The Promise of Genealogy

Genealogy is central to Mormon practice and identity. Coincidentally, genealogy is central to postmodern philosophy in the strain from Nietzsche to Foucault . This coincidence leads us to examine the relationship between these two understandings of genealogy. They are not as unrelated as they might initially appear.

Genealogy is important because it establishes a history, a connection between the past and the present, as well as the future. As a practice, genealogy forces us to consider where we came from and how we got to where we are. We examine the good and the bad in our history, the inspiring and the less so. We do so not only to redeem those in our past, but also to gain a sense of who we are. Our past has explanatory value about for our present. In our reconstructions of our past, we are often struck by both the radical contingency our our very existence, so much so that divine guidance and direction seem the best possible explanation for how we got to be where we are.

This radical contingency is cause for reflection about the radical contingency of all things around us. Nietzsche had the same reaction, not only to his own radical contingency, but to the contingency of the things that were considered to be the most foundational, namely, morality itself. He suggests that morality has a history, one that can be critiqued and reformulated. Foucault continued this project, suggesting that the very notion of the self, sexuality, and other foundational notions of modernity are all produced in history.

The complicated issue that genealogy raises for Mormons is that it lies in tension with another fundamental concept in Mormonism, that truth does not actually have a history. In this view, truth is eternal and not subject to a genealogy. This notion is expressed in our mythology by describing the Gospel as the “same,” without a genealogy, in every dispensation. We often have a longing for a history which doesn’t change, a “restoration” of a pristine truth untarnished by history.

I am not sure that both views can be sustained in Mormonism. This tension marks the boundary between the modernist impulses of Mormonism, and its postmodern potentiality. Either, genealogy and history are fundamental, or truth is eternal. Fortunately, there is another strain in Mormon thought that sees truth in a genealogy. The notion of continual revelation relies on this genealogical conception of truth, that it has a history and adapts in time and circumstance.

  • Secco

    Seems like Mormonism happily sustains both views (perhaps too happily IMHO). It’s easy to find dogmatic statements that we have the truth (“most correct,” etc.). And that we wait for “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom” to be revealed. So we can be smug no matter what :-). No need for Nietzchean angst in Happy Valley, right?

    I’d like to think that there is more to Mormonism than this smugness… not sure that until one struggles with understanding truth that transcending certainty is possible — or confronting enormous personal tragedy that calls into question previously certain views. A tough price to pay for transcendence.

  • Mark D.

    If you read “eternal” in the sense of “of God”, the problem largely goes away. Divine direction and guidance doesn’t need to be the same from decade to decade. Even the most fundamental principles, such as the plan of salvation, do not need to be timeless.

    If they were, it is hard to see how God could have had anything to do with them. Either God authored the plan of salvation or it is some sort of Platonic ideal that he had nothing to do with.

    The only truths that can be properly be considered timeless are non-incidental natural truths. Unlike conventional Christian theology, no consistent Mormon theology ever confuses God and nature – not in the Greek sense of the term anyway.

    In the tradition of rational Mormonism, God is all potentia ordinata – God acts and ordains in the context of time. There is no potentia absoluta about him. This the the inevitable consequence of the rejection of ex nihilo creation.


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