Ostler, The Attributes of God, pp. 1 - 12.
Probably the best way to see how good Ostler's introductory pages are is to contrast them with McMurrin. McMurrin goes through numerous fairly important but difficult philosophical concepts. As often as not he explains them not with examples or analogies but by mentioning significant philosophers. If you aren't already familiar with the notions, then the names aren't going to help, and if you are familiar, do you really need the introduction? Ostler, in contrast, introduces a few basic issues very clearly and simply. Further the things he introduces are fairly foundational in terms of the kinds of questions one might ask about the scriptures. Different answers results in a very different foundation.
Consider the basic conception of God. Is God a proper name or is it a title? A simple question, but one with deep philosophical implications. Because it is so foundational in terms of the difference between how Mormons and or more traditional Christian friends understand scripture, it really deserves to be there at the beginning. Ostler wisely sticks to these sorts of issues instead of jumping into the deep end like McMurrin. The real starting point for any theological investigation has to be the meaning of God. That meaning has to be hermeneutically situated. That is, it must start both with our interpretation of the world around us and in how we choose to read scripture. Ostler does this very well.
Probably the place I'd focus in on to demonstrate the fruitfulness of Ostler's beginning is page 2.
Yet in many ways rational exploration of the meaning of "God" is inevitable for the thoughtful believer, even though it is also strangely irrelevant, irreverant and even "irrevelant." Rational exploration of God is strangely irrelevant to religious belief because what the believer seeks is a personal relationship with God rather than an intellectual grasp of his nature and attributes. To the believer who stands in God's presence, the proofs of God's existence derived from natural theology must seem quite absurdly superfluous.
I think this quote really focuses on what theology is or can be, as well as provides a certain orientation to ones task to understand theology. An other way to put the issue is to ask, what is the phenomena of theology. That is, when we do theology, what are we ideally doing? Ideally we are trying to bring together rational analysis of the various phenomena in which we encounter God. To leave that out is to fundamentally lead ones philosophy astray. We must never forget the "what" or the "who" of the phenomena. It is all to easy to get caught up in language to such a degree that we forget that our language is about something.
Once we start from this position, we quickly are able to delve into the question of the meaning of God - the meaning of that being we encounter in religious phenomena. The first point Ostler brings out is one McMurrin brings out as well: Being and Becoming. I think Ostler wisely narrows this somewhat and orients it considerably better that McMurrin. The issue might be framed this way: in the phenomena we encounter what remains the same and what changes? Put this way, the issue of names and titles is quite relevant. The person acting as mayor may change, but we still have a mayor of the city. Titles provide one clear way to have persistence within change. Further, the title may have with it requirements that allow us to speak about the "essence" of those that operate under the title. For instance to be a mayor one may have to behave in certain ways and fulfill certain kinds of requirements. The same may be true of God. The question then remains, is there anything beyond a title that remains consistent with respect to God? And it is here that Mormons and most other Christians start to separate.
Probably the biggest place Mormons differ with other Christians is what we might describe the semantic range of the word God. Typically, when a mainstream Christian says "God" they mean what Mormons would call "The Godhead." A Mormon is much more loose with the term. The word may refer to a few divine beings, all divinity, or perhaps someone acting on behalf of the Godhead. This means that quite often when speaking with each other, we talk past one an other. McMurrin, I feel, never really tries to get at this semantic issue in his introduction, preferring to delve into the philosophical issues first. Yet it is semantics that I think we have to start with. And as a semantical issue we have to realize a large separation between how we express ourselves and what we are referring to. To assume that there is a nice simple and consistent relationship between word and referent is, I think, one of the grave errors of historic theology.
The point Ostler reaches, as he finally brings to the fore the Mormon perspective, is that Mormons can accept what we might call absolute qualities, but have those qualities held by the referent of the title rather than any individual being. Put an other way, if our relationship is with the mayor of a city as the mayor, then that relationship will persist even if who the mayor is changes. With respect to God, our relationship with God as God holds regardless of who or how many beings make up God. That allows us to accept the LDS notion of eternal progression as well as many (possibly infinite) number of beings being God.
I intentionally only went through half of the first chapter. I'll put the other half in a second post, as there I start to differ from Blake somewhat. I'll go a little quicker in future posts as I think the introductions really orient the texts of both Ostler and McMurrin. In a way, those orientations are what really make me appreciate Ostler and what fundamnetally both me about McMurrin.
Discussions on individual chapters from Blake Ostler's Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of Godliness can be found on our Reading Club page.
The title - essence - being discussion highlights for me one of the strengths of Mormon theology -- how God [meaning the members of the Godhood] can have the attributes of god-ness, but still be a 'presonal' god, a god that a human being can relate to.
I especially liked this paragraph (page 8):
"Most importantly, each of the divine persons is a holy "Thou." In traditional thought it is ambiguous whether it is the Trinity that one relates to or the individual divine persons. In Mormonism, mortal enter into relationship with each of the divine persons and are thus also invited into their shared unity. This unity is not a reduction of many to one; rather it is a true plurality of persons who are united by willing to be in relationship to one another. The face of the 'other' is not ever obliterated in relationship in Mormon thought."
This idea, along with the notion that our 'intelligences' are co-eternal with God and weren't created by him, seems very powerful to me. It fits in better with how 'most people' seem to conceptualize and relate to God.
It also speaks to the possible perfectability and exaltation of humanity. We can eventually 'fully' share that unity, a sharing that means taking on the 'title' of god.
I'm not sure how to put this, but it seems like Mormons often don't completely believe that this godhood thing is possible. I mean, we may have a testimony of it or intellectually understand it. But it sometimes seems very remote. I'm not saying that it's easy [although, Christ reminds us that his yoke is easy -- and there's that relationship thing again, the wills working in unity], but thinking of it in these terms helps us [or me at least] realize that it's a viable process.
Or to put it another way -- if I think of it as climbing rungs on a ladder then it seems that that ladder stretches up forever. If I think of it, however, as a dialogue [with a perfect 'other'] , as a process of relationship building then it seems much more doable.
Also: I have a question and comment related to the passage I quote above and Ostler's objection to England's notion of the eternal progression of the Father a few pages later. But I'll save that for the second post.
Yeah, that was partially why I stopped where I did. The next section is where I start to quibble with Blake a bit. Oh, if you like the "thou" way of thinking, you might like Buber, Levinas or others. It is that 20th century Jewish philosophical perspective that Blake is making use of.
Clark, it will take me a couple of weeks to get my hands on Ostler's book. My local Deseret Book outlet doesn't stock it (the guy said the online inventory screen showed that only three of their stores carry it at the moment) but he did offer the helpful advice that people have much better luck with Deseret Book online for filling orders from smaller LDS publishers than, for example, Amazon. DB online can pull it from a DB retail outlet if it's not in their warehouse and tend to deal with LDS orders a lot. I thought this info might be useful for the dozens of people following this discussion and scouring the shelves for a copy of Ostler's book. ;o)
I ordered my copy from Amazon and got it in a couple of days. Same with McMurrin. (I actually bought both at the same time) I suspect McMurrin is harder to get since I think it is towards the end of it's "shelf life" while Blake's book is still fairly new. You might also want to call the publisher.
I hope it is not too late to add a comment. I am new to this site and decided to dust off my copy of Ostler's book and follow the discussion.
Under the section "God and Perfection" I felt like a point should have been made that under the Mormon concept, God's attributes of perfection need not always to have existed within that being we call God. This seems to differ from traditional Christian thought that requires that God's perfection must be without beginning.
Also, Ostler rejects the idea that a being "which has great power and is sufficient to insure salvation and the eternal lives of all persons, and yet cannot do all things that are logically possible" (16) cannot be God. I don't believe that the Moromon concept of God necessarily rejects that idea in light of the fact that we belive in the evolution of God or at least that we may become God's/Godlike.
Mateo, feel free to add your comments any time.
I've actually almost finished the second half of the second chapter which goes into the nature of perfection more. There Blake more or less contrasts Greek absolutism with process theology. (I see that as a kind of false dichotomy myself -- but I'll get to that tonight)
I agree that the key important point Blake does bring out is that God the collective can have properties and temporal properties that the individual of the Father does not. I also agree with you regarding Blake thinking God must have maximal properties for all properties. That doesn't seem a logical necessity nor does it seem a necessity in terms of what a being must have to have faith in.