A friend and former professor of mine recently sent me an essay to read that he had written and published. Of all the professors whose lectures and seminars I attended, this one undoubtedly had the most influence on my intellectual development, so I was very excited to read anything he had written.
I didn’t learn until late into my time at Drury that he was a Mormon. This is the man who had pushed me to be a critical thinker, who had introduced me to Tocqueville, and forced me to grapple with Hobbes and Locke, who had encouraged me to scrutinize my assumptions. He was a Mormon.
So I think I imagined at the time that Mormonism was probably something he had maybe married into or cherished for sentimental reasons or broadly regarded as his heritage and that he didn’t take any of it too seriously. Well, I know now that he does take it seriously. His name is Ted Vaggalis and he continues to teach philosophy at Drury University.
I had been taught growing up that Mormonism was a particularly misguided sort of heresy. But that’s not the reason I was more surprised to learn that he was a Mormon than I would have been had I learned that he was a practicing Jew or a Catholic or Protestant. By the time I learned of his religion, I’m sure I saw Mormonism respectfully as a uniquely American religion among the important world religions, not as an evil cult. Rather, my understanding, based on what I think was and is a widely shared perception, was of Mormonism as a particularly illiberal tradition, having that in common with the evangelical fundamentalism I had just rejected.
I read Vaggalis’s The Gospel and the Captive Woman as an argument against liberalizing Mormonism (and its core arguments could also be applied to counter the liberal Protestant tradition and, perhaps, moderate Islam). Because, not only is my friend and former professor a true believer, he also opposes attempts to reconcile the Mormon faith with the Western, liberal tradition.
The essay begins with one of the stranger passages from the Bible (please don’t take my word for it) that outlines the godly way to go about raping a woman, and two passages from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil that refer to the personal agendas and frequent lack of honesty that Nietzsche noticed at the core of many philosophies (“What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is[…]that they are not honest enough in their work.”) And so the stage is set.
His argument is with a Mormon theologian named Sterling McMurrin. Presumedly, McMurrin was a philosopher/theologion such as Nietzsche might have found suspicious and laughable in that McMurrin intended to transform Mormonism “into an intellectual system that reflects the liberal attitude of modern America” and was dishonest with himself about how monumental and impossible would be such a transformation.
“What was central to McMurrin’s account of Mormonism,” Vaggalis says
was that it represents a progress toward the ideals of the Enlightenment as one finds in Emmanuel Kant or Marquis de Condorcet – that is, in the triumph of reason over superstition and prejudice in the service of liberal democratic ideals. McMurrin sees Mormonism in strictly political terms, theology being one of the vehicles through which political ideals are realized. Mormonism represents a step beyond the antiliberal ideals of traditional Protestant and Catholic theology – that is, it includes a rejection of original sin, Greek metaphysics, salvation by grace, and so forth, toward a more humanistic conception of God and man that can be made consistent with liberal politics.
I am guessing McMurrin wasn’t one to fret when he heard Mormons criticised as being “not proper Christians.” He might have even said thank you. His theology emphasized aspects of the faith such as the uncreated self, a blurring of the distinction between natural and supernatural and between necessary and contingent things, a materialism (though not the mechanistic materialism of science), and “the non-absolutistic conception of divine power” to theologize a “naturalistic, humanistic theism” very distinguishable, to say the least, from traditional Christianity and classical theism.
I would also venture to guess, that had the Mormon faithful trod the path that McMurrin attempted to set them upon, Mormonism would not today be so narowly aligned with the right wing of the GOP and associated with opposition to gay marriage.
Vaggalis seems to sympathize with McMurrin’s project (I’ve heard him describe himself as a classical liberal), but says McMurrin’s theology “reveals more about McMurrin’s politics and preferences than it does about Mormonism.” McMurrin actually might have objected to being called “not a proper Mormon,” but Vaggalis seems to go there as well in reflecting on “how far away [his analysis] takes McMurrin from Mormonism.”
This being a Mormon dispute, I am hardly qualified to comment. I should probably say first that Vaggalis seems to be on solid ground with his criticism of McMurrin, and not just because he’s my friend and McMurrin is dead. McMurrin seems to have been sort of kidding himself about being a Mormon even if he spilled a lot of ink trying to make it so. In the end, though, I’m going to root for McMurrin, though my reasons for doing so are admittedly unprincipled.
So, why was McMurrin so far from Mormonism, according to Vaggalis. There are two main reasons: (1) McMurrin takes advantage of the complexity and contradictions within the Western tradition to draw merely tenuous comparisons between a religion and liberalism (easy to do, I concur; I have relatives who seem convinced that the founding fathers were theocrats), and (2) he “begins with an investigation of the metaphysical principles and concepts presupposed in the foundations of Mormonism” and removes Mormonism from the “context within which it came into the world.”
The historical context Vaggalis means is not the life and times of Joseph Smith. In fact, he regards such a focus as anachronistic. Mormonism is improperly understood as an essentially American religion for Vaggalis, and so McMurrin’s fixation on that arbitrary historical note leads him astray. “Situating Mormonism within the Western intellectual tradition, especially nineteenth-century liberal American thought, wrenches it out of the historical context that brought it into the world.” I admit to being confused when I first read that sentence. I double-checked to see if I had remembered correctly, roughly, the dates of Joseph Smith’s life. Slowly dawned the realization that Vaggalis referred to the ancient history of the Mormon religion: “Why not see Mormonism in terms of its own claims to be the restoration of an ancient faith?”, Vaggalis asks. In other words, If we are claiming to be Mormons here, why not take the Book or Mormon seriously?
It should be a tough question to answer.
Ironically, McMurrin seems to have been more or less the sort of Mormon I had imagined Vaggalis to be. McMurrin did not take the Book of Mormon seriously. In fact, he admitted he did not much bother reading it. Vaggalis puts the question “Why?” and, putting words in McMurrin’s mouth – because religious moderates rarely say such things out loud – imagines McMurrin responding: “Simply put, angels do not bring books written on gold plates.” If true, it sounds to me like a good reason to not be a Mormon. To McMurrin, I guess, it was a reason to write the Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. And so I am with Vaggalis (and Nietzsche) in finding McMurrin a rather suspicious and possibly ridiculous philosopher.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to support, at least for political and pragmatic reasons, people anywhere and everywhere wanting to take their holy books less seriously – or, at least, less literally (which is close to being the same thing). It was not until I read the section of Vaggalis’s essay that quotes the Book of Mormon at length to demonstrate the centrality for Mormonism of divine revelation over human reason that I said “A-ha!, here is the foundation for the Mormonism I know and often find myself at odds with politically.” Most Mormons – McMurrin be damned – obviously read this book and take it seriously. I kind of wish they didn’t sometimes, so, I admit, I would applaud a sudden resurgence of McMurrin’s influence in LDS circles if it would serve to make more Mormons more politically moderate. Islam could use a few more McMurrins too. That is sloppy and inconsiderate of me. I would like for everyone to be consistent and comprehensible in their views. But, even more, I would also like to see liberal democratic principles advanced and expanded and I’m enticed by any shortcut. Aiding and abetting the watering down of religions looks like a short cut to me. Jesus famously said that he wanted hot or cold, but that he would spew lukewarm out of his mouth. While I admire any man who knows what he wants, if Jesus’ followers can be persuaded by the likes of McMurrin to find meaning in lukewarm, it might save us all from getting sprayed.
Vaggalis ends with a further and broader indictment of McMurrin based on a biblical metaphor: that of the gospel and the captive woman. The gospel is the revelation of God – the golden plates, I suppose, and the Book of Mormon; the captive woman (that is, the rape victim in that opening Bible passage) is theology itself or any systematic accounting of divine revelation. Using the biblical metaphor of the captive woman, Vaggalis argues that Mormon theologians need to stop trying to make sense of the revelations and just get on with believing them because any marriage between the gospel and the captive woman won’t last: “the woman is neither willing to remain a captive nor become a woman of Israel.”
For one, I don’t see how one avoids theology when making pronouncements about how religious texts or divine revelation ought to be taken. And this metaphor, as Vaggalis presents it, seems muddled; if the woman is such a bad seed, why the directive to abduct her in the first place? The metaphor works better if the captive woman is human reason, and that her abduction and rape by the gospel produce a poorly formed, permanently dependent offspring, theology. The gospel might turn the captive woman free, but he is probably stuck with their disfigured spawn.
I’m sure my former professor will want to grade and correct my writing. So I will send Ted Vaggalis a link to this humble blog entry.