible. They did not understand what the book meant.” This is an important point. Richard continues:
It was a record of revelations and the ministry had turned it into a handbook. The Bible had become a text to be interpreted rather than experience to be lived. In the process, the power of the book was lost . . . It was the power thereof that Joseph and other visionaries of his time sought to recover. Not getting it from the ministry, they look for it themselves.
That is Joseph Smith’s significance for our time. He stood on the contested ground where the Enlightenment and Christianity confronted one another, and his life posed the question, Do you believe God speaks? Joseph was swept aside, of course, in the rush of ensuing intellectual battles and was disregarded by the champions of both great systems, but his mission was to hold out for the reality of divine revelation and establish one small outpost where that principle survived. Joseph’s revelatory principle is not a single revelation serving for all time, as the Christians of his day believed regarding the incarnation of Christ, nor a mild sort of inspiration seeping into the minds of all good people, but specific, ongoing directions from God to his people. At a time when the origins of Christianity were under assault by the forces of Enlightenment rationality, Joseph Smith returned modern Christianity to its origins in revelation.
Very perceptive. Thankfully, the Almighty did not intend for things to remain in a spiritually disrupted condition, for he provided a medicine for the malady.
Among other things, Joseph Smith was charged to restore a correct knowledge of God and man. To assist humanity in accomplishing this near impossible task, God had been about the business of orchestrating things in preparation for that revolution we call the Restoration. This marvelous work and a wonder was not to take place without immense and intricate preparation by divine providence. People would be in place, concepts and points of view would be in the air, hearts would be open to a new revelation in an unprecedented manner. Nothing was to be left to chance. The First Vision in the spring of 1820 was essentially the beginning of revelation of God to man in this final dispensation. Brother Joseph learned that the Father and the Son were separate and distinct personages, separate Gods, and thus that the creedal statements concerning the triune deity were incorrect. While Unitarians believed that the first and second members of the Godhead were distinct beings, most Christians subscribed to the doctrine of the Trinity. Only 11 days before his death, the Prophet Joseph stated, “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.” Notice he said, “I have always taught that.”
From the Prophet Joseph we learn that God is more than a word, more than an essence, a force, a law, more than the great first cause. He has form, shape, an image, a likeness. He is a he; he has gender. We are uncertain when the young prophet learned that God has a physical body. We can’t tell whether he learned it at the time of the First Vision simply because he doesn’t mention it. On the other hand, note the following from Joseph Smith’s Bible translation of Genesis, what we now have in the sixth chapter of Moses. This would have been early November-December in 1830. “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; In the image of his own body, male and female, created he them, and blessed them . . . .”[†] The doctrine of divine embodiment is inextricably linked to such doctrines as the immortality of the soul, the incarnation of Christ, the literal resurrection, eternal marriage, and a continuation of the family unit into eternity. We are given to understand from Brother Joseph and his successors, that in his corporeal or physical nature, God can be in only one place at a time. His divine nature is such that his glory, his power, and his influence (meaning what we call the Light of Christ) fills the immensity of space and is the means by which he is omnipresent and through which law and light and life are extended to us.
Joseph Smith certainly did not believe that God’s physical body limited the Father in his divine capacity, or detracted one whit from his infinite holiness, any more than Christ’s resurrected body did so. The risen Lord said of himself, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.”[‡] In the LDS tradition, Truman Madsen noted, “The physical body is not the muffling and imprisoning of the spirit. The body is the spirit’s enhancement. It is an instrument of redemption; and the instrument itself is to be redeemed.” In Joseph’s view, Bushman pointed out in another occasion, making God corporeal (physical) did not reduce him. Joseph had little sense of the flesh being base. In contrast to conventional theologies, Joseph saw embodiment as a glorious aspect of human existence. Research by David Paulsen of our BYU philosophy department, demonstrates that God’s corporeality was taught in early Christian church and into the fourth and fifth centuries before being lost to the knowledge of the people.
I have been very interested in the work of scholars outside our own faith, who have dared to explore the notion of God having a physical body. James Kugel, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, has written that some scholars’ most basic assumptions about God, including the idea that he has no body but exists everywhere simultaneously, are not articulated in the most ancient parts of the Bible. “In time, the God who spoke to Moses directly, “became an embarrassment to later theologians,” he wrote. “‘It is,’ they said, ‘really the great, universal God [who is] omniscient and omnipresent and utterly unphysical.’” He says, “Indeed, does not the eventual emergence of Christianity, in particular Nicene Christianity with its doctrine of the Trinity, likewise represent in its own way an attempt to fill the gap left by the God of old?” The late Christian theologian, Clark Pinnock, has written:
If we are able to take Biblical metaphors seriously, is God in some way embodied? Critics will be quick to say that, although there are expressions of this idea in the Bible, they are not to be taken literally. But I do not believe that the idea is as foreign to the Bible’s view of God as we have assumed. In tradition, God is thought to function primarily as a disembodied spirit, but this is scarcely a biblical idea. Having a body is certainly not a negative thing, since it makes possible for us to be agents. Perhaps God’s agency would be easier to envisage if he were in some way corporeal. Add to that the fact that in the theophanies of the Old Testament God encounters humans in the form of a man. Add to that the fact that God took on a body in the incarnation and Christ has taken that body with him into glory. It seems to me that the Bible does not think of God as formless.
Stephen Webb, Roman Catholic scholar and previous Truman Madsen lecturer, pointed out that far from being nothing, matter for the Latter-day Saints is the very stuff of the divine:
Joseph Smith rejected the philosophical move, stretching all the way back to Plato, of dividing the world into immaterial and material substances. . . . [William] Tyndale was just as controversial in his day as Smith was during his. Tyndale wanted to get the Bible into the hands of everyday believers, while Smith wanted to open the ears of ordinary people to divine revelation. Reformers like Tyndale broke the Catholic church’s political and religious power in Europe and let loose a host of social changes that they could not have anticipated and were not able to control.
Webb then poses this rather fascinating question, “Could it be that Smith, who had virtually no formal education, put in motion ideas that will overthrow the consensus of Western theological immaterialism?” I cite these scholars and religious thinkers who are not of the LDS faith not because Mormons seek or require some kind of academic imprimatur to hold to such doctrine, but to demonstrate that a theological concept revealed to the prophet in the formative years of Mormonism may not be as strange or as radical as many traditional Christians make it out to be.
The Saints may have been teaching and discussing God’s physical body as early as 1835 or 1836. Professor Milton Backman brought to light many years ago a description of Mormonism by a Protestant clergyman in Ohio: Truman Coe, a Presbyterian minister. He had for four years lived among the Saints in Kirtland and he published the following in the 11 August 1836 Ohio Observer regarding the beliefs of the Mormons. “They contend that the God worshipped by the Presbyterians and all other sectarians, is no better than a wooden God. They believe that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts that when the Creator formed Adam in his own image, he made him about the size and shape of God himself.” The known earliest reference in a sermon by Joseph Smith to the corporeality of God seems to be 5 January 1841. On that occasion, William Clayton recorded the prophet saying, “That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones.” Six weeks later, Joseph said concerning the Godhead, that it was not as many imagined: three heads and one body. He said the three were separate bodies. On 9 March 1841, he declared that the Son had a tabernacle and so had the Father. Finally, on 2 April 1843 in Ramus, Illinois, Brother Joseph delivered instructions on the matter, the basis for section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also. [The Holy Ghost] is a personage of spirit.”[§]
I have been asked a question many times over the years by persons of other faiths. The question? Where is the LDS concept of the nature of man? It seems that what they want to know is this. Do we believe that men and women are basically good or basically evil? I generally respond with a question of my own: To which man do you refer? To fallen or mortal man, or are you speaking of eternal man?
Let me explain my response. How would Joseph Smith have learned about humanity, whether men and women are depraved or divine? It seems to me that his first serious entry into theological anthropology, the nature of humanity, would have come through his exposure to the teachings of the Book of Mormon prophets. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery would have learned through the translation of the golden plates that because Adam and Eve transgressed by partaking of the forbidden fruit, they were cast from the Garden of Eden and the presence of the Lord. They experienced spiritual death. Blood, sweat, toil, opposition, bodily decay, and finally physical death came as a result. Even though the Fall was a vital part of the great plan of an eternal God, as much a foreordained act as Christ’s intercession, our state, including our relationship to and contact with God, changed dramatically with the Fall. Even though the Book of Mormon often presents what is called “the fortunate Fall,” that “Adam fell that men might be,”[**] the prophets within that record proclaim fearlessly and repeatedly that all humanity is in a lost and fallen state and will remain so unless they rely on the Redeemer. Again, the coming of the Redeemer presupposes the need for redemption. We learn also that, from the Book of Mormon, although God forgave our first parents of their transgression, although there is no original sin entailed upon Adam and Eve’s children, and although the Son of God has atoned for original guilt, that is not to tell the whole story. To concede that we are not accountable for or condemned by the Fall of Adam is not to say we are unaffected by it.
No, we do not believe with Augustine and the Reformers in the moral depravity of humanity, that human beings, because of intrinsic or genetic carnality, do not even have the power to choose good over evil, or that children are born in sin. Yet the Book of Mormon prophets knew very well that since man had fallen, he could not merit anything of himself, but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins through faith and repentance. President Brigham Young, who declared that everything he’d learned about the restored gospel he learned from Joseph Smith, taught, “It requires all the atonement of Christ, the mercy of the Father, the pity of angels, and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to be with us always, and then to do the very best that we possibly can, to get rid of this sin within us, so we can escape from this world into the Celestial Kingdom.”
Now, let’s point ourselves in a different direction. Joseph Smith learned also by revelation that man is an eternal being. The doctrine of the premortal existence of men and women comes surprisingly early in the Prophet Joseph’s ministry. It appears that the first mention of such an idea in the restored gospel is to be found in the Book of Mormon in the thirteenth chapter of Alma. Here we read of men being prepared and ordained, we would say foreordained, for the priesthood from the foundation of the world. Orson Pratt indicated, however, that this passage in the Book of Mormon simply did not register with him and it was not until he encountered the Prophet’s inspired translation of the early chapters of Genesis, what we now have as the Book of Moses, that he could recognize the doctrine.
This may have been the case with Joseph Smith as well. Between June and October 1830, the Bible translators, Joseph and Oliver, made their way deliberately through those early chapters of the Bible until they came to the end of the creation of the heavens and the earth. Then these words appear in the new translation:
I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. For I, the Lord God, had not caused it to rain upon the face of the earth. And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven, created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air.[††]
Soon thereafter, we read in the inspired translation of the Council in Heaven, wherein Jehovah was chosen to be the Savior and Redeemer, the chief proponent and advocate of the Father’s Plan of Salvation, while Lucifer’s nefarious and amendatory offer was refused, and he and his minions were cast down to earth.
Within a matter of weeks, a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants spoke of a much larger group in the council, “A third part of the hosts of heaven turned [Lucifer] away from me because of their agency; And they were thrust down, and thus became the devil and his angels.”[‡‡] Then within three months, Joseph and the Saints learned via the Bible translation that God called upon Adam by his own voice saying, “I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh.”[§§] In Section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants, this is in May of 1833, which is, again, very early in Joseph’s ministry, we read the following: “Now verily I say unto you,” (the Savior is speaking), “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; and all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.”[***] Herein is contained the scriptural basis for the Latter-day Saint belief that Jehovah was the firstborn spirit child of the Father, a teaching alluded to in the New Testament. An official proclamation in 1909 teaches this that “Jesus . . . is the firstborn among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the Spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh . . . we, like him, are in the image of God.” Section 93 continues, “Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth . . . . Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”[†††] Clearly there is something within the human being, call it intelligence or ego or some primal essence, that has always lived and indeed has no beginning. Most Christians wrap their mind around the fact that we will continue to live after this mortal life comes to an end, that there is in fact a post-death immortality of the soul, that because Jesus rose from the tomb, so will each and every one of us rise from the dead. In other words, what Jesus made possible for each of us is the inseparable union of body and spirit that comes with the Resurrection. We know that even if the Resurrection did not take place, we would continue to live forever as disembodied entities, for we are beings who are without beginning or end. This revelation to Joseph Smith adds a unique and profound insight into the Christian concept of immortality, a perspective that is singularly Latter-day Saint, namely that we have been, are, and will forevermore be immortal persons. As Truman put it, “Man as self had a beginningless beginning. He has never been identified wholly with any other being. Nor is he a product of nothing.”
The Prophet Joseph continued to turn the key of knowledge and pull back the veil concerning the eternal nature of men and women in his King Follett discourse, delivered in Nauvoo on the seventh of April 1844. In speaking of the mind of man, the immortal spirit, the Prophet said:
Where did it come from? All learned men and doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning; but it is not so: the very idea lessens man in my estimation . . . We say that God himself is a self-existent being. Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles? Man does exist upon the same principles . . . I am dwelling on the immortality of the spirit of man. Is it logical to say that the intelligence of spirits is immortal, and yet that it had a beginning? The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. [Joseph goes on:] That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end.
In short, Brother Joseph taught that this property called by philosophers “aseity,” or necessary self-existence, is in any characteristic of both deity and humanity.
Joseph responded to the universally accepted Christian doctrine of an ex nihilo creation, creation out of nothing, by declaring that the Hebrew word translated create, really means to organize, implying that Deity drew upon already existing matter. Joseph taught:
We infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos, chaotic matter, which is element, which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time God had. The purer principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed. They may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, they can have no end.
Truman Madsen trumpeted the distinctive LDS perspective on who we are and what we may become in these words:
What the eternal Father wants for you and with you is the fullness of your possibilities. And those possibilities are infinite. And he did not simply make you from nothing into a worm; he adopted and begat you into his likeness in order to share his nature. And he sent his Firstborn Son to exemplify just how glorious that nature can be—even in mortality. That is our witness.
Of man’s divine capabilities, Joseph said on one occasion, “We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, until he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin.”
About thirty years ago, I stepped outside my front door to retrieve the newspaper. As I bent down, I noticed also a small plastic bag containing a paperback book. I opened the package, noticed the title, and sensed what kind of book it was. After reading the first page, I recognized it as an anti-Mormon publication that I learned later was distributed to about 50,000 LDS homes that morning. It was written by an ex-Mormon, now a Protestant minister, to invite Mormons to save themselves from deception and leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as soon as possible, as well as to warn other unwary persons of the evils of this cultish clan.
During the next few days, I browsed the book, stopping occasionally to carefully read certain selections that appeared particularly interesting. I settled on one segment in which the author was attempting to prepare readers for the coming of the Mormon missionaries to their door. He warned them to be certain not to listen to anything these young men and young women had to say, and certainly not to allow them into their homes. If, however, the missionaries were somehow able to mischievously make their way into their living rooms, the missionaries would deliver their message, and they would prevail upon their hosts to pray about it. The author said, “This you must not do. Do not get on your knees, and do not pray.” He then explained why. “Because our natures are so corrupted with evil, our minds so polluted with sin, and our feelings so twisted and scarred by Satanic influences, there are three things,” he wrote, “men and women can never trust in determining the truthfulness of a religious claim. We cannot trust our thoughts. We cannot trust our feelings, and we cannot trust our prayers. If we do,” he said, “we will be deceived. There is only one thing in this life that we can trust,” he hastened to add. “We can trust the Holy Bible.” I did smile for a few seconds, but then found myself filled with sadness. How tragic. How terribly unfortunate for a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to discourage anyone from thinking, feeling, and praying about matters of eternal import. It reminded me of what Nephi had taught, that God always encourages his children to pray. It is “the evil spirit that teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.”[‡‡‡] I also shook my head, almost in disbelief, wondering how a person could trust the Bible in its teachings if he or she could not think, feel, or pray without fear of deception.
I also had a shiver run down my spine as I reflected on a poignant remark made in the Liberty Jail by Joseph Smith. “None but fools,” he said, “will trifle with the souls of men.” Less than two months before his martyrdom, Joseph the seer remarked concerning the work he had set in motion. “I calculate,” he said, “to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of God foreseen by Daniel by the word of the Lord. I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.” Bold? Certainly. Audacious? Perhaps, at least in the minds of many. Indeed, the work of the Restoration was destined to be in every way revolutionary, radical, certainly heterodox. Joseph went on to say how this was to be done. “It will not be by sword or gun that this kingdom will roll on. The power of truth is such that all nations will be under necessity of obeying the gospel.” If asked to describe the nature of humanity, the Christian world—particularly its more conservative branches—will generally do so in terms of fallen man: the person desperately in need of divine grace and pardoning mercy. And as I have tried to point out, we are not totally in disagreement with our brothers and sisters of other faiths on this matter. The Fall of Adam and Eve was very real and takes a measured toll on us physically and spiritually. Joseph Smith did, however, confront and denounce the concept of human depravity, if that means that men and women do not even have the power to choose good or by extension cannot trust their thoughts, feelings, and prayers.
The scriptures of the Restoration teach otherwise: through the intercession of the Messiah, fallen men and women become redeemed men and women. The Fall and man’s fallen state are necessary ingredients in the plan of God the Father. In the words of Elder Orson F. Whitney, “The Fall had a two-fold direction—downward, yet forward. It brought man into the world and set his feet upon progression’s highway.” The Fall opens the way for the Atonement, and as C.S. Lewis observed once quite wisely, “Redeemed humanity is to be something more glorious than unfallen humanity would have been.” Knowledge of eternal man has come to us through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Such insight is precious, profound, soul satisfying and spiritually elevating. And yes, it is without question revolutionary. Our late friend and colleague, Rodney Turner, never one hesitant to speak his mind, wrote some years ago that, “
To know what God is, is to know what man is and what he may become. The loss of this knowledge, goes far to explain the present plight of humanity. Man, like water, cannot rise higher than his beginnings. If an ever-increasing number of men and women are choosing to wallow in the mire of carnality, we must not forget that they are taught that the human race was spawned in mire. We have little desire to reach for the stars if we do not believe that we came from the stars. That we did is the message of the Restored Gospel. This is why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints testifies that the origin of man is the potential destiny of man.
I would ask, why would we dare take any other course given that, according to the Bible, we have been created in the very image and likeness of God.
Speaking of the image and likeness of God, our beloved friend, Truman Madsen, said this, “One can ascribe to the children of God, more than rationality and creativity. In an embryonic state, other divine attributes and powers inhere in human nature. We are theomorphic.” Further and by logical extension he said, “The ultimate intent and meaning of Christ’s life and death is theosis, the universal transformation of the whole of human nature and the whole of the human family.” In short, in this mortal condition, our second estate, we are as set forth in the Hebrew text of Psalms 8, “a little lower than the gods.”[§§§] Our discussion tonight is not at all about lowering a high and holy God to the level of lowly and languishing humanity. It is about worshipping a being with whom we can identify, one who may be known, understood, approached. One with body, parts, and passions, who like his beloved Son may be touched with the feelings of our infirmities. If it is, as Jesus prayed, life eternal to know God, to know Jesus Christ, how disappointing to find that the wonders and ways of the Godhead had been shrouded in history, never to be understood. Rather it is very much about having a correct view of the character and attributes of God, which then automatically opens the door to understanding man’s nobility and potentiality.
Let’s end where we began. If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves. President Brigham Young simply turned things about and pointed out that to know and understand ourselves and our own being is to know and understand God and his being. Or as the man we honor tonight, Truman Grant Madsen, put it so beautifully, “One begins mortality with the veil drawn, but slowly he is moved to penetrate the veil within himself. He is, in time, led to seek the ‘holy of holies’ within the temple of his own being.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell commented on those poignant counters with forever. “Brothers and sisters,” he said, “in some of those precious and personal moments of deep discovery, there will be a sudden surge of recognition of an immortal insight, the doctrinal déjà vu (if you will). We will sometimes experience a flash from the mirror of memory that beckons us forward toward a far horizon.” These things are true. They matter. They are not merely the product of clever or whimsical theological explorations. They mark the path to understanding the God we worship and the Redeemer we seek to emulate, which is the path to life eternal. When received humbly and gratefully, these teachings are liberating and exhilarating. They point us to an infinite past and a never-ending future. Understanding and accepting them, we begin to turn the pages of our book of eternal possibilities.
[*] I will use the word “man” hereafter exclusively to refer to humankind, male and female.
[†] Moses 6:8-9.
[‡] Matthew 28:18.
[§] D&C 130:22.
[**] 2 Nephi 2:25.
[††] Moses 3:5.
[‡‡] D&C 29:36-37.
[§§] Moses 6:51.
[***] D&C 93:21-22.
[†††] D&C 93:23, 29.
[‡‡‡] 2 Nephi 32:8.
[§§§] Psalms 8:5.
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: LDS Church Printing Division, 2011), 40.
 Steven C. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 197.
 Clark H. Pinnock et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 8-9.
 Emil Brunner and Olive Wyon, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke & Co., 2002), 90.
 Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 87-88.
 Richard Mouw, Meeting of The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Bibilical Literature, (2006), cited in Robert L. Millet and Shon D. Hopkin, Mormonism: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 200.
 Richard L. Bushman et al., Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 274.
 Joseph Smith, Jr., in History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51), 6:474.
 Truman G. Madsen, “The Latter-day Saint View of Human Nature,” in On Human Nature: The Jerusalem Center Symposium, eds. Truman Madsen, David Noel Freedman, and Pam Fox Kuhlken (Ann Arbor, MI: Pypr Penntengill Publishers, 2004), 95.
 David L. Paulsen, “Early Christian Beliefs in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses,” Harvard Theological Review 83 (1990): 105-16, with “Reply to Kim Paffenroth’s Comment,” Harvard Theological Review 86 (1993): 235-39.
 James L. Kugel, The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 63.
 Ibid, 195.
 Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001), 33-34.
 Stephen H. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 81-82.
 Truman Coe, “Mormonism,” Ohio Observer (Hudson, OH), 11 August 1836.
 William Clayton, in “Extracts from William Clayton’s Private Book,” in Journals of L. John Nuttall, 1857 – 1904 (unpublished manuscript in L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah).
 Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. John A. Widtsoe, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954), 93.
 “The Origin of Man,” press release by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, November 1909.
 Smith, 6:302-303.
 Ibid, 6:308-309.
 Truman G. Madsen, “The Highest in Us,” speech given at Brigham Young University, 3 March 1974.
 “The Elders of the Church in Kirtland, to Their Brethren Abroad,” Evening and Morning Star (Independence, MO, February 1834), in History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2:8.
 Joseph Smith, Jr., in History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3:295.
 Smith, 6:364-365.
 Orson F. Whitney, “The Fall and the Redemption,” Improvement Era 24, no. 5 (March 1921), 387.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 122-23.
 Rodney Turner, “The Visions of Moses (Moses 1),” in Studies in Scripture, vol. 2, edited by Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 1985), 45.
 Truman G. Madsen, “The Latter-day Saint View of Human Nature,” 104, 107.
 Madsen, Eternal Man, 19-20.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “Meeting the Challenges of Today,” speech given at Brigham Young University, 10 October 1978.
The 2016 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man was delivered by Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson and is titled, “The Sacred, the Human.” You can read her talk in “What Are We Doing Here?” which is available for purchase at most retail booksellers.
Laurence Hemming of the University of Lancaster presented the 2017 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on the Eternal Man. His remarks are entitled, “Eternal Return: Humanity After Eternity.”
I must begin with words of thanks: to the Wheatley Institute for this invitation to speak to you today. It is a great privilege and honour to be here. My thanks go also to Truman Madsen and the Madsen family for making this lecture possible at all. The publicity for this event speaks of its intent “to bring academic experts and civic leaders ‘to the fire’ at BYU.” For a Catholic, the historic resonances of being “brought to the fire” could be a little alarming. It is testimony to the generosity and gentleness of Mormon hospitality that such a resonance never once occurred to the organizers, let alone Truman Madsen, who, I assume, had coined the phrase himself.
I would like to begin this lecture with some preliminary remarks. Barnard Madsen’s biography of his father was hugely helpful: the man he introduced to me I would have enjoyed to meet. I feel I have met him in spirit, not least through the bearing and superbly intelligent scholarship of a number of Mormon academics I discover he taught, and whom I am already privileged to count within my acquaintance. It is unsurprising to find the names of Hugh Nibley and Jack Welch, two giants, within this circle.
I have witnessed more than once the peculiar phenomenon of non-Mormons, invited onto Mormon platforms, spelling out why we are not Mormon. My experience of the privilege you have accorded me has been rather different: I have learned much more about what it means to be a Catholic from speaking and studying with Latter-day Saints—things I could not have learned by any other means. I receive this experience as a gift, and come to this rostrum tonight in part in thanks for what I have received. There is so much we share, and what I want to offer to you tonight is in that spirit—I want to offer, here, for the first time, some questions concerning something that besets all of us who go under the name of Christian in these present days, especially in the West, and especially, but by no means exclusively, here, in the United States.
Before I open that discussion, a further remark. The little book Eternal Man, if brief, is very rich. It speaks with an encompassing voice. The book Eternal Man, forming as it does the basis of these annual events, is a unique and powerful combination of philosophical prowess and LDS spirituality. I do not wish to encroach upon the presentation it makes of the faith of Latter-day Saints. To be frank, you are better equipped than I am for that, and I look for points where we can meet—rather than focusing on where we might diverge. What would—or at least ought to—strike any Catholic reading this text is the extent to which the book, most deeply understood, is really a dialogue between Truman Madsen and Joseph Smith, his prophet. Catholicism is rich in religious founders: St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St Francis, St Theresa of Avila, to name but a few. Catholics naturally understand what it means to live in a tradition shaped by charismatic founders. We are shaped by those who founded the things we have come to know. I recognized the same thing in Mormonism as soon as I began to realize who Joseph Smith was. In the Catholic tradition, we speak of being, and of having been, shaped, not just by God and in Christ, but also by those in a particular tradition in which we stand. If we are a Benedictine monk, for example, by Saint Benedict. Every Mormon I have ever met is shaped, it seems to me, strongly in the spirit of Joseph Smith.
If Mormonism is one of the newest expressions of Christianity, it manages to accomplish what many Christian traditions increasingly forget to do, and it does so first in the writings and person of Joseph Smith. It reaches into the very soil of history and unearths precious things long hidden, but still at work, still—even when occluded—full of power. Mormonism, and Truman Madsen’s experience of it through his dialogue with Joseph Smith, reaches right back as an incipient expression of some of the West’s most ancient ideas. Incipient means: speaking now and all over again from the beginning, that foundational understanding that constitutes history itself. History, understood like this, is not the mere narration of events in their succession. It is altogether greater and other: it is how that beginning still conditions the experience of the whole, of all that we are. That is what I wish to touch upon, and be in dialogue with, tonight. Right there in the Preface to Eternal Man, Madsen quotes Joseph Smith: “by contraries . . . truth is made manifest.”1 No reference is given, but the quotation comes from a letter of Smith’s to Daniel Rupp of June 5, 1844, citing the prophet Jeremiah. Madsen may have been working from memory, for the exact words of the letter are “by proving contraries.” I take the modification to be important: nowadays we hear the word “proving” in the sense of geometrical demonstration, the resolution of a question of the operation of the mind. But this is not what is meant by “proof” in Joseph Smith’s letter; an older sense is intended: living, the “lived experience” of bearing out through the day-to-day, and holding in a place, these contraries, which is what it means to have a human life. Such a sentence could have come from any of those we call the pre-Socratics, the earliest thinkers in the West. The question is how and in whom are such contraries proved? That is one of the fascinating things about the way in which Joseph Smith reaches right in to the soil of Western thinking. That’s who we are. Just to annoy some of my students I tell them that I am completely and utterly Eurocentric, but I don’t mean it in terms of a hegemony. I mean it by what it means to be steeped in history. To be authentically who you are.
Joseph Smith reopens, actually by simply setting aside, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and in this simple gesture, he sets aside the unforgiving nexus of causality that has constituted the history of metaphysics and defined the agonistic confrontation of necessity with free will in Christianity’s confrontation with Greek thinking. Madsen begins in this spirit by saying “there is no creation ‘from nothing.’ There is ordering of elements.”2 This could have come straight from the pages of the pre-Socratics.
Tonight I want to speak to you, not as a theologian, but as a thinker. One schooled, I could only wish more adequately, in the history of thinking and in philosophy. I want to present to you in a very preliminary form, and (for me) the first time, some ideas that have beset me over many years. I hope this will eventually be a more technical argument, but tonight it will take a very general form.
Why? The question of the eternal—the question of time as such—and the question of who “man” (or the human being) is, are, as Madsen clearly knew all too well, perhaps the greatest challenges in thinking that stand before us. The mere ability to measure time, time as it stands on the clock, the succession of “nows,” so much does not resolve the meaning of time as to cover over the possibility of its resolution altogether. Merely biological conceptualisations of humanity confuse, not only the meaning of “man”, but, as we stand on the threshold of huge medical advances so that there are those who are at least contemplating the possibility of humanity or some section of it standing in this present life with the possibility of it leading off into what might seem to be an eternity, these conceptualizations also confuse further the question of eternity itself. My title has a clear reference to Nietzsche’s doctrine (his word) of the eternal recurrence: one of the most neglected and misunderstood of the things of which he writes. For a people such as the Latter-day Saints, a self-consciously historical people, you will be well aware that we stand at present in the midst of a turning point, a genuine crisis, with respect to history itself. An emancipatory politics—through what has come to be identified in the phrase “identity politics,” but which increasingly comes to stand for “the political” in the West, has come to be marked by a hiatus, an absolute and decisive breach, wherein “we” (whichever “we” is posited, and so needing to assert itself) stand in opposition to, and are cut off from, every sense of the “from whence” the “from out of which” this “we” has come. We’ve been cut off from our history by many contemporary discourses in modern life.
For any “we” that finds itself like this, the past is constituted over and again as a place of injury and the occlusion of identity. I hope you recognize what I am talking about. There is very often more, much more, than superficial justification for the sense of injury, and the occlusion claimed. If you were to take for instance the issue of race, too few people in my country understand the extent to which my own nation in its industrial genesis was predicated on the slave trade. That’s the sense of injury I’m talking about. But in each case every attempt to constitute emerging identities within a wider whole is resisted or declared impossible. Often the establishment of the competing and agonised identities in question is marked by a mood of vengeance. The vengeance in question has nothing to do with a psychological state or outlook: it is in every sense a metaphysical vengeance (often taken up by people otherwise entirely peaceful, and whose intent is peace), an orientation demanded by what seems to be the moment itself, but it springs in fact from how the moment itself appears, from out of the whole. There is a great deal more that we could say here, for which there is not the time.
In each case like this, an overpowering will to power is exercised that demands a kind of satisfaction for past wrongs that can find no resolution. The past—as “history”—has no value, not because it has been devalued, but because no value dare be assigned it: “You can’t go there because we’re too hurt about what happened there.” History is without value because we become unable to know what its value has been. We are by no means at the end of this process; indeed, we stand at its beginning.
And if you are now bracing yourself from an onslaught of this kind from me, and wondering what my onslaught is and what “resolution” I have in mind, and who I must denounce in the process, you may, I hope, breathe easily. For in coming to the end of my opening remarks I want to ask, very simply, “In what way might we set all of this aside?” I hope you see the parallel that I am trying to make with Joseph Smith’s gesture of setting the nexus of causality, of freedom and necessity just to one side simply by abandoning the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo. I am asking, “Is it possible for us to do this in the political arena that is shaping up before our very eyes?”
Let me therefore begin all over again, with, because of the necessary brevity with which I must now speak, what will have to serve as a kind of allegory. I want this evening to undertake a reading of two poetic texts that each points to something far more ancient than itself, and points also to how we may set the will to power that I have named aside. In between the two poems, I will make some brief remarks about the doctrine of the eternal return, to which my title alludes. I begin, then, with a translation of a poem most often known in English as “The Horses of Achilles”, by a Greek author, C. P. Cavafy, written in 1910:
Patroclus: whom they saw in death’s darkness
He who was so brave, and strong, and young
The horse of Achilles started shedding tears
The deathless nature that was theirs
Grew indignant at this thing of death
They tossed their heads, and shook their long manes
Beating the earth with their hooves, lamenting
Patroclus, whom they knew to be without life—present, absent—
Destitute of flesh—his spirit lost—
Returned to the vast nothing by life itself
Zeus saw the tears of the deathless-divine horses
And was himself pained. ‘At the wedding of Peleus’
He said, ‘I should not have acted so rashly;
Better that we had not given you away! What business
Had you down there among the wretched race of men,
The playthings of fate? You whom neither death nor old age awaits,
Are yet tyrannised by ephemeral misfortunes. Men have embroiled you
In their troubles.’ Yet the two noble creatures went on
Shedding their tears for the everlasting calamity of death.3
Cavafy, it seems, presents us with an entirely conventional, modern view of the relationship of gods to humans, of the fate of humanity as tragic and concerned only with death, of the chasm between the deathless gods and the race of men. In this view, gods alone are eternal, there is no eternity in the life of man.
Cavafy evokes a remarkable juncture in the Iliad. For Patroclus is dead, and this is as yet unknown to Achilles. Homer says Patroclus is Philos to Achilles: beloved; and more than that, hoi polu philtatos (οἱ πολὺ φίλτατος)—“by far the most beloved”. Who Patroclus was to Achilles has bothered scholars both now in antiquity. The bother takes the form of “were they/weren’t they/did they didn’t they?”—were they lovers, or just good friends? Plato has Phaedrus play with this in his Symposium, asking who might have been pursued by whom and challenging the suggestion in Aeschylus and Pindar that Achilles, though the younger man, was the one pursuing Patroclus—a most un-Athenian state of affairs. Xenophon took the opposite view: they were for him just good friends.
Modern interpretations line up with or against Xenophon, or Aeschylus, or Plato, always conditioned by their understanding or approval or rejection of the moral probity of such relations. Here we uncover the extent to which contemporary, especially historically Christian, prohibitions on extra-marital erotic love are persistently read back into what we perceive to be the life and mores of antiquity. In this, they miss the point. The schema of “lover” and “beloved” (erastēs and erōmenos) as explaining the sexual behaviour of ancient Greeks is entirely recent—unknown before the writings of Paul Veyne, Kenneth Dover and Michel Foucault. What the debate between Plato and Xenophon—carried out across the two texts of the same name, the Symposia of Plato and Xenophon—serves to indicate (to its contemporary audience and to us) is that attempting to comprehend the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in terms of the mores of classical Athens—post-dating Homer by centuries—is to look in the wrong place. Homer’s name for the relation between them—they are to each other philos, “beloved” (of each, by far the most). This is as much he ever says, and it is therefore enough. “By far the most” suggests others to whom the adjective philos must also have applied. He says nothing of them either.
The privileging of the procreative relationship over other emotional relations between persons is a phenomenon not even of the whole of the history of Christendom, gaining full force only after the Reformation. Until then Christianity had privileged only the individual relationship with God. Marriage is low down in Christian priorities and its privileges historically late. St. Paul, almost unique in Biblical authors even to comment on it, says only that it is better to marry than burn with lust. Procreation as the primary purpose constitutive of the relations between persons assumes its most exalted position only in the eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In Hegel’s earlier Jena period, and in his Philosophy of Right procreation becomes the engine of production itself—the means by which humanity both perpetuates itself not in but as history as such, such that human production arises on the ground of the marriage relation as the cementing and exteriorisation of those resources (Vermögung) that constitute the “external” world and its progress. Toward the conclusion of his Logic of 1831, an immensely important book, Hegel makes a statement that shows the extent to which this understanding of production is grounded in his metaphysical understanding overall: Gattung ist Begattung. “Species”, by which he means the totality of all that is, world, as a whole, “species” is “reproduction,” reproduction in the sexually procreative sense. In this Hegel substitutes reproduction for any talk of death (“in copulation the immediacy of living individuality perishes; the death of this life is the emergence of Geist”4), and establishes eternity materially as the endless—biological—reproduction of the same. In this is the culmination of a centuries-long process: the extreme privileging of the sexual relation as the metaphysical ground of the procreative relation. The Marxist concept of work as the “proving” of the “essence of man” is only possible on the basis of this essentially biological interpretation of human reproduction.5
In a context where everything, to secure its existence, its reason for being, must at the same time justify its existence as one that is productive, every other form of human relating is relativized to the procreative relation. Moreover, and I can add this as no more than an aside, the confusions and contradictions of contemporary identity politics have not escaped the extreme instrumentalism, grounded in this metaphysics, that Hegel names here.
How, then, are we to understand the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus? Cavafy’s is a sensitive, but also cunning, reading of Book 17 of the Iliad. Nothing is as it seems, and as we shall see, something is left out. Homer actually has Zeus ask the question why?—why did he give these horses at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, for them just to be miserable in the fragility of human affairs? Thetis was the mother of Achilles, and she was forcibly married to Peleus, despite that she loved Zeus. (In other versions of the legend the horses were a gift of Poseidon, not Zeus). Pindar names the prophecy of Themis that Thetis, goddess of the sea, was fated to bear a royal son mightier than his father, if she were mated to Zeus or one of the Olympians. Had Thetis borne Zeus a son, Zeus’s fate would have been that of Chronos (Xeus’s father) and in his turn, his father, Ouranos: each son overthrew his father. Not for nothing does Homer remind us, when Zeus laments his gift, that he is “son of Chronos.”6 Cavafy’s poem, and the Iliad itself, therefore shows not the metaphysical gap between divine and human being, but rather that Zeus’s power and continued rulership over the cosmos depends upon, indeed requires the actual and historical world in which Achilles’ existence, and fate unfold. Achilles is the reason that Zeus is still all-powerful, still the head among the gods. That’s why.
What do the horses of Achilles represent? Horses draw chariots, and no divine chariot is of greater significance than that which bears the sun across the heavens. These immortal horses signify the eternal passage of time, the passage of the day from sunrise to sunset and its night, and that this passage is eternally repeated: not as the passage of the hands of a clock across its face, but as the two faces, of eternal time—they reveal how time is visible to mortal men and women. These two are the moment in its “day”, and eternity, the endless repetition of days. The horses have come to a standstill before the body of the warrior beloved of Achilles. Time, and fate itself, the lawfulness of time, stand still in the gap between Patroclus’ death and Achilles coming to know of it. The horses, whom “neither death nor old age awaits” are the harbingers of cosmic time.7
There is in Cavafy’s account a further strangeness that overturns the average and ordinary presentation of the relation between the deathless gods and mortal men and women on which the poem seems to stand but actually does not. The title of the poem in modern Greek is: Ta aloga ton achilleōs (Τὰ ἀλογα τὸν Ἀχιλλεώς). Homer knows nothing of this word, alogo: his word for horses is hippoi. Why then does Cavafy, who quotes Homer at times, and who is skilled in literary, Katharevousa, Greek, choose a modern, demotic, word, alogo, for horse? The word alogo originally means “mute”, the horse as the wordless beast, contrasted to that creature of the word, man, ho anthrōpos, the one ordered to and given to the word. Divine, Olympian, law decrees that only man may speak. And yet, at Book 19, when these same horses stand still a second time, this time before Achilles, at a moment unlike almost any other in the whole of Greek myth, they speak. (I know of no other moment in myth when animals as animals, rather than gods in animal form, are permitted speech.) They repeat to Achilles the promise of his fate: “the day of doom approaches you Achilles, nor are we to blame for it, but a mighty god and all-ruling fate.”8 To which Achilles replies: “Why do you foretell my death? You need not at all.”9 And Hera then strikes them mute. The horses’ second moment of stillness signifies this time as a decisive moment. This moment, two full books later in the text, is the same as when the horses wept before the lifeless corpse of Patroclus. There are many hints in the text that this is so. The posture of the horses is identical in both passages, and speaks of mourning. The prediction made is the same: the death of Patroclus seals the final acceptance by Achilles of his fate—to be that one who will slay Hector and set in motion the events that bring the Trojan War to its end—to become the one, therefore, who will decide the fate of all Hellas. Why do the horses say something Achilles already knows? Or are we not, again, asking the wrong question and looking in the wrong place. What the horses say is unneeded because it is now decided, is what is needful of being said. And this moment is unlike any other: it stands apart and shows all the others in relief. A moment marked by things that never happen, as when two horses break the laws of all the cosmos and speak.
The moment becomes clear not because it is unique, but because it has returned: the horses have stopped a second time. The moment recurs. In returning, it brings a kind of a whole, a unity, to sight. It shows that time is not linear, but circular. It is in accord with that motion that measure time itself: the circular progress of the sun across the heavens and the seasons in turn with each other. It is the decision that is unique, momentary, singular: not the world in which it is decided; this turns and returns. The singular can only be seen, and be taken, from out of its manifold.
And now we know how to look in the right place. What passes between Achilles and Patroclus is of such a magnitude that it is capable of upholding and making visible such a singular moment, a moment of such decision. De-cidere is to cut-off, to split and separate. The question is not whether or not Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, but is of an altogether greater magnitude: what is the consequence of what is decided between them? The answer is: a world. They bring about a world, the world, of Hellas. The end of the Trojan War will bring about the world of Hellas. It is in this that the real meaning of the term philos can be understood, that each is beloved for the other ahead of every other means the world they bring about stands itself in philia, as philtatos, most dearly, foremost, highest. Philtatos signifies nothing merely romantic, or sentimental. There is nothing here of driving inner passion. It signifies how they constitute world: both for each other, and in relation to others, and—still more importantly—for many others too. Thus the phrase hoi polu philtatos—by far the most beloved—does not mean over against others, but for the very sake of others.
This in contrast to that other world, shattered, or rather whose fragility is revealed, by the perfidy of Helen toward her husband Menelaus and the adulterous liaison she contracts with Paris, and the strife—in Greek neikos—that follows. Even if we were to say that what was sworn through Tyndareus, the promise that all the parts of Hellas would come together to defend itself as a whole were Helen to be abducted—even if this is in a sense the promise of the making of a whole world, the restoration of Helen to Menelaus after her adultery could be nothing other than as a prize. What highest world could she possibly bring about? If Helen and Menelaus cannot guarantee the world of Hellas, who can? Now we understand the decisive character of what holds between Achilles and Patroclus. The moment of decision reveals what already stood and what will persist, death notwithstanding—indeed, not dented by death, and only from out of a death truly disclosed and made visible in its already having come to pass. The world Helen and Menelaus bring to pass in strife, Hellas, persists in those beloved. We can speak of it still; we are speaking of it even today.
Do we find here a prefiguration of eternal return? In what ways? My title speaks of humanity “after” eternity. By this I mean that eternity is a concern for men and women, but not in ways that are easy to resolve. We have to pursue the chase after it to seek out how eternity is to be found and by what means. I think this is what Joseph Smith’s own meditation on eternity is about and his meditation on eternity which founds a world for Latter-day Saints and, indeed, for those like me who can learn something of this. Every man and every woman is confronted with the question of what does eternity mean. Even if you turn away from it and think “But I am only mortal” and resolve to yourself that there is no eternity for you. Nietzsche’s “doctrine” of eternal return, as I have already suggested, is among the most neglected and misunderstood of the things of which he wrote. The phrase will to power for which Nietzsche is far more vividly remembered was of interest to him only for a short period, as the title of a book he for a while thought he wished to write, but never actually did. The book of that name contains material written by him, but in an arrangement he never made. Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s most important literary creation however, is described as the “teacher of the eternal recurrence,”10 a title Nietzsche also reserved to himself.
We have only a short time to ask what “eternal return” means. Almost all of Nietzsche’s commentators speak of how Nietzsche’s “references to this doctrine are enigmatic, and the exact interpretation of its meaning remains controversial”;11 other Anglophone authors, equally uncertain of their ground, speak of “what appears to have been Nietzsche’s attempt” with the doctrine.12 Others, like Gilles Deleuze, confuse eternal recurrence with the will to power and speak of it as an aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy of subjectivity.13 Karl Jaspers provides a summary account of its elements, with little insight into its workings, and while admitting “it is for Nietzsche what is most decisive of his philosophising, even if the adoption of Nietzsche has for the most part sought to avoid it.”14
Yet there is nothing imprecise or hazy, nothing “attempted,” nothing confused in Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence. It has, in itself, nothing to do with the will: so little, in fact, that it is only in consequence of the devastatingly impersonal weight of this thought of thoughts that it requires and demands that only the strongest will is able to bear it. In Nietzsche’s own words, “everything passes away, everything returns: eternally rolls the wheel of being,” again, “the ring of being.”15 Nietzsche’s thought of thoughts, the eternal recurrence, is a thought of being. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the one thinker who has inquired into the meaning of the doctrine of the eternal return as a thought of being is that thinker who has attempted to ask the question concerning being: Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger’s principal reading of the eternal recurrence of the same was undertaken in lectures given in 1937. An edited version of these was published in 1961. Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche’s thinking, his engagement with the archive of material in Nietzsche’s remains, and his appreciation of Heidegger’s writing as a fundamental philosophical position and, together with the thought of Hegel as the consummation of Western metaphysics remain unparalleled in their depth and their far-reaching consequences in contemporary thought. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger would be far better known, and far better understood, if more Germans read them (and with sympathy), and if the most basic errors of thinking and translation were not endlessly repeated in English versions of Heidegger as if they were fact.
Nietzsche describes the eternal recurrence of the same as “der Ring des Seins,” the “ring of being.” Anyone even cursorily familiar with Martin Heidegger would recognise the words das Sein as “being,” “being itself,” that took public stage with Heidegger’s publication of his work Being and Time, Sein und Zeit, which asked die Frage, “the question” that goes out “after,” nach, being itself, dem Sein. It is remarkable, therefore, that, even as Nietzsche himself identifies eternal recurrence with das Sein, “being itself,” this word, Sein, makes almost no appearance in Heidegger’s discussion until very late in the text.
What Heidegger does discuss, in huge detail, is not das Sein, but das Seiende, and more specifically, das Seiende im Ganzen. Das Seiende also can be translated as being, and indeed should be: the phrase das Seiende im Ganzen intensifies this—it means “being as a whole.” It is often translated with a subtle difference: “beings as a whole.” When we distinguish beings from being we hear a distinction which focuses on the distinctness of beings, their objectliness over and against each other. In an age of objectification, we are drawn to understand beings as objects. But “being as a whole” means the opposite of this, namely the ground, the general or universal ground, of the things that actually are. In an age of objectification this will inevitably lead us to the objectliness of objects over against us as subjects, causing us to ignore the ground of objectliness, what gives us over to objectify everything that comes across our path, instead of drawing our attention to it. Heidegger tells, citing a fragment from Nietzsche’s notebooks, that when Nietzsche speaks of das Sein he means das Seiende im Ganzen “being as a whole.”16 Why is this distinction important? How are we to understand “being as a whole” or even “being”? Heidegger says “Nietzsche does not speak of being as a whole. We employ this phrase primarily to name all that is not simply nothing: nature (living and lifeless), history . . . God, the gods, and demigods. Being we name also what becomes, emerges and passes away.”17
Heidegger argues that it is through the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that being as a whole comes in to view all over again, as the underlying ground of Western thinking. It does so, however, in an entirely new and decisive way. In this sense, it itself returns, both all over again and utterly anew. At the point where Zarathustra speaks of the ring of being he adds “in each moment being begins.”18 If the ring indicates the eternity of recurrence, how is it grasped? Heidegger answers “this ring and its eternity are only grasped out of the moment.”19 The moment discloses the whole of being—or rather the moment and the whole of being are each time and for all time the same: what is present, what is “presently” present. Das Seiende means whatever is capable of being “present.” Even what passes away is present as what passes away. More importantly for Nietzsche, everything that is, must be as becoming. What he’s saying is that Nietzsche lets us see the whole of being. My point here is that identity politics, which denies the possibility of being as a whole because it concentrates on sectional interests within specified identities, nevertheless also has to rely on being as a whole. Madsen speaks no differently in Eternal Man.
If, in Hegel, this emphasis on becoming appears as an emphasis on the infinite in being, because the goal of absolute subjectivity in the infinite being of God, in Nietzsche and in the age of absolute nihilism becoming has a more completed character. In fact, even in Hegel the effect is not different, since the infinite God is complete in himself. Completion, fulfillment, perfection, is fulfilled in Nietzsche as, not infinity, but the finitude of being. Becoming is not a state of infinite progress (which for Hegel is only true from the perspective of the as yet incomplete and so as yet less than absolute subject), but is itself a finitude, being as a whole as completed becoming. Heidegger says that in the history of philosophy inasmuch as present being is, for Nietzsche it is as the fulfilment and permanence of becoming: thus “the essence of present being is becoming.”20 Both overall, as a totality, and as experienced through the moment, being, as becoming, is not infinite, but finite. Heidegger cites Nietzsche to show how he thinks this thought: “the measure of total-force is determinate, not ‘infinite’.”21 Heidegger comments, “because the being of the world force itself is finite, the world-totality itself remains finite, and indeed in the sense of a tight limitation, a limitation arising from present being (das Seiende) itself.”22 Heidegger concludes, “accordingly such a finitude of becoming makes an endless progress and advance of world-occurrence impossible. Rather the becoming of the world must run back on itself.”23
We still have not answered the essential question about this technical distinction. Because the world is perpetual becoming, and because everything that can be and has been and will be and is present is itself a totality and a finite one, what then is the perpetuity of becoming itself? Nothing other than eternity as such manifesting itself in the immediacy of the present through the passage of time. Indeed, Heidegger himself says this: “this real, infinite time [Nietzsche] grasps as eternity. Being (Sein).”24
We now understand the distinction that so many Heidegger commentators fail to make: between being as what can be present, both immediately and as a whole (das Seiende, das Seiende im Ganzen), and being as time (das Sein). There is one more thing to be said. Why for Nietzsche is the moment so decisive? Why, in Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche, is the thought of eternal return of the same the most nihilistic of thoughts? Here we can give only the most cursory answer, but it is decisive for what I want to say next. For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s thought of eternal return was decisive not only because it allowed the whole of present being to become visible, but because it disclosed its manner of visibility, its “how.”
This “how” is only graspable, however, on the basis of the one grasping—on the basis of that one who thinks about the world and appears within it—the human being, “man.” This is what Heidegger’s understanding of the ring of recurrence means, that ring which, constituting the limit and limitations of the whole, becomes within it. How do we relate to the eternal return? As ones who (have to) become. Why? Because inasmuch as everything is becoming it is at the same passing away: it loses its value. It is this that led Nietzsche to understand the unfolding world as a nihilism. It is not that the same values repeat themselves over and over, but rather that everything that is becomes valueless. The eternal return brings us before the whole of present being as what has been, and is, and will be, but with the overwhelming threat of the valuelessness of all present being. This is the essential connection for Nietzsche of eternal recurrence with the will to power: we do not choose to exercise the will to power. Rather we are driven in to it by the eternal return to the valuelessness, the weightlessness, of the totality of being. Heidegger argues that in this the ring of being—time—the circle—plays a role, requiring that “man be grasped through the world and world through man himself.”25
I put this technical section in, and felt licensed to do so, because right in the middle of Madsen’s Eternal Man is a discussion of being and becoming. He clearly had come across the post-war American discussion of Nietzsche. It’s with being and becoming that being as a whole comes into view. But you remember I said that contemporary identity politics can’t allow this whole to come to the fore. It falls into the background. This is exactly how Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s eternal return. We are able to see the whole, but only as something which can attain to no value. It falls back. It can’t attain to any value. It’s not that it’s valued less; it is a positivity. But we cannot find what the value is, and this is how for Heidegger, at least, Nietzsche connected eternal recurrence with the will to power. Because if you see the whole recede and therefore you see with that your history (history is part of the whole that recedes), you have to (as Nietzsche puts it) establish new values. You have to reestablish the meaning of yourself because your history has fallen into the background and cannot be reached. Its value cannot be told. Nietzsche describes this as a weight. He says it’s the weightiest of weights, and at one point he says this weight is such an unbearable thing it could even crush you. You should hear this in the modern sense of injury the discussion of identity politics and it’s real because there are real injuries in the past. I’m not trying to suggest for one second that there aren’t. But the problem is that we do not know what to do with them, so we enforce new identities and produce those. That is how Heidegger understood the phrase “will to power.” When everything recedes and can no longer attain to any value we believe our will to be called forward to enforce new values that will explain to ourselves who we are and overcome what appears to us as threatening, as a threatening invisibility and loss.
Contemporary philosophy, contemporary thinking, is very resistant to totality, to any suggestion that the whole has become, or indeed is even capable of becoming, visible. We have begun in the academy routinely to speak no longer of history, but of histories: no longer of identity, but of identities. Every possible posited unity is immediately fractured into multiplicity. For what reason? Often, we say, for the sake of representation: to prevent or restrict exclusion and to maintain the possibility of the most radical inclusiveness. This is, in itself, the moment of a most decisive recurrence of the same. Everything, to represent a plurality, must be capable of recurring in a different guise. History becomes “histories”: “it” is “multiple”. But without the originating unity, no similarity within the multiplicity is possible—this is elementary. If no two histories are alike, what constitutes them both recognisably as histories? The answer is a manner of seeing, namely, as a devaluing—or rather already seeing that they stand devalued, for the sake of a new valuation. Every assault on an originating unity within a finitude “makes way for,” makes space for, a revaluation of “the same” as now “other.” In each case, in each new forging, space is made within the totality for some new identity. Who or what revalues? That one who, seeing the devaluation already taking place, steps in to claim the justification, the right, of a new value. Some one. The ring of eternal recurrence demands, in the face of the valuelessness of all things, those ones who can assert new values. Heidegger points out that, for Nietzsche, the nihilism of valuelessness is not a dissolution into nothingness and the vacuous, but “something affirming positive, and, indeed, the manner in which the whole of being comes to presence.”26
To return to the present, to the politics of identity, of who we are—we see immediately that what Nietzsche explains is a world in which we are forced to assert identity, forced into the most radical individualism through a will to power, not because of an overweening hubris or a desire to exercise power, but through the constant threat of the loss of identity, of the collapse of representation, of the baleful abyss of recurrence, of the failure of power. The abyss is overcome in each case through the will to power, but it is the in each case that is decisive. Only an individualism, an overpowering individuality, strong enough to assert its values over the plenitude of the same (the valuelessness and devaluation that recurrence enforces) can posit itself in the face of recurrence. It is by seizing the moment and casting it through the strength of the overpowering self that an I overcomes the nihilism of eternal recurrence, and secures new values.
Or is it? The question is repeatedly asked “from where did Nietzsche derive the doctrine of eternal return?” The name Empedocles is offered, repeatedly. The question itself is, as Heidegger once derisively said, a shopkeeper’s question. Nietzsche’s knowledge of Empedocles was not strong. He lectured on Empedocles, but in a formula almost entirely derived from Diogenes Laertius, of little interest. But there is one other, whose reading of Empedocles is much more far-reaching, and whom Nietzsche references in an entirely covert way. Friedrich Hölderlin wrote three drafts of a play about Empedocles and his death, and Nietzsche had known these drafts since he was a schoolboy. We know this because he was reprimanded for reading Hölderlin by his schoolmaster, who commented that Nietzsche should have been reading “more German poets.”27 We presume Goethe was intended. At the age of seventeen he wrote (in a text known to Heidegger) of Hölderlin’s Empedocles as “this meaningful dramatic fragment . . . [written] in the purest Sophoclean language.”28 Lines from the drafts of the plays recur, in several places, especially in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra writings.
Empedocles is that one who describes how everything that is, returns, through an endless dissolving away and coming forth, not of the human being, but of the world (physis) as a whole. (What Empedocles says has strange resonances what with what Madsen describes in his dialogue with Joseph Smith, and this is why I refer to the setting aside of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.) The two forces that drive this constitution of the world are opposites and as such, belong together. We have met them already in Homer. They are neikos, strife, and philia, belovedness. Empedocles sometimes speaks of storgē rather than philia, emphasizing this generative character of belovedness is affective, rather than sexual. We have already seen in what manner strife and belovedness constitute a world, the world of Hellas.
Nietzsche also, early on (1870-72), drafted plans for a play entitled “The Death of Empedocles,” which he presses into the shape of his distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, and which remains far behind even his presentation of the doctrine of the eternal recurrence.
Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence explains and prepares the ground for the most extreme individualism, an individualism which restricts the whole of present being to the momentary strength of empowering of the subjectivity of the subject, and which isolates in the most devastating way the individuality of the individual so that each one, that one who strives for the empowerment of power must at the same wrest the moment from the whole of present being—tying into a momentary vengeful knot the entirety of past, future, and eternal present. Nietzsche makes manifest how eternal recurrence occurs in the immediate moment, in this now.
Hölderlin, in contrast, and decisively, recapitulates something we have already glimpsed in Homer. For Hölderlin has Empedocles ascend the volcano, Aetna, in order, it seems, to die. His death is a suicide. This accords with an ancient tradition: there is no evidence Empedocles died in this way. Suicide in antiquity is a trope—signalling a transformation of being, from one state to another. Another, equally important poet associated with such a suicide is Sappho. Empedocles has with him Pausanias, a younger man, who is to him (according to Diogenes Laertius) “beloved.”29 Hölderlin has Empedocles reassert to Pausanias his love for him—Pausanias has already described himself to Empedocles as his heart’s “sole and final” friend—Pausanias is Empedocles’ highest love.30 As they struggle with what Empedocles will become: one for whom the future is open, “in steadfast league with powers of nature.”31 Empedocles is preparing, on Aetna, to become a god.
Pausanias is bound, lovingly, to Empedocles: the dramatic poem makes clear that this very binding is also his freedom, but only if Empedocles also attains to what he must become—a higher being. Empedocles asks if Pausanias will give him his life’s blood—but this question is repeated, clearly having been asked before. Pausanias replies “I say and must repeat it / this too, this too, is not a matter of today / when I was born it was concluded.”32 What is not a matter of only today, but is a matter of repetition (as the text asserts) is a matter of eternity: Pausanias was fated for this from the outset.
Pausanias is the lesser of the two men (when compared to Empedocles)—which he admits. And Apollo had told Patroclus, decisively, that he was the lesser of the two, when compared to Achilles. These two do not strive for equality with those to whom they are belovedly bound, but they nevertheless, in each case, are able to bring about, to sustain, a world, because this belovedness is itself the highest, greater than with others. It is Achilles, it is Empedocles, bound freely with another that alone allows each to be entirely who they are. Empedocles, bound up with all the powers of nature, attains a unity with the whole of present being. Because the whole comes in to view, and not just a fractured part, Pausanias is freed, as bound ever to him, and, for Hölderlin, Empedocles can now become a god.
Pausanias recognises who Empedocles is to become: a becoming born out of belovedness and strife. Through it Pausanias is also freed and still bound, and Empedocles will ascend. And Empedocles says, in words that anticipate Nietzsche, words noticed by Heidegger (who does not otherwise comment on Empedocles), words that free us from the will to power in the overpowering establishment of identities: “Go”, which means, “be bound to me for ever and be free”; “fear nothing”, which means, in your being free, there is no loss, nor am I less to you in freedom—because “es kehret alles wieder” “all things recur” and thus this freedom takes place within a finitude and unity of all there is: “what is yet to happen is already accomplished.”33
Hölderlin offers us another form of eternal return. Heidegger says: “‘Nietzsche and Hölderlin’: an abyss separates them both.”34 It is Heidegger who foresaw that eternal return is not an invention of Nietzsche, or either of Hölderlin, or even of Empedocles. Eternal return, returns, eternally. The abyss stands between, not present being and being as a whole (these are the same), but between now and eternity, and therefore between being and time. The ascent to deathless immortality is the how of this becoming manifest and visible: it requires the return of a god. Only after Nietzsche’s death of god can god and the gods return. And for Heidegger, perhaps for us, Hölderlin is their as yet unheard poetic summons.
What Truman Madsen’s little text helped me unfold, and what I hope I’ve unfolded for you, is that we need to be able to explain the whole of being, the whole of present being, the past present, in the future, in the whole of time. We need to be able to understand eternity, we need to understand the human relation to eternity, and we need to understand the human relation to God if we are to preserve the unity that is dissolving before our very eyes and the developments that are taking place in political discourse in our lives.
1. Truman G. Madsen, Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret book, 1966), xiii.
2. Ibid., 3.
3. See C. P. Cavafy, “The Horses of Achilles,” in C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems, trans. by Evangelos Sachperoglou (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 23. I have substantially modified Sachperoglou’s translation.
4. G. W. F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik (1832) in W.z.B. vol. 6, 486.
5. Karl Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (1844) in Marx-Engels Werke, Berlin, Dietz, 1990 (1932), 574.
6. Homer, Iliad 17.441.
7. Cavafy, 24.
8. Homer, 19.409–10.
9. Ibid., 19.420.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra, in Kritische Studienausgabe (KSA) 4, 275.
11. Glenn Most, “The Stillbirth of a Tragedy: Nietzsche and Empedocles” in Apostolos L. Pierris, The Empedoclean Κόσμος: Structure, Process and the Question of Cyclicity (Part 1) (Patras: Institute for Philosophical Research, 2005), 31.
12. Robert A. Yelle, “The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and its Romantic Antecedents,” Numen vol. 47 (2000), 175.
13. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche et la philosophie (Paris: PUF, 1962), 77-81.
14. Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1974), 350.
15. Nietzsche, 272–3.
16. Martin Heidegger, Die Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen (GA44), 97.
17. Heidegger, 24 f.
18. Nietzsche, 273.
19. Heidegger, 71; emphasis in original.
20. Ibid., 227.
21. Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Werke (Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1894–1913, 19 volumes), vol. 12, Unveröffentlichtes aus der Zeit der Fröhlichen Wissenschaft und Zarathustra (1881–1886), 51, in Heidegger, 92.
22. Heidegger, 92; emphasis in original.
23. Ibid., 115.
24. Ibid., 95.
25. Ibid., 110.
26. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsches Metaphysik (GA50), ed. Petra Jaeger (1990), 31.
27. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsches Lehre vom Willen zur Macht als Erkenntnis (GA47), p. 43 f.
28. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Brief an meinen Freund’ of October 1861 in Nietzsche: Werke (5 vols.) ed. Karl Schlechta (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1977), vol. 4, 96.
29. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2.8.60.
30. Hölderlin, “III Stufe. Empedocles auf dem Aetna,” in Norbert von Hellingrath (ed.) Hölderlins Sämtliche Werke: Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe, vol. 3 (Berlin: Propyläen, 1943, 4 vols), 212, l. 5–6.
31. Ibid., 212, l. 25.
32. Ibid., 214, l. 1–3.
33. Ibid., 216, l5–16.
34. Martin Heidegger, Hölderlins Hymne “Andenken” (GA52), 78.
Catherine Cornille of Boston College presents the 2018 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man. Dr. Cornille discusses how empathy is necessary for genuine interreligious dialogue but also has unavoidable obstacles.
Lecture transcript not available.
Lecture and transcript will be available after the event takes place.