Kierkegaard, Abraham and Isaac

July 2, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 6:42 pm   Category: Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Scriptures,Theology,Truth

Clark has mentioned in a couple threads how he thinks my position is very similar to that of Soren Kierkegaard.  There are several important parallels between Kierkegaard’s thinking and my own, but this should not blind us to the important differences.  At the heart of our differences is that Kierkegaard follows the Protestant thinking of his time – the same thinking that he so strongly disagrees with is other ways – in assuming that religion in deeply and irretrievably individualistic.  This individualism is exactly what makes Kierkegaard the father of existentialism, while I on the other hand, am much more of a pragmatist of sorts.

A convenient way of looking at the differences between myself and Kierkegaard can be found in his reading of Abraham’s being commanded to sacrifice Isaac.  For Kierkegaard, this story illustrates how God and our faith in Him is neither reasonable nor moral, at least not in any human-centered or social sense that Kant, Hegel or any other modern thinker would recognize.  Abraham did not explain himself to Isaac for the simple reason that he could not explain himself.  There was, quite frankly, no reasons to give on the matter.  Any attempt at explaining, discussion or arguing, according to Kierkegaard, would have inevitably brought Abraham’s faith back into the realm of socially regulated reasons and morals.  (It is very much worth noting what Sartre also noted: that Abraham never for a single second questioned his interpretation of God’s commandment.) (more…)

The (Non-)Problem of Interpreting Revelation

June 16, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 4:40 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

“[After Newton t]he universe is one great harmonious order; not, as for Thomas and the Middle Ages, an ascending hierarchy of purposes, but a uniform mathematical system…

“Nature was through and through orderly and rational; hence what was natural was easily identified with what was rational, and conversely, whatever, particularly in human society, seemed to an intelligent man reasonable, was regarded as natural, as somehow rooted in the very nature of things. So Nature and the Natural easily became the ideal of man and of human society and were interpreted as Reason and the Reasonable. The great object of human endeavor was to discover what in every field was natural and reasonable, and to brush aside the accretions irrational tradition that Reason and Nature might the more easily be free to display its harmonious order.”

John Herman Randall Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, p. 260,76

Within the scriptures we find very little, if any mention of some “problem” with interpreting (personal) revelation.  While we do find numerous example of how problems arise from interpreting scriptures (JS-History), we also find that revelation is always the clarifying solution to such problems of interpretation.  Why is it, then, that the interpretation of revelation is mentioned so often within the bloggeracle?  What assumptions and values must be in place for interpretation to be construed as a problem and what was the historical emergence of these assumptions and values?  In order to approach the “problem” of interpretation I will first draw a conceptual trichotomy and will then draw a brief historical sketch of how the problem of interpretation was invented. (more…)

Milgram: A Sociological Perspective

May 23, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 12:28 pm   Category: Ethics,orthodox

I assume all of our readers here are familiar with the Stanley Milgram experiment.  (If not, I strongly recommend that you plug it into a google search and watch the numerous fascinating articles, summaries and (especially) youtube videos.  I guarantee that it will not be a waste of your time.)  Essentially every reference made to this experiment within the bloggernacle uses it as a sort of smoking gun for the dangerous possibilities to be had in “blind” obedience to our priesthood leaders.  I want to push back, not so much against this specific application of the experiment (such dangers do exist), but against the worldview that motivates such an application.

For starters, the Milgram’s was a psychological experiment in that it was meant to speak to our shared human nature and our (unfortunate?) inclination toward trusting authority figures with moral decisions that are rightly ours.  It is  this psychological interpretation that justified its generalization to our obedience to and trust of authority figures that simply happen to lie within the church’s priesthood structure.

The problem is that the experiment did NOT involve religious authorities.  Instead, it was an experiment regarding our obedience to and trust in scientific authorities of a fully secular stripe.  A more sociological interpretation of the Milgram experiment would thus not be that human beings are (unfortunately?) naturally inclined to defer to authority figures, but rather than us Westerners have (unfortunately?) been taught to defer to scientific authorities and that this trust in lab coats is far more dangerous than we often assume.

Indeed, even if one were to generalize the experiment to religious authorities, one can only do so by equating scientific authorities in religious authorities in some important sense.  I am fully on board with this, but it has interesting implications and contradictions for those who would appeal to the scientific authority of Milgram in order to critically examine appeals to religious authority.  Since the Milgram experiment is more relevant to science than it is to religion, it is likely the case that such people are cutting off their own noses to spite their faces.

 

Capitalism and Consecration

March 12, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 12:45 pm   Category: Ethics,Money and getting gain,orthodox

Most Mormons in this country vote conservative and there is a good reason for the harmony between these two stances.  I’m not saying that these good reasons are the actual reasons why most Mormons vote the way they do.  I can’t help but agree with the many criticisms and suspicions from left-leaning Mormons bring against this strong correlation.  While I do not wish to reduce all the political differences between each side to economic issues, the case of private property makes for a very generalize-able example.

I have no doubt that, in practice, many right-wing Mormons do indeed vote Republican because they are against the redistribution of wealth.  I have no doubt that there is some selfishness at play here.  I’m also convinced that many right-wing Mormons are against it because they honestly believe that a free market wherein the individual rights to private property are strongly enforced are either better for society overall, or simply the morally right social arrangement.  None of these reasons account for the harmony that I see between conservatism and Mormonism.

The reason why Mormons ought to be against the compensation of property by the state for the sake of redistribution is because that property belongs to the Lord and His kingdom to which we have consecrated it.  Right-wing Mormons want to limit the secular state as much as possible since that state is not the sovereign in which they have placed their faith.  It is the church and not the state that Mormons think ought to redistribute property.  In other words, right-wing Mormons ought not to privilege their individual rights, but those of the Lord and His kingdom over the state.

While this is clearly a criticism of some left-wing claims, I think this also functions as a badly needed criticism of many right-wing claims from within the church membership.  To the extent that they presuppose and endorse the individualism of capitalism and classical liberalism they also depart from the collectivism of Mormonism to that same extent.  Of course the individualism of capitalism, while not ideal, is still much more harmonious with the voluntary collectivism of the church than the compulsory collectivism of the state ever could be, practically speaking.

 

Blasphemy, Censorship and Doubt

September 10, 2014    By: Jeff G @ 5:22 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,orthodox,Truth

When Joseph Smith ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, he was quite clearly participating in the censorship of others.  Whether he was commanded by God to do this or not is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this post.  Rather, I would like to focus on the continuity which exists between this case and other scriptural examples of censoring or compelling speech.  With this continuity in mind we should be able to better conceptualize the tensions between apostasy and censorship that we see in the bloggernacle today. (more…)

One Does Not Simply Lose One’s Testimony – A Heartfelt Plea

June 20, 2014    By: Jeff G @ 12:33 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,Life,Mormon Culture/Practices,Truth

This is THE lesson that I have learned regarding my misguided departure from the church.  I had worked myself into a position where the values and standards of the gospel had become a second language to me – second to the values and standards of liberal democracy.  The latter had taken the place of the former as my default mindset, the habitual patterns in which I automatically and uncritically thought, spoke and acted.  Through years of training and practice, I had come to evaluate and measure the church and its values according to those of liberal democracy at a deeply intuitive and emotional level rather than the other way around.  I had come to feel more repugnance, offense and moral indignation at the thought of somebody violating my liberal democratic values than if they had violated those of my Mormon upbringing.

But this is not how I experienced it at the time.  Precisely because of the way in which I had internalized the values of liberal democracy I uncritically experienced these values as given and beyond question.  The values of liberal democracy were just “obviously” good and true.  Thus, when I decided to measure the truth of the church by the values of liberal democracy, I simply experienced this process as asking “is the church true?” – an honest and innocent question.  When I evaluated church policies and doctrine by the standards of liberal democracy, I very genuinely felt that I was asking “is this position right?”  Similarly, when a person violated the rules of liberal democracy they were a bad person, but when another person violated the rules of Mormonism they merely had a different perspective on what was right.  The very act of internalizing the rules of liberal democracy had also repressed them and the more strongly I endorsed them the more I placed them beyond question or constraint.  Liberal democracy, in my mind, was not simply a tradition or perspective, but universal and timeless truth – a standing which should have been reserved for God and His church.

With hindsight, I can say with absolute conviction that one does not simply lose one’s testimony, even if it genuinely feels as if that is what is happening.  Rather, one actively – albeit uncritically – beats down and erodes one’s testimony.   Through training and practice, we gradually chip away at our testimonies with the hammer of the liberal democratic values we are taught in school, on t.v. and in internet forums.  As we choose to evaluate and navigate the world around us by the tools of liberal democracy rather than those of the gospel, the latter not only atrophy from disuse, but are purposefully displaced by the former in their relentless take-over and re-programming of our minds.  I cannot say it emphatically enough: the tradition of liberal democracy is not neutral, passive or benign when it comes to our religious convictions or any other set of competing values.  It is a god which is no less jealous or hungry for the souls of men (or women) than any other.

As people in the bloggernacle critically evaluate and take inventory on their testimonies, I sincerely hope that they do not fall into the same trap I did.  Our testimonies do not lose their power, except in their struggle against some other power – typically that of liberal democracy.  If some such issue is placing your testimony of the church at risk, why not critically evaluate and take inventory on your testimony of that issue?  I know that it can be difficult and counter-intuitive to do, but instead of judging the church for it’s lack of concern for feminist issues or it’s lack of appreciation or tolerance for open debate or some other way of measuring the church by liberal democratic standards, let’s instead measure such movements, values and institutions by those of the Lord and His prophets.  To paraphrase Jacob, to be a liberal democrat is good, so long as these values and standards are constrained by the counsels of God and His prophets rather than the other way around.

 

Drawbacks to Ordaining Women

April 9, 2014    By: Jeff G @ 11:16 am   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices

(Note:  This post was written almost entirely before Elder Oaks’ talk regarding the nature of priesthood.  Sadly, I have not given much thought to the relevance which that talk has to my own thoughts on this subject.)

This post is not about the Ordain Women movement.  Quite some time ago, I posted a critique of the Ordain Women organization wherein I suggested that even though the movement is about faithful LDS women, that does not mean that it is actually for faithful LDS women.  Rather, I suggested, the movement is actually by and for humanistic intellectuals.  In that post, I repeated what has become almost a cliché for those who aren’t fully on board with OW:  It’s not that I am against women being ordained to the priesthood, it’s just that I object to the OW organization and the tactics they employ.  In that way, I attempted to sideline the inevitable accusations of misogyny which such a post provokes so as to look at the conflict that OW presents between intellectuals and priesthood authority (patriarchal or otherwise).  In this post, however, I wish to do the exact opposite: I wish to sideline any thoughts or preferences concerning the nature of the Ordain Women in order to focus exclusively on the ordainability of women.

(more…)

Speech, Speakers and Privilege

March 22, 2014    By: Jeff G @ 2:06 pm   Category: Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices

Within the bloggernacle we are confronted with a strange mix of intellectualism and faith-based non-intellectualism (I’ll just call this “faith” for short).  On the one hand, the anonymity and lack of ecclesiastical or jurisdictional boundaries within this online forum essentially guarantee that no blogger is able to justify their own ideas or policies with an appeal to their own position or authority within society.  This is very close to the defining rule of intellectualism that no claim can ever be justified by any appeal to any person’s position within society.  On the other hand, the tacit acknowledgement of various priesthood authorities by nearly all participants provides a clear and rather anti-intellectual exception to this rule in that the position of some quoted speakers within society can legitimately justify their quoted speech.  There simply isn’t much argument to be had between those who do and those who do not accept the non-jurisdictional priesthood of General Authorities.  Thus, the bloggernacle is not quite like a church meeting since there are no presiding officials, but it is not like the Salons of the Enlightenment where every person that has ever lived has equal standing either. (more…)

Laban’s Execution and the Manifesto on Plural Marriage

January 21, 2014    By: DavidF @ 6:31 pm   Category: Ethics,Personal Revelation,Theology

Laban’s execution ranks among the most troubling stories in Mormonism.  It’s often used as a story to show that obeying God is more important than what we think is right.  Alternatively, it’s used as an example to show how we should question commandments.  It’s been explained away as a justifiable action under Jewish law.  It’s been entertained as a possible example of Satan’s power to deceive (Nephi in this instance).  Nephi and Laban have been compared to Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath.  Critics cite it to discredit Mormonism, and apologists use it to bolster Mormonism.  What makes Laban’s execution so interesting is not only what it tells us about Nephi, but what it tells us about God.

Laban’s execution takes us through three stages in Nephi’s mind.  When Nephi discovers Laban stumbling through the dark Jerusalem streets, God prompts him to kill the defenseless drunk.[1]  Nephi refuses to obey God because killing, ironically enough, is against God’s commandments.  God again commands Nephi to kill Laban.  The second time, Nephi pauses to come up with a reason to justify what God has asked him to do.  Nephi contemplates Laban’s offenses.  Just earlier that night Laban took all of Nephi’s family’s possessions and tried to kill Nephi and his brothers; he had disobeyed God.  The rationalization may be compelling for some, but Nephi evidently couldn’t convince himself.  So God commands Nephi a third time to take Laban’s life.  But this time, God explains why Nephi should obey his commandment.  God points out “It is better that [Laban] should perish than that [the future Nephite civilization] should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”  God has Nephi weigh the literal death of one man against the spiritual death of a whole nation.  Put in modern parlance, God gives Nephi a utilitarian reason for executing Laban.  Nephi then obeys.

It would be easy to draw some harmful lessons from this story.  Presumably, Nephi did the right thing by refusing to obey until God gave him a reason to obey.  Should we adopt Nephi’s unwillingness when we face tough commandments?  Probably not.  The Book of Mormon itself contains other stories where people took the leap of faith before knowing fully what would happen.  Nephi had just declared, one chapter earlier, that he’d obey whatever God told him to do.  Laban’s execution gives us the rare look at how a prophet, and how God, works through a situation where two commandments clearly contradict each other.  And while Nephi tries to obey the more newest one, he waits for God’s approval before acting.  There was simply no third way for Nephi, and I suspect that most people would rarely be put in Nephi’s position.  But at least one modern prophet faced a similar situation.

Wilford Woodruff had a dilemma.  God commanded the Saints to practice plural marriage.  But had they continued, the United States would imprison church leaders, close the temples, and confiscate many of the Saints’ property; the church would, in effect, perish.  Woodruff couldn’t obey one commandment (plural marriage) without failing on the other  (preserving the church).

Woodruff’s decision is sometimes taken as evidence that Mormonism is not what it claims.  If God really was in charge, He would have found a way to allow plural marriage to continue and the church to go on as it had.  Instead, he didn’t intervene, and he made Woodruff and the Saints abandon an immensely important commandment.  Clearly then, the argument goes, God doesn’t lead the Church.

The story of Laban’s execution offers an alternative conclusion.

Nephi

Wilford Woodruff

Choice 1: Kill Laban, save the church End plural marriage, save the church
Choice 2: Not kill Laban, church perishes Not end plural marriage, church suffers/perishes
Decision: Applies the greater good Applies the greater good

Laban’s execution shows that God will sometimes entertain a utilitarian judgment over directly intervening in some way to avoid the utilitarian solution.  Why?  The answer may be related to the answer to another, similar question: Why does God have imperfect people lead His church?  Perhaps it’s because the greater good is served by having people work together to improve an imperfect church rather than by having God so directly involved.  Sometimes God drops a Liahona in the sand, sometimes he commands his prophet to make do with the best of two bad choices.[2]

_______

[1] As an aside, some people have other problems with Laban’s execution.  Why couldn’t Nephi have just knocked Laban out, or what about all of the blood on Laban’s clothes that Nephi had adorned?  These aren’t criticisms of the story as it is told, but elements that Nephi didn’t explain.  I imagine that if Nephi anticipated these criticisms, he might have offered more detail on how the events unfolded.  For all we know, Nephi stole Laban’s clothes, Laban recognized him, and Nephi just recounted the order of events in reverse.  Stranger things have happened.

[2] The same argument I’ve offered here might also apply to Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden.  However, it’s not entirely clear that Eve was thinking in utilitarian terms about her decision to eat the forbidden fruit and have children.

Extreme Mormon Virtues

October 28, 2013    By: DavidF @ 10:21 am   Category: Ethics,Theology

Psychology Today’s latest issue discusses the double edged nature of virtues.  Sometimes a virtue, either taken to excess or cherished too dearly, warps into a vice.  The article gives several examples.

Fairness is a virtue.  But it’s easy to become obsessive about fairness, especially when it plays in our favor.  The article references a father who told his daughter he would miss her birthday because he had a business opportunity.  “When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister’s birthday, too.”  Of course, the daughter could have been thinking more selfishly than fairly, but even if the father had made this call himself, it’s hard to say he was acting virtuously.  In fact, I imagine with some thought, we could come up with some other reasons why fairness should be tempered (the justice/mercy problem springs to mind).

Another example from the article is agreeableness or niceness, which in more religious terms we could call meekness.  Being really nice is good, but when it overtakes being assertive, we can not only harm ourselves, but others as well.  As the article points out, people who are agreeable tend to have lower salaries and get fewer promotions, and in some cases can strain romantic relationships because they’re too dependent and clingy.

While the virtues listed in the article serve mainly in the corporate context, Mormonism prizes several virtues that didn’t make this list, such as obedience,  faith, and charity.  Perhaps these virtues can also morph into vices.  Can we become obsessively obedient?  Does an excessive reliance on faith corrupt it?  Can the compulsive pursuit of charity become a vice?

Obedience

A lot of elders on my mission liked saying, “If you’re 99% obedient, you’re disobedient.”  Not only do I worry about the psychological ramifications of this statement (as, apparently, does Elder Holland), but I wonder if the statement excuses obsessive obedience.

The pharisees are the classic example of over-obedient followers.  Not only did they obey the law, but they hedged the law with non-divine rules just to be extra careful.  Ironically, as Jesus pointed out, their law hedging made them disobedient, because they became so focused on superfluous details that they lost sight of the actual law itself.  Furthermore, their obsessive obedience made them intensely judgmental. (more…)

Ordain Women: Whose Movement Is It?

September 26, 2013    By: Jeff G @ 9:57 pm   Category: Ethics,Happiness,Life,Mormon Culture/Practices

The vast majority of members – especially females – oppose the priesthood ordination of women.  Which means that if the church were a democracy women would not be ordained.  But the church is not a democracy such that orders come from the top-down rather than from the bottom-up, and the top says “no” to the priesthood ordination of women as well.   In spite of this, the Ordain Women movement presses forward, urging the church to give women the priesthood without any regard for what the rest of the church wants or thinks.  This state of affairs cries out for explanation: How can a movement which is so strongly committed to emancipation and social justice (and I see no reason to doubt their sincerity) try to force people to be free? (more…)

Blindness and Obedience

September 16, 2013    By: Jeff G @ 11:46 am   Category: Ethics,Personal Revelation,Scriptures

A basic distinction which I draw  in my attempts to undermine intellectualism, a distinction which I think serves to highlight the contingent nature of the intellectual’s values, is between a pre-modern/religious worldview and a modern/secular worldview.  Very briefly, the ways in which statements and actions are justified within a pre-modern, religious worldview include appeals to authority, tradition and revelation.   By contrast, within a modern-secular worldview statements and actions are justified by appeals to egalitarianism, logical coherence and empirical data.  So many of the debates in the bloggernacle can profitably be construed as a competition as to which of these worldviews is the uniquely right way to view some phenomenon.

Uncovering Feminine Modesty – New Approach to Modesty Series

July 3, 2013    By: DavidF @ 9:27 pm   Category: Ethics,Life,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices

This is the second post in the New Approach to Modesty series.  For post one click here.

Getting ready for a Mutual activity, Chelsea Anderson casually put on a pair of short shorts. “It never occurred to me that they were inappropriate.”  She sat down in one of the few remaining seats, prepared for a lesson from the missionaries.  With the last couple of remaining seats to her side, Chelsea overheard the missionaries’ whispered argument over who would have to sit next to her.  Although she didn’t hear why they argued, Chelsea figured her immodest shorts caused the argument.  “I realized that I was making virtuous young men feel uncomfortable.”  Thereafter Chelsea dressed modestly.

While her story is unique, Chelsea didn’t have to look far for council to mirror.

Young women, respect your body and help others, particularly young men, maintain virtuous thoughts and actions. (Dress and Appearance: Let the Holy Spirit Guide)

Not only does this sort of council make young women responsible for young men’s actions, but it signals an even greater problem with current modesty rhetoric.  But before getting there, we first have to establish what modesty means today.  To begin with, modesty rhetoric rarely refers to men.  When it does, speakers implore men to dress appropriately for sacred ordinances and meetings, leaving references to virtue virtually nonexistent.

Part of why male modesty rarely focuses on male sexuality could be because male leaders don’t find men sexually alluring.

(hottie?)

If leaders applied the sexuality standard equally, perhaps the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet would read a little differently:

Do not engage in any activity that might build a visible “six pack.”  As soon as you are able, grow a beard.

(not-ie)
(more…)

A New Approach to Modesty 1/7: The Generation of Modesty Rhetoric

June 25, 2013    By: DavidF @ 11:55 am   Category: Ethics,Modesty

Why are so many bloggers talking about modesty recently?  Prepare to know.

As a young man writing about human nature David Hume analyzed several common virtues.  When he got to modesty and chastity he ran into a problem.  On the one hand, society needs healthy families, but on the other, men have a lot of reasons to avoid being good husbands and fathers.  What happens when a man finds out the child he thinks is his isn’t?  That’s a problem.  Hume saw that men won’t be good fathers if they don’t feel reasonably confident that their mouths-to-feed have a biological connection to them (leaving adoption aside).  Men need a guarantee.  So how do we rest their fears?  Hume’s solution is modesty.

Well, chastity really solves the issue.  If women stay virtuous, there won’t be any problems (since women always know who they gave birth to, unchaste men won’t cause them confusion).  But Hume was a practical man.  People have sex in private.  He knew that society can’t constrain lascivious acts done behind closed doors.  Hume advised that society should shame women into modesty so that they’ll be more chaste.  As modesty increases men will feel more assured that their wives stay faithful.  The men will then believe they sired the children the women produce, and the great wheel of social order will continue.  No joke.

Let’s not crucify Hume for such an uneven approach to modesty.  While blunt, Hume hardly broke new ground.  In fact, some readers might applaud Hume’s insight.   They shouldn’t.  Using modesty to curtail chastity issues creates other serious problems, which I will come back to later.  We can do better with both virtues by unhinging them and reimaging them.  In this series I’ll present how.

This discussion couldn’t be timelier.  Mormon modesty rhetoric has exploded in the last decade.[1]  In the 1990s only three General Conference speakers discussed modesty.  In the 2000s that number shot up to twenty-one.  The next highest decade after the 2000s was the 60s, with only eight speakers discussing modesty.  BYU devotionals show the same trend.  Nearly as many speakers discussed modesty in the last decade as the three previous decades combined (ten and eleven respectively).  There are also more articles in the church magazines now more than ever before, especially The Friend.  Almost every speaker focused on female modesty, and most of them linked it to sexual purity as Hume did.

Church leaders have connected female modesty to they way they dress for decades.  Brigham Young may have been the first to link the two.  Here is a selection of his that modern leaders sometimes quote: (more…)

Moral Rightness and the Same Sex Marriage Debate

March 26, 2013    By: Administrator @ 10:41 pm   Category: Ethics

This guest post was submitted by NCT regular commenter, DavidF

Hot off the presses, you can listen to the oral arguments over the Same Sex marriage debate before the Supreme Court. I highly recommend it.

I want to bring up some of the highlights by comparing the competing value structures that the two sides rely on to make their case. So you’re getting a philosophical post and a political post for the price of one. But why the philosophy? Because the moral values both sides bring to the debate rest at the very heart of how they justify their positions. This is a useful tool to get at the bias inherent to each side’s argument.

Consequentialism and Deontology Crash Course

There are two moral systems colliding in this debate: consequentialism and deontology. The conservatives rely mainly on deontological arguments and the liberals rely mainly on consequentialist arguments. What’s the difference?
(more…)

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