Last post I tried to disentangle and nail down the type of intellectualism which is not compatible with Mormonism. Briefly, Mormonism is not against us being good at using our intellect nor is it against us enjoying using our intellect for various purposes. What Mormonism is against, however, is us believing, speaking or acting as if our intellect were the universal and indispensable judge of what we ought to believe, say or do. Whereas the intellectual holds that the unexamined life is not worth living, the faithful Mormon places little importance in knowing the reasons for doing some things, save the Lord hath commanded it. Having articulated a Mormon perspective on intellectualism, I would now like to switch gears and articulate the intellectual perspective on Mormonism. While I will eventually argue in future posts that intellectualism fiercely rejects priesthood authority, in this post I want to show the compatibility of intellectualism with prophecy.
Let me first be clear about what I mean by “prophecy”. By “prophecy” I mean any interaction, acquaintance or communication with the supernatural realm. This will include all types of revelation, inspiration, miracles as well as all other gifts of the spirit. Importantly, “prophecy” refers to a relationship with the divine that – in principle – any one of us can enjoy. It is my contention that while many intellectuals might be somewhat uncomfortable with prophecy, there is no principled and irresolvable tension between the two.
Before I move onto why intellectuals do not intrinsically object to prophecy, I want to rehash what I take to be the essential characteristics of those who take the intellect to be the ultimate judge of all that we belief, say and do. The intellectual holds that reason and experience (abilities and activities which are open to everybody in principle) sit in judgment of tradition and authority (positions and structures which are not open to everybody), but not the other way around. The legitimacy of reason/experience is universal and indispensable; that of tradition/authority is not. The intellectual is thus someone who is indoctrinated with the culture of critical discourse (CCD):
“[CCD] insists that any assertion – about anything, by anyone – is open to criticism and that, if challenged, no assertion can be defended by invoking someone’s authority. It forbids a reference to a speaker’s position in society (or reliance upon his personal character) in order to justify or refute his claims… Under the scrutiny of the culture of critical discourse, all claims to truth are in principle now equal, and traditional authorities are now stripped of their special right to define social reality… The CCD … demands the right to sit in judgment over all claims, regardless of who makes them…
“CCD requires that all speakers must be treated as sociologically equal in evaluating their speech. Considerations of race, class, sex, creed, wealth, or power in society may not be taken into account in judging a speaker’s contentions and a special effort is made to guard against their intrusion on critical judgment. The CCD, then, suspects that all traditional social differentiations may be subversive of reason and critical judgment and thus facilitate a critical examination of establishment claims. It distances intellectuals from them and prevents elite views from becoming an unchallenged, conventional wisdom.” (Against Fragmentation: The Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals 30-31, Alvin Gouldner)
The reason why I like Gouldner’s definition so much is that it is so similar to the version of intellectualism that Mormonism rejects. There is no mention of intellectual abilities, interests or activities. Rather, his definition focuses on what the intellectual accepts as the ultimate source of legitimacy and how beliefs, words and deeds are to be justified once they are called into question. Gouldner, I suggest, accurately pinpoints the very kinds of intellectualism which Mormonism rejects. This post, however, is not about those aspects of intellectualism that Mormonism rejects, but is instead about those aspects of Mormonism that intellectualism accepts.
This leads me to the second reason why I like Gouldner’s definition so much: it is broad enough to encompass virtually all types of intellectuals within it. This intellectualism has nothing to do with “the two cultures”, how “hard” some science is or whether some person describes themselves as an academic, Marxist, Darwinist or (importantly) a naturalist. Such distinctions within intellectualism only serve to distract us from the question at hand by allowing Mormon intellectuals to assume that scriptural attacks are always aimed at somebody else (more about this below). The intellectuals which Gouldner, the scriptures and myself are all referring to thus include a wide range of professions, hobbies and interests including physicists, biologists, sociologists, journalists, lawyers, bloggers, protesters, etc. Most importantly, our definition of intellectuals includes many people with a strong faith in prophecy as I have defined it.
I would suggest, then, that prophecy is not much of a scandal to intellectualism except in that it makes many claims practically difficult to vet through the use of reason/experience. So long as there is nothing which in principle prevents prophecy from being vetted or constrained by some kind of public process of reason/experience, the Mormon intellectual can rather easily accommodate it within their faith. This thought process is especially seducing within certain strands of Mormonism which see no ontological distinction between the natural and supernatural, maintaining that all perceived miracles can ultimately be cashed out in terms of the practical difficulties of the vetting process. To be sure, the practical difficulties of applying public reason/experience to prophecy do make many intellectuals a little aloof towards it, but there is no principled contradiction between the two.
Let me now describe the prophetic intellectual in greater detail so as to get a little more comfortable with the idea that intellectualism is not intrinsically hostile to prophecy. The prophetic intellectual will tend to place a strong emphasis on those sources of legitimacy within Mormonism that are democratic in nature, a category which clearly includes prophecy as I have defined it. Indeed, the democratic nature of prophecy is extremely important to the Mormon intellectual, for it is this which allows not only every belief, word and deed to stand before the public tribunal of reason/experience, but also every authority figure and time-honored tradition as well.
Thus, on the one hand the prophetic intellectual will quote Moses: “Would God that all the Lords people were Prophets.” In this way they will accentuate the fact that we all have equal access to the same prophetic experiences which are to be systematized through the proper use of reason. On the other hand, the intellectual will also quote Brigham Young: “The greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.” In this way they will accentuate the fact that no person’s access to or interpretation of these prophetic experiences is beyond the systematic corrigibility of public reason.
At this point, however, I do not wish to pass judgment regarding the virtues and vices of the prophetic intellectual. Instead, I wish to more fully articulate the consistency between prophecy and intellectualism in a way that the prophetic intellectual can identify with. As mentioned above, the prophetic intellectual sees no principled difference between prophetic phenomena and the many other unique but unambiguously natural events which intellectuals are able to tolerate or accept within their worldview. If any belief, word or deed within Mormonism is called into question, the prophetic intellectual strives to answer that question not by appealing to tradition/authority, but by seeking, pondering and praying – aka more reason/experience. In this way the prophetic intellectual is able to have just as much (if not more!) faith as anybody else in the beliefs, words and deeds that the Lord (rather than His servants) deems worthy. This is exactly what makes this kind of Mormon so prophetic. This, however, also allows such people to use their reasoned interpretation of prophetic experiences to stand in judgment of all authorities and traditions within the church. This is what makes this kind of Mormon so intellectual.
This last point needs to be further unpacked a bit, for prophetic intellectuals do not typically see reason/experience as the standard against which tradition/authority is to be measured and judged, for this makes their intellectualism far too conspicuous. From their perspective, the standard against which tradition/authority is measured and judged is God/Truth. By very definition the intellectual sees reason/experience as being universal and indispensable ways of engaging reality. Accordingly, the prophetic intellectual sees reason/experience as the only way in which we could ever possibly get to God/Truth. Consequently, the prophetic intellectual insists that the crucial tension lies not between tradition/authority and reason/experience, but between our reasoned interpretations of our experience with tradition/authority and our reasoned interpretations of our experience with God/Truth. Thus, the prophetic intellectual insists that it is not reason/experience, but God/Truth alone which constrains his beliefs, words and deeds. In other words, the prophetic intellectual construes their rejection of tradition/authority in terms of a devotion to the higher principles of God/Truth.
Ironically, then, the very hegemony of reason/experience is exactly what makes it invisible to the prophetic intellectual. By making it the universal and indispensable way in which we are obliged to engage reality, reason/experience becomes both ubiquitous and indiscernible to the prophetic intellectual not unlike the air around them. The perceived necessity of reason/experience is exactly what places its legitimacy beyond question: reason/experience uncritically become the mental tools/values according to which all other mental tools/values are prioritized and integrated. This invisibility of reason/experience is thus what makes the transformation of the tension between tradition/authority and reason/experience into a tension between the former and God/Truth so seamless for the prophetic intellectual. From their perspective, reason/experience is not engaged in any battle at all, but is instead the battlefield on which God/Truth and tradition/authority engage each other.
Finally, the ubiquity and indiscernibility of reason/experience to the prophetic intellectual is also what makes anti-intellectualism so difficult to clearly identify within the scriptures. Since reason/experience is universal and indispensable, prophetic intellectuals are forced construe the scriptures as condemning some other form of intellectualism or as not condemning any kind of intellectualism at all. Thus, the prophetic intellectual will attempt to drown out scriptural passages that are clearly and consistently anti-intellectual in the cultural or hegemonic sense that I have been using with scriptural passages that are clearly pro-intellectual in some other and unrelated sense. More concretely, when the scriptures clearly state that we should not rely upon – or at times actively reject reason/experience, the prophetic intellectual will typically change the subject to how much God does want to us be smart, educated and prophetic. In this way the consistency between intellectualism and prophecy is preserved or even reinforced.
In summary, I have argued within this post that there is no principled incompatibility between intellectualism and prophecy. The belief in the universal access to prophetic experiences is what makes such Mormons so prophetic. The belief that all interpretations of such prophetic experiences are fallible is what makes such Mormons so intellectual. For the intellectual, the universality and indispensability of reason/experience which defines them is exactly what makes reason/experience invisible to them. This invisibility of reason/experience serves two purposes: First, it obscures anti-intellectualism within the scriptures. Second, it allows the intellectuals to transform any tension between reason/experience and tradition/authority into a tension between God/Truth and tradition/authority. With this transformation in place, the prophetic intellectual is able to reconstrue their rebellion from tradition/authority in terms of a higher allegiance to God/Truth. Consequently, whatever discord the Mormon intellectual might feel towards the tradition/authority they see around them, they strongly embrace the prophetic elements which they see at the heart of their religion.