(P)recap. The purpose of this series on intellectuals within Mormonism is bring the analytic tools of intellectualism against itself so as to help Mormon intellectuals recognize and perhaps second guess the choices that they actively make when they unnecessarily place themselves at odds with the church leadership. To review, the first post identified the specific kind of intellectualism which the scriptures warn us against. Briefly, the intellectual will be the person who holds that:
Any speech act can legitimately be called into question by any person, at any time and that a legitimate answer to that question cannot invoke any person’s position within society.
In the second post I articulated the ways in which Mormon intellectuals will not only tolerate, but actively embrace prophecy within their worldview. In summary, the Mormon intellectual has no trouble negotiating a kind of compatibility between their intellectualism and their prophetic religion, since all doctrines can still be called into question and subsequently (dis)confirmed by God at any time. In this way, the position which priesthood leaders have taken on any given issue becomes largely irrelevant to the position which Mormon intellectuals will take on the same issue.
While the Mormon intellectual can fully embrace the first leg upon which Mormonism stands (prophecy), he will have serious difficulties embracing the other leg: priesthood authority. In this post I want to articulate the tensions that exist between intellectualism and priesthood authority, for I believe it is these that are the primary source of contention between the former and Mormonism.
Priesthood Authority Defined. In order to better nail down the tension between intellectualism (as I have defined it above) and Mormonism as a culture imbued with priesthood authority it will be essential to describe the latter in similar terms as the former. We will, therefore, not attempt to give a complete description or theory of priesthood authority, but will instead focus on those aspects of it that most illuminate its tensions with intellectualism. Thus, Mormonism as a priesthood organization holds that:
Speech acts that have been legitimized by priesthood authority cannot legitimately be called into question by some persons, at some times and that invoking a person’s priesthood position within Mormon society is a legitimate answer to any such question.
In other words, a person’s priesthood authority just is a legitimate answer to some questions and as such is in direct contradiction to the values of intellectualism. On the one hand, intellectualism is largely defined by every person’s ability to legitimately keep debate open on any subject. On the other hand, priesthood authority is largely defined by the ability of a uniquely chosen few to legitimately end debate on some positions and policies.
While this ability to have the last word within the various contexts is precisely what sets the priesthood holder apart from his peers and is what makes him the leader that the rest of us are supposed to follow, this “setting apart” is also that which the intellectual finds so offensive about such authority. It is the priesthood, then, and not prophecy which most scandalizes the intellectual, for it is at the very core of the intellectuals’ culture to resist anything and everything which says that certain questions, answers and other speech acts belong exclusively to a small subset of uniquely authorized individuals within any larger group.
Other Authority Figures. This definition of priesthood authority may sound somewhat harsh and heavy-handed when phrased in these intellectual terms, but it is not too difficult to unpack the role of other authority figures in similar terms. Consider the roles of parent, judge, military officer, king, boss or coach. In each case, a person is uniquely authorized to end debate regarding certain positions and policies for some larger group. If you question/criticize a coach, you will sit on the bench and if question/criticize a military officer, you will be peeling a lot of potatoes. If you question/criticize a judge you will merely be held in contempt, but if you question/criticize your king you can sometimes be convicted of treason. Questioning/criticizing your boss is called insubordination and what parent or guardian hasn’t eventually fallen back on “because I said so” as a way of dissuading insolence? It may be that the intellectual reader sees many of these positions of authority as being crass or in some sense beneath the higher ways which God wants for His church. In reply, I would remind such a reader that God has often described Himself in these very same terms and positions of authority.
By way of contrast, let us consider some non-hierarchical communities which banish positions of authority in favor of an organization which is more compatible with the values of the intellectual. The salons of the Enlightenment, reading groups, letters to the editor, blogging communities and to a limited degree academia would all be models according to which the intellectual would rather conceptualize the Lord’s church. Unfortunately, such communities bear a far more striking resemblance to Protestant churches, churches which are based in their rejection of priesthood authority, than they do to the Mormon Church. The opening section of Joseph Smith’s History clearly articulates the Lord’s feelings regarding such communities.
Prophecy and Priesthood. In the last post, I argued that the intellectual was able to fully embrace prophecy since the tension between it and intellectualism are practical rather than principled in nature. In principle, we all have access to the same natural and supernatural experiences which in turn makes us all equally capable and qualified to ask and answer certain questions. From a believing intellectual’s perspective, both prophecy and intellectualism reinforce their belief that social position is irrelevant to the (dis)confirmation of any position or policy.
Whereas the tension between intellectualism and prophecy can be dissolved within the practical difficulties of vetting speech acts, the deeper tension which exists between intellectualism and priesthood authority lies in the fact that these are two very different and incompatible ways of vetting or constraining speech acts. While the former tension can be dissolved, in principle, by somehow overcoming various practical constraints, the latter tension cannot be resolved by any amount of practical effort. This is due to the fact that while the relationship between intellectualism and prophecy is a question of how we are to practically go about vetting statements according to agreed-upon rules, the relationship between intellectualism and priesthood is a question about which rules are to be those according to which we must properly vet such statements. One is a question about how to practically apply accepted standards, while the other is about which standards we are to accept.
I hope that I have not given the impression that I am calling the Mormon intellectual’s testimony into question. I really do mean it when I say that the believing intellectual fully accepts the prophecy of Mormonism as legitimate. It is for this reason that the Mormon intellectual will struggle so much with and actively repress or disguise the dissonance that they feel with the church as a priesthood organization. This strong faith in prophecy is precisely what sets the Mormon intellectuals apart from their uncomprehending non-Mormon peers.
Priesthood and Credibility. One of the ways in which the Mormon intellectual will commonly gloss or even actively repress the dissonance that they feel with the church is through a shift in the meanings of various words and concepts. An important example would be that while the intellectuals and the scriptures will speak of “authorities” on this or that subject, the meaning of this word differs drastically between these traditions. For the intellectual, it is the abilities and ideas of a speaker rather than their ordination or social position that qualify somebody as an authority. Within Mormonism, however, it is the ordination and social position of the speaker rather than their abilities or ideas than legitimate them as an authority.
The intellectual will commonly speak of various authorities which they accept on various subjects and it is because of that person’s credibility regarding such subjects that they will do so. In other words, the intellectual authority is competent enough to be treated as a useful default position in some subject. It must be acknowledged, however, that the real authority here lies not in the person or their social position, but in the ideas and words that they able to speak as answers to certain questions. This is unsurprising since our definition of intellectualism insists that all questions must ultimately be answered without invoking a person’s social position in any way.
Whereas intellectualism accepts a person’s authority because of their credibility, Mormonism reverses this by accepting the credibility of somebody on some subject because of their authority. In other words, the priesthood leader’s ordination confers legitimacy to their speech acts with little regard for their competence on the relevant subject. This tradition sees things exactly opposite of intellectualism in that a priesthood leader’s words carry authority because of who is speaking rather than the other way around. Furthermore, since invoking the priesthood leader’s social position is sufficient to answer questions, and since their social position is typically beyond question, the non-intellectual Mormon sees little, if any legitimate space to call the priesthood leader’s speech acts into question.
These differences in what it means to be an authority also shift the relationship between the discovery of and the justification for various positions and policies. The intellectual draws a sharp distinction between the discovery of and the justification for a position. From their perspective, even though a person cannot play any role whatsoever in the process of justification, they can still be treated as an authority figure in the process of discovery. The Mormon Church, however, sees no important difference between the discovery of and the justification for a position in that the very fact that an idea came from the proper priesthood authority itself constitutes a valid justification for that idea.
Priesthood and Loyalty. (A big hat tip to LDSPhilosopher throughout most of this post, but especially in this section.) The very different ways in which each mindset goes about legitimizing various speech acts also suggests that the loyalties of each group also lie in different places. The loyalty of the intellectual is not so much to individual persons, but to the abstract ideas/doctrines which constitute a legitimate answer to some question. From their perspective, we should be loyal to priesthood leaders only to the degree that the proper doctrine legitimizes such loyalty. Within this mindset, the arguments by which doctrines are related to each other and to us are very important and will usually take the form of universal and necessary principles to which there are no exceptions.
The loyalty of the non-intellectual Mormon, however, is not so much to any abstract idea or doctrine, but to the priesthood position of those who authoritatively endorse such things. In direct opposition to the intellectual, they insist that we should advocate and defend various positions and policies only to the degree that the proper priesthood leaders have legitimized them. Within this mindset it is not timeless arguments, but the lineage/genealogy of any position and the priesthood authority that backs it along with how these relate to us that is of the utmost import. In this way, it is not universal and necessary principles, but particular and contingent events which confer legitimacy to positions and policies.
These differences can readily be seen in various speech patterns throughout the bloggernacle. On the one hand, the intellectual shows their intense loyalty to universal doctrines by encouraging objectivity and following the arguments wherever they may lead. They are, however, rather suspicious of loyalty to priesthood leaders in their condemnation of credulity and blind obedience. On the other side of this same coin, the non-intellectual Mormon shows their loyalty to priesthood holders by singing the praises of obedience and testimony affirmation while remaining suspicious of abstract ideas, doctrines and other such philosophies of men. One side accuses the other of falling on the wrong side of the Euthyphro dilemma by arbitrarily placing the loyalty to a particular man above that to doctrine. The other accuses the other of falling on the wrong side of that same dilemma by placing the loyalty to particular doctrines above that to the universal priesthood authority. Put another way, one side sees the fallibility of our leaders in terms of their imperfect relationship to various doctrines and believing too little or too much while the other side sees this fallibility in terms of their imperfect relationship to the rest of the church by giving too little or too much direction.
Apostasy Defined. Given that the intellectual Mormons’ true loyalties lie with various doctrines while the non-intellectual Mormons’ lie with their priesthood leaders, it is natural to think that the former sees apostasy as disloyalty to certain doctrines which are to govern certain aspects of our lives while the latter sees it as disloyalty to certain persons which have been properly authorized to govern certain aspects of our lives. This latter disloyalty to the authority of social position is not altogether different from rebellion to hierarchical authorities in other contexts: insubordination, contempt, insolence, treason, etc. In all such cases, “because He/She/I said so” is not being treated as the legitimate reason for compliance that it is supposed to be. Such cases stand is stark contrast to the case of Adam who we are told was compliant for no reason other than that the Lord had commanded it. That was good enough for him.
There are, however, two subtle ways in which intellectual Mormons unwittingly tend to apostatize by consistently rebelling against priesthood authority. The first would be asking for or expecting the reason or justification for a position or policy, something which should not to be confused with merely receiving any such reason or justification which has been freely offered by our priesthood leaders of their own accord. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with a priesthood leader explaining some position or policy to us in order to help us do our jobs properly. On the other hand, when we ask for or require a reason or justification for some position or policy – something Adam clearly did not do – we tacitly acknowledge that the priesthood authority does not, in fact, legitimize such positions and policies on its own. To be sure, the ideal model for all authority figures will certainly give us some reasons or justifications as they see fit, but to require a king, judge, boss, parent, coach, military officer, etc. to explain themselves to our own satisfaction clearly betrays a contempt for their authority.
The second way in which the intellectual can unknowing engage in apostasy (a way which will be met with even greater resistance) consists in going over their priesthood leader’s head in a way which delegitimizes that leader’s authority. This is obviously the wrong thing to do within the work place or in a military context, and there are few things more annoying than having one’s kids go to the other parent after receiving an answer that they did not like from the first parent. In all such situations there are ways to legitimately appeal positions and policies that we are struggling with and the Mormon Church is no different. Going about it, however, in a way which pits two authority figures against each other, thereby undermining the authority of at least one of them shows a marked disloyalty to priesthood authority and thus is a form of apostasy.
Personal Revelation. By far, the most common way in which Mormon intellectuals subtly undermine priesthood authority is under the guise of personal revelation – that aspect of Mormonism which they fully embrace. This usually happens when an intellectual disagrees with a priesthood leader and then seeks personal revelation in a way which pits God/truth against that priesthood leader. Rest assured, this strategy has played a central role in all too many apostates’ departure from the church and is, again, based in a subtle shift in meaning.
Because of the Mormon intellectuals’ hostility toward all authority of social position, they find themselves compelled to construe personal revelation as a one-on-one relationship between God/intellectual. At the heart of this view of personal revelation is the notion that ideas are the true source of legitimacy and that God and only God has full and perfect access to all true ideas. All other priesthood leaders only have imperfect access to some of these true ideas and are thus less credible and therefore less authoritatively binding on the intellectual. Thus priesthood leaders can thus be safely ignored or at least temporarily sidelined in the intellectuals’ quest for truth.
The nonintellectual, by contrast, refuses to undermine the authority of their priesthood leaders and thus sees personal revelation as an attempt to triangulate, negotiate and harmonize the three relationships which exist between God/himself, himself/priesthood-leaders and priesthood-leaders/God. The non-intellectual Mormon will thus seek guidance and direction in their lives in a way which does not undermine the relationships which exist between himself/priesthood leaders and priesthood leaders/God. This is very different from the intellectuals who take little notice, let alone responsibility for these other relationships.
Recap. The tensions which exist between intellectualism and the church as a priesthood organization are deep-seated and unavoidable. There can be no harmonizing compatibility between the two mindsets since each one just is a contradiction of the other. Priesthood authority consists in the ability of a uniquely ordained few to have the last word on various subjects, while intellectualism consists in a strong rejection of this very ability. Whereas the non-intellectual Mormon will construe credibility, loyalty, fallibility and apostasy in terms of the genealogies and relationships which exist between people, the intellectual Mormon will see such things in terms of the arguments and logical consistencies which exist between ideas and principles. Because of the different meanings which each mindset brings to these terms, the intellectual Mormon will often find themselves being accused by non-intellectuals of apostasy for words and actions that are praised within intellectual circles. In order to avoid this censure which will always come from the priesthood organization, the intellectual Mormon has a strong incentive to repress or disguise all such shifts in meaning.