This is Part 2 of a conversation about Terryl L. Givens new book Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. See Part 1 here.
[RCH] Your discussion of the Prophet Joseph’s understanding of “Restoration,” in comparison with previous and contemporary understandings of a “prisca theologia” or original and pure theology is very intriguing and important, I think, for tuning our ears to the resonance of “restoration” for LDS. You speak of a “wholesale inversion of the traditional model of biblical fullness and prisca theologia.”
You go on to explain: “Rather than finding in the pagans and ancients foreshadowings and tantalizing hints of God’s revelation which will culminate in the Christian canon, Smith was to work, with growing momentum, backwards and outwards, as if he gradually conceived of his objective as nothing less than a totalizing recuperation of gospel fullness that transcended and preceded and encompassed any one particular incarnation, the Bible included.”
I am trying to wrap my mind around the implications of this view of “restoration” for the very idea of revelation. Just a little earlier you had written that “Smith came to envision restoration as a dynamic process involving the interaction of angels and men, resurrected beings and earthly prophets, crisscrossing time and dispensations, in the fluid, perpetual reconstitution of gospel entropy.” It strikes me that this is a beautiful possibility you open up, but I’m not sure how “totalizing recuperation of gospel fullness” goes together with a “fluid, perpetual reconstitution.” Along these same lines, you write further on that Joseph “did not interpret this coming out of the wilderness as an abrupt event but, rather, as a gradual process of assimilation, differentiation, and development.” I suppose what is at stake here is whether the truth resides somewhere whole and immutable in the past, waiting only for us to recover it, or whether the truth always remains fluid and dynamic – and thus always beckoning us in a way from the future. Is the truth already whole and fixed, only waiting to be recovered, or is our quest part of a process that lies at the very heart of truth itself? The great political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) spoke of the two grand alternative dispositions towards Truth as “Progress or Return” — either the truth lies in some way in the future or in the past. It strikes me that the LDS sensibility of “Restoration” in a way straddles or shuttles between these alternatives, resonating with reverence for the past as well as with openness to the future. But what would you say?
[TLG] I think Leo Strauss’s dichotomy captures the Mormon paradox rather nicely; as you suggest, the Mormon view “shuttles between these alternatives” of progress and return. Parley Pratt once said of Restoration, “we have only the old thing. It was old in Adams day it was old in Mormons day & hid up in the earth & it was old in 1830 when we first began to preach it.” A restoration which was recuperated from lost Adamic narratives, pre-mortal councils, and celestial transcripts of the heavenly world, all point us in the direction of a reconstitution of a primeval wholeness. At the same time, it would be naive to assume therefrom that the forms and modes the institutionalized church takes today are simple replicas of earlier patterns. The precise implementation and execution of the gospel plan seems to be an ongoing, variable process; the program for perfecting the saints, the temple rituals for constituting eternal relationships, these and much more continue to evolve and take shape in accordance with evolving needs and context. As for whether Truth is fixed and immutable, my sense is that there are fixed and immutable truths. But there are also truths that have yet to take shape. As John says, for instance, “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”
[RCH] The question of the meaning of “Restoration” for Joseph Smith issues into a more particular question of interpretation concerning your approach. For you are ready to say that in one way at least Joseph Smith’s worldview arose out of his historical context: “If there was one prevailing sense in which Joseph Smith was a child of his age, it was in the avidity with which he reflected this dynamic, fundamentally Romantic view of the world, an orientation that suffused his cosmology, his human anthropology, and even his doctrine of deity.” I take it that you are essentially sympathetic too, not to say enthusiastic about, this “fundamentally Romantic view,” and so in that sense you are happy to include Joseph Smith within the spirit of the Romantic age. Me too, I suppose. But obviously this raises a question about the grounding of the Restoration’s truth claims: to put the matter plainly and perhaps therefore a little too simply: did Joseph Smith receive truth from God or did he simply imbibe some perhaps lovely and even compelling notions from the ambient Weltgeist? In a word: how can it be good news to classify Joseph Smith as fundamentally a “Romantic.”?
[TLG] How can it be good news to classify Joseph Smith as fundamentally a “Romantic”? Does Mormonism, in other words, owe its core identity to historical and cultural influences, or to divine inspiration? I would say there is no opposition between those perspectives. Historians no longer like to talk about what they consider such quaint concepts as Zeitgeist, and “providential history” seldom rears its head even among Mormon intellectuals. However, it seems clear to me that whether by divine design or divine anticipation, the gospel restoration occurred at a moment in history that was especially propitious for it to take root. And it seems abundantly obvious that many circumstances in antebellum America were particularly conducive to its spread: a mass reading public and access to presses and media, popular impatience with Calvinist notions of pre-destination and human depravity, a fiercely Jacksonian independence and hostility to creedalism and priestcraft; rampant millennialism and Restorationist ideas; social and Utopian experimentation, etc. At the same time, a confluence of revolutionary shifts in the way the cosmos and nature and the human were conceived had produced the intellectual revolution known as Romanticism. It’s impossible to summarize the Romantic world-view economically, but my best shot would be William Blake’s anticipatory remark, “without contraries is no progression.” I think the distinguishing genius of Mormonism as a theological tradition is its full embrace of the dynamism and energy and limitlessness and struggle at the heart of the cosmos, of God’s nature, and of human possibilities. And that is fundamentally a Romantic Weltanschaung without precedent. Whether the spirit of God moved upon inspired men and women, poets and philosophers, revolutionaries and writers, in anticipation of and preparation for, the Restoration, I cannot say. But it seems so to me. In any case, I believe that Joseph in his prophetic vocation brought to fruition the full vision and program of which (the best and noblest of) Romanticism was the secular precursor.
[To be continued.]