Postponing Heaven

The Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi

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Jad Hatem
Groundwork: studies in theory and Scripture
  • Provo, UT: 
    Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
    , November
     2015.
     110 pages.
     $15.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780842528672.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Translated from the original French into English by Jonathon Penny, this latest book by Jad Hatem, Postponing Heaven: The Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi, is both original and important. Hatem has taken a unique approach in his comparative study of “messianic” notions by examining the similarities of those found in Mormonism, Buddhism, and Islam. This is important, as it draws attention to different, non-traditional concepts of “messianicity.”

Though not well known outside of scholarly circles, Christianity and other world religions—especially early Judaism and the Dead Sea sect—have always acknowledged the existence of several “human” messiahs and even a plurality of messianic concepts. In his work, Hatem draws attention to three distinctive concepts of “messianicity,” namely Mormonism’s Three Nephites, Buddhism’s Bodhisattva, and Islam’s Mahdi, and notes the one trait they have in common—their goal to “postpone Heaven,” and through this sacrifice, prolong their lives for the benefit of mankind. “Human Messianicity” is defined by the author as “the disposition to desire to save others” as an “existential” part of the ethical constitution of being human (1). In that sense, it deviates from what is classically understood to be messianic—that which is found in the canonical sources of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—yet, at the same, time picks up one of the central aspects of classical messianism, namely its ethical component. In Hatem’s view, it is precisely this messianic ethic, along with it’s mystical component, that comprises one of the two main sources of religion. Having thus redefined “messianicity” philosophically as potentially central to all religion, he can then move on to comparing the different realizations of it within Mormonism, Mahāyāna Buddhism, and Twelver Shi’ism. Here, Hatem arrives at a common trait, one that rests in the desires of these respective “messiah figures” to save others by sacrificing themselves, and more, their desire for prolonged life—which is not the same as immortality—so they may benefit humanity. Hatem convincingly illustrates how this is the case with the three Nephites of Mormonism, the Mahdi of Shi’ism, as well as the Bodhisattva of Buddhism, analyzing numerous primary, and often apocryphal, sources for his thesis. His conclusions are relatable to the texts about a Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah, as well as the concept of a suffering Messiah from the New Testament (the Passion Narrative) and Rabbinic Judaism (Babylonian Talmud). However, Hatem does not achieve this through textual dependency, or even tradition history, but subtly, on the level of existential history, which was the point the author wanted to prove in the first place.

Apart from the Foreword, a Translator's Preface, and the Introduction, Postponing Heaven consists of six chapters and three appendices, the last consisting of an interview between Hatem and Latter-day Saint philosopher James E. Faulconer. Postponing Heaven is the first book in the Maxwell Institute’s new series, Groundwork: Studies in Theory and Scripture, and is an important contribution to comparative religious studies. It is a contemporary study of three quite different religious traditions by an erudite author who possesses deep knowledge and understanding of these religions, demonstrating to the reader what they have in common and what one can learn from that. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gerbern S. Oegema is Professor of Biblical Studies and Director at the Center for Research on Religion at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jad Hatem is a professor of philosophy, literature, and religion at St Joseph s University in Beirut, Lebanon, where he has taught since 1976. He has served as the chair of the philosophy department at the university, as also the director of the Centre d etudes Michel Henry. He is the author of dozens of books. Among his most recent publications are Quie est la vérité? (Hermann, 2012), L Amour comme puissance et comme vérité (Éditions du Cygne, 2012), and Un bruit d avoir été (Orizons, 2014). The translator Dr. Jonathon Penny is a published poet and scholar of letters, whose work examines the intersection of theology and literature in surprising ways and places. He has taught at universities in the United States, Canada, and the Middle East.

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