Ontological Revelation

Paul Tillich drew a distinction between “ontological” reason and “technical” reason. Not being too picky here about what he meant, I’ve been wondering if one can make a distinction in revelation, particularly I’m thinking of Joseph Smith’s revelations and “near revelations.”[1]

Editing a few of JS’s sermons has been fun, exasperating and fascinating and sometimes utterly boring. Prophets who succeeded JS, pick what ever tradition you want, seem much less interested or able, to delve into what I lump under the rubric of “ontological revelation.” JS seemed fairly comfortable about discussing protology and eschatology in really new ways. LDS D&C 93, 88, 76, and others as well as concepts like priesthood (restoration) and temples are what I might call “ontological” if I can abuse the term. Most of his funeral sermons that survive with any detail were ontological.[2] He tended to feel rather comfortable breaking new ground, offering ideas that shockingly blasted away at some portions of classical Christianity, say.[3] Mormons might say that JS could do this because founders of dispensations have rather special fundamental insight that doesn’t get transferred. I think I agree with this in part, but I wouldn’t want to trap myself with it. Shutting God’s mouth for whatever reason seems like a mistake.

Now all this is not to say that ontological revelation is more important. Behavioral revelations like the word of wisdom or tithing certainly have great importance and for various wide ranging reasons.

That said, considering JS’s successors, ontological revelations are few and far between. Perhaps there are none at all. Ontological sermons are not so rare,[4] but they seem, if adventurous sometimes, more speculative. I think JS could and did speculate. But speaking from some perspective, I think it’s possible to tell when he may have been doing this-maybe. Meanwhile I believe JS’s ontological sermons go much deeper and are, well, a bit astonishing to me.[5] Things that broke new ground, like Adam-god/end of Adam-god or abolishing adoptive sealings that came after JS seem a bit like cold gravy in comparison. – I could be prejudiced.[6]

[1] I count some sermons here and some letters. In some sermons he claimed what he was preaching was revelatory, though not based on a published or written text. See note below.

[2] Possibly his sermon delivered at his brother’s funeral (Don Carlos Smith) is an exception. It’s hard to tell since Lyman Littlefield spent so much time in flowery praise of the remarks he didn’t bother to really tell us what was said. I think I count the Seymour Brunson sermon as ontological, baptism for the dead pushed the walls out of theology. The unevangelized dead constituted an issue full of angst for many non-Calvinists.

[3] It is interesting that some of the really shocking “ontological” stuff didn’t register with critics, and still doesn’t.

[4] You can certainly find them, Parley Pratt, his brother, Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Charles Penrose and others delivered them. But they lack a kind of revelatory force (for me) and seem like Bond-like licensed speculation for the most part.

[5] The two most famous are of course King Follett and the June 16, 1844 sermon (which is in the book by the way). But there are others too. JS’s ontological sermons are more persuasive to me, because I think he generally did not indulge in ontological homilies unless he felt he knew what he was talking about (i.e., there was a revelation, perhaps unwritten, backing it up). For example, handing out necessary existence to humans was not a speculation. And he preached on it a lot. Deification doctrines were preached a lot as well (and registered with his critics – but they should be “ontologically” much less offensive – ha!).

[6] By the very nature of the present LDS church one finds no ontological sermons in the general level public meetings. I don’t mean doctrines are not spoken of. Clearly they are. And they can be full of JS’s ontological background – consider Neal Maxwell for example. There is no impulse to ontological revelation. “It doesn’t effect your salvation” as my mom used to say. She was right I’m sure. But it’s fun. Meanwhile, keep to the manual will you?

3 Responses to Ontological Revelation

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Hm. I suppose by your use of “ontological” that you are suggesting that Joseph Smith was extraordinary in that he treated ontology in his sermons/revelations. I think you are correct that Joseph Smith was definitely radical in his ontology, though not systematized. I’m not sure that I agree, though, that ontology is no longer common. I would say that certain aspects of ontology, or better yet, cosmology, are a bit more rare. For example, the 1894 shift in the Law of Adoption which you mention is a shift in cosmology, but not necessarily a shift in ontology. I tend to think it was things like Adam-God and later strong personalities in mid-to-late twentieth century that perhaps cautioned church authorities against radical or authoritative cosmological sermonizing.

  2. boaporg says:

    Well, no ontological argument there… and it is certainly true that a kind of group caution developed, with approval schemes for general authority pubs. Roberts’ magnum opus as an important example and the filtering of JS’s sermons and Talmages Godhead paper being made official doctrine. But, sermonizing, extra tame. Not that I am wishing for a return to the 1860s. I suppose my only point was a thought about JS’s sermons. I was not trying to be too precise about the language. Remembering the Tillich thing just made me think there seemed to be a difference among the revelations and a similar difference between JS’s sermons and those of other presidents of the church.


  3. J. Stapley says:

    You know, in reconsidering the Tillich context, I think I agree with you more than my comment let on. I definitely agree with your comment #2. I also think that your point about “near revelations” is an important one. In one study that I am working on, one of Joseph Smith’s sermons was a foundational text for a hundred years. In the sermon he notes that it is “according to revelation.” I have come to call the sermon a revelation. It is more obviously so than some of what Orson Pratt included in the D&C.

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