Mormonism’s Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn’t influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to “fortune cookies,” as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn’t participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um…Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo’s constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul’s discussion of “shadow boxing” and “crowns” in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?

The Demonic Holy Ghost

When did the Holy Ghost become a demon (aka, daimon, daemon)? By “demon” I don’t mean to refer to the malignant spirits that tempt or haunt human beings in Christian mythology. Rather, I mean to refer to the Greek and Roman meaning of the term, a mythical creature that could be either good or evil, but who whispered to the mind of its patron what they should or shouldn’t do. Our term ‘demon’ dervies from this Greek word, though Christians argued that these pagan creatures were by nature wicked since they did not come from God. The most famous daimon belonged to Socrates and told him what he should do. He claimed in his Apology that he only followed what this divine creature had told him to do.

It strikes me that for Mormons at least, the Holy Ghost functions as a sort of daimon. Testimony meetings are replete with accounts of the Holy Ghost telling someone not to go somewhere or to give someone a call. The basis of these testimonies is that they don’t know why they are doing these things other than that they heeded the call of the still small voice. Sometimes they find out why, sometimes they don’t.

But this is not the only way that the Holy Ghost has been depicted in the history of Christianity, nor is it the uniform picture of the Holy Ghost in Mormonism. Most famously, the Lectures on Faith say that the Holy Ghost is the communal mind of God and Jesus Christ. Moroni 10:5 says that the Holy Ghost bears truth to all things, but this seems a bit weightier than whether I should go to a sleepover or where my keys are. Many New Testament books don’t even mention the Holy Ghost and others speak of the Spirit as a more abstract principle. So, where does this idea that the Holy Ghost is a daimon who whispers into our ears what we should do come from?

The Power of Symbols

A few recent posts in various blogs has got my thinking about symbols. Wade at The Straight and Narrow Blog and Mark Bulter at M* have both identified symbols in their posts. The issue here is how we are supposed to know a symbol when we see it, how we are supposed to know the correct interpretation of that symbol, and how we are supposed to act both mentally and materially in response to it. These issues have been debated at lenght among anthropologists.

From the 1960’s to the end of the 1980’s, symbolic anthropology ruled the academic roost. Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner and others argued that culture and religion were a system of symbols, “webs of signification” and members of a culture (or religion) interpreted these symbols in order to act and navigate the world. Geertz, who looked quite a bit at religion, described it primarily as a symbolic system that induced beliefs, dispositions, and behaviors in its interpretors. The attractiveness of symbolic anthropology in the academy at large is that it brought a wide variety of disciplines such as history, literature, anthroplogy, and linguistics under one common methodological umbrella, namely, the art of interpretation. However, it saw symobls (and rituals) as a stimulus and human behaviors as a response, without much to mediate that relationship.

Beginning in the 1990’s scholars of religion began to be increasingly skeptical of symbolic anthropology, precisely because it couldn’t explain the relationship between symbols and practices. How exactly does a symbol inculcate certain values, dispositions, beleifs, etc? Instead, scholars began to turn to “practice theory”, a particular anthroplogical approach developed mostly in France. Foucault, Bourdieu, Certeau and others focused on the relationship between cultural symbols (discourses) and practices. Anthropologists of religion such as Talal Asad picked up on these insights and showed how a wide variety of practices are involved in inculcating religious beleif from symbols. He argued that symbols themselves were inneffective at bringing about religious dispositions and behaviors without power that ensured the proper interpretation of symbols. He looks at how St. Augustine authorized the use of violent force against heretics who misunderstood the scriptures as a way of showing that the texts themselves could not be properly interpreted without the sword.

The cumulative effect of both anthropological approaches was to show that symbols are not natural. They are the products of traditions and that a variety of interpretations exist within and between religious cultures about the meanings of symbols. What practice theory also showed is that these symbols required power to ensure their proper interpretation and to give them to ability to have meaning.

As Mormons, we really don’t have a very deep reflective tradition on the power and nature of symbols. We seem to be stuck in a particular moment that sees symbols as naturally occuring or as self evident to astute observers, rather than the product of our own interpretation. As such, we are unwilling to see how our interpretations of symbols are produced within a superimposed ideology. Further, we tend to see symbols in a stimulus-response model and don’t consider how interpretations are authorized by our culture.

I guess the question that I have is what sorts of practices, disciplines, sanctions, etc are at work in the production of Mormon identity and the relationship between Mormon symbols (temple, scriptures, hierarchy, etc) and behavior? Note, these words sometimes have a negative valence, but for anthropologists, they are simply descriptive terms for how societies work. I want to know how Mormon society works, how its symbols are produced and how they produce Mormons.

Newest Urban Blogger!

Jupiter’s Child has just joined the team! He is a relative newcomer to the blogging world, but I expect great things from him. Basically, he knows a lot of stuff, a lot of interesting people, and has thought and lived through lots of great intellectual experiences.

A Resurrection of Flesh and Bone?

In 1 Cor 15, Paul declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” This text appears in the larger context of a defense of the resurrection, which seems to create a problem. How can Paul defend the resurrection, but in the very same passage declare that flesh and blood cannot go to heaven?

The difficulty of this passage was debated strenuously in antiquity. Those who defended the “resurrection of the flesh” wrestled mightily with this problem, while those who argued for a more spiritual resurrection relied heavily on this text to prove their point.

Mormons have been bothered by this passage as well not only because we are defenders of a resurrection of the flesh, but also because we have a notion of an embodied God. To my knowledge, our exegetical solution to this problem is unique. We argue that is true that flesh and blood together cannot inherit the KoG, but that the combination of “flesh and bone” can. We simply drop blood out of the equation. In antiquity they wondered about the blood of resurrected beings. Origen argued that Jesus’ blood was not Ichor, the sacred blood of the gods. He never said what it was instead.

So what then do resurrected beings have in thier veins? Is blood the only thing that is missing from the resurrected body? Can a body really be a body without it, or is it something else?

No Mormon Love for Paul?

There is an aversion to Paul in Mormon thought and culture. A recent comment by Julie Smith at T&S gives some of the reasons for this phenomenon. I must insist, however, that we are completely missing out. For starters, Paul is hot right now. Yeah, he had some bad times at the hands of feminists in previous decades, but he is back with a vengeance now. Jewish scholars like Daniel Boyarin have embraced Paul. Not to mention some of the most cutting edge contemporary atheist philosophers like Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, and Taubes have all published books on Paul’s contributions to and resources for contemporary philosophical problems. If Jews and atheists can embrace and praise Paul, why can’t we Mormons get it together?

I suspect that one of the reasons that we have ignored Paul is because we are so caught up in a provincial debate with Evangelicals about whether we are saved by grace or saved by works. Neither we nor Evangelicals seem to be aware of recent developments in Pauline scholarship that more or less resolve this quesiton. Well, to be more accurate, recent scholars have shown that this question is not what Paul is answering. He is not dealing with the Grace vs. Works as two polar opposites. Rather, he is dealing with a specific set of “works of the Law”, namely, circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. In my view, this “New Perspective,” as it is called, opens up a great deal of space for Mormon thinking with Paul.

Unfortunately, the results of our discomfort with Paul is that we literally ignored him. Even though his writings (or those attributed to him) make up 1/2 of the books of the New Testament, we devote hardly any time to him in the Sunday School curriculum. As a culture, we simply have not paid any attention to him, hoping in vain that the problems we thought he created for us will dissappear. We can no longer continue to do this.

I suspect that one of the other difficulties that we have with Paul is that we try to read him in the KJV, with the odd page layout of the Standard Works. I admit that I never really understood Paul until I read him in modern translation. The particular translation that we have in the KJV is rooted in a Protestant reading of him, which contributes to the misunderstanding and discomfort we have.

So, what can Paul do for us? We can start with the problems that he is dealing with himself. He is deeply concerned about the problems of universalism and particularism. How can God and Truth be universal, yet have a particular relationship with a particular people? We can also think about how he deals with immanent eschatology and time, which we share with him. We can also pinpoint areas where we might disagree, perhaps on questions of gender. Finally, we can look at how he is dealing with diversity and difference within the church, the kind of ethics between the “strong” and the “weak,” as well as ethnic differences between Jew and Gentile. All of these are analogous problems that we are dealing with in LDS thought as well. Paul can help!

Sex, Reproductive Technology, and Mormon Doctrine

This is not a post about whether birth control should be permitted, or about stem-cell research, test-tube babies or even about the ethics of in-vitro fertilization. Rather, this post is about what these technologies do to and for Mormon doctrines about sex and reproduction.

One of the results of modern reproductive technology is to completely separate sex and reproduction. They are no longer necessarily related. This must leave an impact on the way that we theologize about both. Sex without reproduction and reproduction without heterosexual intercourse have become realities. The thing that we must reconsider is the close connection between them that Mormon theological reflection has often taken for granted.

The first major institution that we must reconsider is nothing less than the heterosexual reproductive marriage. This institution is the foundation of LDS afterlife theology and is seen as the primal unit of creation. Often, the post-mortem continuation of reproductive sexual relations has been a celebrated tenent of Mormonism. However, reproductive technologies seriously challenge the assumptions of “natural” reproduction. Can we imagine a kind of reproduction in our future lives that is in fact not connected to sexual intercourse? If this kind of “technology” exists in this world, then why not the next? How do we rethink reproductive gender roles, eternal child birth, and heterosexual partnerships once technology (and possibly the nature of resurrected bodies) displaces a necessary father/mother binary?

The second case for reevaluation is the relationship between sex and marriage. In our larger cultural envirnoment, the connection between sex and marriage has virtually disappeared precisely because the sex/reproduction nexus has been dissolved. Does an LDS theology of sex adequately account for sex without reproduction? On what basis is sex prohibited if the production of children outside of wedlock is no longer an issue? Given that the history of heterosexual marriage is deeply intertwined with the regulation of reproductive sex, how does the institution of marriage change when its very logic has been rearranged?

The technologies also offer potential benefits for LDS theology. Through them, we can think about reproduction in our next life without having to biologize the production of spirit children. Additionally, sex without reproduction becomes a powerful symbol of union between husband and wife. However, for the most part I don’t think that these new technologies have been adequately addressed theologically.

Mandatory Repentence Periods?

It appears that a new instruction manual to bishops requires certain “waiting periods” for prospective missionaries who commit certain sins, which are specifically enumerated. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The only reason that I can think that it is a good thing is that it standardizes the waiting period. This way, bishop A who is more strict than bishop B is required to follow the same guidelines.
However, this very process of standardization also strikes me as creating a whole new set of problems. First, it doesn’t distinguish between various degrees and types of sin. If a pre-missionary “pets” once with his girlfriend of three years, there is no difference in the waiting period from the pre-missionary who had sex numerous times with several partners.

Second, these waiting periods don’t deter sins. They aren’t public, so no one knows. But even when they become public, they are seen as standards which can be worked around. On a pre-missionary’s 18th birthday, he can have sex for the last time. These waiting periods seem to encourage teenagers to miss the message.

Third, this whole process of standarizing repentence periods strikes me as belonging to a Christian tradition of proscribed penitence, which I thought we Mormons didn’t beleive in. Say your “Hail Mary’s”, wait a year, and viola, you’re now forgiven. This seems to me to profoundly miss the point of the atonement. We don’t do this for others who sin in similar ways, why do we single out these pre-missionaries? This practice seems completely non-scriptural.

Fourth, from all accounts, many pre-missionaries simply choose to lie about their past transgressions because they don’t want to face the public shame. These policies turn private repentence into a public spectacle in such a way that can only encourage pre-missionaries to hide the truth and lose out on the benefits of a full repentence process.

Finally, these policies function to publically shame prospective missionaries in such a way as to actually discourage repentence and the desire to serve a mission. They make teenagers who have sinned feel unworthy and frustrated by a beaurocratic requirement that they feel is contrary to the principles of the gospel. Rather than have to admit that they have to “wait a year” and let family and friends express dissapointment, speculate about the nature of the sins, and constantly check-up on them, many prospective missionaries find that it is easier and more accepted if they simply say that they don’t want to go.

Perhaps I am missing something?

New Blog Team Member: diahman

We’ve just added the newest member to team Urban Mormonism. Diahman is an anonymous bloggernacle veteran and an amazing conversation partner. I look forward to working more closely with this amazing contributor!

Jesus in History

The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” has emerged in various stages. With the emergence of critical historical tools in the Enlightenment, it wasn’t long before these were turned to the sacred history of the Bible. Very briefly, the First Quest argued about what kind of a figure Jesus was, culminating with Albert Schweitzer’s convincing argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher who preached the end of the world and the end of the present order. Not long after this, Bultmann argued that in fact there was hardly any access to what Jesus might have said because it was all filtered through the memories of the church which altered Jesus’s sayings for its own purposes. Besides, he argued, the positivist history was the wrong kind of question to be asking of the Bible. Instead, we should be seeking to experience the message of the gospel. This remained virtually the dominant opinion for thirty years when finally someone broke the silence on Jesus in 1953. Bultmann’s student Ernst Kasemann argued that actually we can know a little about who Jesus really was, and that it is important to match history with our theological beliefs. Where they don’t match up, we should be willing to change our theology.

Is Kasemann’s theological demand a reasonable one? What effect should history have on our beliefs? If we know that Jesus didn’t actually teach something that is attributed to him, must we discard it, or does it have some other kind of validity? What kind of authority does history have over our construction of faith?