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Abstracts for the SMPT Conference - 25-27 March 2010

Location: Utah Valley University,
Orem, Utah

"The Measure of Their Creation—Theological Anthropology"

While you can also view the full program schedule, here are the presenters and their topics (click on their names to go directly to the abstract of their planned presentations which are also found below):

Abstracts of presentations

Brian Birch: Are Mormons Pelagians? Autonomy, Grace, and Freedom

This paper engages in comparative analysis between the Christian heresy of Pelagianism and Latter-day Saint conceptions of agency and grace. The writings of Sterling McMurrin and Robert Millet will be considered as exemplars of the contrasting approaches to human nature in connection with the theological tradition. McMurrin famously claimed that Mormonism is “essentially Pelagian in its theology” and demonstrates “a quite remarkable similarity to the Pelagian doctrines of the fourth and fifth centuries.” By contrast, Millet, who is interested in cultivating a strong redemptive theology, applies traditional Christian categories of grace to Latter-day Saint scriptural theology. “The effects of the Fall tend to entice humankind away from God, from godliness, and from an acceptance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To counteract this influence, there are unconditional blessings and benefits—graces, prevenient graces, that flow from the Almighty.” This concept of prevenient grace and its implications will be given particular attention in clarifying the issues at stake in constructing a Mormon theological anthropology.

Sam Brown: Imitatio Christi and the Divine Anthropology

A network of complexly interrelated doctrines surrounding human identity came into public view in sermons in the last half-decade of Joseph Smith's life. Grouping this set of theological constructs under the heading "divine anthropology, this paper argues that Smith understood the divine anthropology as an ontological rather than devotional imitatio Christi. Christ showed humans who they actually were. Where mainstream Christians affirmed Christ's preexistence Smith saw the proof of human preexistence. As Christ merged within himself the human and divine through his Incarnation, so too did every human. And so forth. Framing the divine anthropology as an ontological imitatio Christi clarifies the received meaning of earliest Mormon theology as it demonstrates the conceptual roots of this complex of doctrines in Christian history, common sense, and the language of the King James Bible.

Lincoln Cannon and Joseph West: The New God Argument

The New God Argument is a pragmatic argument for faith in God originating in the transhumanist movement and then developed and extended in dialogue with Mormonism. If prehumans are probable then we should trust that posthumans already exist. If posthumans probably have increased in destructive capacity faster than defensive capacity, and if posthumans probably create many worlds like those in their past, then we should trust that posthumans more benevolent than us created our world. The alternative is that we probably will go extinct before becoming posthumans. Mormon theology illustrates that creative and benevolent posthumans may qualify as God within some religious traditions.

Pat Debenham: Internal Landscapes: Considerations on the Role of the Body As a Map For Environmental Awareness

This paper will examine environmental themes such as diversity, interrelationships, systems, structure and scale, and patterns of change from the perspective that these themes are first and foremost understood from the perspective of the body. Through the lens of latter-day revelation, I consider how our understanding of the body and the spirit affect the physical, psychological and eternal connection we have to everyone and everything. The respect that we are taught for the sacred nature of our own bodies ought to be carried into the larger body of the world. I focus specifically on selected somatic practices that bring awareness to how inner sensation connects to outward behavior.  By mining our internal ecosystem and sensitively exploring in the light of gospel principles, we become more aware of the mysteries of creation and begin to celebrate the complexity and diversity of any system that God has created. 

Loyd Ericson: "Which Thing I Never Had Supposed":The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man

The problem of evil has almost always been seen as a challenge for God's existence, leading philosophers of religion to most often see the problem as a call to defend God's existence and seek argument through which both God and evil could co-exist. This response is misplaced. The true challenge of evil is not in the question of God's existence in light of this evil but in the devaluation and of the human individual who experiences and/or witnesses evil. Attempts to defend evil's existence and analogize God as a chess-master maneuvering through evil only exacerbate the problem by turning individuals who suffer into valueless sacrificial pawns for God's ultimate win. The proper response is not a defense of God through the justification of evil but rather a justification of the individual through the confrontation of evil. The Atonement, especially as understood by liberation theology, is the paradigm of God's own response to the problem of evil.

Terryl Givens: Finding the Divine in Man

The collapse of transcendence in Romantic cosmologies afforded them the opportunity, born of necessity, to explore the limits of human freedom and autonomy. The consequence was a radical humanism in which merely human values displaced the divine. Joseph Smith’s monistic cosmology, and his King Follett theogony, suggest a less drastic possibility: an axiology that affirms the divine in the absence of classical conceptions of transcendence.

Kevin Hart: The Manifestation of the Father: On Luke 15: 11-32

The parable of the prodigal son is often taken to state the essence of Christianity. However, the parable has still not yet been read as closely as is required. Some of its profiles remain hidden from sight. This paper seeks to develop a phenomenological reading of the parable and to reflect on what Jesus does in telling it. What does the parable teach us about being human? What does the parable reveal about the position of Jesus in telling it? What does the parable reveal about the fundamental dialectic of Christianity (kingdom, cross, resurrection)?

Chris Henrichsen: Approaching Justice: Toward a Mormon Conception of the Difference Principle

While Glenn Beck has declared war on the concept of social justice in a religious context, this paper seeks to advance an LDS conception of distributive justice. I will be analyzing and interpreting concepts of equality, care for the poor, and social cooperation found in the Book of Mormon from the perspective of the theory of justice developed by the philosopher John Rawls. In doing so, I hope to show that Rawls' jusitice as fairness, with its view of desert and the difference principle, provides a good basis for the development of an analytical Mormon conception of distributive justice.

Benjamin Huff: Pre-existence, the Problem of Evil, and Two Kinds of Freedom

One version of the free will defense, considered by Plato, Augustine, and others, explains evil in this life as the result of human choices in a pre-existent state. However, traditional theists tend to reject pre-existence. The Molinist free-will defense attempts to explain evil while preserving God's perfect sovereignty as absolute creator by attributing evil choices to abstract personal essences. In this paper, argue that, in fact, the Molinist conception of personal essences is functionally similar to human pre-existence. I then argue that embracing pre-existence allows for a more palatable explanation of evil and a more redemptive notion of freedom.

Jennifer Lane and Elizabeth Sewell: Subjection, Mastery, and Discipleship

Given the gospel emphasis on agency and freedom, one may wonder what positive things could be said about submission or subjection. Indeed, these seem to have become anathema to much of modern thinking. Late twentieth-century anthropologists have, however, made important theoretical contributions in problematizing a naïve confidence in “independent” thought and action, focusing instead on the extent to which we are mastered by our personal history, cultural framework, and life condition. The idea that we are slaves, mastered by things or people or structures beyond ourselves, is uncomfortable but finds important resonances in both the New Testament and the scripture of the Restoration. The insights of anthropology help to clarify scriptural teaching about subjection, mastery, and discipleship. These connections provide new perspectives into the role of covenant and redemption and point towards a model of learning and sanctification as a kind of apprenticeship.

Keith Lane: Religious Certainty and Uncertainty in Kierkegaard's Authorship

This presentation explores concerns that arise within what Kierkegaard calls religious authorship, including an interesting mixture of certainty and uncertainty. In being related to the Absolute, there is naturally something of certainty that comes along.  However in communicating the Absolute to other human beings, a kind of uncertainty arises.  This is due to a necessary uncertainty of how best to communicate the religious, and also because, as Kierkegaard emphasizes repeatedly, he writes without authority. This uncertainty runs in contrast to the certainty of the encounter with the Absolute, though it is also contiguous with that encounter, and is an inevitable part of one’s relation to others.

Anne Leahy: Mormonism Dysembodied: Placing LDS Theology in Conversation with Disability

Christianity is the story of embodied faith, and an emerging school of Disability Theology universally calls for a closer examination of embodiment within the Tradition. If any doctrine can offer a fresh perspective to advance the discussion, it is Mormonism. Does disability weaken the Plan of Salvation under the weight of unofficial and inconsistent exemptions? How can disability theory apply to every stage of eternal embodiment toward Godhood, and reflect the image of each member of the Godhead?

Rob Line: Dual Innocence and the Preparatory Redemption

Scriptures, both ancient and modern are replete with teachings regarding the retroactive nature of Christ’s infinite atonement. Prophets in the Book of Mormon preached about the atonement and Christ “as though he had already come.” Thus, individuals such as Alma, many years before the coming of Christ in the meridian of time, were able to not only exercise faith in the atonement, but were able to access it’s power and receive not only a remission of sins, but a mighty change of heart as well. I argue in this paper that the scriptures also teach the principle that the retroactive power of the atonement stretches back even into the Premortal existence. The reality of this doctrine is influential on many breathing life into so many other doctrines, not only clarifying but binding them closely together in a perfect and complete whole.

Jim McLachlan: Pre-Existence and Chaos: The Struggle for Order

Terryl Givens’s When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought covers a heterodox doctrine that has refused to be buried by Christian Orthodoxy, namely that humanity, at least in its ideal, precedes its terrestrial existence and, in the most radical incarnations of the idea, is co-eternal with the divine. What I should do in this presentation is simply write an appreciation of the all of the parts of the book that have caused me to reinterpret many of my ideas about Platonism and the Neo-Platonic tradition. So it will probably seem petty (it does to me) that I will instead spend the greater part of this short paper arguing with Givens's readings of four thinkers Boehme, Kant, Schelling, and Berdyaev because I think that Boehme offered alternative, and in most respects an anti-ontological and anti-Platonic way, of thinking about the doctrine of pre-existence that Givens missed.

Adam Miller: The Life of the World

This paper takes as its central theme Christ's core claim to be "the life of the world." Rather than reading this statement causally, I want to read it simply as an assertion of identity. That is to say, rather than reading the "life of the world" as something that Christ (as a cause) infuses into the world (as an effect), I want to read the world's own life as being that with which the risen Christ now claims to be one. It is my thesis that Christ's being-one with the life of the world is the hinge upon which his atoning grace turns. Taking the identification of Christ with the life of the world as my guiding thread, I will read Christ's atonement as the substance of life itself and, in turn, I will read life itself as the substance of grace. These three equivalences: grace, life, Christ.

Eric Nielson: Literal Spirit Birth

This paper considers the idea of mankind being the literal spirit offspring of heavenly parents. I offer in support a few key scriptures and various statements of church doctrine, but my focus is the philosophical and theological advantages of this belief. In addition to positive arguments, I also consider common arguments against this belief and respond to them. Following these considerations, I conclude that a belief in mankind as the literal spirit offspring of heavenly parents is more than a mere cultural over-belief or Mormon folk doctrine, but is a view that contains many powerful philosophical and theological advantages over alternative beliefs. 

David K. O'Connor: Plato, Purity, and the Iconoclast Temptation: A Catholic Imaginarium

Ever since Plato, philosophy has striven to ride the brilliant horses of beauty to the divine. But we are shadowed by an anxious fear lest the beasts run away into mere sensualism. How and how far can we trust ourselves to beauty? We can be moved by beauty in so many ways; but can we let ourselves be moved, without letting go of something of ourselves? We will consider these questions through some exemplary moments in the history of iconoclasm, ending as beauty should with a consideration of marriage.

Blake Ostler: Anthropology as Epistemology: A Kierkegaardian Basis for Mormon Testimony Claims

In this paper I explore the interrelationship suggested by Joseph Smith between spirit, truth, light, agency, and intelligence. For him, all are inseparably connected in what each of us “just is.” However, these are not merely ontological or anthropological claims but also epistemological ones. The claims seem to be: We are eternally the light of truth and therefore we are accountable agents. I seek to cast some light on these claims through comparing and contrasting them with Kiekegaard’s view of truth as subjectivity (with a little Derrida thrown in). Whereas Kierkegaard ultimately found this claim paradoxical, I believe when seen in light of gospel principles about individual agency, this insight actually provides the basis for our ability to act freely in our most authentic being. It is in our passionate subjectivity of choice that we act truthfully and in truth.

David Paulsen & Martin Pulido: Our Heavenly Mother: Doctrinal Origins and Impetuses

Some scholars have questioned whether the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother was taught by Joseph Smith given that many accounts of his doing so are second- and third-hand and were first published at least forty years after Joseph’s death. Yet, as we explore in this paper, other accounts are not so removed. Nonetheless, our goal is not primarily to assess these accounts, but to examine the impetus Joseph’s known teachings provide for affirming a Heavenly Mother. We argue that Joseph’s teachings on the origin of spirits, the generation of Gods, the eternity of gender, eternal marriage, and reproduction in the eschaton demonstrate that Joseph likely could have taught of a Heavenly Mother or, at least, that he steered Mormon thinking in that direction. Our argument is abductive: that Joseph taught of a Heavenly Mother best explains (1) the earliest  documentation claiming that he did and (2) the doctrinal developments in his own thought.

Steven Peck: The Implications of Evolution and Consciousness for Key LDS Doctrines

Important questions are surfacing in current discussions of Christian theology about the implications of Darwinian evolution on traditional theological concepts such as creation, the nature of God, and His on going interface and interaction with the natural world. Problems with evolutionary theory and LDS thought have been noted before, but a short list would include Mormon belief in: a literal Adam and Eve; miracles; the Fall as an event which changed nature itself; a literal understanding of humans created in the bodily image of an embodied God and other concepts. Is there a possible reconciliation between evolution and LDS thought?

Joseph Spencer: Subjectivity and Truth: Towards a Basic Mormon Anthropology

A basic, unaddressed question lies at the heart of Mormonism’s several intellectual crises during the twentieth century: What is truth? The Western philosophical tradition has provided at least four basic approaches to the nature of truth, addressing truth’s (1) invariance or relativity and (2) self-evidence or constructedness. Using these categories, it is possible to set up a quadrangle of theories of truth: the “modernist” conception, according to which truths are invariant and self-evident; the “postmodernist” conception, according to which truths are relative and constructed; the “phenomenological” conception, according to which truths are relative and self-evident; and the “Badiouian” conception, according to which truths are invariant and constructed. In this paper, I discuss the various conceptions of subjectivity that correspond to each of these approaches to truth. I then briefly assess each of these approaches in terms of Mormon theology.

Graham Stott: The Natural Man and Enmity to God

Although contemporary Mormonism takes an optimistic view of humankind, the Book of Mormon insists that men and women untouched by grace are spiritually dead and that, indeed, the 'natural man' is an enemy to God. We are only redeemed when we respond to God's grace—and we can only respond when touched by his Spirit. Key texts have been interpreted by apologists otherwise, to suggest that works have a crucial part to play in our salvation; however, evangelical reliance on grace is presupposed in the Book of Mormon witness. In the Nephite prophetic tradition, we remain enemies of God until we accept the Spirit's effectual call.

Sheila Taylor: Re-thinking Grace and All We Can Do

According to 2 Nephi 25:23, "we know that it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do."  The meaning of this verse has been much debated in LDS theological discussion. It is often approached as a kind of formula in which the challenge is to figure out the way in which the two variables of grace and human effort interact to bring about the desired result. In this paper, I will examine an alternate way of thinking about this idea, drawing on a relational perspective on grace and salvation.

Grant Underwood: Reflections on Justification, Theosis, and Grace in Christian and Mormon Discourse

Against a briefly sketched background of New Testament and patristic ideas about justification and theosis, this presentation engages the major re-evaluation by Finnish Luther scholars of Luther’s doctrine of justification and its harmonies with Eastern Orthodox teachings on theosis. These perspectives are then compared with Mormon views on deification, as well as related notions of human nature, divine grace, and righteous behavior, important issues that undergird conceptions of justification and deification.


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