The Formation of the Gods

I have suggested before in more oblique ways that the humanist account of the stable subject is at odds with Mormon doctrine of divinization, and in this way Mormonism has more in common with the psychoanalytic account of the formation of the subject and the Foucaultian/Althusserian account of subjectivation. I’d like to explore in brief more of this argument.

One popular way of expressing the Mormon view of the self is that the human spirit, or soul, or intelligence (the precise distinction between these terms varies) is “eternal” and in this way there is something durable about its identity as a self, a subject. In the drama of human becoming, there are traces of what came before in each successive stage which ensures the continuity of the subject. We speak of children as being closer to God, inhabiting a space where the veil is thinner, and in this way we imagine that the child is the same being that existed before. The differences between the successive stages of human existence are reduced to the type of body that one inhabits, whether a spirit body, physical body, or resurrected body. Yet in all cases the subject that inhabits that body is the same. This narrative of the eternal subject coincides with a certain account of freedom, where the subject is existentially free to act. Just as the existence of the subject qua subject is eternal, so also the freedom that this subject possesses is eternal.

At the same time, we acknowledge that the subject goes through radical transformations, especially epistemic transformations, in each of the different stages. One knows differently in the pre-existence, but also in the age of innocence, and different bodily and historical factors qualify one’s freedom in accepted ways. But the subject is not only aware differently in different stages, but also develops, comes into being, and different kinds of beings, in time. In this way, we must confront the ways in which the subject comes into being, qua subject. Both the psychoanalytic and Foucaultian discourses have attempted to offer an account of this process (Judith Bulter’s The Psychic Life of Power is an attempt to read them both together, which I find compelling). Such a view offers an account of power as productive, necessary to the bringing about of the subject. Mormonism (and Christianity to a lesser extent) offers a similar view, seeing the subjection of the self to God as the precondition for ultimate freedom, where freedom is an effect of subjection rather than its opposite. This antihumanist message of post-modern and psychoanalytic discourse is shared by premodern Christianity in general, which was the target of the humanist revolution in the Enlightenment.

Mormonism’s account of the development of the human subject as one which must develop, as well as its relationship to authority, thus finds a kindred spirit in the antihumanist accounts of the formation of the subject, most obviously because it actually acknowledges such a formation. The kind of philosophical work needed to explore this connection remains to be done, but I am hopeful that someone will be able to take it up.

16 Replies to “The Formation of the Gods”

  1. Gosh, I absolutely love your pompous, presumptuous, and almost pretentious style of writing. A true gem in these blogs.

    Per your title, I was hoping you were going to talk about the ascention of the human being into the divine… maybe next time.

    I still loved your comparisons, keep up the good work.

  2. Then I totally missed it! I especially fail to connect Foucault and Althusser to the human becoming diety. Although maybe you were not really trying to make such a connection, just a parallelism between subjectivation and Mormonism.

    Thus, I do see the connection between the subjectivation and cognitive progress of the subject and Mormonism. But from Althusser to the ascention of man into diety… well, that is quite a giant leap imho.

    I guess that’s why another post in this blog noted the anxious attempts to create parallels where there may be none… (j/k hehehe).

    By the way, I usually don’t frequent this blog so pardon my question but, just out of curiosity, are you a man or a woman?

  3. Manuel,
    For me, the question is about the concept of the self. I think that the Mormon notion of becoming human and also becoming divine is more similar to the conceptualization of subjectivation as an account of the subject than the humanist account of the self-willed subject, though the latter is often appropriated by Mormonism. I am not seeking to confirm the LDS view of deification by means of pyschoanalysis, Althusser, Foucault, and Butler, but rather to suggest that Mormonism belongs to this same tradition, to explore the philosophical implications of LDS accounts of deification as a critique of humanism’s subject.

  4. TT: I have the same problem with your post that I have with most post-modern or continental philosophy. It is ambiguous and I can’t make sense of it. What is the “self-willed subject” that you think you’re arguing against? What in the hell is the “conceptualization of subjectivation” that you think is a superior view?

    Can you view even be thought — I mean, if we are such subjective subjects that cannot transcend the phenomenal appearances then how can we even address what you think you’re obectifying by putting it in language which assumes transcendence? Do you even know what I’m talking about?

    I went to a Heidegger symposium to see if I could get some better grasp of Heidegger’s thought and why so many seemed enthralled. The entire discussion was on what Heidegger could have possibly meant in any given passage. No one was doing philosophy, they were all doing exegesis of writing so ambiguous even those most knowledge could hardly agree on what his basic approach looked like. That is how I felt reading your post — like there is some private language that I’m supposed to be privy to but I’m not.

  5. Blake,
    No doubt all philosophical language is highly technical to the uninitiated. I would hesitate to say that the philosophy about which I know very little is “not doing philosophy” because I recognize that there is no single thing that is philosophy. I feel the same way you do about Heidegger since I am just not familiar enough with him to make heads or tails, but I don’t think that seminar for specialists would be the best place for figuring out his basic approach since such conversations already presume a certain amount of familiarity.

    My post here certainly presumes a familiarity with the philosophical traditions that I mentioned, rather than an exposition of them per se. Perhaps it is just that I am too lazy to unpack it all since I am not teaching a class here.

    If we are such subjective subjects that cannot transcend the phenomenal appearances then how can we even address what you think you’re obectifying by putting it in language which assumes transcendence? Do you even know what I’m talking about?

    I would not say that what I am talking about addresses the subjective/objective question, at least not directly. Rather, the question is more foundational since it is about how we come to be a subject at all. The paradox here is that we feel autonomous, but this autonomy is an effect of the process of becoming a subject, by means of subjectivation. In psychoanalysis this is through the stages of dependency and in Althusser and Foucault it is through various social apparatuses to which we are subjected, and in the process become a subject.
    As for the question of transcendence, while this isn’t something that I address, I think that I am on the side of the linguistic turn in which there is no transcending language. I’d have to unpack more about what you mean, and since the split from phenomenology in analytic and continental traditions develop independent vocabularies and problematics, getting these two traditions to talk back to each other again is probably beyond my own abilities.

  6. “I think that the Mormon notion of becoming human and also becoming divine is more similar to the conceptualization of subjectivation as an account of the subject than the humanist account of the self-willed subject.”

    Gotcha, that does make a lot of sense. Mormon freedom and progress are dependant on subjectivation. The self-willed subject must enter into the subjectivation of the “good” in order to remain self-willed and in a state of progress eternally, which may defeat the humanist sense of the self-willed subject.

  7. TT: I’m not quite a neophyte in Heidegger. I have read Being and Time (studied it really) and several commentaries. I still have no idea what he means. It’s probably just that I’m not very bright and everyone else gets what just goes over my head. That is probably the explanation for why your post doesn’t communicate to me and not your failing at communication.

    I have also read more than my fair share of Foucault. I’m well aware of FoucauIt’s rejection of Sartre’s subject as in essence free in the formation of the self. I think that Sartre’s view is naturally congenial to the notion of an autonomous intelligence that is eternal — an existing entity stuck with its existence and burdened with the weight of moral responsibility and free precisely in virtue of inherent freedom, to freely define what its meaning in existence is and will be.

    As you know I reject the view that “God became God at some first time” in Mormon thought. I also reject that view that Intelligences start out as less than intelligences or less than free subjects that are self-aware. I guess I’m with Truman Madsen on that view. But I’m persuaded that it is what Joseph Smith taught and believed (for what it is worth).

    I think I grasp what Foucault is saying about the developmental subject as a mortal born into a world who is less than developed as a person and lacks cognitive and conative faculties and must be defined by context and text. What is such “a subject” on your view? Are you suggesting that intelligences, like mortal children, start as less than personal beings?

    I know it is just like an analytic philosopher to ask “what the hell do you mean,” but I just can’t help it.

  8. TT, I think you’re absolutely right and I think this is partially why many LDS philosophers have adopted the anti-humanism of Heidegger and company. Of course not all have and the ultimate issue ends up being how to conceive of the subject.

    That said I think I detect a kind of double move in your post regarding what humanism is. It seems that traditional humanism did embrace a kind of “master subject” which was essential while anti-humanism ala Heidegger rejects this. And I think you see the same tension within Mormonism, especially over whether the Subject is irreducible.

  9. Blake, I’d check out Herbert Dreyfus’ commentary on Being and Time. A Heidegger conference is going to focus on what is unclear or wrong in Heidegger – i.e. it’s oriented around people already familiar and who are under the “publish or perish” focus of finding new things to say. I’d say though that such exegesical questions are very much tied up with doing philosophy since the only way to unpack Heidegger is to have a philosophical conception.

  10. I don’t think that one can begin to scratch the surface of what divinization is and how it works without first addressing the At-one-ment and why the Pelagian denial of the need for it is rightly considered a first class heresy.

    I have rarely run across a more dubious idea than the suggestion that anyone can achieve or maintain anything approaching divine power or glory all by themselves. The general reason is the conception of independent divine powers in the universe is a contradiction in terms. If there is more than one, neither is divine.

  11. Blake,
    No doubt I have failed to communicate clearly, and it is in no way a comment on your brightness. However, I think you you actually do understand what I am saying by rejecting a Sartrian account of the human subject as compatible with Mormonism, and instead accepting a Foucaultian account (mixed with psychoanalysis). In brief, the subect is that which is subjected. There is no subject which preceeds subjectivation, which means that there is no free subject which is not already subjected.

    That is interesting to know that many LDS philosophers have followed Heidegger on this. While I admit that I really don’t know Heidegger at all (though everyone I do know is influenced by him), I thought that the humanist/existentialist view was really the most dominant one. I am not totally sure that I see the double move that you say that I am making, but that might be a Heidegger thing that I am missing.

    I think that you are agreeing with me, right?

  12. TT, I don’t know – everything you mention seems to be about the self, where I consider divinization in the context of the self alone to be incomprehensible, and a major weakness in many Mormon discussions of the subject.

    One problem is that Mormons tend to discard the notion of the Trinity wholesale, when perhaps the most accurate picture of divinization is participation in a Trinity with more than three members. Of course if you define divinity down such that godhood is associated with a single glorified individual that is fine. The problem is mixing that idea with the absolutism inherited from classical theism. Absolute power in multiple individuals is incomprehensible. Temporal absolute power is a theological nightmare.

    Aside from that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to claim that a person can in any way be glorified except by participation. The number one Pelagian heresy is that one can be saved (glorified) by works alone. No atonement necessary. I am saying the reason why that isn’t the case is without spiritual union with the other members of the divine concert (to one degree or another) it is hard to see how one can be considered to be saved in any sense whatsoever. A heaven without a society is no heaven at all – not that such a society means complete abnegation of the self by any means.

    Speaking of which, I think the number one contemporary obstacle to acheiving such a society is assuming that is the case – namely that spiritual unity can only be achieved by submission to a will that is entirely formed through a process that one does not participate in.

  13. Sorry for the delay. It’s been a busy summer.

    TT. By double move I mean some might make a distinction between a subject under evolution versus an “essential” subject that maintains an essential identity through time. But what both have in common is some foundation that is an absolute permanent ‘thing’ which can be distinguish from everything else. That is I can draw a conceptual line between the subject and the rest of the universe which will be objects to the subject. Even those, like Sartre, who say the subject is nothing will still keep that line.

    What Heidegger argues (and especially those after him) is that this division is artificial. Heidegger is against humanism including Sartre’s form of existentialism because it basically creates the idea of this metaphysical subject. What if there is no absolute line separating the subject from the rest of the universe.

    So my comment about a double move is more that you move against that traditional sense of subject and humanism but miss that after making the criticisms you adopt the same position you criticize yet in a subtler harder to notice form. This was ultimately Heidegger’s criticism of Sartre. Sartre criticized the kind of subject Descartes introduced to the world and which survived in Kant, Locke and most of the rest of philosophy. Yet in a way Sartre kept Descartes in a hidden way. That is Sartre fundamentally misread Heidegger’s Being and Time.

    Hope that helps.

  14. Mark D,
    We are mostly agreeing, except we are using different ways of critiquing the same idea. We both agree that concepts of the “self” which imagine an isolated, single, subject, are incoherent.

    I am not sure that I am keeping that same line, at least I wouldn’t draw it in the same way. I am not interested in any notion of the irreducible materiality of the subject at all. I suppose that in that sense I am following your account of Heidegger (I still admit ignorance about Heidegger), though you say that I am not. Again, not being familiar with Heidegger I am probably not using the right technical terms, but I am coming at this more from Foucault and Lacan, both admittedly influenced by Heidegger, and using their terminology. For both, metaphysics isn’t the question at all, and there clearly needs to be some thinking around this point since metaphysics is still a question for Mormonism.

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