“Voluntary Suspensions” Required by “Scriptural Theology”
by Christian Y. Cardall
Attempts at systematic theology in Mormonism tend not to stand the test of time; it is the revelatory and historical narratives that retain vitality and endure to be reinterpeted and reapplied on an individual basis in every generation. This means that most believers end up with an ad hoc, informal, often subconscious and implicit worldview. However, philosophers cannot help themselves, and in an interesting post Jim F. describes what he considers a legitimate form of
Jim F. explained further, but I’m not sure I’m really ‘getting it’ yet, beyond recognizing the possibility that what I called an “artificial boundary demarcation” (or might also call ‘putting blinders on’) might be considered instead a helpful focus—on “the God we worship” rather than “the metaphysical god.” I am not yet sure these can be separated. The claim that they can be separated seems to require abandoning (Joseph’s?) claim in the Lectures on Faith that one comes to rely on God because of knowledge of his (metaphysical?) attributes. (Of course, the Lectures on Faith may be the Mormon index case of pathological theology Jim F. argues ought not be done: after all, they were dropped from the canon, in spite of the fact that their presence was responsible for the word “Doctrine” in the title Doctrine and Covenants, as the 1835 edition makes clear.)
In any case, I’ll try here to articulate what I meant by my “voluntary suspension” statement by giving one example in terms of method and one that suggests why “metaphysical questions” might in fact be relevant to the goal of intimacy with God.
First, an example of “voluntary suspension” in terms of method. The word of God teaches me about God’s creation of myself and my world. Presumably I am taught these things in order to convince me that (a) I have a relationship with God, and (b) it is a relationship that ought to be characterized by my obedience to him. However, allowing “the totality of our experience and knowledge” into the picture (scientific evidence in this case) raises the possibility that the scriptural account of creation is inaccurate, with possible consequences for the notions of whether I have a relationship with God or what is legitimately required in terms of obedience. Because I consider science a valid enterprise, I am uncomfortable with a focus on scripture that excludes consideration of the impacts of scientific claims on ‘theology.’
Next, an example of the “voluntary suspension” of questions relevant to the goal of intimacy with God. The word of God teaches me that God has control over the elements, and gives numerous examples and warnings of his willingness to exercise that control as a way of rewarding faith and punishing disobedience. (This is a major difference with the members of one’s family, and reveals an important limitation of the analogy with familial relationships.) On the other hand, our day-to-day observations of the world show that the elements cause considerable pain to innocent others. This raises questions about God’s existence, power, or benevolence, and therefore has potential consequences for my trust in and intimacy with him. By enforcing focus on the word of God, Jim F.’s “scriptural theology” would by fiat exclude from consideration our observations of pain to innocent others; but I am uncomfortable with the exclusion of such obvious empirical input.
I recognize that by legitimizing questions of theodicy based on observations of pain to others, I am at odds with a principle I have previously espoused when it favored me in my guilt—withholding judgment when one is not personally affected. I think I must retreat from that position to some extent, or at least qualify it. Our social interactions are sufficiently complex as to rely not only on direct reciprocity, but also indirect reciprocity and a presupposition of general adherence to cultural norms. In this context the establishment of reputations becomes necessary, and basing them in part on well-established observations that do not directly involve us may become legitimate. (Our proclivity for gossip suggests that in bygone ages or under dysfunctional civil authority it was/is necessary or at least effective, sort of like black markets in dysfunctional economies.) Therefore, it might be argued, it is legitimate to establish a reputation for God based on his observed actions with respect to the elements. I suppose one rejoinder may be that God is not just another member of our society but is a unique outsider above and beyond it (‘Where wert thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ and so on), and could never be in our debt, and therefore the concepts of reciprocation and cultural norms and reputation do not apply to him. Another (related I guess) is that it may be impossible for us to justly evaluate the facts, both because he operates on spatial and temporal scales beyond normal human consideration (‘My ways are higher than your ways’ and so forth), and because we may not be privy to comfort he may in fact provide innocent others in their extremities.