The Formation of the Gods

The Formation of the Gods June 18, 2009

I have suggested before in more oblique ways that the humanist account of the stable subject is at odds with Mormon doctrine of divinization, and in this way Mormonism has more in common with the psychoanalytic account of the formation of the subject and the Foucaultian/Althusserian account of subjectivation. I’d like to explore in brief more of this argument.

One popular way of expressing the Mormon view of the self is that the human spirit, or soul, or intelligence (the precise distinction between these terms varies) is “eternal” and in this way there is something durable about its identity as a self, a subject. In the drama of human becoming, there are traces of what came before in each successive stage which ensures the continuity of the subject. We speak of children as being closer to God, inhabiting a space where the veil is thinner, and in this way we imagine that the child is the same being that existed before. The differences between the successive stages of human existence are reduced to the type of body that one inhabits, whether a spirit body, physical body, or resurrected body. Yet in all cases the subject that inhabits that body is the same. This narrative of the eternal subject coincides with a certain account of freedom, where the subject is existentially free to act. Just as the existence of the subject qua subject is eternal, so also the freedom that this subject possesses is eternal.

At the same time, we acknowledge that the subject goes through radical transformations, especially epistemic transformations, in each of the different stages. One knows differently in the pre-existence, but also in the age of innocence, and different bodily and historical factors qualify one’s freedom in accepted ways. But the subject is not only aware differently in different stages, but also develops, comes into being, and different kinds of beings, in time. In this way, we must confront the ways in which the subject comes into being, qua subject. Both the psychoanalytic and Foucaultian discourses have attempted to offer an account of this process (Judith Bulter’s The Psychic Life of Power is an attempt to read them both together, which I find compelling). Such a view offers an account of power as productive, necessary to the bringing about of the subject. Mormonism (and Christianity to a lesser extent) offers a similar view, seeing the subjection of the self to God as the precondition for ultimate freedom, where freedom is an effect of subjection rather than its opposite. This antihumanist message of post-modern and psychoanalytic discourse is shared by premodern Christianity in general, which was the target of the humanist revolution in the Enlightenment.

Mormonism’s account of the development of the human subject as one which must develop, as well as its relationship to authority, thus finds a kindred spirit in the antihumanist accounts of the formation of the subject, most obviously because it actually acknowledges such a formation. The kind of philosophical work needed to explore this connection remains to be done, but I am hopeful that someone will be able to take it up.

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