The Problem of Interpreting Revelation

January 15, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 5:38 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

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.


  1. The reason you struggle with this Jeff is that you have not personally received revelation. Inspiration and or spiritual witness perhaps but not revelation, had you received revelation you would understand that it is colored by one’s mortal biases.

    Comment by Howard — January 15, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

  2. Well, if you say so that’s good enough for me.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 15, 2016 @ 8:36 pm

  3. You’d make a good TBM!

    Comment by Howard — January 15, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

  4. The movie Willow, surprisingly, talks about this very thing in the relationship between Willow and the sorcerer of his village. Willow’s entire attempt to become a great sorcerer, in the end, is based upon him seeing himself as part of the message. It’s not the objective magic which he lacks, it’s accepting himself as the necessary subjective part.

    God is not struggling to work with us despite our weakness and mortality, any more than a master potter struggles to make a pot despite the clay, or a great developer develops software despite the language it is written in.

    Our weakness and biases are God’s medium for His great work. I used to hate my weaknesses, my inability to see pure objective truth, and to be molded into the closest possible representation of that truth. But we are God’s work, in our imperfections. Once I realized that, I was able to let go of my imperfections, let Him take control of purifying me, and accept myself as a tool in His hands.

    My biases became potential strengths, rather than weaknesses, just as taught in Ether. I was able to let God work through me as I was, rather than waste my time trying to become the perfectly unbiased tool. As I am, He is able to use me in ways He could never use a perfected being. Seeing that in my own children has shown me why we are His work and glory.

    Comment by SilverRain — January 16, 2016 @ 5:33 am

  5. It went on for some time as I was searching for this, because I wanted to be sure. We held a meeting of the Council of the Twelve [Apostles] in the temple on the regular day. We considered this very seriously and thoughtfully and prayerfully. I asked the Twelve not to go home when the time came. I said, ‘Now would you be willing to remain in the temple with us?’ And they were. I offered the final prayer and told the Lord if it wasn’t right, if He didn’t want this change to come in the Church that I would be true to it the rest of my life, and I’d fight the world against it if that’s what He wanted. We had this special prayer circle, then I knew the time had come. I had a great deal to fight, of course, myself largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life till my death and fight for it and defend it as it was. But this revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it.

    Spencer W. Kimball, Deseret News, Jan. 6, 1979

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 8:28 am

  6. Annnnd here comes a series of proof texts with little to no commentary that prove little, if anything at all.


    Did I ever say that revelation will always or even typically confirm a prophet’s prejudices? Indeed, does anybody actually defend such a thing? You really don’t think that the shaman ever receives messages that contradict some of his own prejudices?

    This isn’t even a very good illustration of the PoI. One could just as easily say that the cultural biases and pressures that had grown up around the sixties and seventies had conditioned the prophets to inaccurately interpret God’s message in favor of ordination. I have little doubt that some fundamentalists somewhere actually do (wrongly) believe this.

    This is what is so annoying about the PoI – it can be applied to absolutely anything and everything that we want to apply it to.


    I (partially) saddens me too say that I never actually made it through willow. Just wasn’t my thing. That said, your comparison seem spot on. :)

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 9:03 am

  7. So you agree, prophet prejudice is a factor in revelation.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 9:15 am

  8. I am always amused by folks who say that inspiration and witness aren’t revelations.

    Comment by Michael Towns — January 16, 2016 @ 9:18 am

  9. Michael,
    The point is inspiration, witness and revelation are three different things.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 9:20 am

  10. Howard,

    If you have an argument to make, let’s hear it. No more pontificating or proof texting. You merely reasserting the position that I took the time to argue against isn’t going to cut it.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 9:28 am

  11. Jeff, SWK admits he had to struggle with himself over this revelation. Isn’t this human nature? I think it is. Now let’s look at the current method of “revelation” as described by Hugh B. Brown:

    “(An idea) is submitted to the First Presidency and Twelve, thrashed out, discussed and rediscussed until it seems right. Then, kneeling together in a circle in the temple, they seek divine guidance and the president says, ‘I feel to say this is the will of the Lord.’ That becomes a revelation. It is usually not thought necessary to publish or proclaim it as such, but this is the way it happens.”

    So modern LDS “revelation” begins with a mortal idea that is submitted. It doesn’t apparently begin by God telling them what He wants. This is not the type of revelation that Joseph experienced as he dictated the D&C which created the restored church. These are very different methods. The HBB method describes men initiating and creating the content and presenting it to God for approval vs. God speaking His mind directly through Joseph! The HBB approach clearly carries more mortal bias because men are controlling the subject matter and content of the divine discussion and approaching God with multiple choice Magic 8 Ball type of questions. How many men (LDS prophets) would actually approach God with a request that strongly opposed their own strongly held bias? Few if any!

    This is why it’s a big mistake to conflate inspiration, witness and revelation even when all three are of God.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 9:50 am

  12. Love the “revelation” scare quotes, Howard. You’re a treasure.

    Comment by Michael Towns — January 16, 2016 @ 9:59 am

  13. “So modern LDS “revelation” begins with a mortal idea that is submitted. It doesn’t apparently begin by God telling them what He wants.”

    Hugh B. Brown’s description of the typical modern practice doesn’t exclude other revelatory modes. You are well aware of the story of Gordon B. Hinckley’s obtaining the idea for the Hong Kong temple. The process came through revelation. There are numerous other examples. Numerous.

    Comment by Michael Towns — January 16, 2016 @ 10:02 am

  14. Michael no scare involved I simply used quotes because using revelation without quotes conflates. I guess that conflation is hard for you to comprehend since I have to keep repeating it for you.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 10:04 am

  15. Michael I would love to see a description or evidence of those other revelatory modes PLEASE post them.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 10:06 am

  16. The Brethren talk about them all the time. I suggest going to:

    Comment by Michael Towns — January 16, 2016 @ 10:11 am

  17. Oh thanks so much Michael that’s a real time saver over scouring the entire internet.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 10:13 am

  18. Jeff: “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.”

    I see Joseph Smith saying this in his letter from liberty jail: “ignorance supe[r]stition and bigotry … like the torant of rain from the mountains that floods the most pure and christle stream with mire and dirt … obscures evrything that was clear” but “as time roles on may bring us to the fountain as clear as cristal and as pure as snow while all the filthiness flood wood and rubbish is left and purged out by the way.”

    “Ignorance, superstition, and bigotry” do get mixed with the pure revelation and it takes time for these things to get cleared away. The question is how do we know when it’s all cleared away?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 10:39 am

  19. Howard,

    How does any of what SKW says differ from the shaman and his tribe?

    All of your points seem completely orthogonal to the issue at hand. Nobody, I repeat, nobody is saying that human fallibility does not play any role whatsoever in the revelatory process. The question is whether God takes such fallibilities into account and thus builds them into the message or not.

    Transcendentalists and those who repeat the PoI seem to think that God is such the uncompromising idealist that he would never alter a message from its pristine purity, even if this means an all too predictable misinterpretation on the part of the prophets. The best we can hope for, by these lights, is that the prophet does their best to get themselves and their biases out of the way.

    The naturalist follows a much more Gadamerian line of reasoning that rejects the “prejudice against prejudice.” I also find support for this view in D&C 1:24:

    “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 10:57 am

  20. Jeff,

    If I understand right, the concern here is that anyone can come along and disagree with what the prophets say, chalk it up to interpretation/bias/etc. and pat themselves on the back as being faithful to ‘God’ or the ‘gospel’. Effectively putting themselves between God and the prophet.

    I think I see this, and feel that is often more than just a passive difference in method, but a necessary and intentional action. If the teachings of the church conflict with my ideology it cannot be that God and I disagree, it must be some problem with the messenger.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — January 16, 2016 @ 10:58 am

  21. Steve,

    One of the main differences between the two approaches that I outline is that the naturalist, unlike the transcendentalist, does not insist that a message needs to be clear to the prophet in order for it to do its job and be revelation to somebody else. Since the prophet is part of rather than a mere relay for the message, he does not need to actually understand it in order for it to be revelation to his followers.

    The only way that any person can understand what is and is not from God is through personal revelation. The transcendental approach sought desperately to establish an equality and consistency across all human beings by allowing only two trustworthy access points to God: the book of scripture and the book of nature, both of which were publicly available. Closely related, it is at least partially because the naturalistic approach abandons equality by placing the shaman above the others that the transcendentalist rejects it. According to the latter, there must be a message that is constant and (at least potentially) equally available/public to all people. Regardless of their social rank.

    While naturalism is not committed to different people taking different messages from one and the same process, it is much more open to it. This is where personal revelation comes in, in that a person can take revelation from a prophets actions even when the prophet himself might not perceive it as such. The PoI is very much geared toward the publication and critique of every prophetic experience in order to make the message public and objective. But a naturalist sees no reason for this.

    Edit: To expand a bit, the transcendental approach is almost non-negotiable if one is trying to establish a “science” of revelation (theology) or interpretation in general. But the rise of science was itself politically motivated – specifically geared toward sidelining the unequal claims to authority and revelation that are native to the naturalist’s approach. In other words, the naturalist rejects a science of revelation (theology) in the strongest terms.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 11:13 am

  22. Eric,

    That’s basically the point I want to make. The one point where I might push back is when you say, “that is often more than just a passive difference in method, but a necessary and intentional action.”

    I see no sharp line between these two options. We all choose one method rather than another according to the incentives which socially structure such a choice. (This is the motive for my historically situating the persons and motives responsible for transcendentalism.) Thus, the process is never fully passive, but nor do I think it is fully intentional within and under the conscious control of each and every individual.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 11:18 am

  23. Jeff,
    We’re living in a time of LDS revelatory famine, where a minor administrative change to younger missionaries is hailed as revelation! (How’s that working out btw?) This pales in comparison to the days of Joseph. God isn’t even given the opportunity to take such fallibilities into account and build them into the message because man is busy controlling the content of the infrequent communications asking only for approval. How can this be God’s mind on the subject when man limits God’s message to a simple yes/no?

    Be still and know that I am God is the opposite of being an *active* member or an active committee member. They need to listen to God more than they talk. The church and it’s leaders have lost the intensity of their spiritual connection with God and would benefit greatly from renewing it in place of the apologetic sophistry offered for it’s many weaknesses.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 11:20 am

  24. Howard (again!),

    Both the active approach and the passive one that you are so keen to disentangle from each other are perfectly compatible within the naturalistic approach of the shaman. Just repeating that claim over and over again does not make it any more relevant. Either show how it is relevant or just stop bringing it up.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 11:28 am

  25. “The only way that any person can understand what is and is not from God is through personal revelation.” Which leads us back to the old discussion: what do we do when our personal revelation runs counter to church policies? It seems that personal revelation has just as much potential (if not more even) to “Effectively put themselves between God and the prophet.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 11:33 am

  26. Jeff,
    Please explain how fallibilities are taken into account via God’s message when God’s message is limited to approve/disapprove for an idea that has been submitted.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 11:33 am

  27. Steve,

    I agree and am perfectly okay with that. The scriptures are full of examples where people righteously followed their personal revelation against the church. At no time is human reason or science ever depicted as doing so.

    The huge difference between the two is that my personal revelation does not place me between the prophets and God for anybody but myself (and those within my stewardship). This “subjectivism” is exactly what a science of revelation was aimed at replacing, it being an explicit attempt at get between prophets and God for ALL people and ALL times/places.


    What does that question have to do with anything? Where is the argument? Your MO of placing the burden of proof on everybody but yourself isn’t good enough.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 11:46 am

  28. Jeff,
    You introduced the question of God compensating in His message for fallibilities in #19. I’m addressing it.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 11:51 am

  29. “God isn’t even given the opportunity to take such fallibilities into account and build them into the message because man is busy controlling the content of the infrequent communications asking only for approval.”

    Your appraisal of God’s opportunities is not very impressive. By your lights, there is no interpretation for there to be a problem with… thus making your perspective irrelevant to the post.

    Either way, I’m not going to play your game where you do nothing more than ask an endless stream of questions of only marginal (at best) relevance and declare victory when somebody doesn’t answer them to your own personal satisfaction. I’m all for objections and counter-arguments that actually contribute to the discussion. But a game of 20 questions (“What about…” “Please explain…”, “How can…” etc.) does not provide such things.

    Edit: Let me unpack my objection to your methods a bit more. If you see a contradiction in my view, I absolutely want to you do your best to pin it on me by actively providing arguments and reasons for why the contradiction cannot be avoided. Establish the contradiction! What you have been doing, by contrast, is simply asserting/assuming that there is a contradiction and then trying to get *me* to prove that I can or cannot get out of it. Thus, you try to put all the intellectual burden on my shoulders rather than sharing the burden in good faith.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

  30. And what if lots of people have these contrary revelatory experiences and start to compare notes?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

  31. Steve,

    Isn’t that exactly what the reformation was? Mormon doctrine fully rejects the legitimacy of such an approach.

    I reject the idea that comparing notes for the purposes of “peer review” or mutual critique is valid or morally binding in any sense. The idea that divine messages and truths must be consistent across all persons and contexts is very much an optional assumption – although it is essential to the transcendental approach that I am attacking.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

  32. Jeff, no that ins’t want the reformation was, so no. The reformation rejected revelation. So this would be something else.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 12:30 pm

  33. That is the reformation rejected continuing revelation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

  34. Steve,

    Well, if I’m not mistaken, it wasn’t a complete and total rejection of all types of revelation. I thought the revivalists of Joseph’s time were pretty keen on the gifts of prophecy, etc.

    Maybe I don’t understand what the scenario you have in mind is. Did my follow up comments address what you had in mind (whether or not you agree with them) or am I missing the point?

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

  35. I’ve come to see the problem of interpretation as a Schrodinger’s cat: If all possible interpretations of a revelation were simplified to two possibilities — living cat or dead — strictly for the purposes of rhetoric, then interpretation itself is the equivalent of observation in quantum physics. Interpretation of revelation eliminates much of the potential of a given revelation by fixing only one of its many possibilities. In other words, meaning is determined by the messenger. Frankly, I don’t see how it can be otherwise. Perhaps revelation is not the process by which God discloses intelligence (data), but how rather the art gallery in which God showcases Intelligence (identity).

    Comment by Richard_K — January 16, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

  36. Steve,

    I get the impression that the issue your pressing is which revelations do and do not “count” or is it everybody for themselves?

    As Fuller’s thoughts suggest, I think that revelation and authority are inseparably linked to one another. The dissolution of the authority which establishes one person’s revelation over another’s just is the dissolution of revelation as an authoritative guide in any shared or public sense.

    Allowing all person’s revelation to count as revelation for everybody else is a contradictory mess and allowing each individual’s revelation to count as revelation for him/her and him/her alone is pretty much meaningless. Both of these options are the very opposite of the unity required by the gospel. The only way of maintaining unity while claiming to be guided by revelation – and the gospel clearly requires both of these things – is through authority.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

  37. Shamans can muddy the message. True prophets stand before God’s throne, receive a message, and report on what they have seen and heard:

    Jeremiah describes false prophets (Chapter 23):

    16Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD.

    21I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.

    22But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.

    Comment by lemuel — January 16, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

  38. Somewhat. I guess I’d envision lot of individuals encouraging each other to follow their own personal revelation.

    (And yes, revivalist brought some of that back but it was often a tricky topic. My article “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism.” Church History 79, no. 1 (2008): 73-104, goes over that stuff. See also “John Wesley: A Methodist Foundation for the Restoration,” Religious Educator 9, no. 3 (2008) 131-150. The model would seem to fit the Quakers the best because they made following the inner light, or personal revelation, paramount. And they had a very good historical track record, including an important role in the Restoration. See “‘The Air, the Tone and Mannerisms of the Quakers’: The Quakers, the Protestant Ethic, and the Quaker Mormons,” Max Weber Studies 8, no. 1 (2008): 99-110.)

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

  39. Jeff, at 36, your model did come across somewhat as everyman for himself. I see your point about unity as being important, but now I’m wondering if their may be an underlying tension between individual revelation and large organizations that often promote one size fits all. Hard to get around that.

    And the Quakers did have a pretty track record.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

  40. Er, “pretty good.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

  41. Lemuel,

    Prophet have also used divining rods, seer stones, etc. The sharp distinction you’re trying to draw simply does not hold up.


    Yeah, I’m definitely not an every man for himself kind of guy. I’m also pretty suspicious of a one-size fits all approach. Of course, how much room a church allows for contextual maneuverability is itself a practical matter of degree than is supposed to be determined by top-down revelation. Absolute monarchy does not necessarily entail totalitarianism.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

  42. Gee Jeff you seem a little edgy today, there a lot more to a religious or spiritual discussion than the falsifiability of your view or mine. And a question like “Please explain…” is just an invitation to go down a line of thinking that I’ve already been down to see if you come to a different conclusion.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

  43. I’m not looking for “invitations” for me to do all the intellectual work. Instead of invitations and questions how about you bring some premises and conclusions that can be developed into an argument? How about you actually articulate, establish and defend your line of thinking?

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

  44. I’m not looking for a class Jeff.

    Comment by Howard — January 16, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

  45. Which Howard are you? Shemp, Moe, or Curly?

    Comment by Jack — January 17, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

  46. Howard is pretty funny is this thread. He clearly has no idea what Jeff’s post means so he keeps throwing out his go-to tropes in hopes that one on them is relevant. In the vast majority of cases he misses badly. But that little guy keeps comin’ back with more blind swings at it.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 18, 2016 @ 9:32 am

  47. Jeff,

    I think Steve’s point is a good one. Where is the line where personal revelation should trump top down revelation? Not sure this model you are describing addresses that question (although it made not be trying to).

    I see appeal of this idea that God is smart enough to use the biases of his messengers in the delivery of his message. The notion that the biases of the prophets keep inadvertently thwarting God’s attempt to communicate with us paints a picture of a fairly incompetent/impotent God.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 18, 2016 @ 9:48 am

  48. Geoff,

    Always good to have you jump in! You’re right that this post isn’t really concerned about personal revelation trumping top-down revelation….. Of course, isn’t personal revelation just one (the highest) kind of top-down communication? That’s how I see it, anyways.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 18, 2016 @ 10:53 am

  49. In that case I agree with your main point. The whole notion that God isn’t able to predict and adjust for the weaknesses/biases of his messengers implies that God is incompetent.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 18, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  50. (Haven’t read the comments yet)

    It seems to me the problem of interpretation is in the scriptures in various places when they talk about looking beyond the mark, the scriptures not being of private interpretation, or especially passages like 2 Nephi 25:5 “there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.”

    It’s true that hermeneutics really developed with the rise of Protestantism and the very idea that individuals could interpret text. Add in the development of more formal textual approaches to law and the inherent problems of interpretation that added and what you call the enlightenment idea of the problem of interpretation develops. (I’d add in the issue of science and how to interpret the book of nature)

    Regarding the transcendental assumption I confess I just don’t see how the problem of interpretation is tied to Cartesianism except to the degree that traditional approaches assumed a context-free zone of interpretation. That is a God’s eye view where God in this case was unaffected by the things viewed. (Certainly a view that by the 20th century was under attack and a view that seems at odds with Mormon conceptions of God anyway) Even in classic more positivist views of interpretation separating the speaker from the message seems problematic.

    So I’m not sure I buy your fundamental assumption that underlies the post.

    That said, I do agree that the idea that revelation is somehow delivered independent of culture to be problematic. However I also just don’t think that implies that our biases somehow don’t affect and mislead how we interpret inspiration or revelation.

    Comment by Clark — January 18, 2016 @ 11:47 am

  51. I’d add that to my eyes the real hangup most have isn’t transcendental assumptions but the assumption that revelation is primarily textual.

    Comment by Clark — January 18, 2016 @ 11:50 am

  52. Geoff, of course the idea that God couldn’t reveal a message clear enough for people to understand is nonsense. As you note it would imply God is incompetent. Yet simultaneously he doesn’t often seem to go to that trouble. Revelation more often is something we have to work towards rather than it being purely God laying things out.

    The issue of blacks and the priesthood is of course the key issue for most. If that was wrong and so misinterpreted then why on earth didn’t God shout at the President long before 1976? It’s that ability of our prejudices to keep us from hearing God (and God’s unwillingness to become more overt) that seems the fundamental issue that must be dealt with.

    Comment by Clark — January 18, 2016 @ 11:55 am

  53. Geoff, certainly God works around our imperfection, but the example of instituting monarchy in the Old Testament and Book of Mormon suggests the possibility of God instituting practices that he doesn’t really want because of the demands of the people. Again, Joseph Smith said that ignorance, superstition, and bigotry did corrupt the process and that we as a people needed to work to overcome such things.

    That is, I agree with Clark: “I also just don’t think that implies that our biases somehow don’t affect and mislead how we interpret inspiration or revelation.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 18, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

  54. Clark,

    I agree that the problem of interpreting the scriptures is found throughout the scriptures. Since the scriptures are only binding upon us to the extent that living prophets interpret them as such, I’m not too worried about that. In other words, I think the scriptures are themselves clear that living prophets are the solution to that problem. I do not, however, find any scriptural evidence that there is any deep problem in interpreting revelation, or living person interpreting the message of their living prophets.

    I’m guessing you have a much better grasp of Gadamer than I do. What do you think a Gadamerian reading of issue would look like?

    My real target is the idea that the message (textual or not) is fully external to the living prophet and their biases and that the latter constitute imperfections in some kind of relay process. I think all attempts at establishing a problem of interpretation lean pretty heavily on this assumption. My most basic claim is not that the assumption is necessary false, but that it is just that – an assumption and as such optional and non-binding. Furthermore, I think the assumption gets most of its motivations from intellectuals who would like to “peer review” rather than follow the prophet.

    “If that was wrong and so misinterpreted”

    This is a perfect example of ways in which political ideologies are motivating the problem of interpretation. At no point has it been revealed that the restriction was – always and everywhere – wrong. I would definitely agree that it would be a mistake after the revelation was given, but this is very different. What these people are doing is inventing a problem of interpretation out of thin air in order to protect their modern assumptions of timeless universalism, racial equality, a rejection of authority, etc. Again, I’m not totally against any of these things taken individually, but when they are combined in a way that leverages itself against the prophets, there is obviously a problem.

    “I also just don’t think that implies that our biases somehow don’t affect and mislead how we interpret inspiration or revelation.”

    Okay, this is an *assumption* (an assumption that is almost totally advocated within secular institutions that were specifically designed to replace ecclesiastical modes of cultural reproduction). As such, there is no reason why TBM’s should feel obligated to address it.

    Perhaps stronger: Since we must choose to see a problem on interpretations such that cultural biases stand between God and His prophets, we must ask why it is that we choose to do so? What reason do we have to defend the existence of such a problem?

    Comment by Jeff G — January 19, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

  55. More proof texting for you. Mormonism is transcendental in the literal sense that the law is believed to transcend this world and our time.

    “20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”

    Comment by Martin James — January 19, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

  56. Martin,

    That’s not the transcendentalism that is at issue. Mormonism fully endorses all sorts of transcendentalisms… but not the hermeneutic one discussed in the OP. Mormonism also rejects all sorts of naturalisms…. but not (as far as I can tell) the one in the OP.

    I definitely acknowledge that seeing a tribal shaman as a naturalist takes some getting used to.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 19, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

  57. Just to elaborate a little bit, the transcendentalism in question is that the identity of the shaman/prophet/interpreter “transcends” and thus stands fully outside the content of the message. The naturalist, by contrast, sees communication as a very integrated and inter-active process wherein no “subject” stands outside of the causal or interpretive nexus.

    I keep bringing up Gadamer, but I haven’t really elaborated upon him since I don’t have the strongest grasp of his ideas. Nevertheless, the following wikipedia quote does sound spot on to me:

    “…Gadamer argued that people have a “historically-effected” consciousness (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and that they are embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them. However the historical consciousness is not an object over and against our existence, but “a stream in which we move and participate, in every act of understanding.”[31] Therefore, people do not come to any given thing without some form of preunderstanding established by this historical stream. The tradition in which an interpreter stands establishes “prejudices” that affect how he or she will make interpretations. For Gadamer, these prejudices are not something that hinders our ability to make interpretations, but are both integral to the reality of being, and “are the basis of our being able to understand history at all.”[32] Gadamer criticized Enlightenment thinkers for harboring a “prejudice against prejudices”.[33]”

    Comment by Jeff G — January 19, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

  58. Jeff G,

    It very much is in question because you ignore the ways that mormonism has a tradition of transcending the local authorities in a doctrine of judgment by God under irrevocable laws.

    Comment by Martin James — January 19, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

  59. You’re going to have to demonstrate the relevance rather than merely asserting it. I simply don’t see it.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 19, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

  60. Jeff (54) “Since the scriptures are only binding upon us to the extent that living prophets interpret them as such, I’m not too worried about that.”

    What?! That seems like a position much more extreme than you’ve been advocating up until now. The idea that scriptures only matter in terms of the living prophet (all of the apostles or just the President?) reinterpret them seems hugely problematic since of course most of the scriptures aren’t addressed by the prophets explicitly yet they tell us to read and study them so we apply them to our lives.

    Could you clarify your position here? I’m a bit shocked and am assuming you mean something more subtle.

    “I do not, however, find any scriptural evidence that there is any deep problem in interpreting revelation, or living person interpreting the message of their living prophets.”

    In general I’d agree with prophetic messages in contemporary times. I’m not at all convinced that’s true with personal revelation. Indeed it’s not hard to find cases where even the prophets weren’t sure of meaning.

    “My real target is the idea that the message (textual or not) is fully external to the living prophet and their biases and that the latter constitute imperfections in some kind of relay process.”

    But it seems to me these are two separable issues. I can (as I in fact do) believe that a message can’t easily be separated from time, person, cultural, practices and place. At the same time I can simultaneously think this leads to confusion over how to respond to the revelation.

    “I think all attempts at establishing a problem of interpretation lean pretty heavily on this assumption.”

    I really don’t think this is the case. In fact I’d say within the contemporary hermeneutic tradition it’s taken for granted that a separation between messenger and message can’t easily be made. An obvious example of this is in legal hermeneutics where originalism of various sorts says the meaning of law can’t be separated from the community that originally produced it. While more liberal hermeneutics see “stretch marks” due to the changing practices and understanding in the community. That is they see the meaning of law can’t be separated from the community holding the law. Yet despite huge differences in these two traditions what is common is precisely in rejecting the point you see as essential. That is meaning/messenger are inseparably wrapped up together. Their real dispute is much more over who the messenger is.

    “This is a perfect example of ways in which political ideologies are motivating the problem of interpretation. At no point has it been revealed that the restriction was – always and everywhere – wrong.”

    Yes, but I don’t think my understanding of past revelation (or in this case past practice and preaching) is limited by prophetic pronouncement. So I’d agree with your point but find it beside the point.

    “Okay, this is an *assumption* (an assumption that is almost totally advocated within secular institutions that were specifically designed to replace ecclesiastical modes of cultural reproduction). As such, there is no reason why TBM’s should feel obligated to address it.”

    I’m honestly not sure what you mean here. No one should feel obligated to enter into discussion with either you or me. As such it follows no one has to address anything.

    However the issue of bias seems something we see constantly in our non-religious life and I think it fair (for anyone who decides without obligation to enter into dialog with me) to ask why we should expect our religious life to be different.

    That seems a big issue. To say interpretation and bias doesn’t matter requires seeming to deny most of what we know about human behavior and cognition.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

  61. Martin (58) it seems quite common though that Mormonism simultaneously requires submitting to local authorities. It seems only occasionally does Mormonism say it “transcends” (although like Jeff I’d urge caution with that term – we seem to be using it equivocally)

    I think we need to distinguish somewhat meaning from practice even if in an other sense they are inseparable.

    There clearly are laws we see as going beyond our understanding. All of them I’d say. Much like what ultimately counts in science aren’t laws as understood but whatever those laws actually are. To what degree these trump local performances really depends upon the situation in question. Obviously in terms of behavior I can never avoid natural law. No matter what I do it is in accord with the ultimate laws of physics. Yet in a physics discussion what counts aren’t these ultimate laws but what I can justify about them scientifically.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

  62. Jeff regarding Gadamer, his position is really coming out of Heidegger wherein we are always and already in the world. Being in the world already isn’t a problem for making interpretations but a condition of being able to make interpretations. Yet this doesn’t mean we can’t misinterpret phenomena. So I think you are confusing issues of error with issues of situatedness.

    Error for Gadamer and Heidegger isn’t a mistake of some abstract sort of representationalism as in Descartes. (And that’s the target I think you are after with your comments on interpretation – just that I think you erroneously go too far) Rather if interpretation is always an opening to the things letting them present themselves to me (including in terms of practices) then error is a kind of wandering where I block or lose my way. (There are some obvious parallels to Lehi’s vision I’ve noted relative to Heidegger before not to mention D&C 93)

    Perhaps a simple way of putting this relative to your original point wherein the person can’t be separated from the message is that error is not letting God affect us the way God wants to do. Rather than thinking of that in terms of some “pure” textual representation of God’s intentions it’s better to think of it as a joint practice where one person is attempting to not be in harmony with God.

    Of course a vague notion of harmony or blocking truth as things (rather than representations) might at first glance appear even less helpful. Yet it’s something I think we all encounter daily when we work with people. Ultimately the goal is a kind of at one ment. I mean that quite simply and not mystically at all. We work together as a team. We all know of times when we are trying to work with an other and it’s not working. That’s misinterpretation.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

  63. To add, if you look this up in Heidegger you’ll find lots of terms like “comportment” or “errancy” or the like. Ultimately Heidegger sees everything in terms of practices (or at least that’s one way to authentic phenomena) Misinterpretation is to be thought not in terms of picking the right representation but in terms of being led astray in terms of practice.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

  64. I haven’t gotten a chance to read your comments very closely yet, but I thought that Gadamer’s fusion of prejudiced horizons was a critical break from other post-Heideggerian philosophers who thought that authenticity required distancing ourselves from our cultural prejudices?

    Comment by Jeff G — January 20, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

  65. How big a break Gadamer (or Ricouer) is from Heidegger depends upon the interpreter and what you’re focused on. I tend to read them with a lot more similarity. I should add that I also read Levinas as being much closer to Heidegger than Levinas himself sees himself. (He sees himself as making a critical break with Heidegger) Likewise Derrida to me seems part of the Heideggarian project even if he emphasizes play rather than jointing things together. To me both moves are constantly going on and it just depends upon how you look at it.

    Anyway seeing where they differ and how they are similar ends up being more complex than it appears at first glance. Authenticity for Heidegger is completely a break from cultural prejudices (Das Man) yet in an other sense his notion of strife (polemos) in his later work suggests there’s a lot more complexity. So it really depends upon the type of analysis one is doing.

    Comment by Clark — January 21, 2016 @ 5:46 pm