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Opposition, 4 – Early Philosophical Engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11

Posted by joespencer on September 27, 2012

In my previous post, I had a few things to say about the usual, everyday interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11—largely drawn from the passage’s use in official or authoritative settings and in the semi-devotional, semi-scholarly literature generally produced by BYU’s religion department. Now, I’d like to turn directly to the scholarly literature, and in particular to the philosophical literature. As before, I’ll be limiting myself to literature produced since the beginning of the twentieth century, though this time I have a better excuse: there more or less wasn’t a scholarly literature on anything in the Book of Mormon before the end of the nineteenth century. In this post I’ll be dealing with the literature up through the 1960s. In the next, I’ll turn to the more recent literature.

My chief aim in this post and its sequel is not to use the scholarly, philosophical literature to fix the meaning of 2 Nephi 2:11. Almost the opposite, in fact. My aim is to destabilize the meaning of 2 Nephi 2:11, to reveal by the manifold approaches to the passage that we should feel quite free to explore possibilities in interpretation. Along the way, of course, we’ll have provided ourselves with an array of interpretive possibilities on which to draw.

(I should note briefly that not all scholars who leave the devotional largely to the side actually part ways with the interpretation universally employed in the devotional literature. Very interesting in this regard is Hugh Nibley, who in his very lengthy discussion of 2 Nephi 2:11 never actually questions the everyday approach to the text while nonetheless piling up a whole history of the debate over the necessity of evil. [See Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, vol. 1, pp. 266-274.] Other examples exist as well. For my part, I’m interested in particular in those scholarly works where something distinct, some more exegetically rigorous, is set forth.)

George Reynolds and Janne Sjodahl produced the first serious scholarly treatments of the Book of Mormon, treatments that were subsequently combined by an editor into a commentary of sorts. Here is what appears there on 2 Nephi 2:11:

Here the prophet seems to refute the theory of monists who maintain that all existences may be considered as ultimately belonging to only one category. They find in this view an escape from what appears to be contradictions, conflict, war and confusion between natural forces of the universe; for, they argue, if there is but one fundamental essence, one principle, there can be no fundamental conflict. But Lehi teaches that there is an opposition in all things. If not, he says, there would be neither righteousness nor wickedness; neither good nor bad; and, consequently, no responsibility, and neither rewards nor punishment. (George Reynolds and Janne Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, vol. 1, p. 244.)

This comment is brief, but it’s significant. Reynolds and Sjodahl take Lehi’s words as essentially philosophical—indeed, as polemically charged, directed against a particular philosophical position (in this case, monism). (It should be noted that Reynolds and Sjodahl treat much of 2 Nephi 2 this way, tackling in the course of their comments on verse 14, for example: Charles Darwin—and even the Scopes trial!—as well as Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant, however briefly.) There is relatively little exegetical rigor here: How exactly does the asserted existence of “an opposition in all things” amount to a denial of metaphysical monism? Does Lehi have reference at any point in 2 Nephi 2:11 to “conflict” or even “fundamental conflict”? And is this a fair interpretation of any particular monism? Ancient monism was arguably worried less about conflict (“conflict, war and confusion”) than about motion or change (because these implied corruption), or arguably more interested in positive argumentation (the way of being can be said, while the way of non-being cannot be said) than in negating the existence of conflict, etc.

That’s to say that there’s more wanting here, but the attempt at putting Lehi in conversation with philosophy is important—and profoundly influential. B. H. Roberts, only a few years later, would pursue a line not unlike that of Reynolds and Sjodahl, but with a good deal rigor and at much greater length. In fact, Roberts’ analysis of 2 Nephi 2:11 is far too long to quote here, but perhaps the first few paragraphs of his treatment will suffice to make his basic points clear:

We can be assured from the Book of Mormon doctrine that evil as well as good is among the eternal things. The existence of evil did not begin with its appearance on our earth. Evil existed even in heaven; for Lucifer and many other spirits sinned there, rebelled against heaven’s matchless King, waged “war,” and were thrust out into the earth for their transgression.

Evil is not a created quality. It has always existed as the background of good. It is as eternal as goodness; it is as eternal as law; it is as eternal as the agency of intelligences. Sin, which is evil, is transgression of law, and so long as the agency of intelligences and law have existed, the possibility of the transgression of law has existed; and as the agency of intelligences and law have eternally existed, so, too, evil has existed eternally, either potentially or active, and will always so exist. Evil may not be referred to God for its origin. He is not its creator. Evil is one of those independent existences that is uncreate, and stands in the category of qualities of eternal things. The good cannot exist without the antithesis of evil—the foil on which it produces itself and becomes known. The existence of one implies the existence of the other; and conversely, the non-existence of the latter would imply the non-existence of the former. It is from this basis that Lehi reached the conclusion that either his doctrine of the existence of opposites is true, or else there is no existence.

Lehi’s conclusion is woven into the very fabric of the things of the universe. It cannot be otherwise. The opposite, the absence of one or the other member in a given series of antitheses is unthinkable. The fact of the reality of opposite existences must be recognized as a necessary truth—a truth the opposite of which is inconceivable. (B. H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, and the Life, pp. 377-378.)

This is just the beginning of a long and careful analysis. In the remainder of his discussion, Roberts unsurprisingly turns to the philosophical problem of evil (if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, why is there evil?) and argues that Lehi’s conception of opposition solves the problem of evil for Latter-day Saints. Significantly, he engages with serious philosophers (among his contemporaries, Harvard philosopher John Fiske; among the ancients, Epicurus). And yet there is something still lacking here, so far as exegetical rigor is concerned. Where does Lehi claim that “evil as well as good is among the eternal things”? Indeed, doesn’t it actually appear that he claims the opposite (stating that some kind of primordial “opposition in all things” makes possible the production of the opposition between good and evil)? Hence, appealing as it may be to find in the “uncreate” nature of evil a way out of the confessedly difficult problem of evil, is it so clear that the Book of Mormon teaches this?

These examples—Reynolds, Sjodahl, Roberts—provide a good sense for the beginning of the twentieth century: profound philosophical engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11, but built on a rather shoddy exegetical foundation. In each case, the claim is that evil runs to the very core of existence, that evil cannot be disentangled from things simply as they are. Early in 1960s, Sterling McMurrin decided to take stock of this interpretation, and in particular to suggest ways in which it uprooted the more popular approach to 2 Nephi 2:11 on offer in the first half of the twentieth century:

The most common explanation of evil found in Mormon literature and discussion employs the concept of a dialectical opposition that is grounded in a passage in the Book of Mormon which asserts that there must be opposition in all things, including the opposition of good and evil. Now if this is taken to mean that evil exists to make the good possible, as some Mormon writers interpret it, and with good reason, it is at best a questionable concept. For it suggests on the one hand that God either creates or permits evil in the interest of a higher good, and on the other that it is necessary to experience evil to appreciate the good. But few persons responsible for moral education would recommend indulgence in sin as necessary to the cultivation of moral character.

If, however, the passage is taken to mean, as the full intent of the statement seems to justify, not that opposition in all things must exist as if for some purpose, but rather simply that it must exist in the sense that it inevitably does exist, the implications are entirely different. Here is a further justification in Mormon thought for the explanation of evil already described in terms of the non-absolutistic conception of God. But more than that, such an interpretation proposes a fundamental metaphysical concept that has rich theoretic possibilities as a principle of explanation of natural, historical, and cultural phenomena. That reality must be described ultimately in terms of the category of opposition has played a decisive role in the history of metaphysics, appearing with great impact in such diverse places as ancient Taoism, in the early Chinese Yang-Yin doctrine, in pre-Socratic naturalism, especially Heraclitus, in the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic, or in the ontological and cosmological speculations of Whitehead and the metaphysic of history of Arnold Toynbee. Such a conception of things, events, and experience, in terms of an opposition elemental to the very structure of reality, would be of course entirely consonant in Mormon thought with the concept that the world in its most fundamental and ultimate constituents is uncreated, underived, and characterized by dynamic process. It would be inconsonant with a theology committed to an ex nihilo doctrine of creation, as St. Augustine so clearly recognized in his polemic against Manichaeism, a doctrine grounded in a metaphysical dualism of good and evil cosmic powers. (Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, pp. 97-98.)

McMurrin, note, explicitly argues against a certain popular interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11, one that—“with good reason”—takes it to teach that the opposition between good and evil is something God brings about (rather than has to deal with). In this, he takes up with Roberts, Sjodahl, and Reynolds. It’s curious that he seems to recognize that the position spelled out most rigorously by Roberts is at odds with the plain meaning of the text (again: “with good reason”), so that the exegetical position he assumes is one he explicitly sees to be problematic. It was apparently more important to be philosophically defensible than scripturally accurate, for his purposes. (McMurrin was, of course, an unbelieving Mormon, so there’s little reason to think he felt much responsibility to the text.)

This is curious, yes, but quite telling as well. What McMurrin indicates when he indexes his and others’ approach to 2 Nephi 2:11 to “the non-absolutistic conception of God” is a certain tension in Mormon thought between the core theological ideas of Mormonism as expressed most radically in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons (divine embodiment, human divinization, etc.) and the text of the book that originally set Mormonism as a movement into motion (the Book of Mormon). Philosophically inclined Mormonism has, more or less from the very beginning, had the task of sorting out how to read the Book of Mormon in light of the so-called “Nauvoo theology.” McMurrin represents that tendency in its most self-conscious guise.

And it’s that tendency and its consequent tensions that characterize “early” philosophical engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11. The point was, it seems, to reveal the philosophical strengths of the “Nauvoo theology,” and to do so in part by appealing to the Book of Mormon—but without exegetical rigor. Things begin to change in significant ways, however, in the 1980s, obviously in the wake of President Benson’s call for a return of sorts to the Book of Mormon. Beginning late in the 1980s—as I’ll show in my next post—there has been an attempt to sort exactly what Lehi himself seems to be saying, and yet nonetheless still to see what it might teach us philosophically. It’s perhaps there that some real promise emerges in the literature.

6 Responses to “Opposition, 4 – Early Philosophical Engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11”

  1. [...] comments Opposition, 4 – Early Philosophical Engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11 « Feast upon the Word B… on Opposition, 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11joespencer on [...]

  2. [...] 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11 « Feast upon the Word Blog on Opposition, 4 – Early Philosophical Engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11Opposition, 4 – Early Philosophical Engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11 « Feast upon the Word [...]

  3. Blake said

    You also might want to check out James McLaughlin’s commentary on 2 Ne. 2 using Schelling as optic in Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology. Keep up the good work Spencer, I am enjoying this series.

    • joespencer said

      Thanks, Blake. A quick question: I’ve found a goodly amount of material from you dealing with other parts of 2 Nephi 2, but have you written anything of any length on 2 Nephi 2:11? If so, point me in the right direction!

  4. [...] my last post, I looked at the relatively few but unmistakably important philosophical analyses of 2 Nephi 2:11 [...]

  5. [...] summary of the history of interpretation of this passage (in the twentieth century): here, here, and here. I’ve also dealt with some of the major translations of this passage into non-English [...]

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