The modern mind struggles to make sense of the atonement. At least mine does. The Book of Mormon insists that because of the atonement, mercy can potentially be extended to us sinners without compromising the demands of justice. In my experience, most attempts at clarifying what this means amount to little more than free-wheeling metaphors… not that I have done any better. In this post I would like to summarize Michel Foucault’s three different models of criminal justice described in his classic work: Discipline and Punish. It is my hope that his historical method might shed some light on the subject. (more…)
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.)
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…)
[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…)
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.
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.”
A while back, Morgan over at BCC wrote a fantastic post about Galileo and his immense influence on modern science. While the post was fantastic and well worth reading, it was somewhat tangential to the interests that I have in the “Galileo event”. Yes, Galileo was a major figure in promoting heliocentrism, and the mathematization of natural philosophy, and a theory of gravity, etc. and, NO, I am not interested in defending the Catholic Church in any way or getting into the historical details and political intrigue surrounding the inquisition. I am, however, very interested in using him as an example of the ways in which reason and science can come into conflict with religious authority. I’m not sure that the case gives us clear advice on how to negotiate such tensions, but it does give us a clearer map of the terrain. (more…)
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.
(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…)
I think we can all agree that within Mormonism there is a certain kind of ambivalence toward intellectualism, even if we aren’t quite able to put our finger on it. On the one hand, it seems clear that Mormonism embraces intelligence as such, going so far as to equate it with the Glory of God. Along these lines we are also told to seek truth and knowledge from the best books and counseled that to be learned is good so long as we don’t abandon the faith. On the other hand, there are at least as many passages which warn us of the learned and scholarly who preach the philosophies of men according to the understanding of the flesh. These tensions within the scriptures leave one wondering what place, if any, is to be found for intellectuals within the church. (more…)
The first priesthood blessing I gave terrified me. How does one, exactly, pull inspiration out of the air and give a blessing? No one ever described this to me; they just said it’ll happen. But I had no idea of how the words would come to me.
We can divide priesthood blessings into two components: the procedure, and the mechanics. We’re really good at discussing blessing procedure; that is, the steps to giving a proper blessing. But how does one pick the words they use? That’s the mechanics.
Below are some of my observations on priesthood mechanics, including an explanation of how I seek out inspiration in a blessing.
Do the Words Matter?
Firstly, do the words even matter in a blessing? Elder Oaks pointed out that in healing blessings, the recipients faith and God’s will, not the verbiage used, determine the outcome. So why should we fret about what to say? The words serve at least two functions in a blessing. First, when the priesthood holder echoes God’s will, the words enliven the spiritual environment where the blessing is given. I think that this can give the recipient confidence in God’s power to heal. Second, inspired words can help the recipient receive personal revelation.
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.