Transcendence in Mormonism

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.

Borrowing the vocabulary of Jean Wahl (1887-1974) and Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), Levinas differentiates the transcendence of the other person from the transcendence of ordinary entities by speaking of our experience of the former as transascendence. In the experience of transascendence we find ourselves drawn out of ourselves toward and by someone infinitely higher, someone to whom we are indebted and obligated, and someone by whom we are judged. The other person is the figure of the transcendent God toward whom we transascend.

How, then, does the transcendence of God differ from that of other persons if God is himself an intelligence like me? In the language of Mormonism, every other eternal intelligence transcends me. But my transascendence toward any other intelligence is made possible only by God. Though he is "of the same species" as we (intelligence), he differs from all other intelligences in that he brings the rest of us into spiritual and then mortal life. Though he does not create intelligences ex nihilo in the traditional sense of the phrase, as persons intelligences are nothing without his creative act. Without that act, they would remain the analogue of mere "matter" (cf. D&C 131:7), not yet a me or an I, except potentially. That we are human souls—body and spirit (cf. D&C 88:15)—is a consequence of his divine grace.

Thus God creates us from outside ourselves and from a doubled infinite distance: he is infinitely distant from us in the same way that any other intelligence is, but the distance between us and him is also the infinite distance between the ones who are brought into life and the One who brings them. Neither of those distances can be undone, not even when a person attains the fullness of God's image. That person will always remain someone created by God. For Mormons, as for traditional Christianity, the Creator-creature distinction makes God divinely transcendent of us, even though we deny ex nihilo creation.

3/11/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Speaking Silence
  • Doctrine
  • Ontology
  • Transcendence
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.
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