“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
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…)
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:
- They look “up” to authority, office or some other person who is set apart to answer such questions
- They look “out” to nature through observation, experiment, measurement, etc.
- They look “inward” to feelings, promptings, instincts and passions, etc.
- They look “back” to the past in traditions, customs, sacred texts and other things that have stood the test of time.
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.
“[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…)
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.
“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.
Which is worse, false revelations being accepted as true or true revelations being rejected as false? This question, I think, gets very close to the heart of the debate between reason and authority. This issue can be framed historically in terms of the Enlightenment battle between revelation to authority figures and reasons and laws which are accessible to and binding upon everybody.
The Mormon tradition believes the Catholic Church to have become illegitimate (if not in terms of revelation, then definitely in terms of authority) by the time of the Enlightenment. Thus, we praise the Protestant reformers and other secular thinkers that cast away the shadows of the “Dark Ages” (so called) for their resistance to that apostate church.
The problem, however, is that the metaphors, values and concepts that these Enlightenment thinkers created in order to subvert and overthrow the authority of the Catholic Church were weapons that were meant to subvert any and all appeals to revelation to authority figures without any regard for the legitimacy of these claims. Indeed, the whole point of the Enlightenment was that such appeals to revelation given to authority are intrinsically illegitimate.
This forces a confrontation of sorts between Mormonism and reason. After all, while the Mormon tradition dismisses the illegitimate authority of the Catholic Church, it also stands apart from Protestantism in not wanting a Reformation in which authority is universalized/dissolved, but in wanting a Restoration of legitimate claims to revelation from authority figures. This, however, is exactly what Enlightenment reason was created in opposition to. We cannot fully embrace both traditions at the same time.
The question then becomes, in what way can we prevent the abuses of illegitimate authority without also closing the door on legitimate authority that we simply happen to not like? The Enlightenment answer – universal reason – seems to have done a decent job in preventing the former, but has unfortunately closed the door on the latter as well. We see various versions of this same Enlightenment answer within the bloggernacle in which we attempt to bind priesthood leaders to strict rules that universally apply world-wide and without exception, hold the book of scripture to the standards of the book of nature, judge living prophets by those of the past or future, etc.
These attempts at blocking claims to revelation from authority figures are motivated by the fear that false revelation might be accepted as true. This seems like a perfectly reasonable fear. From the other side of these same debates we find claims motivated by the fear that true revelation might be rejected as false. This too seems like a perfectly reasonable fear. The fact is that both dangers are very real and always present with the Mormon tradition, and it’s a little disingenuous to pretend that only one or the other is where the “real” danger lies.
Perhaps, it might be worth considering the possibility that universal reason is not the only protection we have, or must inevitably have against false revelation and abuses of authority.
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…)
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…)
Human reasoning is pretty much indispensable in our daily lives as human beings. Not only are we allowed to engage in human reasoning, but we are actively encouraged to do it…. Unless it contradicts the teachings of our priesthood leaders. Priesthood authority trumps human reason.
“We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.”
-12 November 1947 Letter to Lowry Nelson, First Presidency, Archive.org (more…)
“And behold, others he flattereth away … and he saith unto them: I am no [prophet], for there is none.” (2 Nephi 28:21)
“When we reject the counsel which comes from God, we do not choose to be independent of outside influence. We choose another influence… Rather than the right to choose to be free of influence, it is the inalienable right to submit ourselves to whichever of those powers we choose.” (Henry B. Eyring, Ensign, May 1997, p. 25)
Discipleship and Euthryphro’s Dilemma. At one point in His ministry, Jesus taught a doctrine which seemed patently absurd to his disciples – so absurd, in fact, that many of them turned away from Him at that point. In so doing they were using their trust in doctrine to constrain their trust in a prophet. Jesus then turned to the Apostles and asked if they too would leave to which they responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” In so doing they were using their trust in a prophet to constrain their trust in doctrine. We all must also pick and choose who or what we follow in our lives. By picking a ‘who’, we necessarily also choose a ‘what’ and by picking a ‘what’, we inevitably also choose a ‘who.’ Many times we frame the decisions we make in terms of ‘what’ so as to occlude, disguise or otherwise repress the ‘who’ which necessarily accompanies any such choices. While I am willing to concede that our motives for doing this are not always so sinister in nature, I do want to suggest that – contra Euthyphro’s dilemma – there is no deep, intrinsically binding or non-question begging reason for prioritizing doctrines over prophets in our lives. (more…)
“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it…”
I will inform you that it is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instructions for those in authority, higher than themselves; therefore you will see the impropriety of giving heed to them; but if any person have a vision or a visitation from a heavenly messenger, it must be for his own benefit and instruction; for the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom.
-History of Church 7 Vols. 1:338, 339
Consider the not unusual case in which two people who, having searched, pondered and prayed in all faithfulness and earnestness, come to two different conclusions regarding how they ought to believe, speak and/or act. The first way of resolving this disagreement would be with an appeal to priesthood authority in which one side acquiesces to the presiding authority of the other. The second way would be with an appeal to inter-personal reasoning in which, very roughly speaking, the less persuasive side acquiesces to the more persuasive side. The chart below summarizes many of the central differences which underlie these two mechanisms for resolving differences in prayerfully considered positions. (more…)
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. 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.
|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.
 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.
 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.
(P)recap. The purpose of this series on intellectuals within Mormonism is bring the analytic tools of intellectualism against itself so as to help Mormon intellectuals recognize and perhaps second guess the choices that they actively make when they unnecessarily place themselves at odds with the church leadership. To review, the first post identified the specific kind of intellectualism which the scriptures warn us against. Briefly, the intellectual will be the person who holds that:
Any speech act can legitimately be called into question by any person, at any time and that a legitimate answer to that question cannot invoke any person’s position within society.
In the second post I articulated the ways in which Mormon intellectuals will not only tolerate, but actively embrace prophecy within their worldview. In summary, the Mormon intellectual has no trouble negotiating a kind of compatibility between their intellectualism and their prophetic religion, since all doctrines can still be called into question and subsequently (dis)confirmed by God at any time. In this way, the position which priesthood leaders have taken on any given issue becomes largely irrelevant to the position which Mormon intellectuals will take on the same issue.
While the Mormon intellectual can fully embrace the first leg upon which Mormonism stands (prophecy), he will have serious difficulties embracing the other leg: priesthood authority. In this post I want to articulate the tensions that exist between intellectualism and priesthood authority, for I believe it is these that are the primary source of contention between the former and Mormonism. (more…)