“By Common Consent”

January 16, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:32 pm   Category: Apologetics,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Personal Revelation

Consent can mean an awful lot of things.  Many people today are inclined to think that doing all things by common consent means a unanimous vote within an idealized process of democratic legislation.  When people object to the claim that “the church is not a democracy” with their own appeals to “common consent” they definitely have such a reading in mind.

The idea of consent, however, was originally much more rooted in a republican than it was in a democratic tradition.  The strongest modern exponents of government by consent can be traced to the British social contract theorists: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  These men were not, however, strong advocates of government by the people – an idea that is much more associated with the Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau and his notion of the “general will.”   (more…)

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. (more…)

A Social History of “Just Asking Questions”

December 14, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 5:14 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

“The man whom we believe is necessarily, in the things concerning which we believe him, our leader and director.”

– Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments

This post is a summary of the first chapter in Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England.  While Shapin’s book is largely about the sociological origins of scientific truth, his account easily generalizes to a discussion of truth, trust and dissent within religious communities.

Shapin is a leading figure in the “strong programme” of the sociology of knowledge associated, primarily, with the University of Edinburgh.  This school largely defines itself in terms of its claim that the truth-value of a claim does not causally explain it.  Thus, claims that are true must be causally explained in a way that is “symmetrical” to false claims… which is exactly what makes many people on the other side of the science wars more than a little nervous.  Thus, Shapin says:

“There is a massive mismatch between dominant characterizations of the sources of our factual knowledge and the ways in which we actually secure that knowledge.  Both seventeenth-century and present-day ‘moderns’ widely advertise direct experience as the surest grounds for factual knowledge, just as they identify reliance upon the testimony of others as an insecure warrant for such knowledge.  Similarly, both sets of ‘moderns’ celebrate proper science as a culture which had indeed rectified knowledge by rejecting what others tell us and seeking direct individual experience.   In contrast, I argue that no practice has accomplished the rejection of testimony and authority and that no cultural practice recognizable as such could do so.” (xxv) (more…)

Scientists and Seers: Infalliblity and Autonomy

November 18, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 11:42 am   Category: Ethics,orthodox,Truth

The infallibility (or lack thereof) that can be attributed to priesthood leaders is not different from that which can be attributed to scientists or any other community that pretends to cultural authority.  (This would include political parties, activist groups, nations, ethnic minorities, social identities, etc.)  In both cases, the party in question fully acknowledges that they are imperfect and completely open to critical review.  Neither party claims absolute and unyielding certainty.

While each community is open to critical review of its imperfect claims, they also insist, however, that such critical review must come from WITHIN their own community – through processes that they recognize as legitimate.  This inevitably places the community beyond the scope of “outside” criticism.  Indeed, within our modern, liberal society such communities will tend to moralize any such external criticism as an illegitimate or oppressive interference with their autonomy or academic/religious freedom within their “rightful” stewardship or domain.  (Non-modern moralize such interference in different moral terms – moral pollution, etc.)  Each community is thus fully open to correction, but only through the rules, means, techniques, values, persons and truths that define, structure and differentiate it from other communities.   (more…)

Reductio ad Infallibilum

November 9, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 1:40 pm   Category: Apologetics,Bloggernacle,orthodox

(I do not even pretend to know Latin, so correct me if my title isn’t quite right.)

Over at Times and Seasons, I mentioned the passage of the New Testament where Jesus says:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” -Matt 23: 2-3

This is an incredibly powerful claim on Jesus’ part in that he is saying that even though the scribes and Pharisees were unrighteous men, because of the priesthood offices that they held, their teachings should still be obeyed!  This, I suggested, strongly undermines the common tendency to dismiss any argument that even remotely resembles prophetic infallibility.  After all, these priesthood leaders were not only imperfect in the typical cognitive sense (not unlike every other mortal), but they were also flawed in a deeply moral sense…. And yet the apostles were still told to obey what these immoral men taught!

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’m willing to go all the way down this path, nor is it clear to me that Jesus himself goes all the way down it.  What is clear, however, is that he makes the moral and intellectual fallibility of priesthood leader totally irrelevant to our obedience to their teachings.  (At no point within gospel teachings is our obedience to priesthood leaders conditioned upon their being infallible, certain, morally or intellectually pure, etc…. which is the primary point of this post.)

While the KJV above is the official version for the church, a commenter named “perturbed” did point out that Joseph Smith’s version of that passage reads differently (note* This is found not in the JST, but in the “Inspired Version” that is not officially endorsed by the LDS church):

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:  All, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, *that they will make you observe and do*; for they are ministers of the law, and they make themselves your judges. But do not ye after their works:; for they say, and do not.”

Notice, however, that while the reading is different, it does not contradict what the KJV version (the version that the church takes to be official) says.  Thus, it could be argued that this is not an open and shut case in either direction.

It was at this point in the thread, however, that BradL, who I’ve interacted with before, chimed in with the rather cliche accusation that I was preaching “blind obedience” or “prophetic infallibility”.  I finally challenged BradL to find any place where I have suggested that priesthood leaders are never (let alone incapable of being) wrong or that I have suggested that we ought to obey our priesthood leader no matter what.  Indeed, I challenged him to find ANYBODY who has taught these things, a standing challenge that I offer to all readers.

To be sure, one can easily find statements that we should not publicly oppose or correct priesthood leader, or that we should not trust our own reasoning/understanding over the teachings of priesthood leaders, but I have never heard of anybody ever teaching that you should obey priesthood leaders even if God Himself tells you otherwise.  This is what “blind obedience” or “prophetic infallibility” amounts to and nobody ever teaches it.  It is a bugbear of the intellectuals’ own making.

I do admit, however, that it may be the case that somebody, somewhere actually has taught one or both of these things.  There are lot’s of people who have said lot’s of pretty incredible things, so I can’t be 100% sure on this point.  What I can be sure of, however, is that the vast majority of church members or bloggernacle participants who have ever been accused of teaching these things have not, in fact, done so.  The closest that I have ever found to somebody actually teaching these things is Jesus Himself in the passage above.

I thus propose the following as a new rule that I will call “Reductio ad Infallibilum”:

Whenever an LDS blogger accuses another LDS blogger of preaching “blind obedience” or “prophetic infalliblity” within some debate, they have automatically lost the debate in question.  Such a person has used the sloppiest of human reasoning to defend a trust in human reasoning and is thus no longer worth reasoning with.

To be sure, there may well be exceptions to this rule (just as there are to any rule) in that it may be the case that a person actually has insisted that priesthood leaders are incapable of error or that we ought to obey what they say no matter what.  It is possible that such people do exist.  I, however, have never found such a person.

The Normative Structures of Science (and Religion)

October 6, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 5:16 pm   Category: Apologetics,Ethics,orthodox,Theology,Truth,Universalism

“The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed.”

-Robert Merton

Institutions shape and form who we are as individuals. The more habituated we become to working and living within an institutional structure, the more we will internalize its rules and the less we will consciously make decisions with regards to our obedience to those rules.  With this in mind, it is important to our individual freedom and responsibility that we make explicit – in other words externalize – the rules of science and the ways in which they clash with those that regulate church activity.  Both of these institutions have rules that regulate behavior within them and to the extent that these rules contradict each other we who are institutionalized within both will be compelled to navigate our ways through various forms of cognitive dissonance, compartmentalization, strategic equivocation, etc. (more…)

Weberian Monotheism

September 26, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 3:06 pm   Category: Apologetics,Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

“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

(more…)

The Non-issue of Biblical Literalism

September 22, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 11:31 am   Category: Apologetics,orthodox,Scriptures,Theology

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:

  1. There is some amount of irreconciliable contradiction between the premodern epistemologies of the Abrahamic religions and modern rationality.
  2. 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.)

Liberty within the Scriptures

September 19, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 11:41 am   Category: Determinism vs. free will,Ethics,Happiness,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Scriptures,Universalism

If you have not done so already, I strongly recommend that anybody interested in social or political thinking go and read Isaiah Berlin’s classic: Two Concepts of Liberty.  Within this paper he lists 4 premises by which modern thinking can and at times has transformed into the very opposite of freedom.  I will then state my views regarding the (in)compatibility of these premises with the religious tradition found in the scriptures. (more…)

Sources of Stewardship

September 14, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 6:54 pm   Category: Ethics,orthodox,Truth

I haven’t been posting much, and I plan on keeping this one short too.

In previous posts I have developed a four-fold taxonomy of moral discourse and I would like to basically apply this same taxonomy to the sources of our stewardships.  From what source do we derive our shared ideas regarding the boundaries of our responsibilities and freedoms?  Here are four non-exhaustive and non-exclusive options: (more…)

Medical Doctors and Priesthood Leaders

July 23, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 6:02 pm   Category: Ethics,Life,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Scriptures,Truth

[Jesus’ cures for medical illnesses] are all miraculous, and the same power was granted to the apostles—”power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease.” And more than this, not only the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, but even the dead were raised up. No question of the mandate. He who went about doing good was a physician of the body as well as of the soul, and could the rich promises of the Gospel have been fulfilled, there would have been no need of a new dispensation of science.

-William Osler, The Evolution of Modern Medicine

When I speak of “drawing valid inferences” or “making legal moves” in a language game, you should not automatically think that these inferences and moves could simply be made by anyone in the linguistic community. For example, in Foucault’s scenario, the patient’s submission to the psychiatrist’s authority is by no means enhanced by his ability to reason exactly as the psychiatrist would about his condition. On the contrary, such “simulations” of rational discourse would tend to underscore the depth and complexity of the patient’s mental disorder. Thus, not only must a psychiatric diagnosis be articulated according to a fixed set of rules, but it must also be articulated by someone who has been authorized to issue a diagnosis of that kind. And so, it is crucial to the patient’s having submitted to the psychiatrist’s authority that he remain silent while the psychiatrist speaks on his behalf.

-Steve Fuller, Social Epistemology

The first passage above illustrates the historical, zero-sum displacement of religious authority by science with regards to how we ought to behave and to whom we ought to look for such instruction.  The second passage above illustrates the asymmetrical nature of scientific authority as it exists within society today.  Before continuing I first must say that 1) I think and hope that we all treat modern medicine with the amount of respect that it has clearly earned and 2) I have no intention of pitting medical science against scriptural religion.  I do, however, want to use our modern deference to the authority of medical science to illustrate the nature of priesthood authority. (more…)

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…)

Sources of Legitimacy

July 1, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 3:32 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Scriptures,Theology,Truth

In this post I wanted to briefly sketch out some of my own thoughts and taxonomies regarding how we go about legitimizing claims and positions.  I realize that the distinctions I make aren’t all that fine grained, but I prefer to sacrifice a certain amount of complexity for the sake of clarity.  When somebody calls some belief, position or claim into question there are, I submit, 4 primary ways in which we legitimate such things:

  1. They look “up” to authority, office or some other person who is set apart to answer such questions
  2. They look “out” to nature through observation, experiment, measurement, etc.
  3. They look “inward” to feelings, promptings, instincts and passions, etc.
  4. They look “back” to the past in traditions, customs, sacred texts and other things that have stood the test of time.

(more…)

Tokens and Signs vs. Evidence and Reason

June 17, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 5:56 pm   Category: Apologetics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Scriptures,Theology,Truth

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.

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…)

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