Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Abraham 5

Rosalynde is out of town this week and asked if I’d fill in for her with a couple of comments of my own about Abraham 5. I’ll see what I can do and hopefully you’ll be able to help pick-up the rest.

vs. 2-3, “And the Gods said among themselves: On the seventh time we will end our work, which we have counseled . . . which we have counseled . . . which they (the Gods) counseled among themselves . . . at the time that they counseled among themselves.

Verses 2-3 bear the mark of some heavily repetitive language, but the repetition seems centered on the verses’ preoccupation with “counseling.” Anyone whose attended any kind of Mormon “counseling” meeting in the past week (and, really, who hasn’t?) won’t be surprised by this, but it’s probably important to have some feel for the novelty of its introduction in this context (and in the context of traditional Christian understandings of creation, God, etc.). Emphatically, these verses remind us that creation is a joint-venture, undertaken with one another for the sake of one another, with all of the necessary consent.

vs. 3, “. . . on the seventh time they would rest from all their works which they (the Gods) counseled among themselves to form; and sanctified it.”

I’m interested here in the connection between “rest” and “sanctification.” First, is there a connection? If so, what is the nature of the connection? In what way might “resting from work” potentially “sanctify” the work already accomplished? Would “endless” or “restless” or “uninterrupted” work be necessarily profane?

vs. 3, “And thus were their decisions at the time . . .”

I find it striking that “decisions” were involved in the creation process. Generally, decisions are only required when a way forward is not immediately obvious. Only a plurality of possibilities (viable or unviable) necessitate a decision. As Derrida likes to put it, only the undecidable requires a decision.

Is this the sense in which the work of creation is genuinely “creative”: it requires some not immediately justifiable decision in light of the constraints of the given, (and not optimal?) material situation? Is the contingency of such a decision what makes it necessary to so emphatically repeat that everyone had been consulted, all the Gods had counseled, and each had come to an agreement?

vs. 6, “But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.”

Note that Abraham here affirms (at least tacitly) a seamless stitching of the two versions of the creation story given in Genesis into one account. The “second” creation is not treated as “second” or as an “alternate” version of the story. I know we have theories about “spiritual” accounts and “physical” accounts, but I’m not sure how they fit in here. Also, the movement from the first Genesis account to the second perhaps punctures the Gods’ claim to have rested. Or, perhaps, it at least contextualizes it as a “break” in the creative process rather than as a kind of “retirement.”

vs. 7, “And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground . . .”

vs. 16, “And of the rib which the God’s had taken from man, formed they a woman.”

Both man and woman are, here, made only out of pre-existing stuff. Can we make any hay out of these verses about “sexual difference” that would not simply repeat a classically patriarchal understanding of woman as being derivatively created from man? Such a possibility seems essential to our questions about the relation of theology to the family.

vs. 13, “Now I, Abraham, saw that it was after the Lord’s time, which was after the time of Kolob; for as yet the Gods had not appointed unto Adam his reckoning.”

Abraham bursts back into the narrative in this verse with a comment about time and Kolob. Curious that this is one of the few things about which he explicitly editorializes. Why? I’m tempted (though, perhaps, groundlessly) to connect Adam’s lack of specifically human temporality to his lack of both mortality and self-consciousness (he is not yet capable of “shame” in vs. 19 and has not yet gained “knowledge” from the tree). In order to be ashamed do we need to have a time that “is our own time”?


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Abraham 3 - Summary

1. God appears to exist in time.

1.1. God’s time, however, is described is magnitudes greater (1000 times greater) than our time.

1.2. Does this difference in magnitude indicate a different relation to time? A kind of meta-time? Does it indicate a dimension of immemoriality?

2. There appears to be a kind of (typological?) equivalence between the stars, Abraham’s posterity, and the eternally existing spirits/intelligences that allows each to be read in terms of the others.

3. If two things exist, and if they can be ordered hierarchically, then there will also be a third greater than both of them.

3.1. This appears to supply an effective formula for generating an infinite number of “things.”

3.2. It may also bear on the question of what a Mormon ontology would take as fundamental: the One or the Infinite?

4. Despite the possibility of hierarchical ordering, all spirits are co-eternal, without beginning or end.

4.1. Rather than grounding a kind of libertarian notion of self-founded “freedom,” the co-eternality of every spirit may instead indicate that no spirit has access to its own ground or foundation: every spirit finds themselves always already thrown into the world.

4.2. This co-eternal “throwness” may have a particular ethical implication: the universe may simply be such that we must (God included) engage in a kind of ethical bricolage - rather than being able to precede on the basis of a set of absolute ethical principles.

4.2.1. Our co-eternal “throwness” re-opens the topic of grace: we find ourselves always already given both ourselves and the world. We can’t have earned or deserved this gift because it necessarily precedes us. The cosmic conjunction of grace and “throwness” is micro-mirrored in our own relationships with our parents.

4.2.2. How we relate to the grace of this “throwness” (either cosmically or familially) may be salvifically crucial: do we (a la Jesus) honor the gift such as it is, or do we (a la Satan) refuse the gift such as it is?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Abraham 4

I'm late, of course. And I'm not quite sure how to deal with Abraham 4 because it is so much like Genesis 1. What follows are more or less random thoughts.

In verse 1, "the Lord" speaks to those Gods who are with him and they go down together to organize the world. If "the Lord" refers to Jahweh rather than Elohim here, then who are "the Gods"?

Whoever they are, it is important to the Abraham account that Creation is a corporate venture. As opposed to Genesis and the Joseph Smith version of Genesis ("JST Genesis," which, interestingly, differs from Genesis in that God speaks in the first person: "And I, God, said"), it is the Gods rather than God who speaks each of the creative commands (e.g., "Let there be light"). Abraham's account is very much in line with Abraham's experience: an individual, he has been promised community in covenant; he has been promised that he will not continue to be merely an individual, but part of something greater. The creation of the covenant community echoes the creation of the world.

I'm not sure what to make of it, but I find it interesting that in Abraham 4, the Gods say (e.g., verse 6), order (e.g., verse 7), pronounce (e.g., verse 10), and they organize (e.g., verse 12), whereas in both Genesis and JST Genesis God either says or calls.

Also, in the Genesis and JST Genesis accounts, God saw that his creations are good, while in the Abraham account the Gods see that they have been obeyed. The last verse of the chapter especially emphasizes this: "Behold, they shall be very obedient." Is this change of focus from goodness to obedience also a reflection of the Abrahamic covenant?

So part of the creation of community by covenant is an account of the Creation. Is this, perhaps, to show us that the covenant renews the world, that it makes a new world for those who enter it? If so, then Abraham not only enters into the Promised Land, he enters into a New World.

The book of Abraham puts this knowledge of Creation prior to the Akedah. In fact, it puts it prior to the full establishment of the covenant as well as before his arrival in Canaan. Read this way, the revelation of the Creation is a revelation of the covenant that is to come, a revelation that the covenant introduces a new world rather than merely a reconfiguration of the old one. (My hobby horse again!)

By the way, I've created a PDF file with Genesis 1, Abraham 4, and JST Genesis 1 in parallel columns. I'm happy to share it with anyone who'd like a copy or, if someone knows how, to make it available as a link.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Abraham 3

As I worked through the third chapter of Abraham the past few days I began to wonder what knuckle-head put together our reading schedule and put me in charge of talking about Kolob. And then I realized that I put myself in charge of talking about Kolob. And then my wife laughed at me :)

Nonetheless, this is, I think, an extremely interesting, singular, and complex passage of Mormon scripture (+ a facsimile!). I’ll do my best to toss out some observations and questions and see what kind of thoughts and responses you might have.

vs. 1, “And I, Abraham, had the Urim and Thummim . . .”

Could we read the Urim and Thummim as a kind a typological de-coder/re-coder that runs the mundane situation through an algorithm of immemoriality in order to reveal the world’s alternate meanings? Here, taking the stars as a “type” for intelligences and reading out of them truths about the nature of our relation to God, the gods, space, and time? That may be a little bit of a stretch – or not.

vs. 2, “And I saw the stars . . .”

An initial problem we face in reading the chapter (especially if we don’t read the discussion of the heavens as exclusively typological) is deciding what kind of cosmological context we ought to use as a background frame. Should we assume a pre-Copernican cosmology as a backdrop? A Joseph Smith era cosmology? A contemporary, “accurate” cosmology? I really don’t have the faintest. Any suggestions?

vs. 4, “And the Lord said unto me, by the Urim and Thummim, that Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in revolutions thereof; that one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest.”

Does the difference in the length of days apply experientially or just planetarily? That is, does the Lord experience a day on Kolob (1,000 years) in the same way we experience 24 hours here (so that he experiences a day for us as just 1.4 minutes)? Or does he experience time at the same speed as us but just on a much longer scale? (Of course, if you know the answer to this question, I have a couple of other things I’d like to speak to you about by private email.)

Either way, what strikes me as particularly interesting is the way that God experiences time – period. That God is, according to this account, is in time. I’ve always been much more amenable to this view than the classical position that locates God extra-temporally. If an eternal life is not in some sense temporal, then, whatever it is, it won’t allow for anything even remotely like the lives, relationships, loves, etc. that we experience here. Time is, for us, the very stuff of life and the very meaning of a relationship.

What seems to be at stake, then, is question of one’s relationship to time, the way in which time is taken up in one’s passing through it and extension in it. This notion connects nicely with all our previous discussions of the immemorial as being a certain kind of relation to time rather than something non-temporal. It also intersects with our discussion of types as “folding” time or reconstructing and re-orienting time.

We could describe sin, I think, in purely temporal terms as a mis-relation to time (e.g., my present is held captive both to the weight of my past and my fears for the future) and the atonement as a re-opening of the gift of time (i.e., life) when time seems to have come to a stop (I’m “stuck” in sin!) or we appear to have run out of time (I’m dead!).

This not exactly how things play out in these verses but, minimally, we should come away with the notion that our (sinful? profane?) conception of time is not the only possible conception of or relation to time. Another order of time, magnitudes more powerful, is possible and this “other” time is what God is offering Abraham (and us) access to.

vs. 6, “And the Lord said unto me: Now, Abraham, these two facts exist, behold thine eyes see it: it is given unto thee to know the times of reckoning, and the set time . . .”

I’m interested here in the language of “facts” and they way that the chapter keeps circling back to this locution (“there are two facts,” “these two facts exist,” etc.). What do you make of this? Is the “fact” in question the “reckoning of times” or is the “reckoning of times” something that Abraham is given privileged access to here in addition to the bare facts about greater and lesser lights? Is time a “fact” or some “fact +1”?

vs. 14, “And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of they seeds.”

The cosmological narrative breaks in verse 14, interrupted by the repetition of God’s promises to Abraham about his numberless posterity. Should we retroactively read all of the preceding discussion of the heavens, etc. as really a discussion of children and posterity? The stars being a type for Abraham’s seed? Not Abraham’s children being like the stars (though this is the phrasing used), but the stars being like Abraham’s children? This may find support in the way that the reiterated promise explicitly incorporates a reference to “sand” as countless rather than limiting itself to the obvious stellar parallel – as if to say that the stars, like the sand, are a just a metaphor for something else.

vs. 16, “If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them . . .”

This is a fascinating formulation of infinity. For any two terms placed in relation, there will be a third. And a third for this third. And so on. Here, it is the ordering of magnitudes (“if one is greater than another, then there will be a third”) that allows for the infinity of relations and differences to unfurl.

vs. 18, “. . . as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.”

The pay-off comes explicitly in vs. 18 with the transition from the discussion of cosmology to a discussion of spirits or intelligences. The relationship between the two discussions is explicitly described as analogical: “as, also, . . .”

What interests me about this verse is the way that it backs off of or punctures the hierarchical ordering: “notwithstanding” the differences in intelligences, all the spirits are co-eternal. None is absolutely reducible to its hierarchical position. There is a kind of primeval and anarchic atomism that asserts the shared, generic eternality of each spirit, a co-eternality that no ordering can overcome or erase.

I’m also struck by the way that there is no “softening” of the blunt differences in intelligence, no attempt to apologize for the political incorrectness of such an assertion. It is simply a “fact”: some spirits are more intelligent than others. It’s just the brute facticity of the way things are. Nobody made these things, nobody asked for them to be this way. We can organize and order them in different, loving ways, but, in the end, we just have to work, each of us, with what we’ve got. And if you think you’re so great, be careful - there is always a third greater than you.

It’s as if salvation and creation are a kind of unavoidable bricolage, a process of working things through from the material necessity of where we are and doing what may be done with what there is, giving what gifts can be given and receiving what gifts may have been sent our way. Whether you’ve got one talent or fifty, that’s just the way things are. The issue is what you do with it.

Is there a touch of Stoic fatalism (not necessarily in a negative sense, but possibly in a very positive sense) in the way that the “facts” of the cosmological order are laid out here?

vs. 23, “He stood among these spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.”

This is a nice description of the way that our lives are structured in advance of us, given to us even before we are there to receive them.

(The possibility of being given something before we exist to receive it is, I think, the primary sense of the “immemorial” as Jim introduced it: that which precedes time itself making time possible, a non-recoverable pre-history).

Though, here, the picture is nicely complicated by the way that we “have always already been.” I’m tempted to say, however, that this does not refute the point that we were given something before we existed but that it confirms it. It confirms it with an argument that we have “always already been thrown” into ourselves, that we never were not always already given in advance of ourselves.

Everything depends, then, on how we choose to relate to this always already given gift or grace. Everything depends on how we relate to this immemorial dimension of our own histories that is the gift of life given in advance of itself, unearned and unmerited (who could “merit” the grace of a life always already given?). Do we resent not being self-created, master of our own destinies, as intelligent as we’d prefer, or do we accept the grace by extending grace to others with what grace we have?

The drama of our familial relationships then plays out this same drama again on an earthly scale: I’m born to parents who have named and called me in advance of my having even existed in the world and everything will depend on the way that I (and they) relate to this immemorial dimension that defines what a family is.

vs. 25, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.”

This verse is an interesting extension and generalization of the “testing/proving” that originally anchors the climax of Abraham’s story in Genesis 22.1. It is also an interesting way of talking about how the gods are involved in the process of creating and extending truths: the anarchic/generic co-eternality of the spirits must be tested and ordered and structured for a genuine infinity to unfurl. The unending must be qualitatively transformed into the “eternal,” profane temporality into faithful temporality. An infinite chaos is not sufficient. Orders of infinity must be constructed and elaborated, one above another.

vs. 28, “And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and at that day, many followed after him.”

The primal drama of choosing a Savior almost too neatly fits my above description of what is at stake: one’s relation to one’s always already given estate. Will the gift/estate be accepted or will it be rejected out of anger and shame at not having been autonomous, “perfect” and self-created? Satan can’t bear the shame of his life having started without him, without asking him for permission, without his consent and control. Can I? How deep does my shame burn at my inadequacy? How thoroughly does it prompt me to deliberately hide myself (like Adam and Eve) from those intelligences greater than I (God above all)?

My general discussion question, then, for this week is the following (take it up as you prefer or prefer not to – I’m game for whatever you’ve got):

Q. What can we learn from Abraham 3 about the ways in which cosmology/the stars, endless posterity/the family, and immemorially co-eternal spirits are all theologically knotted together for Mormonism?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Abraham 2

Sorry to be so late posting this. I've really struggled in deciding what to focus on. (Also, make sure you notice the last few comments on the previous post by Rosalynde and Joe.)

The hermeneutical challenges in knowing how to even approach the Book of Abraham are practically overwhelming for me to consider. There's a certain sense in which writing about this chapter is very much an unreasonable act of faith for me--how am I to read, write and interpret without having a good sense of how any of these tasks should be done? It is tempting to just focus just on these hermeneutical challenges and how they mirror the challenges of faith that Abraham himself faces.

It is also tempting to focus on Abraham's prayer for his father in verse 17. I think this is a very rich verse that makes me feel Abraham's (and so, symbolically, the Father's) deep pain regarding his father's unfaithfulness--a pain that is posited against the need to make a sharp break from Bablyon in order to start something new. I think this image of Abraham pleading to God to have mercy on his father--when God has just barely explained that he will destroy those who have been unfaithful to him--is ripe (or is it rife?) with possibilities.

But, in the end, I've chosen to focus primarily on the episode where God tells Abraham to tell Sarah to say in Egypt that she is Abraham's sister (vv. 22-24).

It seems the Lord advocates this lie for the purpose of preserving Sarah's life and therefore Abraham's family. There are several ways we might think about the "cost" of this lie, but it seems we must think about this cost as being inflicted more on the Egyptians than on Abraham or Sarah. It is the unyielding importance of preserving Abraham and Sarah (and their posterity) that seems to justify the lie. Although a little lie offered in order to preserve the lives of Abraham and Sarah might pale in comparison to the horror we feel at the thought of Abraham sacrificing his son, it nevertheless seems that at root we see the same kind of suspension of the ethical in both of these episodes. Furthermore, an important difference is that--if we join the Genesis account to this one--the unethical act in this case is carried out whereas the sacrifice of Isaac is not. So, although we might think about "God's nature" in such a way that it would never have allowed Abraham to slay his own son, the text here forces us to open ourselves to a God who is not bound by any narrow views of ethics. For anyone who has read about Nephi's slaying of Laban, this is not a new kind of irruption, since we see essentially the same thing occurring there. But in all this, I think I am just restating Kierkegaard. Is there anything new we can say about this?

Looking more carefully, we might notice that in both of these ethics-suspending accounts, we see an important role being played by family, records and priesthood. Nephi is told that God "slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a whole nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (1 Ne 4:13). This seems familiar from our reading in Abraham 1:17 where God tells Abraham that he will destroy those that raise an arm against him "because they have turned their hearts away from me." And then in the next verse (Abr 1:18) God continues, "I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father." Again, it seems the Lord has little concern for those who are not interested in becoming part of the Priesthood community he is establishing. In describing an event, as it might be conceived ontologically, Adam said in his "Earthen Vessels" article (Element v. 1.2), "The world's horizons are forced to bend and twist in ways that reconfigure the rules according to which things get counted." Applying this thought to the Book of Abraham, it seems that only those that are willing to turn their hearts toward God will be counted--and we see that those that are not counted can in fact be destroyed and lied to....

More on Priesthood: In the previous chapter, we saw Priesthood discussed primarily in relation to the fathers. In this chapter, we see Priesthood discussed in terms of it becoming a blessing to all nations (v. 9 esp., but also key terms "ministry" and "Gospel" occur in vv. 6, 10, 11). This description of how the Priesthood will come to make other nations count seems quite interesting and important. We see Abraham, it seems, fleeing from land to land, wandering (as the children of Israel will later), encountering Babylon over and over again, praying--perhaps vainly--for those in Babylon, not only for his father with whom he must be close, but for the relative strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Going back and rereading the events related in Genesis, events which occur after this chapter leaves off, I'm more inclined to look carefully for how this policy of lying to those outside the newly-forming community plays out. It seems there is no honest or peaceful coexistence possible with Pharoah, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or even with Hagar and Ishmael. Only with Abimelech do we see the beginnings of a possibly peaceful and honest coexistence, though this seems to have come about contingently, as a result of Abimelech's fear of God. In Genesis 23 I think we finally see the beginnings of a peaceful and honest (relatively speaking, since much of the dickering we read about may just be for show...) coexistence that is not contingent on others having a fear of God. It is here, it seems, that we finally see the need to lie to others cease. It is here, that I think we see the seeds being planted for the fulfillment of the promise about the ministry of the Gospel going to all nations.

Of course there is much more of interest in this chapter that we could consider, and I'd encourage any discussion of these other passages, but I esp. want to encourage discussion of this tension between the trans-ethical commitment that God seems to have for Abraham and Sarah, even if it means sacrificing those that do not show any faithfulness toward God. How do you think this issue in this chapter might help us answer the 4-key seminar questions?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Abraham 1

I know that Jeff is preparing some questions and comments about Abraham 1 but I thought that I might, in the meantime, offer a few comments of my own as a kind of place-holder. (I’m also looking forward to Robert’s first opportunity to lead a discussion for us this week on Abraham 2.)

With the short amount of time I’ve got tonight, I’d like to simply comment on two verses from chapter 1.

vs. 1, “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my father, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.”

The first verse of chapter one immediately introduces what is, for me, the most striking (and, perhaps, important) difference between Genesis and the book of Abraham: the shift from an impersonal third-person narrative to an extremely careful and self-conscious first-person narrative ("I, Abraham").

Where the rhetorical style of Genesis is, as Erich Auerbach famously described it, elliptical, opaque, mysterious, and “fraught with background” in need of careful interpretation, the book of Abraham is intensely personal, detailed, and causally coherent.

This first verse is a good example. Where Genesis 12.1 starts off with a command from nowhere for Abraham to depart his homeland, Abraham 1.1 starts with Abraham explaining that he needs to find “another place of residence." The rest of the chapter then supplies a detailed narrative of both the internal interests/desires and the external causes/forces at work in moving him to this decision. In terms of conveyed content, Genesis 12.1 and Abraham 1.1 are very similar (“leave home!”), but in terms of rhetorical elaboration they couldn’t be more different.

Where Genesis has a very archaic, well-worn, almost “oral-tradition” feel to its prose, the book of Abraham’s prose has a very modern, introspective ring. Where in Genesis our knowledge of Abraham’s thoughts, feelings and personal motivations are consistently (and almost entirely) compacted into singularly telling and remarkably small external gestures (e.g., “he rose early in the morning” in Genesis 22), in the book of Abraham we get a veritable window into Abraham’s soul. It’s like we reading his own private diary – before practically anyone kept anything like a personal diary!

This difference in rhetorical posture does, I think, make an immediate theological difference. Because the book of Abraham consistently gives us so much more explanation (because it is interested in giving us reasons and explaining the causes at work in desires and decisions), it has a much more “Mormon” feel to it. What I mean to say is: a Mormon take on Christianity generally emphasizes the necessity of personal works and obedience and de-emphasizes the mysterious and unaccountable intervention of grace. By offering such detailed explanations for that which Genesis leaves unexplained, God’s relationship with Abraham is much less shadowy and much more predictable. There are reasons to like this, but there are also reasons, I think, to be cautious about it.

Also, I’m reminded of something we read in one of my philosophy classes this past week from Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals where Kant says (roughly) that something is only free if you can supply no external cause for it. If you can give a reason for it, then its dimension of “freedom” (or, for us, “grace”) has been more or less expunged.

Do we really risk so much simply in terms of a shift in narrative perspective? I may be exaggerating the differences, but I wonder by how much.

vs. 3, “It [the priesthood] was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time.”

Note again the strong emphasis on continuity. As in the opening of Genesis 12, the “immemorial” is also invoked in this verse, but it is invoked not as the source of a temporal interruption but as the source of the stability and continuity which Abraham wishes to participate in and maintain. Here, it is a question of being a “rightful heir” and of “holding the right belonging to the fathers” (1.2). Is it possible to even imagine the language of “rights” as a part of the Genesis narrative? Nonetheless, it is absolutely central to this description of Abraham’s relationship with God and his reception of the promises and the priesthood. The use of the language of "rights" seems to indicate the same general theological shift referred to above: a shift of emphasis from unaccountable "gift/grace" to meritable "right."

I’m out of time, but I’m interested to see what you make of the differences between Genesis and the book of Abraham and how these differences play out rhetorically, spiritually, and theologically.

What other distinctive features strike you as pertinent?