“Here what we see is the perpetual conflict of different gods with each other. This is how it was in the ancient world, before it was disenchanted with its gods and demons, only in a different sense… Depending on one’s ultimate standpoint, for each individual one is the devil and the other the god; the individual must decide which one is the god for him and which is the devil… The many gods of antiquity, disenchanted and hence assuming the form of impersonal powers, rise up out of their graves, reach out for power over our lives and begin their eternal struggle among themselves again…
“[A]s science does not, who is to answer the question: ‘What shall we do, and, how shall we arrange our lives?’ or, in the words used here tonight: ‘Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?’ then one can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers. If there is no such man, or if his message is no longer believed in, then you will certainly not compel him to appear on this earth by having thousands of professors, as privileged hirelings of the state, attempt as petty prophets in their lecture-rooms to take over his role.”
-Max Weber, Science as a Vocation
Following Clark, I’ll link to Danial McClellan’s post On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism. In that post, the author reviews Sam Harris’ attacks against religion by undermining Harris’ use of scriptural literalism to characterize the religious believer. Now, I am no fan of Harris, but I think the well-worn tactics by which defenders of religion resist scriptural literalism are more than somewhat displaced within a Mormon context. After all, when Harris accuses those believers who take various scriptures “figuratively” of waffling on their faith, any person who believers in the Great Apostasy has to admit that he’s not totally off base. I’m not saying he’s totally right, but he’s not totally wrong either.
On the one hand, literalism is strongly but not completely rooted in Christian fundamentalism. On the other, to lay this completely on them seems motivated more by rhetorical convenience than anything else. Religious believers and Christians in particular have always struggled with how they could (or should) believe the entire written word of God. Indeed, the only reason why reading the scriptures “figuratively” seems so natural to us is largely due to St. Augustine’s influence (“metaphorically” was how he taught us to read many parts). If, however, we follow the Protestants in rejecting the early church fathers (which the Catholic church strongly accepts), then we are left with a bit of a conundrum: Who has the right to tell us how to read the scriptures?
The fundamentalists would say that the only person who can authoritatively tell us how to read our scriptures is God Himself through the scriptures. In other words, the only way to legitimately read the scriptures figuratively is by taking them literally! Any other guide simply amounts to a corruption of the pure word – mingling in the philosophies of men. It was with this in mind that the “book of nature” was invented as an alternative source of “scripture” that could guide us in reading the written word. Outside of Catholicism, then, believers are left with a less than awe-inspiring choice with regards to who tells us how to read scripture: natural scientists (the Galilean option), pagan philosophers (the Augustinian option), or however one feels they should do so (the anarchist option – which is actually the scariest of them all!).
One can find no clearer attempt at placing unauthorized obstacles and mediums between binding scripture and the reader than in McClellan’s post:
First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning… This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.
If one gets the impression that theorists and scholars have managed to invent a problem for which their previous figurative reading of scripture was already the solution, you are not alone. Thank goodness we have living literary theorists to tell us what the word of God is and is not! (/sarcasm) Slightly more seriously, I can completely understand why Protestants would concern themselves this much with how the timeless and complete word of God should be read and why they would be concerned about allowing those in power to read it for them…. but how can Biblical scholars concern themselves in this theoretical and systematic manner without making themselves into the very authorities they wish to subvert? Put differently, their telling us about what meaning can and cannot be found within the scriptures just is to tell us how we should and should not be reading our scriptures.
Catholics and Mormons, however, do not need to stress about this since they both believe in living authorities that can tell them how and whether to read dead authorities. (The Catholic traditions surrounding timelessness and infallibility, however, give them a bit less flexibility than the Mormons have.) Members of these traditions simply have to follow their living leaders in reading various passages literally, metaphorically, or not at all. As soon as we start trying to interpret the living authorities “figuratively”, however, is exactly when Mormons and Catholics both abandon their own traditions for the less than reliable Protestant paths paved by philosophers, scholars and other unauthorized free-thinkers. (I’m not sure how anybody could ever argue that communication with living prophets doesn’t have a meaning without thereby undermining their own attempts at communicating such an argument.)
I agree with Sam Harris in that the case for Biblical literalism is much stronger than well-educated believers tend (or want) to think. That said, I strongly disagree with him when he generalizes a “religion of the book” mentality to those who follow the teachings of dead prophets in maintaining faith in the living prophets. Harris and McClellan are both right that we shouldn’t anchor our faith in an uncompromising reading of dead prophets….. But I don’t know why any Mormon would have done this in the first place. When it comes to the writings of dead prophets, Mormons are proud cafeterialists, it’s just that we also believe in the living prophets that work as the lunch ladies within that cafeteria.
Then again, this allegiance to a literal reading of living authorities is exactly what Sam Harris is worried about, the living/dead distinction being relatively incidental. Harris’ argument can basically be put as follows:
- There is some amount of irreconciliable contradiction between the premodern epistemologies of the Abrahamic religions and modern rationality.
- To extent that the two cannot be reconciled, the Abrahamic mentality, rather than modern rationality or both, ought to go.
I am convinced that (1) is exactly right, while I strongly disagree with (2). McClellan (I assume) and many people within the bloggernacle reject (1) and the only reason I can think of for this is that they do not want to abandon either tradition. (Note that it is because of faith rather than doubt that they theorize as they do.)
While this claim does make perfect sense to our modern ears, the scriptures tell a very different story. In the Bible, for example, God promises to visit with vengeance various people and the generations that come after them when the latter clearly did not have any choice in the matter. (Adam and Eve are the most obvious, although not the only example.) We also read of Jesus cursing a tree for not giving fruit when it was not in season. (It was Voltaire, I believe that thought this proved Christianity was absurd.) Indeed, we might say that the whole problem of theodicy is that we cannot understand why some people are allowed to suffer when they have seemingly done nothing wrong. (Both Job and Joseph Smith were great examples.) The fact of the matter is that even if something is not anybody’s choice, this does not mean that God is pleased with it or that we should be perfectly accepting of it. Claims to the contrary are of modern and quite secular origin.
This is not, however, a straight forward argument for or against the acceptance of SSM within the church. If anything, mine is an argument that arguments should play no role in deciding the issue, and if the church fully accepted SSM tomorrow my point would still remain the same. My fear is not SSM but that arguments like those at BBC and W&T are attempts to domesticate and constrain the church through science (showing SSA to be innate or not) and human reason (people should or should not be punished for what is innate). No matter what science says, or what makes sense to our modern sense of morality, we should follow the Lord’s righteous prophets in whatever it is that they say the church should or should not do.
The story of Adam and Eve is about as anti-intellectual as they come.
When confronted by teachers they did not ask for evidence or reasoned justifications that might support an abstract proposition or truth. Instead, they asked for simple signs, tokens and other indicators that the teacher (rather than their message) was authorized by God. Indeed, they essentially ignored those people that could offer nothing more than scriptures or philosophical reasoning and seemed pretty uninterested in the explanation or justification for those things that they actually did accept as binding upon them.
Whatever we might call this approach to the gospel, it is not apologetics or systematic theology – approaches that basically agree with Lucifer in thinking that the (scriptural) evidence and (philosophical) reasons for a teaching have anything to do with the authority of the teacher.
Edit: It’s also worth pointing out that when Adam and Eve finally did get an explanation for the sacrifices they had been performing, the explanation was simply the declaration of an unobservable (even in principle) purpose or meaning.
Over at Mormon Metaphysics Clark has a great post worth reading about how much of the discussion surrounding the nature of truth can be replaced by a discussion regarding how to adjudicate disagreements. I am very much on board with this suggestion and thought I’d provide a bit of history to this conversation.
Even Galileo owed his formulation of dynamics to no experimental discovery. He tells that he rarely resorted to experiment except to convince his Aristotelian opponents, who demanded the evidence of the senses; and all his life he retained the very considerable error that g, the acceleration of gravity, is fifteen feet per second…
In the Renaissance, as always, men turned to the careful observation of nature only after every other idea and authority had failed. What the revival of ancient learning did for science was to bring a wealth of conflicting suggestions into men’s ken, and force them to appeal to reason to decide; just as the Reformation by its warring interpretations of the Bible similarly forced a religious rationalism.
-John Herman Randall Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, Pg. 218
What this passage is meant to suggest is that in the Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation appeals to reason and empirical observation came only after appeals to authority had been made and were themselves a way of adjudicating situations in which there were competing authorities. Regardless of whether one agrees with the priority suggested by this passage, the strongest point worth making is that there are means other than reason and evidence by which disagreements might be settled.
Within this context it is worth noting that one is hard pressed to find authorities within the LDS priesthood that are at a similar level such that they can be placed in competition with one another. Only one person is allowed to have a particular level of keys and authority over any stewardship (see D&C 28), thus leaving no need or room for appeals to reason and empirical evidence to settle disagreements. It is only by artificially placing priesthood authorities in competition with one another that reason and evidence could ever appear to be necessary.
“Of course it was not given to mortal reason to decipher the hieroglyph of the universe in detail; but the important fact is that this was the fundamental aim of all wisdom and learning, coloring the whole intellectual life and all but excluding any interest in prediction and control, in “natural science” as we know it. From this follows the intense faith in the intelligibility of the world that makes the medieval scholar, whether mystic seeking wisdom by intuition and vision, or rationalist seeking it by dialectic, reject our modern agnosticisms and romanticisms…
“Whether the mystic sought symbolism in nature or in history, or the scholastic sought the form and end of all things, there was this same hierarchical order of importance leading up to God, supreme reality, supreme end, supreme genus. And since such was the use of learning, it mattered little, after all, whether nature be exactly described or history accurately written…
“Indeed, a knowledge of natural history for its own sake would have been regarded as almost blasphemous, taking men’s thoughts away from its essential meaning for man.”
– John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, pg. 35
“…all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”
“If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents,” he asked the bishop, “who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?”
The bishop replied, according to Dawson, “The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.”
Let’s just assume that this is an accurate representation of what happened and let’s also sideline the politically charged topic that that “multitude of documents” was about. There is still no contradiction here. A contradiction only emergence if we see the truth of revelation as logically consistent, factual information rather than value-laden counsel that is adapted to the recipient’s stewardship.
Of course the whole point of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution was an attempt to sideline the asymmetries of stewardship altogether by a focus on sola scriptura and the book of nature, respectively. But this is exactly why Mormons cannot fully embrace either of those movements. We do not believe in reformation or revolution but in the *restoration* of those same asymmetries of stewardship that the former were specifically meant to reform or revolt against.
A three step identification of and response to disloyal criticisms of the church:
- The values and premises that motivate the criticism are not universal, timeless or necessary. They arose through a specific historical process. They are not “just there” to be recognized.
- These values and premises historically arose outside of the legitimate priesthood channels and as such are not binding revelation. They are the philosophies of (wo)men.
- These values and premises were specifically designed to either sideline or undermine priesthood channels as such, and were never aimed exclusively at the priesthood authorities of some other church. The proper constraint upon unrighteous priesthood authority is the restoration of righteous priesthood authority, not a reformation through critique and reason.
A faithful criticism, by contrast, would be rooted in values and premises that 1) at some point in history were 2) either received or endorsed by the proper priesthood channels and 3) does not sideline or undermine priesthood authority as such. Exposing the hidden personal unrighteousness of a leader would be a perfect example. Exposing how that leader’s policies or teachings are incompatible with premises and values that go back 300 years to a philosopher who was fighting against “traditional” authorities is not.
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
It has become all too common within the bloggernacle for those who see any and all appeals to priesthood authority as intrinsically immoral to misrepresent their relationship to the church with an inaccurate reading of the passage above. Accordingly, I think it will be helpful to disentangle some issues that have consistently and perhaps intentionally been run together. (more…)
The gospel is universal in that all people, be they black or white, bond or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile are to accept it by coming unto Christ. It is not, however, objective. (more…)
(This is the 3rd post in my series “The Bloggernacle as Public Sphere”.)
In this post I would like to use Jürgen Habermas’ Transformation of the Public Sphere to distinguish between three different types of active members which we find in the church today. Roughly following Habermas, I will call these three kinds of church membership the feudal, critical and consumer models of church membership. I say “roughly” because Habermas’ account leaves the reader with the impression that there are only two models – feudal and critical – since the consumer type of society just is its re-feudalization. Although he does not explicitly equate feudal and the consumer societies with each other, I think his failure to explicitly disentangle the two is not just an incidental shortcoming of his book, but a strategic move aimed at furthering his own critical perspective. I would also suggest that many people within the bloggernacle (myself included) do the exact same thing. (more…)
A great friend and I were discussing “Big Tent” Mormonism over the weekend and it was a great conversation. Alas the school year has begun and he’s a teacher. So I am hoping we can continue the conversation here. Let me restate some of the discussion, and also carry it forward a bit. (more…)
In this post I would like to briefly outline 5 reasons for why we should believe our authorized priesthood leaders over our own reasoning. The purpose of this post, in contrast to many of my prior posts, is not to convince the reader that they ought to so prioritize the church leaders’ beliefs over their own. Rather, it is more to provide a taxonomy of sorts for such reasons, if only for the purpose of clarification. Commenters are encouraged to specify which reasons they do and do not endorse as well as provide and categorize any reasons that I might have missed. (more…)
In my last post I introduced Jurgen Habermas’ book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and argued that it is very relevant to us in the bloggernacle. More specifically, I argued that just as how during the Enlightenment independent people came together in a public forum so as to engage in critical debate which eventually served to erode the perceived legitimacy of their state authorities, so too us within the bloggernacle come together as independent persons in this public forum so as to engage in critical debate which can – if we are not careful – erode the perceived legitimacy of our church authorities. The bloggernacle is largely characterized by the same three traits that structured the public sphere which Habermas sees at the center of democratic politics: Open accessibility to all, equality amongst interlocutors and all topics are open to critical discussion. My point in that post was not to accuse anybody in particular of undermining the authority of our leaders so much as it was to warn us all how easy it is to seamlessly and unnoticeably slide from “a public sphere in which the [priesthood authority is] merely represented before the people [to] a sphere in which [church] authority [is] publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people.” (p. xi) In this post I want to articulate the subtle steps by which this transition can happen. (more…)
Over at Wheat and Tares, Hawkgrrrl wrote an interesting post on the difference between obedience and self-sufficiency. She mentioned how pretty much everybody teaches both perspectives to their children, but if push came to shove and they could only teach one, religious people would teach obedience while secular families would choose self-sufficiency.
In the comments to that post I pretty much rehearsed the reasoning behind my post, “The False Prophets We Follow”, wherein I suggest that self-sufficiency in the sense of not following or obeying what anybody else teaches us is a myth which serves to reinforce secular values at the expense of religious values. Our thoughts and values have almost entirely been taught us by other people and/or spirits. Thus, the question is not whether we or our children will obey or be self-sufficient (this is not exactly the question that Hawkgrrl was asking); the question is whether we or our children will construe the choices we make in our lives in terms of obedience or self-sufficiency. (more…)