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


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.)

Genealogy and Darwin

September 19, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 12:38 pm   Category: Before Abraham

This is basically a repost of a comment I left over at SteveP’s site, but thought that it would be more than a little inappropriate to discuss there any further:

I think the concept of genealogy helpfully illustrates some of the problems that many might have with Darwinian thinking. Originally, genealogy was a means by which people established and legitimized their social roles within society (especially nobility) in that people inherited their stations from their ancestors.  This is very intertwined with the idea of birthrights.

This same thing in found throughout the Bible in that the Hebrews think it extraordinarily important that they are the descendants of Abraham and thus the inheritors of his covenants (and land, I might add). Mormonism (especially 19th century Mormonism) is by no means a strong departure from this tradition: genealogies within our expanded canon establish lines of priesthood authority, by performing vicarious ordinances we bring our ancestors within our individual priesthood lines, our patriarchal priesthood and blessings establishes which tribe we belong to, etc.

Placing non-human organisms within this same genealogical framework is very subversive to this entire tradition of legitimizing social standing, covenants, stewards, land, etc. through inheritance…. for better or worse. It suggest that these lines of inheritance do not go back to some divine act or promise of God which might legitimize what I do now. Indeed, it suggests the exact opposite.

There are two potential ways of framing this:

  1. The more modern way is to say that any kind of genealogical reasoning is, in fact, a genetic fallacy such that describing the origins of something carries with it not intrinsic moral valence.  This says that the very fact that Abraham is one’s ancestor (through biological or priesthood lines) is totally irrelevant to the authority which you claim to have.  The scriptures clearly reject this.  Who my authority can be traced back to is VERY important.
  2. The other, closely related approach is to say that our values could have evolved in that they merely emerged out of a nihilistic past.  But this poses another problem in that it implies that, over time, Abraham’s descendants gradually cease to inherit his covenants, authority and birthright… or that over time other people with no biological relation to Abraham can come to acquire his covenants, authority and birthright.  While we do accept some form of this, the process of spiritual adoption is itself mediated through a different, non-biological line of authority, covenant and birthright.  At this point, the argument simply repeats itself.

In summary, the legitimizing value of genealogy seems to be 1) non-negotiable within the Abrahamic tradition and 2) unacceptable with the Darwinian tradition.  Adam and Eve is the most obvious point of contradiction here since they are the point at which our genealogies are morally grounded (we inherit both the fall and the promises of redemption from them).  It is difficult to see how the two perspectives could ever be fully harmonized.


Liberty within the Scriptures

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…)

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.


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…)

A Brief History of Absolute Truth

June 9, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 4:31 pm   Category: orthodox,Theology,Truth

In the beginning, prophets (or priests) were the source of truth.  What they said was binding upon all within their stewardship and beyond question.  In this way, authority and revelation were two peas within the same pod.  Since prophets had no competition, truth was thought to be single and unified, but only within the immediate context.  Since different prophets have stewardship over different times and places, their truth was not universal and unchanging in any transcendent sense.

As the stewardships of these prophets expanded, it became practically necessary to record and transmit their words by writing.  Thus, scribes came to be a derivative source of truth in that they interpreted the written word to those to sought access to prophetic guidance when there were no living prophets at hand.  In was in this context that the words of prophets could and often did travel in space and time beyond their limited stewardships.  Truth, then, began to appear more heterogeneous and at times conflictual.  Within this context, the difference between living and dead prophets became blurry. (more…)

Reason After Authority

June 2, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 6:36 pm   Category: Apologetics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Scriptures,Theology,Truth

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.

Against Natural Theology

May 22, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 2:33 pm   Category: Apologetics,orthodox,Scriptures,Theology,Truth,Universalism

“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.”

                                        -Alma 30:44


There is no contradiction here

May 6, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 9:28 am   Category: Apologetics,Bloggernacle,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology

“If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents,” he asked the bishop, “who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?”

The bishop replied, according to Dawson, “The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.”

Let’s just assume that this is an accurate representation of what happened and let’s also sideline the politically charged topic that that “multitude of documents” was about.  There is still no contradiction here.  A contradiction only emergence if we see the truth of revelation as logically consistent, factual information rather than value-laden counsel that is adapted to the recipient’s stewardship.

Of course the whole point of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution was an attempt to sideline the asymmetries of stewardship altogether by a focus on sola scriptura and the book of nature, respectively.  But this is exactly why Mormons cannot fully embrace either of those movements.  We do not believe in reformation or revolution but in the *restoration* of those same asymmetries of stewardship that the former were specifically meant to reform or revolt against.

A Genealogy of the Tall and Spacious Building

May 2, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 4:31 pm   Category: Apologetics,Bloggernacle,orthodox,Theology,Truth

A three step identification of and response to disloyal criticisms of the church:

  1. The values and premises that motivate the criticism are not universal, timeless or necessary.  They arose through a specific historical process.  They are not “just there” to be recognized.
  2. These values and premises historically arose outside of the legitimate priesthood channels and as such are not binding revelation.  They are the philosophies of (wo)men.
  3. These values and premises were specifically designed to either sideline or undermine priesthood channels as such, and were never aimed exclusively at the priesthood authorities of some other church.  The proper constraint upon unrighteous priesthood authority is the restoration of righteous priesthood authority, not a reformation through critique and reason.

A faithful criticism, by contrast, would be rooted in values and premises that 1) at some point in history were 2) either received or endorsed by the proper priesthood channels and 3) does not sideline or undermine priesthood authority as such.  Exposing the hidden personal unrighteousness of a leader would be a perfect example.  Exposing how that leader’s policies or teachings are incompatible with premises and values that go back 300 years to a philosopher who was fighting against “traditional” authorities is not.

The Dangers and Blessings of Reason and Revelation

January 17, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 1:58 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Scriptures,Theology

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.

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