What Does It Mean To Think in a Marrow Bone?

In one of my favorite poems, “A Prayer for Old Age,” W.B. Yeats writes:

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone.

Here Yeats makes the provocative claim that thinking is not restricted to the mind, and that the wise person is the one who is able to “think” deep in the interior of one’s bones.

How might one interpret this claim? What does it mean to think in a marrow-bone?

The first thing that comes to mind (er, bones?) is that thinking in a marrow bone is a way of being and thinking that runs against the grain of the mind-body dualism that is so pervasive in Western culture.

Mind-body dualism is the philosophy that mind and body are inherently separate from each other, the mind dealing with the “subjective” world and the body dealing with the “objective” world. Hence, we can divide the world into dichotomies of mind/brain, opinion/fact, spiritual/”temporal”, mental/physical, and so on. From this view, we are all trapped inside our own little subjective heads, and a detached reasoning (as exemplified by Rene Descartes) is the proper discerner of truth from error. Therefore, logical reasoning and scientific experimentation are the dualistic hallmarks of making sure that what we think “in here” (in our “biased” minds) reflects the way things really are “out there” (in the “real” world). In other words, there is an objective, “absolute” world that is the way it is, irrespective of what you or I think about it.

Mind-body dualism is very pervasive within the modernist worldview, not only to secular scientists and intellectuals, but also among well-intentioned people of faith, including Latter-day Saints. Many Mormons are quick to embrace “absolute” worldviews, in spite of the fact that such a view does not resonate very clearly with the standard works. Rather, this view appears to reflect much more about modernist ideals than it does gospel ideals, at least concerning the narratives and descriptions in our own scriptures.

Take, for example, certain Latter-day Saint conceptions of “law.” Some Mormons understand law in an absolute sense — law is some kind of mysterious force that is “out there” somewhere. From this view, “law” is not seen in a relational sense, as an invented construction of intelligent beings, but rather in an absolutist sense, as a reality that is “out there” independent of what anyone, including God, has to say or think about it. Now, of course, there is nothing in the scriptures that indisputably supports this kind of absolute thinking, nor is there anything from official pronouncements of Church doctrine from the First Presidency. Yet it is very common for Latter-day Saints to think this way about law.

What can be responsible for this kind of thinking? I believe the answer lies in the Western, Greek-inspired modernism that we have inherited, causing even the best among us, including a few of our leaders especially at the turn of the 20th Century (even General Authorities can have false interpretations, as history has shown), to interpret the gospel in a way that is at odds with other interpretations of the gospel that I would argue to be more consistent with scriptural narratives and with the the grand message of the Restoration. However, this argument is an enormous project and I unfortunately can’t spell it all out here. (I will be making a presentation at the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology this March in which I get a little more into this argument.)

In the past century, many philosophers have challenged the philosophy of mind-body dualism, leading to what might be termed the “postmodern” or “interpretive” turns in philosophy, science, and the humanities. Some of these philosophers, such as Sartre, took things way too far, in my opinion, advocating for a radical subjectivity and relativism. Other philosophers, however, obliterated the mind-body dualism without diminishing either the “real world” in which we live or our lived experiences in the world. One of these philosophers was Martin Heidegger, who argued that humans are primarily intimately living “in the world,” as opposed to being detached thinkers “of the world.” A fundamental maxim for Heidegger, then, can be expressed as the opposite of Descartes’ view. Rather than “I think, therefore I am,” Heidegger might have been inclined to say, “I am, therefore I think.” In other words, our “being” is something that is more fundamental to our thinking. Our “being-in-the-world” is one in which we are “one” with the world. When I use a hammer, for example, I do not think about the hammer in detached, propositional terms. The hammer is simply something I use, without even thinking much about it. It is only when the hammer is broken that I begin to play the “scientist” and think about the hammer in a sort of “detached” and “abstract” way. However, this detached way of thinking is not our fundamental way of being in the real world. The “real” world is the world of concrete things, the “abstract” world is the world of detached thoughts about those concrete things. Thus, the concrete way of being with my wife is a way in which I am intimately connected with her; the abstract way is a way in which I am thinking about her in a detached, impersonal way.

Concerning Mormon theology, we could say that the things that are most “real” are those things that are most concrete, especially our concrete relationships with God and others as well as the earth. Thus, the most truthful way of being-in-the-world is to be in an intimate relationship with God, not merely to think about Him in a detached impersonal manner. Note that it is this relational living that is primary, not an abstracted “law” about that living. Any “law” that we could think of would be secondary to the already-present, concrete, relational realities. Thus, there are not timeless laws “out there” somewhere, only real, concrete relationships “right here” and “right now.” This concrete reality does not exist irrespective of what we think about it because we are an inextricable part of it, as well as contributor to it.

For both man and God, thinking in a marrow-bone could reflect living a full, holistic life in which one’s whole self –bones and all — is in proper relationship with the entire heavenly race. The compelling concrete nature of such a relationship is underscored wonderfully in the LDS doctrine that God has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s. Thus, God’s world is a world that is perspectival, meaning that God has a certain perspective about the world, albeit one in which we can say that he knows “all things.” However, it would be incorrect to suggest that he can somehow escape his body in so knowing; rather, his knowing and thinking is all the more grand — and concrete — because of its embodied nature. Thus, not even God is “objective” in the sense that the dualist would set up the category. Nor is he “subjective” — he is a being that is intimately connected with the world, as we all are.

Perhaps we could think of God’s grandeur in terms of the grand being that he is, not that he can somehow escape that being to have an “absolute” view of reality. So likewise do we become more as God as we have His law written on our hearts, as the scriptures teach. In this sense, the “law” is neither entirely “in here” (subjective) nor is it “out there” (objective); rather it is “right here” in the sense that it is simply who we are and how we are in relationship to God and others.

The analogy of the marrow bone also carries with it important scriptural imagery. In Proverbs we read, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones” (3:5-8; also see D&C 89:18). Here trust in the Lord has to do with one’s heart, navel, and bones, not to “thine own understanding,” which we might characterize as “those thoughts men think in the mind alone.” Moreover, the “health to thy navel” and “marrow to thy bones” can be seen as the essential traits as those who sing “a lasting song.”

From the Adam and Eve story, we read of how Eve is created from Adam’s rib, after which Adam proclaimed, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:23-24). Here we see how “thinking in a marrow-bone” could reflect the intimate understanding and unspoken affection between wife and husband, not only in mortality but for all eternity as embodied, marrow-boned lovers.

The marrow of a bone is essential to live; in mortality, bone marrow is responsible for creating red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. Thus, it is an essential live-springing material. Now, Joseph Smith taught that resurrected beings have bodies of flesh and bone, but not blood. In the place of blood is “spirit.” Thus, is it possible that the marrow in one’s bone also has an essential life-giving property in terms of the “spirit” that sustains eternal, resurrected beings? Interesting question. At any rate, I think we can talk about “thinking in a marrow bone” as related to the “spiritual thinking” that is intricately connected with both our bodies and our spirits. This type of thinking is thus not “in the mind alone,” but is one that must occur in our minds and our hearts, so to speak. Or, in a manner of speaking, in the marrow of our bones.

I named this blog “Thinking in a Marrow Bone” with the hope that it could serve as a forum in which people can talk about very intellectual topics, but in a way that strives to avoid the mind-body dualism that is so pervasive in our society (or at least I am going to strive to). (Click here to read more about the goals of this blog.)

When we consider the embodied nature of man and God, and the way in which we intimately live in the world, we would be wise to pray, as did Yeats, for God to “guard us from those thoughts men think in the mind alone.”

And may each of us sing “a lasting song,” even “the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26), deep in the marrow of our bones.

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5 Responses

  1. Dennis, you are delving into very deep and meaningful symbolic connections within the scriptures and beyond. I especially like your connection between wisdom and the blessing of “marrow to the bones” promised in Proverbs 3, as well as how you bring in the Garden of Eden. Both these passages relate to how the Lord provides us with life (and renews and perpetuates life) and helps us to love and create good relationships with others (which is, in itself, a source of eternal life).
    Both marital love and wisdom are described as powers granted to us from the Lord to which we should cleave. Proverbs describes that that the Lord created the earth through his power of wisdom (3:19), for example. It is through following in the Lord’s ways that we gain wisdom (esp. verse 5-6).In Proverbs 3, wisdom is personified as a woman whose “ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” She is also a “tree of life to them that lay hold upon her.” Wisdom must be cleaved to because she is “life to the soul” and leads men to have “grace” and live in service to other people (3:21-22, 27-28). Thus, wisdom is a source of life from the Lord that we are exhorted to seek diligently. It makes sense then that one of the blesses it brings is “marrow to the bones,” suggesting blessings of life given directly to the body (even in resurrection).
    This “life-giving” quality of wisdom as a gift from the Lord is also found in marriage. Adam and Eve’s marriage and power to procreate were blessings given to them from the Lord in creation. This was the first sacred union between a man and a woman, and the one from which all human life would spring. When Adam describes Eve as “bone of his bones,” this seems to suggest not only the deep spiritual and physical union between them, but perhaps also the great source of life that this union would bring. It is interesting that while the Lord’s wisdom is personified in Proverbs, in the Garden of Eden narrative, Adam cleaves to a real woman, who becomes a source of life in a different way. In both marriage and in seeking wisdom, we are in relationship with the Lord and relying on Him as the source of life. Eve, acknowledges, for example, that she receives her children from the Lord.
    Ultimately, you can tie my description of both references “bones” back to the fundamental quality of bones that you describe– that they are actually sources of life to our bodies.

  2. “However, this detached way of thinking is not our fundamental way of being in the real world. The “real” world is the world of concrete things, the “abstract” world is the world of detached thoughts about those concrete things. Thus, the concrete way of being with my wife is a way in which I am intimately connected with her; the abstract way is a way in which I am thinking about her in a detached, impersonal way.”

    So is it wrong that I’m always thinking of my wife and son in terms of reinforcement history?

  3. Speaking of Decartes, rejecting a mind-body dualism also means rejecting some rather rediculus ideas of what sin is. When the savior says that whosoever lusteth after a woman have committed adultery in his heart, he probably wasn’t talking about this mind-body dualism. I beleive he was speaking in hyperbole. Hyperbole is a kind of limit expression(langauge that shows the limits of langauge’s ability to express.) As such he was really trying to provoke our contemplation while confounding his enemies. In such contemplation we are able to see the possiblity of another world. In this case, a world in which we observe that the nature of sin is more complicated than we previously thought. Entering this world inevitably changes us. People can learn that the act of sin begins long before the overt physical content of sin(taking act and content in the continental sense.)

    From this view the savior wasn’t perposing a new category of “mind” sin similar to “thought crime” in Orson Well’s book, 1984. My own view is that sin is more a way we relate to and are postured immorally toward the world rather than a dictomony of immoral physical acts and mental intentions.

    Speaking of “thought crime,” I think that “hate crimes” are the craziest laws we have in this country. When people are convicted of murder…etc, intention is already considered in their conviction. Why then should we further prosecute them for their intentions alone? In this seperation of physical violence from intent(the seperation of the body from the mind), are we next to prosecute people who merely think violently? Perhaps Big Brother will be running for president for life soon.

  4. This is a great comment, Clayton

  5. Thank you for posting this. I found the Yeats poem in a book on Catholicism and discovered a deeper understanding in your blog on Mormonism. From this I infer that, way down deep, our faiths have found a match in the Universal Spiritual Marrow Donor Program.

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