This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for a very long time. Since I basically posted its main thesis over at BCC, I thought I’d finally elaborate a little.
Throughout the bloggernacle, I often come across some version of “the problem of interpretation” (PoI). The basic jist – heavily influenced by literary theory – is that the cultural conditioning and biases of the prophets act as a kind of barrier or interference between them and God. In other words, we can never be sure that they are interpreting God’s message correctly, thus giving us just enough wiggle room to pick and choose which of their teachings we will accept and which we will write off as “human fallibility.” Not only does this theory reinforce a “critical distance” between us and the prophets, it does this by inserting literary theorists and other such academics inside that distance, thus, intentionally or not, turning them into the semi-official interpreters of the living prophets. It should go without saying that this entire model runs counter to the gospel found within the scriptures.
Nevertheless, it is not entirely obvious where this line of thinking goes wrong. While the PoI is nowhere to be found within the scriptures, it does seem very intuitive to our modern minds. Within that same BCC thread, David Day articulates some of the ways in which we are trained to understand revelation and communication differently than those who lived even as recently as 200 years ago:
“After breakfast, I do not consult my hot chocolate mug for inspiration. But Joseph of Egypt might well have done so, and God may well have spoken to him that way because it was the cultural expectation. D&C 1:24 allows for just that kind of thing. Joseph Smith, his family, and the general culture of his day were generally much more broad in their conceptions of how God might communicate to them than we are today, by means of dreams and visions, but also by divining rods, seer stones, and other things.
“But I do think that Western post-Enlightenment culture which we all absorb from birth makes it difficult to maintain more than lip-service faith in revelation, so that the only means culturally left to us is either nearly-imperceptible “being moved on by the Spirit” or full-on divine/angelic visitation. (And even then, we might wonder about our sanity.)”
I think David is exactly right. As I have repeatedly noted, the Enlightenment thinkers – those who are primarily responsible for the political and academic environments which we now inhabit – were specifically aimed at sidelining any appeal to tradition, revelation or authority. Indeed, they essentially defined reason as the morally enforced rejection of such things, thus making reason (so construed) intrinsically hostile to Mormonism.
More on topic, post-Enlightenment thinkers have continually struggled with and reinterpreted the meanings of “subjectivity,” “meaning” and other such concepts that are central to the PoI. Thus, in his book, Social Epistemology, Steve Fuller notes how “modern” anthropologists have sought but often struggled to understand “primitive” societies on their own terms:
“One alleged case of the savage’s primitiveness was his inability to distinguish abstract concepts from concrete objects, as shown in his frequent conflation of talk about words (or concepts, the two will used be interchangeably) with talk about things. For example, a shaman might claim to be ‘thinking with animal parts’ in order to decipher a message from the gods, even though it looks to the anthropologist as though he is arranging those parts, which have already been assigned meanings…” (section 2.1)
The anthropologist’s mistaken model of how the shaman receives revelation is exactly that upon which the PoI is based. It assumes that revelation has a preassigned meaning that the prophet can – by making himself along with his cultural conditioning and biases as invisible as possible – perceive and then do his best to relay to the church. Fuller continues:
“The anthropologist is puzzled here because he is a transcendentalist, while the shaman and his community are naturalists. For the naturalist, no category mistake is committed in saying that thought is conducted with animal parts rather than with concepts or words. In contrast, the transcendentalist presumes that every use of an object must be mediated by a distinct set of concepts…” (section 2.1)
The PoI makes the transcendental assumption – largely influenced by Cartesian metaphysics – that minds and mental objects with meaning are of a “different category” than rocks, rods and animal parts. This, however, is a philosophical assumption that we can justifiably call into question. More plainly, the PoI assumes that Joseph Smith and his thoughts stand apart from and interpret a message rather than being a part of the message itself. What a naturalist like the tribal shaman would suggest, by contrast, is that the church literally communicates with God and is therefore thinking through Joseph Smith himself. Joseph Smith was not merely relaying a message that was essentially external to him. Rather, he along with his cultural conditioning and biases were themselves a central part of God’s message.
Fuller further articulates the different ways in which these two elements situate the “human elements” of prophecy:
“[T]he anthropologist focused on divination as a self-contained practice, and consequently found the shaman’s ad hoc reasoning about the animal parts … to complicate the implicit rules of divination for no apparent reason except to save the particular case. In contrast, the savages situated the shaman’s reasoning in a larger system of representation, namely, one which included not only the animal parts, but the shaman himself, as representings… One consequence of this move is to place more authority in the hands of the shaman over the interpretation of his own actions.” (Section 2.2)
All too common I see people presupposing the transcendental approach in which a prophet must do their best to place aside their own cultural conditioning in order to read a divine message and then do their best to relay this message to the church without further contaminating it. But God does not lead his church in spite of, but through the prophet and his cultural biases.
The assumptions which underlie the transcendentalist picture and the problems it produces are 1) optional, 2) historical late-comers and 3) nowhere to be found within the scriptures. The main point to take from this is not the naturalism is right, but that transcendentalism is wrong – or at least very optional. While I do think that the naturalistic approach described above is a better fit for the Mormon understanding of prophecy, I see little reason to go to the mat in defending it.
Edit: As a postscript, I wanted to explicitly connect the modern rise of transcendentalism with the Enlightenment rejection of authority. As noted by Fuller, the naturalists’ including the shaman within the message itself gives him a great deal of authority. Since he is internal to the message, this means that he – to some extent – is granted control over its content. This asymmetrical control over content is exactly the kind of authority that Enlightenment thinkers sought to subvert through their redefinitions of reality.