Tidbits from SMPT

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.


  1. Thanks for posting this. One of these years I have got to go. I hope some of these articles get published in Element or some other journal or blog.

  2. Thanks for the great report, Lynnette. Now enjoy the rest of your time in Utah hiding in the mountains…

  3. I can hardly comprehend your summary, so I’m afraid the actual conference would be over my head (or skull, perhaps?).

    It does sound awesome, though. I think my husband was getting the publication for a while (do they have a publication?). Maybe next year we can go together. It’s just more than twice as long as a trip to Claremont from here.

    I don’t understand why they would schedule Sunstone west and SMPT on the same weekend. . .

  4. .

    A couple thoughts on your thoughts.

    Although I don’t expect it to convince anyone bent out of shape on the issue, I do agree that a certain amount of equality is necessary to build freedom. Cf the rises of middle class and democracy. And also Maslow.

    That suggestion that it’s the father we should emulate in the Prodigal Son is good advice, I think. And I find it weird that it’s never occurred to me.

    Is there a good collection of good HM essays out there?

    Off topic: It was pointed out to me today that, in Genesis, Eve doesn’t seem to have been around when the command not to eat the fruit was given. How is that dealt with in the literature?

  5. It was good to see you again. When Eric Nielson started saying that the eternities were long enough that long women just wouldn’t be pregnant and birthing in heaven, I leaned over to the guy next to me and said that it easy for a guy to say that, not quite sure if women would be just as fond of the idea. As per my comment in the Q&A, I think it is waste of time trying to talk about the premortal existence in bodily terms when it is clearly anything but that.

    I was also a bit disappointed in Paulsen’s presentation. It seemed to be a condensed version of Martin Pulido’s presentation last year, which I also found conceptually unfulfilling. Rather than giving a list of things that have been said, let’s me philosopher and theologians and talk about what they mean. In that case, I think that the discussion we had at the women’s conference last year in Claremont were far better. It was nice to see someone from BYU though putting this discussion front and center.

    Overall, I think the highlights for me were the presentations by Adam Miller, Anne Leahy, Terryl Givens, and Kevin Hart.

  6. It was great to meet you at the conference. Thank you for your charitable review even though aspects of my presentation likely rubbed you the wrong way. I hope that my bluntly laying out my rather literal thoughts can open the door for future discussion of what the PotF means.

    Narrator, I am not sure that bodily terms are out of place in the premortal existence.

  7. Eric,

    Are you okay with the idea that our pre-mortal spirits are shapeless blobs the size of an electron?

    Could these spirits have been created by our heavenly parents focusing laser beams out of their eyes onto a fixed space, resulting in billions of spirit-containing eggs?

  8. Sure. Let’s ignore that Joseph used intelligence, spirit, and soul interchangeably and say that heavenly parents focused their laser beams on quark-sized intelligences, resulting in eggs filled with electron-sized spirit bodies.

  9. narrator: I’m not sure what your “reductio ad absurdem” is getting at. Are you saying that just because Eric takes the view that pre-relationship spirits went from a state of not being infused with God’s spiritual DNA to having God’s spiritual DNA, this does not entail spirit sex?

    Or are you just being Pithy? Eric is well aware of the interchangeable nature of Joseph’s usage. Why should that require him to follow the same usage? I think he has good grounds to be understood as to what the tripartite model is, without it.

  10. I think narrator is probably trying to make me to commit to every single detail, and is trying to exaggerate where a lack of birds and bees details might lead. Just my hunch.

    Nobody is ignoring anything. Saying that these terms were used interchangeably because of a lack of precise definitions seems reasonable. I explicitly said this in my paper. There is no ignoring about it.

    I would be skeptical of the laser beam method. It seems inconsistent with the PotF, scriptures, and earthly experience.

    Again, I think this gets back to what resurrection is. Scriptures seem to indicate that the resurrection is pretty thorough and complete. Not even a hair of our heads is lost. I am not sure how far to take it, but the few scriptural referrences to resurrection seem to suggest taking it pretty far.

    There is also some scriptural evidence to suggest spirits bodies are of human form. The scale … I don’t know.

  11. I am presenting no reductio ad absurdem. Rather I am questioning Eric’s use of literal spirit birth and literal spirit bodies. As I said in my Q&A question at the conference, when I talk of a literal body and a literal birth, I am talking about a very physical and biological process. It’s not just a matter of divine sex and divine viviparous birth. My body is a direct result of physical/biological processes. My physical body has the shape it does because of a chain of physical proteins from both of my parents. These physical proteins are the reason why my body is the shape it is not and not the shape of a horse or dragonfly. My viviparous birth is a result of a long process of biological evolution that now requires amniotic fluid to protect my growing fetus, an umbilical cord to provide me with nutrients, etc, etc, etc.

    The literal language game surrounding our discussion of birth is in a very physical and very biological context. Our pre-mortal existence is anything but physical and biological. Because it does not involve the very process and language that surrounds talking about birth, what sense is there in saying that our pre-mortal existence involved literal birth and literal bodies?

    If my physical shape results from biological DNA, what sense does it have to say that our spirit bodies have human shape?

    Scriptural, we have almost nothing to say about our pre-mortal existence, why go in this direction?

    Eric seemed to argue that spiritual birthing is necessary to maintain ontological unity, but given that the traditional Christian ontological disunity between God and man largely hinges on a difference between creator and creature, is not our uncreatedness the key to understanding our ontological unity. In fact, necessitating a birther and birthed actually seems to create a level of ontological disunity rather than unity.

  12. Sounds like an excellent conference — I wanted to see the Mormon writers – I’m hoping these continue and I can go sometime.

  13. Narrator:

    To simply restate, you ask what sense it makes to speak of lireral birth or literal bodies, and whether this leads to ontological unity or disunity.

    Much of this depends on the starting point. My stating point is within the teachings of the church, and if we can not agree to start there, then I am not prepared or trained enough to discuss this with you.

    I view God as a being with flesh and bone and as a glorified and resurrected being who had a mortal experience at some point in the distant past. I also view spirit as matter. Depending on our take of what the resurrection is, and what the offspring of resurrect beings are, the preexistence might be quite ‘physical’. I likely view it as being more material/physical than you do.

    Why go there? I view the PotF as being borderline scriptural. It ought to be given quite a bit of weight. It is an official, formal, prophetic warning from our most recent prophet, presented at general conference with the endorsment of the first presidency and quorum of the twelve. It is likely the closest thing to current scripture that we have in our correlated era. If the church did not want us to talk about purposeful eternal gender, or all mankind being literal begotten sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents, then they should not be officially proclaiming this to the world. Our current church leaders unitedly go there. I feel this not only gives me the right, but a responsibility to go there.

    You still seem to put me into a position of denying that mankind are eternal beings. This is a mischaracterization. Again, I maintain a tripartite model. Thus the eternal identity of man is still co-eternal with God. In addition to this, I maintain that our spirit bodies are literal offspring of God. Thus I have double ontological unity (although our simply being eternal seems no guarantee of ontological sameness). To characterize this as creating disunity seems to show that you either do not understand this, or want to deliberately mischaracterize it.

  14. Just to be clear PotF = Proclamation on the Family, right?

    I think “Narrator” raises a great point though that Martin also brought up. Sex is tied to function in mortal bodies. Spirits simply aren’t related to those processes due to the lack of evolution and death. However if there is sexual dimorphism (as the PotF and a lot else requires) in heaven then it must have some function. I’m uncomfortable calling that sex for the reasons I mentioned at the BCC thread. Yet clearly two sexes entails a function for two sexes. So reproduction likely requires that.

    Put another way while I see no justification for assuming reproduction is sexual and considerable reasons to go the other way I think the notion that a Mother and Father in heaven are literally mothers and father is some sense stronger than adoption makes a lot of sense. The push beyond that seems unjustified that I can see.

    One thing I wish you’d have done in your presentation, Eric, is distinguish between what strengths demand a full quasi-sexual reproduction mechanism versus what merely requires a “stronger than adoption” view. I say that because Martin’s presentation seemed to deal with parenthood more functionally tied to how parents relate to teenagers and twenty somethings. Which I thought was quite interesting (and also obviously quite compatible with adoption)

  15. Perhaps we are using the word literal differently.

    in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.

    Is this what you mean with literal?

    “I view God as a being with flesh and bone and as a glorified and resurrected being who had a mortal experience at some point in the distant past. I also view spirit as matter. Depending on our take of what the resurrection is, and what the offspring of resurrect beings are, the preexistence might be quite ‘physical’. I likely view it as being more material/physical than you do.”

    My point is that there is no reason to assert literal spirit birth. I agree that spirit bodies are matter (whatever that means), however this matter is clearly different than the biological matter that makes up our bodies. The shape of our biological bodies are directly connected to our biological DNA. My body is the shape it is because of biological/chemical directions taken from this DNA. My DNA is this way from a long evolutionary process. While our heavenly parents may have physical resurrected bodies, these bodies would be drastically different that spirit bodies (wasn’t that the point of coming to earth–to get a physical body?). It just makes no sense to talk about physical resurrected bodies literally giving birth to spiritual bodies. Unless you are going to stick to the details of literality, it makes no sense to say that they are literal.

    “If the church did not want us to talk about . . . all mankind being literal begotten sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents, then they should not be officially proclaiming this to the world.”

    Except they didn’t say literal. You did. I’m fine with talking about parentage and sons and daughters. We have a way of talking about it all the time without referring to biological process and literalness. Adoptive parents are certainly parents. Adoptive children are children of those parents. I also believe that adoption fits our scriptures (and the teachings of JS) far better than birthing processes.

    “If the church did not want us to talk about purposeful eternal gender . . . then they should not be officially proclaiming this to the world.”

    Talking of gender in a non-biological context is simply non-sense (even gender as a social concept requires a context of biological sex to make sense). I don’t even know what it means. I think point of the PofF was to say that gender is important part of life. For them to say that it extends to non-biological entities is confused. The PofF was never meant as a rich theological treatise, it was meant to be a religious stress on the importance of families, thus I don’t expect it (like much of teachings and scripture) to make good philosophical sense.

    “Our current church leaders unitedly go there. I feel this not only gives me the right, but a responsibility to go there.”

    Teachings (even the united ones) come and go.

    “To characterize this as creating disunity seems to show that you either do not understand this, or want to deliberately mischaracterize it.”

    Or perhaps we have differing views of what ontological unity in a philosophical/theological sense consists of.

  16. One major benefit of the word literal is to remove the ontological barrier in a guaranteed way. Asserting the parent/child relationship is key to much of Mormon theology.

    Why should spirit matter be entirely different? As in different in every way. Also, you talk about shape of the body, yet we are in the image of God. And I still think how much of our biology goes with us in the resurrection is a relevant point.

    You are right, about the PotF, it says begotten instead of literal, which may be even more explicit. The January Ensign ‘What We Believe’ article uses literal. So I have both ‘begotten’ and ‘literal’ in recent official publications.

    The proclamation says that gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose. It says much more than you say it does.

    For all you talk about DNA you seem to pick it up and drop it at your convenience. Adoptive children by definition would not be the literal children of their adoptive parents. DNA tests could prove that. One could also adopt a dog or a cat, this would not make them offspring. There is simply no need to adopt your own offspring. Adoption would prove that there is not a literal parent/offspring relationship, and leave the door wide open for an ontological barrier.

  17. Eric, I think we need to be careful about being so dismissive of adoption. Our theology of sealing relies entirely on the assumption that the Priesthood can create bonds which are stronger than blood ties.

  18. Mark:

    I am certainly not dismissing adoption entirely. As you wisely point out adoption is an important aspect of things like the Abrahamic covenent, patriarchal blessings, and eternal families. Sam Brown blew me away with his presentation relating to this. I simply question adoption as an explanation to our ultimate relationship to God and as the origin to our spirit bodies.

    Also, I am begining to be concerned about cluttering up ZD with a discussion they may not want to be here very badly. I might suggest continuing this at Small and Simple if you want to pursue it.

  19. Loved seeing you again, Lynnette, and I enjoyed meeting more bloggers there.

    I heard some interesting scuttlebut that Paulsen/Pulido had planned to present a different talk on Heavenly Mother–the one that was written up in the schedule as follows:

    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.

    Instead, Paulsen decided at the last minute to use the paper which had already been presented previously (consisting mostly of quotes on Heavenly Mother with little exposition) because he didn’t want to be too controversial. After discovering this, I am now dying to hear the paper which was originally planned, and hope Pulido gets a chance to present this in the future.

  20. Lol, Jessawhy. Reports that the topic had been “beaten to death” were obviously premature. 😉 Anyway, it would be really fun if you came to the conference some year.

    BiV (it was fabulous to spend some time with you!), I was wondering too why they basically did a repeat of last year. And like the narrator, I’d like to see the material engaged from a theological perspective as well as a historical one.

    Th., that’s a good question about Eve and the command not to eat the fruit. My initial (not very cheerful) thought is that that perhaps fits into the second creation account, in which women are clearly secondary, so it would make sense that Adam was expected to pass along the command, rather than God directly interacting with Eve. Though on the other hand, he does directly address her to curse her (at least in the scriptural version), so maybe not. I don’t know. I see that question came up in the recent FMH thread on Adam & Eve.

    As far as HM essays–hmm. When Martin Pulido’s stuff gets published, I think it will at least be useful historical material to have. And we’re working on an Element issue on feminism that will have a couple of essays dealing with the subject. (Though writing about HM is always a challenge, it seems to me, because to a large extent it’s writing about absence, and there’s only so much you can say.)


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