This post that consists of three parts: First, I will give a brief review of Jonathan Haidt and his publications – this section is optional and can be skipped if you like. Second, I will summarize “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” an article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning concerning the nature of microaggressions and the emergence of “victimhood” culture – this is the main meat of the post. Finally, I will use Nietzsche’s master/slave moralities to apply Campbell and Manning’s paper to the differences between victimhood culture and the gospel.
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…)
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…)
“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…)
Some of you will recall that I have been a participant within the Bloggernacle almost since it’s very beginning. My blog “Issues in Mormon Doctrine” was one of the original “Islands of the Sea” when the Mormon Archipelago aggregator went online in 2005.
- I was more of a threat to readers’ faith than the currently disaffected.
- Mine was a solo blog while theirs is a group blog that cannot be banned as a collective whole.
- Bigger, less expendable personalities from more popular blogs became disaffected, thus shifting the standards.
- The Archipelago moderators got lazy/moved onto other things in their personal lives.
I’m open to other explanations…..
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…)
The Youngest Apostle Currently Was Born in 1952, the Oldest in 1924. Today I was reading on Pew Forums about generational gaps in public opinion (here) on social issues, and this got me thinking about the generational makeup of the Q12+FP (hereafter Q15) and what the implications would be when there are generational shifts in these Quorums. Basically, I asked the question: When will millennials take over the Q15?
So I calculated it. My calculations are not nearly as robust as Ziff’s, but I was merely aiming for directional correctness. To keep it simple I took the 75th percentile for age of death of the last 11 Apostles who died (I chose 11 arbitrarily because that got me back to President Hinckley and because I love that guy, that’s why). The 75th percentile for age at death is 92 years. I chose to use the 75th percentile over the median (87 years) on the base assumption that medical advancements are happening, etc. I then took the median age an apostle is currently called (61 years*) and began calculating what generation the next apostles would be from. I used the generational matrix that pew uses, which is as follows:
pre-silent generation before 1928
silent generation 1928-1946
baby boomers 1946-1965
Gen X 1965-1981
post-millennial 1997 on
Anyway, taking a base snapshot of the generational drift of the apostles by decade, I get the following. (more…)
(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.
Within the famous novel/film a mother, Sophie, is forced to choose which of her two children she will save from the gas chambers at Auschwitz. In a certain sense, the most gut wrenching aspect of the story is not that she chooses her son over her daughter in order to prevent them both from being killed. The most gut wrenching aspect is not which child she choose, but that she had to choose at all. She loved both of her children, which is exactly what made her choice so horrible. (more…)
There’s been a lot of conversation over the Church’s policy decision regarding children of LGBT couples. What I have seen as I’ve looked through blogs is a lot of people grasping for ideas to explain their position on this issue, getting misinterpreted or saying something unintentionally hurtful, and causing more pain all around. This troubles me. There’s a difference between hurting feelings because of genuine disagreement and hurting feelings as a byproduct of failing to frame a difficult issue in constructive ways. I can’t do anything about the former, but this post might help with the latter.
In this post, I present three cognitive frameworks that might help people understand their own position and the position of others, one political, one moral, and one psychological. I hope that those reading this will come to a better appreciation for the views of people with whom they disagree, that they will see the good that motivates those with whom they disagree, and that they will reflect upon the flaws in the views that they currently subscribe to. As with all great moral debates, the three ones I describe below are probably irreconcilable. That’s why these Facebook, forum, and blog debates don’t seem to persuade anyone. So long as I operate in a different moral framework than you, our chances of agreeing with each other will be at best accidental (and for different reasons). And competing moral frameworks can’t disprove the validity of their competitors. I urge anyone reading this to consider that before they embark on a debate with people they care about (or should care about). As a final point, my hope is that I can summarize each of the positions below to show why they hold a lot of intuitive appeal. If I have failed to do that, I hope I’ll be able to rectify it in the comments section, but in the meantime, I ask readers on both sides to be sympathetic to positions they otherwise find disagreeable.
Liberalism and Communitarianism – Political Framework
Liberalism is often associated with political liberals, but that is a mistake because political liberals—who I’ll call progressives—aren’t always liberal. Liberalism is the belief that in any political society, the rights, freedom, and security of its individuals are the most important thing that a society can, and should, protect. Liberalism correlates with the Enlightenment values of individual autonomy, political freedom, and the right to moral self-determination (described more below). Progressives are often associated with these ideas, but it would be more accurate to associate libertarians with them. In fact, progressives and libertarians divided in the early 20th century over the question of how involved the government should be in ensuring that these values are protected. Nevertheless, you’ll see liberals and libertarians often join forces on issues such as same-sex marriage (and their rights as equal citizens in all respects). But just as progressives tend to believe that individual liberties are best protected by government involvement, they are also likely to believe that private organizations ought to protect and promote individual liberties as well (libertarians often disagree on this point—which might be why there are a lot of libertarians in the Church). In other words, for a promoter of liberalism, and particularly for progressive liberalists, the Church’s decision to limit the opportunities for children of same-sex couples clashes with one of the most critical values that we are raised to believe: that protecting individual autonomy is fundamental among other values.
As important as liberalism is, it has its problems. One of them is that most humans aren’t wired to be purely liberal thinkers. Even progressives, who tend to be associated with liberalism, do not vote that way in some political issues, such as gun-control or certain protections for racial minorities (there’s a liberal argument to be made for both of those issues, but progressives don’t always make it). Those that find liberalism unsatisfactory marshal out the positions used by its opposing framework, communitarianism.
Just as progressives are often associated with liberalism, conservatives are often associated with communitarianism, although that too is overly simplistic. Communitarianism is the belief that the community’s interests as a whole should take precedence over any of its individual’s. The classic position of a communitarian is this: If a small business owner wants to open a pornography store in a small town, should the town be allowed to prohibit that if most people don’t want it? The idea has a lot of appeal, especially among political conservatives. There’s no question that humans are born with a kind of “hive mentality,” where we recognize that a united community can do much greater things than a group of individuals (think Aristotle). There’s a great deal of research backing up the commonly held view, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and a lot of people can remember a day when it felt safe to leave the house of children and wander the streets because the community was there to protect them. If political liberalism is fundamental to our political system, it seems that communitarianism is the best framework in which it can thrive.
However, there are problems with communitarian thinking. One is the danger of moral authoritarianism. If the community is ultimately more important than the individual, than the community ought to set its own standards. If individuals don’t like it, they should go to a different community. Astute readers will recognize this argument among many a faithful Mormon in this debate: there is no right to be a member of the Church, and those who disagree with it do not have to stay.
That’s a frustrating argument for liberals to hear because it seems so intuitively wrong…from a liberal perspective. Moreover, when it comes to a religion debate such as this, communitarians can excuse the problem of moral authoritarianism by simply saying, “Hey, I don’t make up the rules, God does.” The veracity of the communitarian position then moves from a political one to a metaphysical one. Those who aren’t persuaded by the metaphysical arguments (i.e. those without at testimony) leave, and those that are stay, albeit often begrudgingly. Yet, and this is a bit tangental, those communitarians who tend towards a guardian-of-the-community role, often find the begrudging liberals to still be intolerable, since even if they agree to stay in the community, they nevertheless weaken it by staying. The message liberals get is typically this: conform or leave. The danger of such a message is, and liberals often point this out, that there’s a difference between the Church and the Gospel. While some people might try to separate those too much, communitarians run the risk of agreeing with that position in principle but in practice allowing their biases to make the distinction effectively irrelevant.
Harm Principle and Virtue Theory – Moral Framework
Moving on, another classic moral debate is the harm principle v. virtue theory. The harm principle was most clearly developed by John Stuart Mill. Mill characterized it this way: I should be allowed to do whatever I want up to the point that it violates the liberty of another to do what she wants. The harm principle may not tell me what *I* should do, but it does tell me how far I’m allowed to go before I need to stop and limit my actions for the sake of others. The harm principle helps those who follow liberalism to know where to draw the line on individual freedom, although it’s worth stressing that the harm *principle* is not the harm *rule*; there are times when even most liberals would agree that it ought to be set aside such as in at least some instances of statuary rape even when both parties fully consent. However, the harm principle might cause us to question whether other acts ought to be considered morally wrong, such as polygamy. Mill, in fact, wrote favorably about Mormons practicing polygamy.
The harm principle has its advocates in this debate. What harm is there in allowing children of LGBT parents to receive various Church ordinance? And if there is no harm, or at least no closely related harm (there’s almost always some harm out there for anything if one abstracts enough), then the policy is morally wrong. Or at least, if the harm principle is the foundational standard for moral thinking, then that is probably the necessary conclusion to be drawn. One answer Ivan Wolfe at Millennial Star gave to this is that the harm is to the Church. This policy, Wolfe explains, is about the “struggle for soul of the Church,” meaning whether the Church can keep out people who would try to enter it and try to change it to openly tolerate the same-sex lifestyle. Perhaps that is a potential harm, but couched in communitarian thinking as it is, it is not entirely persuasive, since it really just swaps the harm principle out for the core philosophy of communitarianism. In fact, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage can be seen as a debate about the harm principle, where the side that lost tried to do exactly this.
Another response to the harm principle is to adopt an alternative moral framework, that of virtue theory. Virtue theory isn’t easy to explain, particularly because it is so easy to misrepresent. The notion that we should follow the virtues, some more than others, and eschew the vices, some more than others, is not central to virtue theory; that notion is merely its outgrowth. Virtue theory is about finding one’s role in society or in a particular situation and then following what is expected of that role to excel at it. Farmers should be patient, warriors should be courageous, scholars should be wise, and al of us should try to emulate the virtues of these various roles in the roles that we find ourselves in order to excel at what we are supposed to do. One virtue theorist, Alisdair MacIntyre, gives the example of a hockey player racing to the net of the opposing team in the final seconds of the game. The player sees that she must pass it to her teammate to have any chance of winning the game. What should the player do? If she’s a good player then she immediately knows what is the appropriate thing to do, because she knows that her role is to excel as a hockey player at her sport in conjunction with her team. By passing the puck, she acts virtuously. Compare the hockey player with another blogger discussing the LGBT issue.
Geoff B. at Millennial Star gives the analogy of a orchestra concert, which he uses to explain why the Church’s recent policy addition is just. Imagine being at a concert. If you were there, you’d intuitive recognize that certain things would be wrong to do. It would be wrong as an audience member to stand up and heckle the orchestra. It would be wrong for a violin player to sit in the percussion section. It would be wrong for a viola player to play an oboe’s part, etc. What would be appropriate to do if you neither wanted to listen to the orchestra or take part in it is to go somewhere else and do something else.
The analogy draws the communitarian conclusion that I discussed above, but its point on roles is particularly salient to what I’m describing here. A good church member has a role to support the decisions of church leadership. Harm principle folk might find that repugnant, but that is because they do not ascribe to virtue theory. If they did, then not only would the conclusion be entirely fine, it would be the clearly and morally right thing to do. Not only are harm principle folk wrong about to criticize the church’s policy (see communitarianism above), but church members who criticize it are acting according to the wrong moral framework when they criticize it too.
There are problems with virtue theory. As I see the length of this post increasing much more than I initially anticipated, I’ll set those aside for right now. What I think probably makes virtue theory seem so clearly wrong to certain people, and why the harm principle seems so clearly wrong to virtue theory people boils down to another paradigm, the last one I’ll discuss.
Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degredation – Psychological Framework
Jonathan Haidt was a progressive, atheist, Jew living on the east coast who found the moral views of conservatives absolutely repugnant. However, as Haidt began to study the underlying psychology of why people are drawn to progressive or conservative ideologies, he discovered that conservatives weren’t morally repugnant as he previously thought, they just set moral priorities differently than progressives do. Haidt later went on to discover six moral-value foundations that guide both conservatives and progressives, and depending on how you prioritize one foundation over the other you are more likely to vote one way or the other. I’ll highlight two of those foundations, which are probably the most salient ones here: care/harm, sanctity/degradation.
Progressives tend to be highly sensitive to acts that result in harming other, and are motivated strongly to care for others, including those they do not know. That helps explain why progressives are much more likely than conservatives to stress the needs of the poor, racial minorities, single mothers, and even criminals. Conservatives are sometimes baffled when progressives come to the defense of Islamic extremists who hold particularly non-progressive views (conservatives, as communitarians, are very hesitant defend someone who doesn’t share in their community values), but progressives are so strongly motivated by the promotion of care and avoidance of harm, that it matters to them on an intuitive level to protect even someone they vehemently disagree with on other issues. That is not to say that Conservatives don’t feel this way some of the time, but they are more likely to put a lower priority on this care/harm need than progressives.
Just the opposite, conservatives are much more likely to promote values, laws, and institutions that promote sanctity and condemn acts that degrade what they find holy. Conservatives tend to be highly critical of flag burning, of criticizing heroic people (military, police), and are closely watchful of any attempt to limit Christianity’s influence on America (at least those conservatives that are Christians). Given the hypothetical—is it morally permissible for a woman who doesn’t have any clean rags to cut up an American flag and use it to wash the toilet bowl—conservatives are much more likely than progressives to answer that question with a no. Progressives might find that baffling. After all, the woman has done nothing to mitigate individual liberty or violate the harm principle. Why is she doing anything wrong? For conservatives, it has nothing to do with care/harm, and in fact, there are a lot of things in this world that are morally right or wrong that don’t have anything to do with care/harm.
Haidt goes on to show that even most progressives probably agree with that statement to at least some extent. Haidt gives two scenarios to show this. Imagine the family dog gets run over accidentally by a neighbor. The family who owned the dog loved it so much, and they decide to eat it. They cook it correctly, nobody else sees any of this happen, and they enjoy the meal. Was that morally wrong? Most people say so. Some don’t. But consider an alternative: imagine a man who buys a chicken from the supermarket each week. He prepares it for dinner, has sexual intercourse with it, cooks it, eats it alone, and nobody sees this happen. Is that morally wrong? Almost everyone agrees that the man in the second scenario crossed a line, even though the man did not violate the harm principle. Haidt uses these stories to illustrate that virtually everyone recognizes that some acts are morally degrading even though no harm resulted from it. Likewise, some things are just sacred, even if there is no better way to explain it than that.
Progressives often find the sacred/degradation moral foundation frustrating because they can’t argue with it. And in fact, there is a danger for conservatives to treat some things as sacred that really ought not to be, such as racially pure marriages (and progressives never let them forget it). So who is right about the new policy? Again, I won’t weigh into that. But I do hope that the faithful who engage in this debate will not be angry with those who question the moral rightness of the new policy. Hopefully they will see that behind those criticisms is a concern for the individual who will feel out-of-step as a result of it. And I hope that critics will realize that the faithful are not being morally obtuse or grossly indifferent to the emotional (and spiritual) needs of the individual, but that the faithful simply believe that there are times when sanctity outweighs care, and regrettable as it might be, this is one of those times.
I similarly hope that progressives will not fault Church members for believing that the harm principle is not necessarily an appropriate way to resolve moral quandaries such as this one. And hopefully, members will recognize that their virtue theory may be so exclusive that it alienates those who want to believe but can’t (yet?) fully commit to a radically different moral framework than what they intuitively believe to be correct—I add as a caveat that I’m not sure that one must be a virtue theorist to be a good Mormon. Finally, I hope that liberally minded individuals will see that the desire to protect community and enact seemingly harsh policies is driven out of a wholesome desire for good, even if it can be excluding. And I hope that communitarians will think carefully before they engage in boundary maintenance, recognizing the risk that their wholesome desire may be unnecessarily alienating to those that need not be so readily excluded. At least, those are my hopes.
“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.”
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…)
“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
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.)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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…)