I spent the last few days at Utah Valley University, attending the annual conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. It was an intense couple of days; I feel like I’m in a kind of intellectual and social overload and the introvert in me would now like to go hide in the mountains for a couple of days and decompress.
I presented on Thursday morning, which was a good time slot; I like going early so for the rest of the time I can just relax and enjoy the conference. It was a bit crazy this year because I arrived in Salt Lake City around 4:00 am (by train), and presented about eleven hours later, on very little sleep. So mostly I was just happy that I didn’t fall over (though that could have been good for dramatic effect—grace strikes!) But presenting at SMPT has always been fun, and this year was no exception.
I was excited about the theme of this year’s conference, because theological anthropology is a central interest of mine. And there were some great talks. Anne Leahy, who presented on disability, had some intriguing observations about embodiment. I wish I’d taken more notes. Loyd Ericson did a liberation approach to the atonement—God not justifying suffering but rather confronting it. I’m sympathetic to that view; it seems that whenever we try to explain suffering, we end up justifying it, and the Cross is ultimately the only answer to questions of theodicy. Ben Huff talked about Molinism and pre-existence and the relation between freedom and independence. The observation he made that most stuck with me is that the value of the doctrine of pre-existence might not be in that it construes us as in some sense independent entities, but in that it tells us about our relation to God, meaning that God isn’t some kind of foreign power in our lives here.
Since my own work is on grace, I was particularly interested in the Friday morning panel of Grant Underwood, Adam Miller, and Brian Birch. They had some good stuff. Adam’s paper was one of my favorites of the conference; he took a kind of Buddhist approach to grace. Grace as appreciating life as givenness in the present moment, and sin as a refusal to accept life. I see a lot of connections there to the relational approach I’m working on. And I just loved the way he framed it. I think the LDS discussion of grace is going in some exciting directions.
I got to see bloggers Chris Henrichsen and Steven Peck on social justice and evolution (I’ll let you guess which person gave which presentation). Chris talked about Rawls in relation to the Book of Mormon; a comment he made in the Q&A that I found particularly interesting, in response to the standard “if we have to support the poor we’ll lose our agency” objection, was that you might need a certain amount of economic equality before you can even talk about freedom. I really enjoyed meeting Steven, who has a delightful personality, and who gave an engaging presentation which even included a visual aid to be passed around (a skull). I can imagine that he would be a fun teacher. Sam Brown described some of his work on Joseph Smith’s understanding of soteriological lineage, the importance of being sealed into a kind of cosmic great chain of being, and it really was fascinating, with some great quotes from early members of the church.
Kevin Hart did an incredibly rich read of the Prodigal Son on Saturday morning. He described the father in the story as being prodigal as well, in that he forgives immediately, without reason to do so, without waiting for purification on the part of the son. And he suggested that we’re not called to be like either son, each of whom display their weaknesses, but to imitate the example of the father, who reaches out to both sons, with a love that might be called impossible in the way in which it operates outside all limits and expectations. Hart also made the intriguing point that we don’t know the end of the story; we don’t know what happened the next day—but he proposed that forgiveness opens up a space for justice. We need justice to heal the relationships; but we first need forgiveness so that that can happen. So many thought-provoking observations; I know I’ll want to go back to my notes on that.
And then of course there was the spirit birth/Heavenly Mother session, with Eric Nielson and then David Paulsen & Martin Pulido. I know the former has already been discussed to death at BCC, but I thought Eric did a good job of clearly laying out his position. I don’t have particularly strong views on the matter, though I do have some real concerns about what the possibility might mean for women in the eternities. But I’m also interested in the question in its relation to the nature of the self. I’d heard a lot of the Heavenly Mother material at SMPT last year, but I do appreciate how much they’ve found on the subject in church history, and I’m glad their work is getting published. Of course I’d like to push it further and talk about it theologically and not just in terms of “this is what has been said,” but I do hope that kind of precedent will be helpful in dissipating the idea that she’s too sacred to discuss.
I also got to go see the Friday afternoon, which was a refreshing change of pace in the middle of a bunch of philosophical and theological discussions. And I had lots of fun throughout the week hanging out with (or at least running into!) various bloggers. This was my fourth year attending SMPT, and while I’ve enjoyed every year, I think both this and last year have been particularly good. I go to a lot of academic conferences that are, shall we say, less than riveting, and one of the fun things about SMPT is that I always leave with lots to think about.