Sunday, March 21, 2004

(a) belonging to the emperor (b) embalmed (c) tame (d) sucking pigs (e) sirens (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs... 

by steve cannon
Today's Priesthood lesson promoted genealogy and vicarious ordinance work. The topic only provides two interesting topics for discussion (that I could think of). First, the mystical vicarious ordinances, which are powerful theological concepts and really only yield to purely religious reasoning; Second the creation and consumption of family history for its own sake, which yields to more secular analysis.

I. Vicarious work

First, vicarious work. I spent some time wondering what is the mechanism by which vicarious ordinances work. It turns out that Heber J. Grant correctly reduced that problem to just an extension of another big theological question -- the mechanism of the atonement. He says,

"The world asks, how can that be, that one can be baptized for another? But if we believe in the vicarious work of Christ, we must believe that one can do work for another, and that we also may become 'saviors upon Mount Zion.'"

True enough. That's a convincing argument. Once you've accepted the atonement, our own vicarious work seems very reasonable. That is particularly true given our view that humans can progress to be Gods. That still leaves the mystery of the mechanism of Christ's atonement. I'm never able to make much progress understanding how it works. Skousen's "A Personal Search for the Meaning of the Atonement" has the benefit of acknowledging the problem, but his solution no redeeming qualities. (I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I've read his boneheaded writing, but we all have our skeletons.) I find it useful to make it explicit that we have no idea why either kind of vicarious work is necessary or effective.

II. History

Part two is the real implications of "turning the hearts of the children to the fathers." To me, family history is the real modern heir of history in the sense of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things. That book, inspired by the classification of animals of my title (which Borges quotes from a fictional Chinese encyclopedia) explains the transition from the logical classifications of the eighteenth century to the functional classification of the nineteenth century. He treats three examples. 1. Language: general grammar to phonetics and syntax. 2. Natural History: classification of species to biology 3. Money: Analysis of wealth to economics. It's classic structuralism and postmodernism and social theory of the Continental kind.

I'm not a postmodernist because I believe that many things are not subjective -- particulary physics, biology and chemistry. But postmodernism certainly scores some direct hits when it comes to history, sociology, and economics. The history of wars and great men and a historical narrative thread (postmodernists call it meta-narrative) is unconvincing. First, it's difficult to create a theory of history that is useful, meaning it successfully predicts. For a dramatic example see the predictive failure of Hegel/Marx. And even if one of these predictive theories turns out to work, which one. Second, ignoring the experience of the average person leads to unethical rhetorical uses of history. For example, consider the historical justification for the recent Russian economic shock therapy and the state in which it's left Russians.

If family history were given value starting today, in a few hundred years we'd have a much better history. We'd focus on individuals. So in my mind family history is the new history. The great men and wars or history of ideas is just fuzzy background. It seems to me the church's focus on dates and heredity naturally expands to include stories and narrative and that that in turn changes the way we think about history for the better.

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