This is a followup to my post last week that mentioned the podcast between Jim McLachlan and Dennis Potter over whether the Mormon concept of God is a being worthy of worship. Now I should note in advance that while Dennis and I used to chat philosophy a lot, I’ve largely lost contact with him. I know his philosophical views have changed quite a bit. I honestly no longer know his current philosophical commitments. Back in the 90′s he verged on being a classic positivist of the Vienna school. I know he did a lot of research on the Vienna Circle. It sounds, from the podcast, that he’s moving more in a Hegelian direction.1
In any case his commitments don’t ultimately matter. I just want to address the podcast.
Ultimately, as I mentioned in the comments to the prior post, I think Jim and Dennis are replaying the old debate between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. That’s interesting since I started my original blog discussing Orson Pratt’s views. Pratt was a very poor philosopher so his arguments are almost always fairly muddled. Historically I think the evidence shows the Pratt brothers had a fairly neoPlatonic conception of God with humans being made out of the ‘substance’ of God. Once the revelation on matter was given (D&C 131:7) that changed their views towards a materialism. However they did this while holding onto their old views as much as possible. This led Orson Pratt to end up with this very weird mixture of Priestly’s atomism and a more neoplatonic conception of the dual natures of Jesus only applied to all divine beings. (i.e. both the Father and the Son) Brigham Young didn’t approve of this, thinking that Pratt had changed the worship of God (the Father) into worship of God’s attributes. Effectively Jim and Dennis are rehashing that same debate with Dennis taking up the defense of worshipping the attributes. Surprisingly they don’t get into the fact this debate happened within Mormonism before. (And, I’d argue, both sides are probably still within the broad orthodoxy of Mormon belief)
Most of the podcast gets into technical discussions and name dropping of various philosophers. It makes a lot of sense if you’re familiar with the history of philosophy (and perhaps Buddhism) but probably is completely confusing if you’re not. I’ve not listened to the redone version of the podcast that attempts to keep it comprehensible for a lay audience. Just the technical version. But that probably is enough to get at the main debate.
Dennis gets at the issue fairly early in the discussion. First he adopts a view of “worship” from Tillich where worship is our complete focus on our ultimate concern. For Tillich this ends up being Being itself stripped of all the pesky anthropomorphisms. (i.e. a “demythologized” version of Christianity stripped of a functionally interventionist theistic God) Dennis makes clear that he thinks worship means it can’t be shared. So you can only have ultimate concern with just this entity.
The second issue is that Dennis thinks our ultimate concern must be stripped of all risk. That is any risk in belief undermines that belief and thus we can’t have ultimate concern. Effectively I think this puts Dennis very much in the Cartesian tradition. That’s hardly surprising. Most philosophy after Descartes is in the Cartesian tradition in various ways. One might say that this tradition puts epistemology first in terms of philosophical thinking. You might recall that Descartes starts from attempting to doubt everything. Yet there is something he simply can’t doubt, his existence. From this he ends up with a conception of God that is indubitable. That is God is the ground of all and is what can’t be doubted. God is a sure epistemological basis. Dennis’ argument, however unstated, really is Descartes argument. And, like Descartes, Dennis sees only this God as worthy of worship. Now like most philosophers (and especially Spinoza) Dennis doesn’t see this God as a personal God. It’s a move to deism rather than theism.
So Dennis’ whole argument reduces to God must involve no epistemological risk and worship must be our ultimate concern. Since God for Mormons is a being among many beings he’s not the ultimate ground. The ultimate ground would be what enables God to exist. (Dennis doesn’t put it like that, but effectively that’s what he’s arguing) There’s something that makes existence possible, something “in” all things which is their unity. So Dennis also is making this move to more and more abstraction. This is the neoplatonic move from particulars backwards to what they share until you reach The One which is the ultimate concern. To focus on any particular is to exclude this ultimate concern.
Now the counter argument is, of course, to simply reject this whole line of reasoning by Descartes. And there are many bodies of thought that do this. Jim McLachlan is from the “personalist” school of though. I’m not as familiar with that, but I believes it arises out of American philosophy at the dawn of the 20th century highly influenced by the pragmatists, the transcendentalists and having a fair bit of influence from a particular take on Hegel. However most Continental thought from Heidegger on down to the present also tends to reject Cartesianism in most of its guises. The point being, it seems questionable whether Dennis’ conception of God is in fact devoid of risk. Dennis, I sense, attempts to avoid this by making the Spinozist move such that God is the whole. That is the universe. However that assumes that it makes sense to speak of the universe as a single whole rather than particulars. That’s probably too complex a debate to have. I just bring this up since I think many people would reject Dennis’ presuppositions much like Jim does.
Fundamental to Mormon theology is the notion of risk. In many (but hardly all, despite Dennis’ comments) risk is even in God. That is God could, if he chose, do something evil. To Dennis this means that God is dependent on something external to God. Whether that be a conception of the good or just the ability for God to make choices. More particularly though for Dennis worship must be devoid of risk.
To Mormons, given our conception of the plan in heaven and purpose of mortality, the whole point of worship in mortality is tied to risk. That is to worship is to have faith in a being we can’t justify having full trust in. That is contra Descartes, we see God as avoidable in our belief. Indeed the point of mortality is to be in an epistemological state where God is doubtable and unknown. We see that as a key value in mortality. Dennis’ conception of worship effectively requires worship without faith.
There’s other things Jim and Dennis get at in their debate (effectively arguing which is more important – the particulars or the general). However I think this issue of risk is really what’s key. Dennis fundamentally wants a religion without faith because faith entails risk. Mormonism, perhaps moreso than even traditional Christianity, wants a faith based on risk where by acting in risk we come to knowledge rather than start with knowledge. That’s not to say knowledge isn’t important. However it’s a vague historical knowledge that enables us to conduct tests and through religious experience come to know God. (Or more accurately, come to re-know God out of a state of ignorance)
Dennis gets a few other things. I think he wants God to be the truly unlimited which is what his comments on infinity at the beginning get at. I think he’s wrong there. To draw an analogy the set of all positive integers is an infinite set but it’s simultaneously a set with limits. So we have to be careful with the finite/infinite dichotomy. I know where Dennis is going, especially when he invokes Hegel. But there’s no reason to say omnipotence must be absolutely unlimited. Something can be infinite, limited but not finite, as the set of positive integers attests.
- There was always a Hegelian aspect to Dennis’ thought given his view of Marx and Engles – he used to call himself a former communist. Now it’s almost as if he’s moved to an Emerson position. ↩