Opposition, 5 – Recent Philosophical Engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11
Posted by joespencer on October 5, 2012
In my last post, I looked at the relatively few but unmistakably important philosophical analyses of 2 Nephi 2:11 available between the beginning of the twentieth century and the 1960s. The pattern, I showed there, was one of serious philosophical work but without a rigorous investigation of the text itself. In this post I’ll deal with more recent philosophical engagement with the text, engagement which is unmistakably predicated on much closer analysis of what Lehi actually has to say in 2 Nephi 2:11. As I mentioned in my last post, this turn of sorts would seem to have been motivated largely by President Benson’s call back to the Book of Mormon in the first half of the 1980s. At any rate, serious work on 2 Nephi 2:11 seems to have begun in 1989.
There’s a lot of material to cover here, and I won’t be able to do justice to much of it. I will, of course, try my best, but it’s difficult to take the measure of the moment we’re still passing through. And in the end, I really need to be able to take the measure of the moment, since my aim in this series is to begin to work beyond—well beyond, if possible—what’s been done.
At any rate, the first serious philosophical engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11 of recent years is A. D. Sorenson’s “Lehi on God’s Law and an Opposition in All Things.”
The view of opposing things Lehi presents in 2 Nephi 2:11 has a certain complexity to it due to the fact that running all through it are two levels of opposites. On one level he distinguishes three sets of opposites. But each set itself has two opposing possibilities, resulting in six sets of opposites in all. Accordingly, the first set Lehi mentions is “an opposition in all things.” This set in turn may exist or not exist. When it does not exist, Lehi describes what remains as “all things” being “a compound in one.” In other words, all things being a compound in one is the opposite of there being an opposition in all things. So precisely speaking, there are two sets of opposites here—the set of all things in opposition and the possibility of that set existing or not existing.
The second set Lehi mentions I will refer to, for lack of a more suitable term, as ethical opposites, i.e., righteousness and wickedness, holiness and misery, good and evil. By ethical opposites I will mean all ways in which God’s law may be fulfilled or not fulfilled by what persons are (e.g., righteous or wicked), what they do (e.g., good or evil), and what they undergo (e.g., happiness or misery). This set also has two opposing possibilities. It can either be “brought to pass” or not be “brought to pass.”
At the end of the passage Lehi brings in a third set of opposites that seems to represent the wide range of possibilities which characterize human existence—life and death, corruption and incorruption, happiness and misery, and sense and insensibility. The two opposing possibilities that mark this set of opposites are “having” or not “having” them. When that which exists does not “have” life or death, sense or insensibility, and so on, Lehi describes it as being “dead.” By implication the opposite of being “dead” is being “alive” and having the possibilities that go with human existence. (A. D. Sorenson, “Lehi on God’s Law and an Opposition in All Things,” pp. 108-109)
It’s a little difficult to know exactly what is meant by all this (an accompanying chart would have be very helpful!). The point seems to be primarily to separate out three sets of opposites: (1) a kind of global—let me call it the “ontological”—opposition (“an opposition in all things”), (2) a set of “ethical” oppositions (righteousness/wickedness, hapiness/misery, good/bad), and (3) a set of “existential” oppositions (life/death, corruption/incorruption, sense/insensibility). (The further point, it seems, is that each of these sets can be said to be divided against itself since, because Lehi is speaking hypothetically, each could either be the case or not. I’m going to ignore this part of Sorenson’s analysis for my purposes.) Note that already, just in the opening paragraphs of his analysis, Sorenson has gone a good deal further than any of his philosophically-inclined predecessors. He’s begun to do careful exegetical work on the text itself, opening up the fact that there are three distinguishable sorts of opposition at work in 2 Nephi 2:11, all bearing complex relationships to the others. Any serious philosophical treatment of Lehi’s words has to take all this into account.
Sorenson has much to say about the interrelations among the three sets of oppositions he identifies. On his account, the “ontological” opposition serves as a condition for the possibility of the “ethical” oppositions, and the “ethical” oppositions serve as a condition for the possibility of the “existential” oppositions. (The first set of oppositions is thus necessary, but perhaps insufficient, to produce the second set, just as the second set is necessary, but perhaps insufficient, to produce the third.) He also has much to say by way of interpreting each of the sets of oppositions, arguing for a kind of soteriological interpretation of all three sorts of opposition. That is, he takes not only the “ethical” oppositions to refer to matters of righteousness and wickedness but also the “ontological” and “existential” oppositions. The “opposition in all things” mentioned at the beginning of the verse he takes to refer to “the opposition of (spiritual) life and death in their many degrees” rooted in God’s law (p. 123), just as he takes the “existential” oppositions (with all their talk of “life” and “death”) to be connected to eternal life and spiritual death. These interpretations may seem to be a bit extreme, but it should be noted that Sorenson is careful to root them in wide-ranging readings of scripture generally, as well as in details immediately within 2 Nephi 2. His theological speculations are not without exegetical rigor—even if there are other (and, arguably, better) ways to read the text.
Already, then, we have a rather different—because rather more exegetically careful—approach to the text. Philosophical or theological reflection is at this point rooted in work on the text itself. The text has ceased to be a too-easily-appropriated source for reaction against certain philosophical problems. A remarkably similar analysis appears in Brant Gardner’s commentary on the Book of Mormon, which appeared in print in 2007. Here’s what he says:
There are four elements in verse 11: two statements and two proof sets. The first statement is that there is an opposition in all things, followed by the first proof set—a series of phrases providing evidence of the statement. The second statement is that without opposition all things would be “a compound in one,” followed by its own set of phrases demonstrating the statement’s validity.
Implicit in the verse’s structure is another “opposition.” The first and second statements should also be seen as opposites—as mutually exclusive propositions. The presence of the first condition negates the second; the absence of the first requires the presence of the second. (Brant Gardner, Second Witness, vol. 2, p. 41.)
Note how close this is to Sorenson’s analysis: two distinguishable sets of oppositions (what Sorenson calls the “ethical” and the “existential” opposites) are set forth, and these are then governed by a global opposition between “an opposition in all things” and all things being “a compound in one” (what we called, in Sorenson’s analysis, the “ontological” opposition). What’s different here, however, is that Gardner sees each of the separable sets of oppositions merely as so much evidence for the global, “ontological” opposition that most interests Lehi. Instead of flattening the “ethical” and “existential” oppositions into so many articulations of the difference between eternal life and spiritual death, Gardner just takes them as points of proof for the existence of the core opposition at the root of all things.
Here again there’s a good deal of close exegetical reading that goes on before any philosophical work is undertaken. Gardner does far less philosophical work on the text than does Sorenson, but he’s careful to sort out the basic meaning of the text nonetheless. In the end, of course, it must be said that neither of these analyses is particularly philosophical. Their strength lies in their exegetical rigor—though, as I’ll show in later posts, their exegetical rigor did not go nearly far enough—and not in their philosophical speculations beyond that. What, though, can be said of those who have brought a good deal more philosophical sensibility to the text, without compromising (too much, anyway) on exegetical concerns?
A first such interpretation of the text, well worth mentioning, has been set forth by Jad Hatem, a Lebanese Catholic scholar—though what he’s written on this subject won’t appear in print in English until next year. (Because I’m involved with Salt Press, I’ve been lucky enough to see what Hatem has done with 2 Nephi 2:11.) Both a chapter in his 2007 book, Les Trois Néphites, le Bodhisattva et le Mahdî, and an essay that will appear as an appendix in the English translation of that book, focus on 2 Nephi 2:11, and particularly on a comparison that can be drawn between Lehi’s words and the philosophical speculations of Schelling (a late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century German thinker).
Interestingly, Hatem begins from the work of Sterling McMurrin, already discussed in my last post. He points out that McMurrin’s concessions to the philosophical interpretations before him—taking Lehi’s words to say something about the eternal, incontrovertible existence of evil—do violence to the text, which, if read honestly, argues that good and evil are brought about by God, which is only possible because of a deeper or more primordial ontological (or, at any rate, non-ethical) opposition. In his attempt to set off this deeper opposition, Hatem contrasts Lehi and Schelling, showing how the prophet regards opposition to be woven into being itself (and so conditioning even God in a certain regard) while the philosopher regards opposition to be a function of appearance (God originating in the undifferentiated). Either way, though, both prophet and philosopher argue for a fundamentally dynamic understanding of nature, even in divine perfection.
What is gained in Hatem’s interpretation of the text? He is, with other more recent philosophical readers, a more dutiful exegete. He, like Sorenson and Gardner, distinguishes among three sets of oppositions (what he calls Lehi’s axiom and its two corollaries), though he distinguishes among them in a somewhat different fashion—in a fashion that is, ultimately, a better interpretation of the structure of the passage (as I’ll have to show in a subsequent post). Put in a nutshell, Hatem takes Lehi’s talk of all things being “a compound in one” to be, not the opposite to there being “an opposition in all things,” but a reiteration of it. (This is in part due to the particular French translation he works with, but it turns out to be the best interpretation of the “original” English, I believe.) But not only does Hatem exceed his predecessors in exegetical rigor, he exceeds them in philosophical productivity as well. His discussion is more revealing about the ontological stakes of 2 Nephi 2:11 than anything produced before him, and he does a beautiful job of showing how much of subsequent Mormonism is bound up with the audacious claim Lehi makes.
Another recent philosophical treatment, this one by Dennis Potter and published only a month or so ago (though originally presented at a conference in 2008, I believe), tackles the incoherence of taking Lehi to mean that evil has necessary existence. Here, though—fascinatingly—the incoherence of that interpretation is not set forth exegetically. Indeed, Potter never says anything of an exegetical nature about the text. Indeed, he states baldly right at the beginning of his essay: “I will not attempt to discover what Lehi actually had in mind” (Dennis Potter, “Lehi’s Opposition Theodicy,” p. 309). Instead, then, of taking up the interpretive misguidedness of the early twentieth-century interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11, he takes up its philosophical incoherence, its effective uselessness as a theodicy (as a response to the philosophical problem of evil).
Potter’s arguments are too complex to summarize here, but his conclusions can be stated. Here are his own words of summary:
If an understanding of the good/evil opposition involves some characteristics that clearly ground it in an objective reality (such as when it is interpreted absolutely) then it is unlikely to be a necessary opposition. Alternatively, if an understanding of the good/evil opposition involves necessity, it is not clear that this necessity will be based on something objective. (P. 316.)
The idea here is that for Lehi’s words to be taken in the way Reynolds, Sjodahl, Roberts, and McMurrin took them—as an assertion that evil has a necessary existence—one has to give up on the objectivity or absoluteness of evil’s existence (one would have to take the necessary existence of evil to be a question only of necessary existence in language or in worldview). And it is doubtful, according to Potter, that necessary but non-objective existence of evil is enough to exonerate God.
This is a fascinating argument, and it’s still more fascinating that Potter undertakes it explicitly without attempting a closer exegesis. His interest is only in engaging with the Mormon philosophical tradition, and Lehi deserves mention only because he is generally cited as the prooftext for the viability of the tradition. Of course, one might worry that Potter’s argument is a little dated, simply because no one since McMurrin in the 1960s seems to have used Lehi in the way he criticizes in his essay—at least not while claiming philosophical competence. Nonetheless, it reveals the extent to which philosophical engagement with the Book of Mormon today has to do battle against earlier philosophical treatments.
But this polemical engagement with the tradition isn’t always necessary, as is illustrated by the last recent philosophical treatment I want to mention. This one comes from a book of curious workmanship, George Handley’s Home Waters, published in 2010. It’s a work of theology in part, but also a memoir, a family history, an exemplary work of nature writing, an ecological study, and a work of literature. He doesn’t present himself as a philosopher; only as a philosophically inclined person. And he doesn’t bring up 2 Nephi 2:11 in order to provide a carefully-wrought exegesis, or to provide an unassailable theological interpretation. He simply explores its implications.
I think I’ll quote the whole of the passage in which Handley looks at Lehi’s words. Too much would be lost if I were to address just a bit of them:
An old prophet in Jerusalem had a dream. A boy prophet in America had a dream of an old prophet in Jerusalem having a dream. The old prophet’s dream was enough to make a family leave the Old World for a New World wilderness, sailing east. The young boy’s dream of the old man’s dream was enough to make thousands more pull up roots and move west to a New World wilderness. There were those who believed the dream of the old man, and those who believed these two to be nothing more than dreamers. The dream of unity splits the same family into two different hemispheres, different worlds. Two dreams faced each other across the same river and the streaming shadows of their forms standing proud and resolute, bound by the chains of blood and memory that held them, stretched and split and confused in the tossed and trembling waters.
And then, arising from the waters, these words: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be compound in one; wherefore if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption, nor incorruption, nor misery, neither sense nor sensibility.”
This is the devil’s doctrine, William Blake’s devil, that is. Because, as Blake explains, a body isn’t spiritually alive until it has suffered the contradictions of life. Only through feeling, seeing, smelling, touching, hearing a corruptible world can we begin to perceive the lineaments of the incorruptible. “Death is the mother of all beauty,” echoed Wallace Stevens, which is more profound than saying that suffering is necessary. That there would be such an intimate and deep connection between oppositions that nevertheless continue to face off, unless the whole cosmos were to fall apart and God would cease being God—that is something else altogether.
Wasn’t it what Robert Frost and all poets yearned for, to drink from waters “beyond confusion,” to wrap the world in the arms of love, to pour its broken pieces into a holy chalice that promised some ritual healing, some restoration of what has been lost? Is this not the gesture of religion? Is this not what the Book of Mormon, from which these lines come, is intended to offer? A narrative that constitutes the world anew, knowable, whole, bathed in God’s sweet breath? And yet, here Lehi is saying that such a narrative, if it were to complete the work of restoration one final time, would become a dead, floating body, beyond sense and sensibility.
Like the best of a poet’s metaphors, the narrative impels but doesn’t complete the task, since it still seems to break up and pair off in new oppositions and contradictions that only settle quietly and unspeakably in the soul. When I first opened the holy book in earnest just months before my brother died, I felt the intimation of some final restoration of all the broken pieces of the main, and my own soul healing. I didn’t know enough to understand how much more imagination would be required of me to continue to imagine what a whole world might look like. Nor do I now. Maybe having a New World holy book doesn’t allow an escape from opposition or the need for imagination, but at least it teaches the shape of hope: The earth as spiritual home and humankind as a family of long-lost siblings. (George Handley, Home Waters, pp. 168-169.)
Here is an interpretation just as philosophically rigorous, just as exegetically provocative, just as rich in implication as any of the others—but offered with the kind of existential commitment that makes the text come to life. That Lehi’s words are receiving this kind of attention is perhaps most promising of all.
So what’s been seen in the course of this too-long post? Philosophical engagement with 2 Nephi 2:11 has begun to move in new directions. There has been an unmistakable increase in exegetical rigor, coupled with an unmistakable increase in philosophical investment. Interpreters from the outside have begun to bring the text to bear on significant theological questions, and the philosophically inclined have begun to use the text to think about existence itself. All of this is promising. And hopefully, it’s a foundation on which I can build through the remainder of this series.