Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Mormons are the original ‘romantic theologians”

October 16th, 2015 by Bruce Charlton

Christian theology has typically been a path of negation, denial, asceticism, celibacy – but that there was also a (neglected) path focused on romantic love, art and poetry, richness of imagery etc.

But it is hard to see how these could be equal, since they are so different – alternatives, yes, but in real life one or other of such vastly different paths is surely to be preferred; one or another must become the focus of societal aspiration and organization – one cannot aim both at being a celibate, solitary ascetic hermit or monk; and also at being a husband and father engaged with ‘the world’.

Mormonism has for a long time been advocating and practicing something pretty close to Positive Theology: a Christian ‘way’ focused on marriage, family and engagement and with no tradition of monasticism or the eremitic (reclusive) life.

Fundamentally I believe there are very different aspects of human psychology at work behind the positive and negative paths. The negative path aims at the relief of suffering, and the positive path at making life more fulfilling.

To feel the desire for the Christian negative path seems to me a desire to escape the sufferings of this world and live, instead, in a state of static bliss – absorbed in a permanent communion with God (who is, in essence, an abstract entity about which nothing positive may be asserted): doing nothing, simply being.

In the negative path, Love is seen as a sameness, a fusion of wills, the loss of barriers and all strangeness. And there is no sex – indeed there are no sexes: maleness and femaleness are lost.

To desire the positive path is to wish that the best things in life be amplified and sustained – it also stems from the concern that static bliss would (sooner or later) become boring; and the conviction that the only thing which is not, ultimately, boring is actual, real, other-persons.

The dyadic goal of Mormon exaltation can be seen in this light – the ultimate bliss is not the state of an individual soul in permanent communion with God, it is a man and woman in a permanent and divine Loving relationship at the centre of a network of loving relationships including God the Father and Jesus Christ (who are solid persons).

The difference between this version of the positive ideal and the negative ideal is profound – because in a permanent and eternal dyadic and sexual relationship between husband and wife, there would not be a desire for fusion and sameness but rather a delight in fundamental and complementary difference.

Edited from: http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/positive-and-negative-theology.html

Comments (8)
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October 16th, 2015 04:50:19
8 comments

JKC
October 16, 2015

“one cannot aim both at being a celibate, solitary ascetic hermit or monk; and also at being a husband and father engaged with ‘the world’”

I’m not so sure. Maybe not at the same time, and not in an absolute sense, but surely one can find one or the other path more fulfilling at different times of life, or maybe even at the same time, in different aspects of life.

One might wish to withdraw from the world when it comes to certain evils of popular culture, while at the same time wishing to engage the world to bring about much good when it comes to amplifying those good parts of our culture.

In the same way, I think we can wish for fusion and delight in sameness with respect to those aspects in which we truly are the same (one heart, one mind), and long for communion with God (distinct individuals among whom exists a perfect, surpassing unity) while also delighting in complementary difference.

Which is to say that I agree with your critique of negative theology, but find it to be a bit of strawman. I think there is a place for both the positive and the negative path.


Agellius
October 16, 2015

I resent the characterization of the traditional Christian way of life as “the negative path”. (I don’t really resent it, it’s just a figure of speech. : )

Only a small minority of the Church is occupied in the celibate and ascetical way of life, and only a small part of the Church calendar is devoted to practices of self-denial, as a corrective to sensuousness. The rest of the people, the rest of the time, when not occupied with work or caring for their families, or with leisure time, are expected to spend their time in prayer, contemplation and works of charity.

As for an eternity of the Beatific Vision becoming a bore, for me, it’s easier to imagine being bored with physical activity for all eternity. After all there are only so many things we can do with our bodies; five senses, and a limited number of ways in which to please them. I would take an eternity of unimpeded intellectual contemplation over an eternity of physicality any day.

Yet traditional Christianity doesn’t deny the existence of the physical in eternity either; after all, our bodies will be resurrected and we will be physically present and interacting with each other both physically and mentally. The only essential difference I can see is that in the orthodox conception of heaven, we can be as close to any and every other person in heaven, as we are with our spouses on earth, since we will be free of the limitations of time and space. If you want to spend an eternity with your spouse you can (but talk about getting bored! ; ), and if you then then want to spend another eternity with your best friend, you can do that too. And after you’ve spent an eternity with all 20 billion people in heaven, you can start all over with your wife again. It’s very difficult for me to see where the boredom comes in.


Zen
October 16, 2015

Great post Bruce!
We do have some ascetical elements, but they don’t dominate. We do fast and tithe, but on the other hand, we do look at the positive aspects of those things as well. Giving things up as a part of the repentance process is also negative, at least until you can see the positive side to it.

Come to think of it, every negative thing is really a positive thing as you become more sanctified and we are encouraged to focus on the positive aspects of it.


Agellius
October 16, 2015

Precisely.


Bruce Charlton
October 17, 2015

Thanks for the comments. The original post was referring to this Positive/ Negative distinction which I read in Charles Williams way back in the 1980s when I was an English Lit graduate a student and trying (sort of) to become a Christian via the Liberal route (my mentor Don Cupitt!), reading quite a lot of theology (I subscribed to Blackfriars Magazine (the English Dominican’s mag) and sporadically attending the college chapel and nearby Durham Cathedral…

Anyway, it didn’t work – and I didn’t become a Christian for another 20 years; but Positive/ Romantic Theology was something I have thought about on and off since – the justification for this distinction is in Charles Williams essays in Image of the City or his books like He Came Down from Heaven and Descent of the Dove (and the posthumous Romantic Theology).

A few years ago I read Fr Seraphim Rose and briefly began to prepare to become Russian Orthodox – and at that time, if you read my blog c 2010-2011, I fully accepted the Via Negative as being the ideal – that the ideal was celibate, ascetic monasticism (and for the most spiritually advance – only) the hermit’s life (ths phase typically lasting some twenty years or more)… before returning to the world to teach and be a spiritual adviser.

So the goal is to become a Saint, and the kind of Saint to become is an ascetic wonder worker (whose miraculous powers and use of them are both a sign and a valuable thing in itself), the great English example is St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.

My sense is that this flows quite naturally from classical theology, especially the Platonic strand.

This is, of course, Eastern catholic; the Western catholic practice has been much more various, with less emphasis on asceticism.

But the fact that in the Catholic world all the major spiritual authorities are celibate is highly significant to society as a whole – so long as that society is indeed thoroughly religious: it affects almost everything indirectly.

Clearly the richness and variety of the Byzantine Empire or Medieval Europe shows that other avenues are not blocked – but it does make a huge difference nonetheless.

The desire for a different hierarchy of ideals was one of the driving forces behind the Reformation – which became horribly distorted into vandalism, torture, destruction and war – but which also had some delightful fruits, for example the Church of England’s vision (and for a while reality) of each family as a mini church presided over by a benign father.

Everything needed for this was in the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version of the Bible – and the intention was that the father would each day preside over family morning prayer (Matins) and evening prayer (Evensong) – which had elements which were the same each day, with Biblical readings which took the reader through the whole of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament in a cycle.

(This was intended to be in-between the weekly cycle of church services, including Holy Communion, on a Sunday.)

I just mention this as an example of a very different vision of the good life than the celibate ascetic tradition – but it was only briefly attained, a hard balance to keep, and never comprehensive – there were too many contradictions in the theology and the Church of England quite quickly lapsed into laxity leading to the Nonconformist and Evangelical revivals which had a different model again.

So here is a problem with the Positive way – it can be too much like the world, and lacks a focus for the extremely devout – it does not scale the heights of human spirituality. the multiple demands on the practitioner tend to make him the kind of person who is good at manages a complex and busy life, rather than the kind of person who focuses his life.

My sense is that the Positive way is best for the majority of people, and is the way that society should be set-up – but there are a minority who are ‘called’ to the Negative way – perhaps for the whole of their lives, or perhaps at the beginning or the end of their adult lives. Ideally they should have also some institutional provision, support, supervision etc – something like a monastery.

A daydream under present conditions… but just indicative of how a religious society has to choose one or another bias as its general form of organization and goal: what is taught, what gets prime status – but can make provision for ‘minority’ perspectives although these will inevitably (and overall rightly) be regarded as a second-best or fall-back position by the majority.


Bookslinger
October 17, 2015

Missions are somewhat ascetic, almost monastic, for a short season. The only outsiders that full-time missionaries are supposed to interact with are investigators and contacts. Meals are to be taken only with missionary companions, other missionaries, members, and investigators. No media, no diversions except with other missionaries on Preparation Day. No phone calls with family or friends, except Mother’s Day and Christmas.

But after that, it’s come home, get married and start having babies as aoon as possible. And be worldly successful enough to live on a single income.


Andrew
October 19, 2015

Perhaps there would be some balance between the two, as embodied in Christ and His life here, that would be our ideal but escapes us as present.


Leo
October 19, 2015

Bookslinger,

All true. And senior missionaries serve as couples!

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