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?


Blogger Joe Spencer said...

It is certainly interesting that it is only at this (late!) point that we finally get to what Sterling McMurring (as well as many before and many after) have identified as the difference between Mormon theology and other theologies (though Caputo's present project of continentalizing openness theology is something I'm watching with interest). Of course, this chapter hardly gives us the idea of autonomous spirits in the sense that many LDS thinkers have derived from the King Follett Discourse. I suppose I'm interested in taking up a careful exegesis of what this chapter has to say about the "eternal" nature of human spirits.

A couple of textual notes. Verse 4 is interesting because it is a kind of disruption in the flow of the first part of the chapter. Every other verse regards Kolob from the standpoint of the earth, and by moving in a trajectory from earth towards Kolob, but verse 4 regards earth from Kolob. What is at work here? Verse 21 has an alternate reading in some of the manuscripts: "deliver" instead of "declare." This might have been a mistake (accidentally copying "deliver" from verse 20). But it might also enrich the literary style of the passage ("deliver" being repeated in the two verses, but with radically different meanings). At any rate, the PoGP had "deliver" here until the 1981 edition. How does that word change alter our interpretation?

I'm still at a loss as to how to think about the astronomy here, though I'm learning....

Most of the work I've done in the Book of Abraham, to be honest, has been with the facsimiles (wild speculation, you can be sure). The more work I do on these, the more convinced I am that they are keys to understanding what is at work in the text. The key to understanding what Joseph seemed to see in the three facsimiles, in my opinion, is in recognizing the profound similarities between facsimiles 1 and 3, and in recognizing that the similarities between them are all depicted in figure 7 of facsimile 2 (which has, interestingly enough, two explanations in the PoGP). There are some curious ways of putting all of this together, so if anyone is interested, I'll expound. In the meanwhile, I'm going to be looking at my first question above.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Adam, quick note about your comments regarding v. 18: I can't help reading this bit about being more or less intelligent with a bit less of a grace view than you seem to going for--mainly because of D&C 130:18-19: "Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come." Of course bringing this other text in raises all sorts of hermeneutical questions (many of which we've already discussed at lds-herm), but can you incorporate this view into the reading of Abraham you are proposing, or would we have to take the texts as more independent of each other on your reading? Regardless, I very much like what you say about this verse in particular--and I think we see this bricolage/fatalism notion corroborated in many parables and other teachings. I think there's also an important sense that this affects how we think about God's response to our (rather radical) agency--that is, our poor choices can be viewed as the scraps that God has to work with.

I also really like your point about how grace works in the mortal families we are thrown into in a way that mirrors eternal creation, and the point about infinte chaos being transformed into an ordered eternity. I'm only sorry I have nothing to add right now to these thoughts.

Joe, for some reason which I don't quite understand, I get a bit . . . well, nervous I suppose, thinking about the eternal nature of spirits. Maybe I've read too much analytic musing on this topic which strikes me as rather hubristic and distracted, perhaps not unlike the sense I get when I read attempts that try to use the creation story to help us understand evolution. I'm guessing that's not what you're attempting to do--can you elaborate on why you find this question about the eternal nature of spirits so interesting? (Sorry this is such an ill-formed request--I'm not sure quite myself what I'm asking....)

6:09 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Robert says:

"Adam, quick note about your comments regarding v. 18: I can't help reading this bit about being more or less intelligent with a bit less of a grace view than you seem to going for--mainly because of D&C 130:18-19: 'Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.' Of course bringing this other text in raises all sorts of hermeneutical questions (many of which we've already discussed at lds-herm), but can you incorporate this view into the reading of Abraham you are proposing, or would we have to take the texts as more independent of each other on your reading?"

My first inclination would be to respond that Abraham 3 is talking about the "raw material" and D&C 130 about what we do with those material. This may be too easy of an answer though and I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.

However, I'd still like to stick with a "grace" reading of D&C 130 - we can only acquire as much intelligence as we can use to bless others. The equation would be: to be more intelligent = to be better able to give grace and do it more graciously.

Joe says:

"I suppose I'm interested in taking up a careful exegesis of what this chapter has to say about the 'eternal' nature of human spirits."

I agree that this is the central issue here (though, as Robert points out, metaphysically rather than physically). I'm particularly interested, however, in pressing a reading of our co-eternality that may be atypical and expressly non-libertarian. Generally "we" tend to read this "having always already existed" as the epicenter of our irreducible freedom and autonomy (a la Blake Ostler?).

I'd like to suggest just the opposite: the fact that we find ourselves "always already having existed" means that there is no beginning to which we could appeal as an auto-foundation for our liberty. Thus, our eternality implies the absolute impossibility of recovering any access to an immemorial beginning. No matter how far we go back, the "beginning" (a beginning which literally is not) has always already happened.

This reading of our eternality is, I think, more amenable to an understanding of grace as the central issue. Within this framework, grace plays the role not only of being an answer to the problem of sin, but sin is itself understood as a function of grace (i.e., sin is simply a rejection of the original grace of our always already having been given to ourselves before ourselves).

My best,

6:54 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Re: "eternal spirits." Robert, it is precisely the concern you express that gears my desire to look into things here. In other words, I think that the idea is taken up without any careful understanding of the texts that seem to suggest the idea. My interest is in looking quite carefully here at what is actually said, hopefully thereby to "overthrow" the traditional understanding (analytic, if you will).

More soon.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

In trying to contextualize the question of eternal spirits, I've done some work at the wiki (http://feastupontheword.org/Abr_3:16-20#Exegesis) on the question of two-implying-infinity, specifically in verse 16. To summarize what is posted there:

What seems bizarre about verse 16 is that somehow the existence of two things implies the existence of an infinity of things. That Joseph himself called this "reason" in one of his public discourses means that there is some kind of logic behind this. So what is it?

My guess is that it can be made sense of by suggesting that Abraham/Joseph sees only two possible ways of taking things/existence: everything is one, or everything is infinite. In a word, there is no possibility of duality: two things does not imply some kind of good-evil metaphysical duality, but simply that the universe is precisely not a universe (not one), but a multiverse. Two implies infinity.

This obviously is connected with the idea of eternal spirits, since their "independent" existence is implied in the "independent" existences of the Father and the Son, or better, in the "independent" existences of the Mother and Father. In Joseph's public discourse, he makes this all a question of family: if there are two people, one above the other (he calls this father and son), then there is another above them (another father, etc.).

Anyway, I think I'm beginning to grasp the logic here.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


I'm tempted to say that this is exactly Badiou's logic as well: either there is One or there is Infinity. If the Two is really Two, then there is infinity. If there is One, then any apparent Two, any apparent multiplicity, together with its materiality/flesh, are (as Plato - sometimes - claimed) only a shadow and illusion. Materialism demands the choice of the infinite over the One. (And who doesn't want to be a materialist?!) Also, truths then must be produced rather than deduced because they are grounded in the procession of the infinite rather than in the givenness of the One.

My best,

9:35 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

See the link again. I've added comments up through verse 17, with quite a bit more on verse 16. I've connected all of this logic up with the idea of interpersonal relation, systematicity, etc. And I think it addresses, at last, the question Adam asks at the conclusion of his post.

The link again:


8:31 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Here is a clickable link to Joe's wiki posting. Fascinating, Joe. I'll need to think more about what you're saying there. I'm still a bit caught up with this question of the Third. I'm not sure how this connects or disconnects with what you're saying, but I'm wondering about hierarchy vs. equality relationships. Is Abraham tellings us that all relationships (or instances of relationship) are always hierarchical? I need to read the text again more carefully....

10:04 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

In brief response to Robert's question. On the one hand, I don't Abraham is trying to say anything about "all relationships," simply because he sets it all in a conditional: "If there are...." On the other hand, given Abraham's thematic of the call, could there be anything like an equal relationship? Relation opens up precisely in that one calls another in infinite grace, and that means that every relation is based on an immemorial inequality, I should think. We would probably have to read "nearness" then in terms of responsiveness?

11:26 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

At the wiki, here, Joe posted a thought that seems obvious to me now but I'd missed before and is forcing me to rethink all of this: that God in verse 18 God is pointing out a very important contrast between the planets/stars and spirits: the former are created while the latter outstrip any beginning or end that might be conceived.

I think this establishes a very important context for the ensuing account of creation (chapters 4-5). I also think it gives us an interesting way to rethink the earlier chapters. In particular, I'm rethinking this shift/break in the text from the 'ethical dilemma' that occurs between chapters 2 and 3. That is, it seems that at precisely the moment when the narrative gets ethically complicated, the text dramatically shifts to 'the bigger picture' of the nature of creation and spirits. How do chapters 3-5 help us rethink God's command to lie at the end of chapter 2?

11:42 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I've posted some further thoughts at the wiki, and I'm increasingly convinced that there are two major problems of interpretation at the very heart of the question of the eternality of spirits. The Egyptian-Hebrew-English continuum of thought is in itself quite problematic, and I think it makes it quite difficult for us to make much sense of what is being said about spirits being eternal. This calls for thought. The other strange saying is at the close of verse 19, where the "Lord thy God" is put in a kind of absolute position, rather than a relative one. I've not looked carefully at Blake's (and Paulsen's) arguments about God always being God after all, but this verse certainly bears that language (and involves us, inevitably in my opinion, in some less-than-popular doctrines preached by Brigham in SLC...). In a sense, one could say that Orson Pratt, in his rejection of Brigham's teachings, was the one who established the common interpretation of these two issues as the cornerstone of Mormon theology (if there is a Mormon theology). It has been followed by all the influential thinkers, from Roberts and Widtsoe through Joseph Fielding Smith and Sterling McMurrin (two wonderfully opposite characters in complete agreement on this point) to Bruce R. McConkie, Hyrum Andrus, etc.

I suppose I only bring all of this up because of our question about whether there can be a uniquely LDS theology. I think that most, if not all, of us have been thinking about that question in a recognizably French manner (or at least broadly continental). But we have probably got to recognize that most Latter-day Saints will read that question as connected with these two questions: the place of God in a chain of gods stretching from all eternity to all eternity, and the co-equality of spirits with God. That is, according to the common interpretation, what makes us so unique, theologically. And it is the Book of Abraham that introduces these two questions scripturally, as it is the Book of Abraham that makes the two questions almost unanswerable.

Just a couple of thoughts.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

I'm coming to the conversation late, as usual, and as usual, I'm sorry!

I don't have a lot of time, so let me just disgorge a couple of thoughts inelegantly. Kolob is always identified as "the star nearest the throne of God," and indeed seems to be called Kolob BECAUSE it is the star nearest the throne of God. This seems to put Kolob, and the idea of Kolob, into a sort of metonymical relation to God. And this of course contrasts with the metaphorical uses of stars in the Genesis account, as we've discussed. Indeed, the entire astronomical system laid out appears to work by incremental metonymy: each star successive star resides nearer God, and thus increases incrementally in glory and governance. And the stars exist according to the same principle as spirits, which seems to me inescapable and rather inexorably hierarchical. (Can we find in "authority" the resolution to the problem of grace v. human self-transcedence in Mormon theology?) Could we say (rather confusingly) that the stars are mere metaphor for spirits, or must we read it as scientistic?

Also, a thought on time: as Adam notes, we learn that God exists in time. But the conversion-ratino 1000 seems so, I don't know, round and ball-park that it almost suggests a sort of meta-time: yes, God exists in time, but it's time to the power of three, not time like ours. What do you make of the phrase "set time"? It is "given" to Abraham to know the set times of the planets and stars, and this is clearly a form of governing power, in the same way that he is given their names in v. 13.

That's all for now.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

Hey, I really like the "recent comments" on the sidebar! Thanks to Adam or whoever put it in. It makes it much easier for me to keep up with the conversation.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

You're welcome, Rosalynde. It was a good suggestion.


2:42 PM  

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