For the first concurrent session I attended Sam Brown’s. While he’s not as well known as David Paulson he has written numerous extremely well received papers and books. I honestly can’t fathom how he has the time to do all he does. He’s a medical researcher and ICU physician as well as writing on Mormon philosophical notions and history. We were very lucky to have him there. At the end he noted how he’s really trying to cut back on all he does. So in that case we were doubly lucky to have him there.
It’s almost difficult to describe Brown’s talk although I had more notes on it than anything else. He started off talking about how the god of classical theism was really the ground of being. It’s thus problematic to talk of an essentially embodied being since how can the ground of the universe ground the universe. (Some philosophies do attempt that of course) His notion is what he calls True Light. Most of his discussion was a careful analysis of various texts of Joseph Smith starting in the 1830’s on up through his Abraham writings.
The talk was a tour de force even though I personally found the key idea problematic. Brown started out discussing Adam Miller’s flat ontology and noting how relations are so problematic in this system. (There are ways they are dealt with but fundamentally the emphasis is on things not relations and new emergent things) Even though I suspect Adam Miller’s thought comes closest to my own of any major LDS writer, I’ve also had pretty similar complaints at times to those Brown raised.
With most critique of religion, especially by New Atheists, the real target is a kind of science fiction conception of God. Brown calls this the “glowing grandpa” model. However for traditional theism God is ultimately the ground of being and thus completely different from what New Atheists critique. The Mormon conception of God as an advanced actor essentially embodied within the universe is precisely the type of being the New Atheists critique. While Brown doesn’t address the New Atheist critique of Mormonism he does ask if there’s anything akin to this ground of being in Mormonism.
He starts out with Alma 42:13 which can be read as suggesting justice is greater than God. He more or less makes the Euthypro dilemma where there must be something greater than God for God to be good. He then turns to the main classics of Mormon theology (D&C 76, 88, and 93) all of which have a nearly neoPlatonic like take on light. True light is synonymous with the light of truth or the light of Christ. He sees it as a kind of adoption theology where entities take up a loving relationship with others (their children). Brown sees this first as essentially hierarchal and especially genealogical and thus opposed to the flat ontology of network theologies like Adam Miller’s. The main difference from neoPlatonism is that instead of having a Chain of Being leading back to The One you have a genealogy going backwards of relations between individuals. (The traditional patriarchal order) Especially in Abraham 3 (and fac 2) the very notions of priesthood, governance, and power are seen in these hierarchal ways.
This True Light is thus both hierarchy and communication. What he argues is that the place of God as ground of being in traditional theology (roughly the ousia in the Trinity) is found in Joseph Smith’s theology as light. He then raises the question of the two types of matter in Joseph’s thought. (Regular matter and spirit or more fine matter) He asks whether light is matter for Joseph and suggests it is not. Elohim is the incarnation of this light.
A lot of the questions focused on the issue of names as well as some major Russian theologians I wasn’t that familiar with. (They sounded interesting but I was completely ignorant) This obviously has a lot to do with various issues like Brigham’s issues with Adam/God (or as most argue his mangling of these ideas) as well as how Enoch receives “corporate divinization and receives Gods name in the city as City of Holiness.”
My question was a bit different and more tied to his critique of Adam’s ontology. In Adam’s key texts it’s very clear he’s doing ontology. You have objects and an “event of grace” which ends with new objects and orientations. Brown’s main critique is that Adam avoids relationships. (This is common in OOO) I think that secular grace or a kind of Buddhist happening ends up taking their place. What Brown is doing is putting relationships back into Mormon ontology as foundational. Light takes this place.
The problem I have with Brown is that sometimes he’s clearly speaking ontologically. More often he’s speaking historically or genealogically. This seems like a fundamental problem in that it’s not clear what role Light has for him. (He does note that especially in Joseph’s riff on Johannine logos in D&C 93 that light fills that role) Brown responded that he knew he was being coy. I brought up the place of infinity as origin in say the neoPlatonism of the Kabbalists with the En-Sof and wondered if the endless regress of Gods played a similar role. He agreed it did. I confess I just don’t see how an endless regress of gods can possibly function as an ontological ground – especially if it has to ground each individual in the regress.
Others were speaking to him at the end and he’s an extremely busy fellow so I didn’t want to take his time. However there seems to be a fundamental problem here that I think Plato already brings up in the Timaeus. Fundamentally you have to have three components. First a source. Second a place (whether a divine emptying or an outright receptacle ala Plato’s Khora in the Timaeus) Finally you need an element of mediation. (Brown actually brought up the Platonic conception of the demiurge from the Timaeus as a worker or mediator suggesting that Elohim functions in this fashion)
Fundamentally the problem I have is that he overlooks some pretty fundamental ontological questions about time that I think mean his approach, as audacious as it is, won’t work. He wants light to simultaneously be place, origin of the filling, and mediation. I don’t think it works. In certain ways this ends up being pretty similar to a series of discussions Adam and I had on LDS-Phil discussing his secular grace as tied to the notion of Khora both in Plato’s Timaeus but also in Derrida. But that’s going down a rat hole and I’ll not bore you with that discussion.
I really do hope Brown works these ideas out. I think it clear there is a strong neoplatonic component to Joseph’s work. I think light is a key ontological notion for him. I just don’t think relations can do the work he needs them to do.