On earth as it is in heaven: more on social construction

On earth as it is in heaven: more on social construction June 28, 2013

I wanted to add a postscript to yesterday’s post. I suggested yesterday that the plan of salvation as it is currently taught, that is as a comprehensive three-act progress of the soul, is a good example of the way that church teachings are built. Using suggestions and gestures gathered from scripture, we harmonize, systematize, elaborate, and infer — guided, we hope by inspiration — until we arrive at application-ready religious precepts capable of guiding our modern lives and choices. For me, this is a feature, not a bug in the process of religion-making.

The post-script is this: there’s a double process of social construction at work in the LDS plan of salvation. There’s the ongoing human project of interpreting and preserving scripture that I describe above. But the restoration scriptures we use as our raw materials suggest, perhaps, an analogous divine project of social construction. We generally talk about divine law as if it were absolute and unchanging, inherent in the basic nature of the universe. And indeed there is a strand of Mormon thought that can be read in that way — the notion that God himself is bound by eternal laws that exist outside and independent of his creative will. The puzzle then becomes how we are to discern the true, unchanging divine law beneath the changeable flotsam and jetsam of human culture as we consider the evolution of LDS teachings over time.

But there’s another possible reading of LDS scripture, namely that the only unchanging law of the unive rse is that meaning is socially made.  This seems to me a plausible inference from D&C 121:30-32:

[I]f there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—

All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—

According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was.

If we take this scripture seriously, we have to conclude that the basic contours of temporality were determined by committee — that is, in a process of negotiation, discussion, persuasion, and relationality. In a process of social construction, in other words.

Eliza R. Snow seems to have been working from this idea in her verses:

To understand the first, the moving cause–

Councils, decrees, organizations, laws,

Form’d by the Gods pertaining to this earth

Ere your great Father from their courts came forth.

In this scenario, divine law is not an eternal reality that has always existed because that’s just the way it is.  Snow seems to have understood the “moving cause” of divine law to be a social context — a council of Gods, working jointly to “form” or make the ideas that govern our lives. Not so very different, in the end, from a church curriculum committee or a ward council.

It may be that social construction is not just a necessary evil of living on this side of the veil, just an unwholesome scum that must be skimmed off the living water before we can drink from the true gospel. It may be that it’s social construction all the way down.

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