I had a very interesting email discussion with Sam Brown about my sermon "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life." I am grateful for Sam's willingness to have me post that discussion here and his help in putting together the edited version of that discussion below. To see the text of the sermon, in addition to this link to the text of "Teleotheism and the Purpose" of Life," you can also find it by googling the word "teleotheism." Alternatively, there is a video of me delivering the sermon at "Live: Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life."
Sam: I’m working on a theology book, and am grappling a bit with emergentism, within which “teleotheism” may play a role as an alternative framing for the phenomenon of interest. When I google that phrase, it mostly comes back to a sermon you preached a few years back. It seems to have developed a currency among some Mormon intellectuals, but I can’t tell whether that’s a term you coined or whether it has a longer pedigree. Primarily, I’m wanting to know how best to cite it.
Miles: It is great that you are doing a book on theology. I am delighted that other Mormons are talking about teleotheism. Are they aware of my sermon "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life?
I did not coin the term. I give its origins in my post "Leaving a Legacy." There I write:
As for the origin and history of the word "Teleotheism," when I wrote the Unitarian-Universalist sermon "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life," I googled to find the preexisting word "Teleotheism" from the bvio.com post "Talk:-ism."
I should note that I have sections for religion posts and inspirational posts before 2017 in my organized bibliography of key posts. From 2017 on, my "Religion, Humanities & Science" subblog is the best place to to find them.
There is a sense in which "teleotheism" as I use the term doesn't amount to much of a theology. It boils down to saying "Let's build something wonderful and call it God." I have been most interested in teleotheism as an approach to homiletics and devotion (e.g., my post "The Book of Uncommon Prayer") for unbelievers, within an assumption of nonsupernaturalism.
In addition to my sermons, you might be especially interested in "What If Jesus Was Really Resurrected?" and "The Teleotheistic Achievement of the New Testament."
Sam: I think it fits well with a somewhat religious existentialism that leans on the emergence theologies in an echo of process theologies. In a modern secularist register, it’s a new take on Swedenborg’s Maximus Homo (and, frankly, the zodiacal body that it gently remembers). While I’m personally a somewhat classical theist, I think theist and non-theist alike could benefit from thinking about the beautiful things/processes/realities/phenomena that can come into being as we work together in tender mutual regard. I think Mormonism provides a useful backbone for many of those meditations across the spectrum of belief. My inference from my own googling and your response is that you’re really the popularizer of that term. Other than that odd list of -theisms, I really don’t see it used elsewhere. So I’m going to call it a Miles Kimball thing, unless you object. I’ll cite that main sermon of yours on the topic.
Miles: Thanks, Sam. That sounds great. A footnote that I got the term from a list is sufficient for accuracy. I am honored if I am the popularizer.
By the way, I definitely think of my teleotheism as coming from my Mormon roots. It is obviously influenced by the idea of eternal progression. Also, there is the question of where the first gods came from, which is obviously raised by the succession of gods implied by Mormon theology. I addressed that most directly in "What If Jesus Was Really Resurrected?"
Even "nonsupernaturalism" is a way that many Mormons think of their theology: "God acts according to natural law." I am saying that, but identifying my posited natural law more closely with the currently believed laws of physics: What Do You Mean by "Supernatural"?
Sam: Thanks. Yeah, I'm playing with these ideas in an essay that's in press at Dialogue. I argue that the True Light is Smith's take on this question. I think this is more than Spinozist Law, even as I agree with you that many Mormons have been surprisingly Spinozist in their interpretation of it.
Fascinating sets of questions.
Miles: The sense in which I am still a believer in Mormonism is this: I believe Mormonism has an important teleotheistic role to play. Mormonisms's flaws, such as its treatment of women, gays and intellectuals, are counteracted by other powerful forces in our culture. Mormonism's strengths, such as those I write about in
- How Conservative Mormon America Avoided the Fate of Conservative White America
- The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists
- Inside Mormonism: The Home Teachers Come Over
are not that easy to find in full elsewhere. These strengths of Mormonism are an important part of building Zion, just as equality for women, acceptance of sexual diversity and respecting vigorous debate from all corners as a key part of the process for discovering truth are important parts of building Zion.
Sam: I am afraid I didn't get curious about the origins of “teleotheism” until after the Dialogue piece was already in galleys. I'll incorporate reference to your sermon into the book, though. I appreciate the thoughtful work you've done in this area.
By the way, I wonder whether you have read Richard Kearney's God Who May Be. Seems like it might be apropos here. Also, Adam Miller's book Future Mormon basically does a variant of teleotheism in a framework he borrows from Bruno Latour. I’m not sure what you think of Latour (I confess that I'm unpersuaded), but may be of interest.
Miles: Those sound interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.
Sam: I've done some more thinking about this topic in the meantime that has made me more skeptical of the rigor and explanatory utility of teleotheism.
Miles: Remember that I myself wrote to you:
There is a sense in which teleotheism as I use the term doesn't amount to much of a theology. It boils down to saying "Let's build something wonderful and call it God."
I have been most interested in teleotheism as an approach to homiletics and devotion (e.g. https://blog.supplysideliberal.com/post/95610279811/the-book-of-uncommon-prayer ) for unbelievers, within an assumption of nonsupernaturalism.
I doubt your view of teleotheism is more skeptical than that!
Sam: I should have mentioned that I think teleotheism is probably the best of the truly materialist options, so in saying I doubt the horse can run, I'm probably making a broader claim than just that teleotheism is inadequate (at least insofar as it's a purely materialist proposal).