Transcendence in Mormonism
Obviously my inability to represent an entity totally doesn't mean that I cannot represent it adequately. Most of the time we do well enough, or better than well enough. It doesn't even mean that I never encounter things themselves. I can encounter a thing itself rather than only my conceptualization of it, and when I do I encounter it as overpowering, amazing, bedazzling: my experience is of something exceeding my understanding. I find myself in awe and wonder at things in their transcendence.
But even though I encounter transcendent things in the world, God is not merely one of those things. How does his transcendence differ in principle from the transcendence of worldly things? If it does not, then it is difficult to see how we can avoid idolatry.
To respond to that question, let me (once again) borrow from Emmanuel Levinas and what he says about persons, who transcend us differently than do other things. By analogy, understanding how persons transcend us can help us understand how God transcends us in more than merely magnitude.
Levinas argues that when I experience the other person as a person, she breaks through the sphere of my otherwise solitary, ego-centered, conceptual world. Most of the time I live in a world of my conceptualizations and representations. There everything is encountered as if my will and I were the center of the world: the merely ordinary world. Exposure to another person in herself disengages me from that world. As a person, the other person overflows my understanding of her as an object, as something I conceive of—and by overflowing my understanding she interrupts my consciousness. She reveals its limits. My encounter of her is more overpowering, amazing, and bedazzling than is any encounter of things—though what the word more means in this case at first seems difficult to decide.
Like my encounter with entities, my encounter with another person who overflows my idea of her reveals that I am finite. I have limits; there are others outside beyond me, my will, and my understanding. My encounter with the other person as person is an encounter with infinity—with what is beyond my limits.
But that is not enough to make the encounter with the other person a figure of my encounter with God, for it equally well describes my encounter with ordinary things. In this experience of being interrupted by another person, the other person is indissolubly other than me. Yet things can also be that. Besides being irreducible to my wants, needs, goals, intentions, or conceptions—as are the entities I encounter—the other person is someone to whom I am obligated: I must respond to the interruption she causes; her interruption of my will demands my recognition.
That demand is most obvious in language: I communicate with her to explain myself and it is for her to decide whether my explanation is adequate. Her judgment of what I say may consist only in "I understand" or "I don't understand," but it is a judgment that I must submit to if I speak and use reason. That is the substance of language.
The necessity of explanation—a relationship of obligation and being-under-judgment—is emblematic of my relationship with the other person. That is the essence of the experience of a person transcending me. The marks of obligation-to and being-under-judgment-by differentiate it from the experience of mere entities transcending me. Those marks are the more of her overflow, and in them the experience of the other person can figure the encounter with God.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.