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Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems With Theism And the Love of God
by Blake T. Ostler
Reviewed by Jeff Needle
4/12/2006 9:49:07 PM
This is the second of a projected three-volume series titled "Exploring Mormon Thought." Volume 1, subtitled "The Attributes of God," met with much critical acclaim. The present volume is a deep, sometimes murky, but always provocative look at some very important questions in Christian theology, and suggests that Mormonism *can* answer some of these questions satisfactorily, but sometimes doesn't flesh them out completely so that students and inquirers can see the rich tapestry of Mormon thought.

A bit of background first: nearly a decade ago, I co-presented with a friend at Sunstone in Salt Lake City on the subject of the Swedenborgian-Mormon connection. Following our talk, Ostler presented on a subject whose topic I can't recall. I sat through his talk, and was nicely impressed by some of the innovative ways in which he was trying to frame the relationships within the Godhead. But I also remember wondering whether he couldn't have found a less obfuscative way of making his case.

After his talk, I had a chance to chat with him outside the presentation room. We had a good conversation, although he sometimes said things that skimmed the edges of my learning. I have a nice conceit that tells me I don't understand things because the speaker isn't really effective in communicating ideas. That conceit, of course, is often proven false.

Ostler begins his book with a fine recapitulation of what would be his major theme -- Buber's "I-Thou" relationship between God and man. Ostler summarizes Buber's thesis nicely:
    To speak to a Thou in a personal relationship is not to use one's vocal
    cords but to stand before existence and to relate to it in a certain
    way; to take an ethical stance in relation to persons. To treat a
    person as an object is to treat it as an It, to regard the object, even
    if it be a He or a She, as if it were a mere thing. We stand apart
    from an object in order to coldly scrutinize and exploit it, to
    observe, measure, categorize, and manipulate it, to bend it to our
    advantage. In an I-It relationship, there is no genuine reciprocity.
    The relation is that of manipulator to an instrument, of mechanic to
    engine, or computer programmer to computer...

    ...to approach a person in an I-Thou relation is to engage one's
    intrinsic being in direct and sympathetic contact with another's
    intrinsic being. The Thou is cherished and valued as an individual,
    not as a means but an end; not valued for what It can do for me but
    valued intrinsically as a person. The I-Thou relation is thus
    necessarily reciprocal. (p. 16)
With this beginning, explained more fully in Chapter 1, Ostler continues on to apply this insight in several areas that typify the discussion of the relationship between God and man. It becomes the linchpin for his understanding of both theology and soteriology. And it serves him well in supporting his theses.

Chapter 2 is titled "Providence and Prayer." Here Ostler explores the nature of prayer and the place of prayer in a world where God already knows everything. Why do we need to ask if God already understands our needs? Playing on his theme of the I-Thou relationship with God, Ostler proclaims:
    ...it seems to me that something genuinely valuable is gained for a
    theology that denies that God has chosen to exercise all-controlling
    omnipotence and foreknowledge; there is a logical space for a genuine
    dialogue with God through which a truly loving relationships [sic] can
    be developed. Now, it is true that many, perhaps most, Mormons
    continue to believe that God has controlling power and absolute
    foreknowledge, including many General Authorities of the Church.
    However, Mormons historically have been open to the possibility that
    God does not have power to bring about anything logically possible and
    lacks absolute foreknowledge. (p. 64-5)
And here Ostler demonstrates his own barely-disguised impatience with what has come to be known as Mormon neo-orthodoxy, the tendency to cut ties with the past and lose the rich tradition of the varied thoughts of the early Mormon leaders. This distaste will manifest itself again as he develops his themes.

Chapter 3 discusses "The Relation of Moral Obligation and God in LDS Thought." Here he discusses the rather recondite relationship between God and ethics. His main target in this very dense chapter is evangelical scholar Francis Beckwith and his contribution to the recently published "The New Mormon Challenge." In this collection, Beckwith
    argues that the LDS view of God(s) cannot explain the existence of
    objective moral obligation and that the "classical" view which he
    purports to defend can. (p. 77)
What does this mean?
    Beckwith begins his elucidation of the LDS view of God by observing:
    "According to a prominent strain of LDS theology, God the Father is a
    resurrected, 'exalted' man named Elohim, who was at one time not God.
    He was a mortal on another planet, who, through obedience to the
    precepts of his God, eventually attained exaltation, or godhood,
    through 'eternal progression.'"

    Beckwith contents that, given this view of "God" it follows that "the
    Mormon God is not the being in whom morality ultimately rests, for the
    moral law is something that he had to obey in order to achieve his
    divine status." (p. 78)
Ostler challenges Beckwith's broad assumptions and, more to the point, the conclusions he reaches based on these assumptions. He gives direct and convincing answers to Beckwith's challenges. He then develops a rational Mormon ethic in the context of a love, and therefore the I-Thou, relationship.

In Chapter 4, Ostler takes on what he calls "The Implausibility of Original Sin." Augustine is turning over in his grave even as I type. I was relieved that this chapter was a bit easier to read than the previous one. Ostler makes his thesis very clear at the outset:
    The primary problem from a Platonic point of view is not an evil
    nature, but stupidity and ignorance. From this perspective, to know
    the good entails doing what is good, for to fail to do what we know is
    good is merely proof that we don't really appreciate what is truly
    good. Yet there is something more deceptive about our evil choices
    than mere ignorance or forgetfulness of the Good. At bottom, the
    problem for humans is more basic than the will, the "faculty of choice"
    in Kantian terms, for the problem is recognized in scripture as the
    choice of the "heart," something at our very core. What we need is not
    merely education but to overcome the evil of our own "sinful nature."
    We need a make-over at the most fundamental level of being -- a change
    of heart.

    However, the doctrine of original sin is part of the very problem it
    seeks to address. It is a doctrine that arose in a compromised
    situation and grew out of already vitiated minds...The traditional
    doctrine of original sin adopts the untenable view that moral
    culpability can be transferred from one person to another. (p. 120-1)
Ostler then first explains the Augustinian position, and then shows why it cannot be true. He devotes his next chapter to an LDS understanding of "original sin."

Indeed, Chapter 5 is titled "Sin and the Uncircumcised Heart." Drawing on LDS sources and clearly in control of his subject, Ostler summarizes his view in these words:
    We can be saved only by becoming again like a little child in certain
    respects. However, we are "conceived in sin" or born into a world that
    is already vitiated by evil traditions, patterns of embedded behavior
    and sin. There is no sense in which being "conceived in sin" means
    that the act of conception is sinful...rather, the situation in which
    we are conceived and into which we are born is sinful. We do not
    inherit this sin; rather, the sin is something that becomes a part of
    us because we grow up in circumstances in which we adopt the evils of
    our parents that are passed down culturally and spiritually from one
    generation to another. (p. 152)
He places the idea of sin in a real-world context, and I think he develops his case very well as the chapter continues. He focuses especially on an idea of "moral obligation," an innate sense of right and wrong that guides humanity:
    There must be a basis in human experience to sense or know the demands
    of morality independently of knowledge of a moral or ethical theory.
    Otherwise, very few persons could be morally responsible, for very few
    could articulate a moral theory. (p. 157)
I wondered where he was going with this line of thought. So much of what we consider "morality" is culturally based, dependent on the views of the larger society. Do we hold accountable cannibals who live in cultures where such practices are acceptable? The simpleton in me wanted Ostler to address this kind of question, and I suppose he does at least obliquely address these kinds of issues. But he opts for a broader brush of what he calls "self-deception," and outlines pitfalls of the triumph of "ego" over our true situation:
    The fact that we all create egos to take the place of who we really are
    reveals a deep truth about human nature. We all want to appear to be
    good, competent, worthwhile, worthy, smart, and able; and at a certain
    level, we believe that we are all of these things. However, the ego is
    a way of being in the world that calls into question whether we are
    truly good, competent, etc., and this question is built into the very
    logic of the ego. (p. 167)
On page 175 he offers seven steps in the "process of self-betrayal," a process that "leads to self deception." His formulation is intriguing and cause for some serious contemplation.

We now come to Chapter 6, "Soteriology in LDS Thought." The opening sentences summarize the centrality of this subject:
    The relationship between divine grace and human response is at the
    center of theological reflection. It has also been the source of
    endless debate over the respective human and divine roles in salvation.
    (p. 189)
Beginning with a discussion of the soteriological implications of the First Vision, the author then continues on to what will be a major theme in his book -- a radical understanding of the atonement in the context of the I-Thou relationship.

In fact, insofar as this chapter provides a starting point for his major essay on the atonement, it sets the stage nicely by comparing LDS views, mostly from the Book of Mormon, with those of wider Christianity, recasting the view of Mormonism as a works-based salvation into one enabled by grace, but maintained by agency.

And so we move to chapter 7, "The Compassion Theory of Atonement." Here's the thesis in capsule form:
    The compassion theory can be summarized as follows: The purpose of the
    atonement in LDS scripture is to "bring about the bowels of mercy" so
    that God is moved with compassion for us and we are moved with
    gratitude to trust him by opening our hearts to him. The result of the
    Atonement is that we are free to choose to turn back to God, and he is
    free to accept us into a relationship of shared life. Atonement
    removes, casts out, and releases the guilt that alienates us; and it
    also brings us together into shared life. When we let go of our past
    and release the painful energy of alienation, Christ experiences that
    release and receives into himself the pain that we have experienced to
    be transformed by the light of his love. (p. 235-6)
Ostler believes that this best explains the LDS doctrine of the atonement, and sets it apart from other theories in Christendom. Here is an extended citation that enlarges on this view:
    The problem of atonement in conventional Christianity consists of the
    fact that it is a solution looking for a problem. Traditionally,
    theories of atonement answer the question about how we are forgiven of
    our sins by Christ's suffering as a substitute in our place, but there
    really does not seem to be a problem here because we can forgive others
    without a third party's enduring pain and suffering as a necessary
    condition. It seems that in such a view, Christ's suffering is
    superfluous. It also seems that we have a power that God does not have
    -- i.e., the power to forgive others without requiring a sacrifice or
    payment to appease (propitiate) our anger.

    A part of the solution consists of the fact that the diagnosis of the
    problem is different in LDS theology. In the view of the Atonement
    presented in LDS scripture, the crucifixion of Christ is not
    administered by the Father who imposes suffering on his Son as a means
    of appeasing his wrath, or "propitiation" for sins. Nor is it a demand
    that is made by an abstract universal "law of justice" that someone
    must suffer for sin, so Christ must satisfy this demand because we
    cannot...

    Thus, Christ suffers in atonement, not so that he can satisfy the
    Father's demands or so that he can pay a debt that we owe to
    personified justice, as the LDS scriptures are often interpreted.
    Rather, Christ feels pain in atonement because it is painful to be in
    relationship with us. (p. 250-1)
This flies in the face of so many traditional understandings of the atonement (and, make no mistake, there are many). A large part of this chapter consists of a clear, concise explanation of the best known of these theories. Whether Ostler's understanding of the atonement is both satisfying and scripturally consistent will be up to the reader.

Chapter 8 is one of those scratch-your-head, what is this? essays that causes you to re-read several times before you think you understand what you think the author has said. It is titled "Honor, Shame, and the Righteousness of God."

Now, if you've been absent from the larger discussion in Christianity about the role of Israel in God's continuing plan -- whether the Church has replaced Israel as the covenant people of God, or whether Israel continues to have an ongoing covenantal and prophetic role in God's plan -- it's a hot one, with those espousing so-called "Replacement Theology," describing the former, as a mild form of anti-Semitism (a view I do not hold).

Ostler essentially reframes the question in the context of the idea of "justification by faith" -- the action of the "mediator" who, in essence, mediates the covenant God made with Israel. Ostler insists we cannot understand Paul's doctrine of justification by faith unless we view it within the context of those covenants. In the end, the author comes down on the side of replacement, placing it within the context of justification as an act of honor on the part of God.

Chapter 9 is titled "Self-Deception and Justification by Faith." There's an old saying that posits that Protestantism is the triumph of Paul over Jesus, and Catholicism is the triumph of Jesus over Paul. (Where does that leave Mormonism?) I'm not so sure about all that, but Ostler suggests that the strongest proponents of Paul's thought fundamentally misunderstand Paul's arguments, because they view them through some lens other than that of the covenantal relationship between God and man. He classifies some new studies as "New Perspectives on Paul," suggesting that this is a growing field of study.

So where does "self-deception" fit in?
    The irony is that even the doctrine of justification by grace is
    perverted by those who deceive themselves into believing that, if
    justification is a matter of grace, then they are free to sin to prove
    just how much they trust God's grace. The self-deception consists in
    precisely the view that if God shows his grace in forgiving us, then
    let's sin up a storm so that God's righteousness and grace are
    demonstrated that much more. According to this way of thinking, we
    honor God by freely sinning so that we can demonstrate how much we
    trust God to forgive us no matter what we do. (p. 322)
I'll go out on a limb here and state that I've never met *anyone* who thinks this way. Yes, Ostler sees some of Paul's writings as easily misunderstood to teach such a "libertarian" lifestyle. But, in practice, I don't know that anyone would state it in quite the way Ostler does.

The author then posits "James as a Critique of Self-Deceived Paulinism." He suggests that James was aware of the possible misreading of Paul, and sets out, in his epistle, to correct any misunderstandings. A chart on pages 343-4 demonstrates some interesting parallels between James and Paul. There's a lot of theology here, and it's fascinating reading.

Onward to Chapter 10, "The Problem of Grace."
    Latter-day Saints have been wary of historical doctrines of salvation
    by grace alone in conventional thought -- and for good reason. While
    the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ is the
    profound doctrine of divine love, it has been distorted nearly beyond
    recognition. The problem starts when the doctrine is removed from its
    original interpersonal and covenant context and placed in a moral
    context of the operation of the will and the causes that act upon it.
    Such a context eviscerates its central meaning. (p. 351)
Various schools of thought have emerged, teaching ideas such as "imputed righteousness" -- God transferring Christ's righteousness to us and treating us as if we weren't "us" -- and "infused righteousness" -- the idea that God "infuses" his righteousness into the mortal, making the person actually righteous. Ostler dismisses these ideas as untenable. He then picks apart the various views of predestination, finding fault with all of them.

The discussion becomes a bit more intimate when he addresses the issue of "God's obligations." A curious theme, indeed. Does God owe anyone anything? He posits the following four options:
    1. God has an obligation not to do harm to anyone, but not to further their best interests.

    2. God has an obligation to treat every person with dignity and regard.

    3. God has an obligation to further our best interests to the extent he can.

    4. God has no obligations. (p. 376)
He places this discussion in the context of salvation and predestination -- does God owe anyone the opportunity to be saved, or is this offer one of gracious love? It's all very thought-provoking and makes for some good reading. And, as a bonus, it helps the reader sort through the many ideas of God and salvation that circulate today. His summary is just marvelous:
    Even though we do not earn or merit God's love, it is revealed that God
    is loving toward us. It is not a matter of the works we have done to
    earn his love or what kind of person we are to merit his love; rather,
    it is a matter of the kind of person God is. He is loving. The very
    notion that God loves us is eviscerated if God is not committed freely
    to our best interests. God does not owe us any duty in the sense that
    we merit or have a right to his saving grace. However, that
    recognition does not entail that God could be loving but totally
    disregard our interests -- as the doctrine of predestination implies.
    Rather than mere vessels of clay, God has chosen to create us as
    children in his image. His love entails that he seeks our interests as
    his own and that, to the extent possible, he saves all who can be saved
    in the context of freely returned love. However, even in seeking our
    salvation, God will honor and respect us as persons to make our own
    decisions. The doctrine of predestination is inimical to the view that
    God loves us and that he leaves it up to us whether to have a
    relationship with him. (p. 384)
Amen.

Having dealt with the issues of predestination, atonement and covenant, Ostler now tackles the sometimes seemingly-conflicting "Operations of Grace and Free Will" in Chapter 11. Here is another dense, sometimes difficult chapter, where the author explores the obvious problems confronting those who espouse both a sovereign God (who creates and decrees all), and a creation culpable for making choices. Interestingly, Ostler extends this discussion into a unique area of Mormon doctrine:
    ...conventional open theists affirm creation *ex nihilo* [creation out
    of nothing]. Genuine human agency conflicts with the type of divine
    control entailed in the doctrine of *creatio ex nihilo*...[those who
    accept this doctrine] overlook a central fact about the implications of
    the doctrine of creation out of nothing: every human act of willing
    occurs only because God creates the form that the will has in each
    moment of choice. (p. 410)
I'd never read this reason for rejecting "creatio ex nihilo" -- I'm not yet sure whether I agree with it. But it's certainly food for thought.

He rounds out the discussion with a very technical (and occasionally difficult) look at attempts to reconcile different views and ends with the identification of two truths that must define a sound theological position on the subject of providence/freedom: God allows us to say "no" to his gracious offer, and he is not responsible for the choices we make.

It would be the final entry, Chapter 12, that would, as they say, knock my socks off. I wonder if someone would want to extract this chapter and circulate it among Latter-day Saints and say, "What do you think?" It focuses on the subject of "God the Eternal Father." Sounds simple enough. But Ostler approaches the subject in a somewhat different way, attempting to reconcile the very traditional-sounding statements of the Book of Mormon with the sometimes-revolutionary ideas in the King Follett Discourse, among other documents.

The focus is on the question, "Has God always been divine?" I suppose that most Latter-day Saints would understand the idea of eternal progression, and will blandly say, "God was once a man." But what are the implications of this in light of statements that God is unchangeable? Ostler pretty much junks the traditional Mormon understanding of God and suggests that each member of the Godhead -- Father, Son and Holy Ghost -- either has, or will, go through a period of enfleshment:
    There is a type of perfection that is possible only through first-hand
    experience. Experiential knowledge is, by its very nature, gained only
    through experience itself. Though Christ was very God, yet he learned
    from the things that he suffered and was made perfect thereby.
    Elsewhere I have argued that Joseph Smith taught that there is an
    aspect of divine knowledge, experiential knowledge, that is
    inexhaustible and to which there is no end or intrinsic maxima. Thus,
    there is an infinite possibility of experiential knowledge open even to
    God. Because there is a type of knowledge available only through
    first-hand, mortal experience, each of the divine persons has a reason
    to experience a mortal sojourn. Indeed, Joseph Smith taught that the
    Holy Ghost, though presently a divine personage of spirit, will one day
    take upon himself flesh as both the Father and the Son have done. (p.
    449)
If Ostler is correct, then there may need to be some serious rethinking about that old "couplet" we're all so fond of. And, indeed, if the Father's experience in the flesh was an effort to experience all that his creation would experience, then the full circle of the I-Thou relationship is seen and, if possible, co-celebrated.

This review has gone on too long, so I'll close it here. No one acquainted with Blake Ostler will be surprised that this book can be, at times, absolutely dense and sometimes even murky. This is not light reading, but neither is it unattainable to those who are committed to understanding Ostler's viewpoints.

I've never read the first volume -- I hope to do so some time -- and will welcome the publication of the third volume in this series. This is very serious stuff -- always engaging but sometimes inscrutable. The unwashed masses (like myself) are sometimes stung by Ostler's propensity for phrases like "perichoretic dance" (look it up -- it's a lovely word). But it all becomes a grand learning experience. Even if you disagree with Ostler's conclusions, it's a wonder to watch this attorney's mind summarizing, itemizing and defining terms and ideas in new and exciting ways.