Book Review: Postponing Heaven

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Hatem, Jad. Postponing Heaven: The Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi. Translated by Jonathon Penny. Provo UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2015.

BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute recently re-published a work by Lebanese philosopher Jad Hatem: Postponing Heaven: Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi. The book was originally published in French in 2007 but gained the attention of Jim Faulconer at a conference in Romania. This new edition has been translated by Jonathon Penny and published by BYU.

As Faulconer explains:

By analyzing the story of the Three Nephites, and especially by comparing it to similar beliefs in Buddhism and Islam, Jad Hatem shows us one way of thinking about the Book of Mormon: it has profound ethical and soteriological teaching about the necessity of self-sacrifice.1

The book is short (a mere 100 pages), concise, and well-written. And, while Hatem’s specific theses can be difficult to pin down, it is clear he has a command of the subject matter and is able to draw comparisons with non-Christian traditions in a way that will enrich any theological or ethical examination of the Book of Mormon text.

Hatem introduces the concept of what he calls “’human messianicity’ by which [Hatem means] the disposition to desire to save others.” Further, “human messianicity is part of the ethical constitution of human being and therefore finds expression in both ordinary and exceptional situations.”2 Hatem contrasts this with religionists who “have only performed good works as a requirement for achieving the immortality they covet for themselves” and therefore “compassion is just a means for them” whereas “for the human messiah, blessing others is the end.”3

Hatem then identifies and discusses three diverse religious traditions wherein human messianicity plays a central role: the Three Nephites of the Book of Mormon, the Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, and the Mahdi of Islam. All of these share a common trait: they have, are, or will, postpone their own salvation for the purpose of helping others achieve the same. All have taken vows (of one sort or another) which represent “an obligation to which one contracts oneself from the moment of total deployment of conscience or consciousness, as a gift of self.”4 These are vows squarely rooted in the human world meant “to benefit those who live inside history” while the vows themselves “[require] an infinite duration of time.”

Throughout thematic chapters Hatem explores and compares these various traditions. The Three Nephites are distinguished by their proselytism, the Bodhisattva by mysticism and the Mahdi by his undeniable “holy presence” in the world. As each function distinctly as human messiahs, the central goal of brining salvation, liberation, and peace to others is ever-present.5

While discussing the Three Nephites specifically, and Mormon theology generally, Hatem draws not only on canonical sources but also examines these themes as expressed by LDS writers including Bruce Dana and Orson Scott Card to demonstrate how these messianic themes can be found in both Mormon theological and literary expression. In a chapter entitled “Lehi’s Axiom” — a chapter I think will be of particular interest to Mormons — Hatem leverages 2 Nephi 2 as a framework to explore the central role opposition (moral and political) plays within the soteriolology and eschatology of Buddhism, Mormonism, and Islam.

Hatem’s work is not without fault. Hatem relies, for example, almost exclusively on Tibetan or Tibetan-influenced writings on Bodhisattvas.6 He also — not surprisingly of course — puts forth a Western, dualistic analysis of texts firmly rooted in a strict non-dual cosmology. The result is a missed opportunity. Mahayana Bodhisattva traditions are expansive and varied and had Hatem engaged some of these other views — especially Northern Mahayana traditions — there would have been even more opportunity to draw parallels between the lived religious experience of everyday Mormons and practicing Buddhists.7 Hatem’s work is anchored on the supernatural nature of human messianicity. However, in addition to the analysis of the supernatural and eschatological nature of human messianicity, I believe there is much more to be said about how every Mormon, Buddhist, and Muslim — working through the trials of a sinful and deluded human condition — are also engaged as human messiahs as this messianicity is not strictly reserved for supernatural or quasi-supernatural beings.8

Postponing Heaven is an excellent example of how religious “outsiders” can be influenced by the message and themes of the Book of Mormon. Hatem gives Mormon theology, history, and literature very serious consideration and demonstrates its richness by comparing it to Islamic and Buddhist traditions. This is a serious and valuable book; one that demonstrates the importance of comparative religious studies. Hatem, a non-Mormon, has made an important theological and ethical contribution to the field which any student of Mormonism will find both interesting and insightful.

  1. pg. xii ↩︎
  2. pg. 1 ↩︎
  3. pg. 3 ↩︎
  4. pg. 29 ↩︎
  5. Chapter 3 ↩︎
  6. Full disclosure: As a practitioner of Soto Zen Buddhism, I am partial to more earth-bound, less heavenly views of the Bodhisattva. ↩︎
  7. I hope to explore this further in a future post. ↩︎
  8. For example, LDS temple work is a form of human messianicity as is the regular meditation practice of Mahayana Buddhists. ↩︎

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