Intellectuals and Prophecy (Intellectuals and Mormonism pt. 2)

November 12, 2013    By: Jeff G @ 6:39 pm   Category: Personal Revelation,Truth

Last post I tried to disentangle and nail down the type of intellectualism which is not compatible with Mormonism.  Briefly, Mormonism is not against us being good at using our intellect nor is it against us enjoying using our intellect for various purposes.  What Mormonism is against, however, is us believing, speaking or acting as if our intellect were the universal and indispensable judge of what we ought to believe, say or do.  Whereas the intellectual holds that the unexamined life is not worth living, the faithful Mormon places little importance in knowing the reasons for doing some things, save the Lord hath commanded it.  Having articulated a Mormon perspective on intellectualism, I would now like to switch gears and articulate the intellectual perspective on Mormonism.  While I will eventually argue in future posts that intellectualism fiercely rejects priesthood authority, in this post I want to show the compatibility of intellectualism with prophecy.

Let me first be clear about what I mean by “prophecy”.  By “prophecy” I mean any interaction, acquaintance or communication with the supernatural realm.  This will include all types of revelation, inspiration, miracles as well as all other gifts of the spirit.  Importantly, “prophecy” refers to a relationship with the divine that – in principle – any one of us can enjoy.  It is my contention that while many intellectuals might be somewhat uncomfortable with prophecy, there is no principled and irresolvable tension between the two.

Before I move onto why intellectuals do not intrinsically object to prophecy, I want to rehash what I take to be the essential characteristics of those who take the intellect to be the ultimate judge of all that we belief, say and do.  The intellectual holds that reason and experience (abilities and activities which are open to everybody in principle) sit in judgment of tradition and authority (positions and structures which are not open to everybody), but not the other way around.  The legitimacy of reason/experience is universal and indispensable; that of tradition/authority is not.  The intellectual is thus someone who is indoctrinated with the culture of critical discourse (CCD):

“[CCD] insists that any assertion – about anything, by anyone – is open to criticism and that, if challenged, no assertion can be defended by invoking someone’s authority.  It forbids a reference to a speaker’s position in society (or reliance upon his personal character) in order to justify or refute his claims… Under the scrutiny of the culture of critical discourse, all claims to truth are in principle now equal, and traditional authorities are now stripped of their special right to define social reality…  The CCD … demands the right to sit in judgment over all claims, regardless of who makes them…

“CCD requires that all speakers must be treated as sociologically equal in evaluating their speech.  Considerations of race, class, sex, creed, wealth, or power in society may not be taken into account in judging a speaker’s contentions and a special effort is made to guard against their intrusion on critical judgment.  The CCD, then, suspects that all traditional social differentiations may be subversive of reason and critical judgment and thus facilitate a critical examination of establishment claims.  It distances intellectuals from them and prevents elite views from becoming an unchallenged, conventional wisdom.” (Against Fragmentation: The Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals 30-31, Alvin Gouldner)

The reason why I like Gouldner’s definition so much is that it is so similar to the version of intellectualism that Mormonism rejects.  There is no mention of intellectual abilities, interests or activities.  Rather, his definition focuses on what the intellectual accepts as the ultimate source of legitimacy and how beliefs, words and deeds are to be justified once they are called into question.  Gouldner, I suggest, accurately pinpoints the very kinds of intellectualism which Mormonism rejects.  This post, however, is not about those aspects of intellectualism that Mormonism rejects, but is instead about those aspects of Mormonism that intellectualism accepts.

This leads me to the second reason why I like Gouldner’s definition so much: it is broad enough to encompass virtually all types of intellectuals within it.  This intellectualism has nothing to do with “the two cultures”, how “hard” some science is or whether some person describes themselves as an academic, Marxist, Darwinist or (importantly) a naturalist.  Such distinctions within intellectualism only serve to distract us from the question at hand by allowing Mormon intellectuals to assume that scriptural attacks are always aimed at somebody else (more about this below).  The intellectuals which Gouldner, the scriptures and myself are all referring to thus include a wide range of professions, hobbies and interests including physicists, biologists, sociologists, journalists, lawyers, bloggers, protesters, etc.  Most importantly, our definition of intellectuals includes many people with a strong faith in prophecy as I have defined it.

I would suggest, then, that prophecy is not much of a scandal to intellectualism except in that it makes many claims practically difficult to vet through the use of reason/experience.  So long as there is nothing which in principle prevents prophecy from being vetted or constrained by some kind of public process of reason/experience, the Mormon intellectual can rather easily accommodate it within their faith.  This thought process is especially seducing within certain strands of Mormonism which see no ontological distinction between the natural and supernatural, maintaining that all perceived miracles can ultimately be cashed out in terms of the practical difficulties of the vetting process.  To be sure, the practical difficulties of applying public reason/experience to prophecy do make many intellectuals a little aloof towards it, but there is no principled contradiction between the two.

Let me now describe the prophetic intellectual in greater detail so as to get a little more comfortable with the idea that intellectualism is not intrinsically hostile to prophecy.  The prophetic intellectual will tend to place a strong emphasis on those sources of legitimacy within Mormonism that are democratic in nature, a category which clearly includes prophecy as I have defined it.  Indeed, the democratic nature of prophecy is extremely important to the Mormon intellectual, for it is this which allows not only every belief, word and deed to stand before the public tribunal of reason/experience, but also every authority figure and time-honored tradition as well.

Thus, on the one hand the prophetic intellectual will quote Moses: “Would God that all the Lords people were Prophets.”  In this way they will accentuate the fact that we all have equal access to the same prophetic experiences which are to be systematized through the proper use of reason.  On the other hand, the intellectual will also quote Brigham Young: “The greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.”  In this way they will accentuate the fact that no person’s access to or interpretation of these prophetic experiences is beyond the systematic corrigibility of public reason.

At this point, however, I do not wish to pass judgment regarding the virtues and vices of the prophetic intellectual.  Instead, I wish to more fully articulate the consistency between prophecy and intellectualism in a way that the prophetic intellectual can identify with.  As mentioned above, the prophetic intellectual sees no principled difference between prophetic phenomena and the many other unique but unambiguously natural events which intellectuals are able to tolerate or accept within their worldview.  If any belief, word or deed within Mormonism is called into question, the prophetic intellectual strives to answer that question not by appealing to tradition/authority, but by seeking, pondering and praying – aka more reason/experience.  In this way the prophetic intellectual is able to have just as much (if not more!) faith as anybody else in the beliefs, words and deeds that the Lord (rather than His servants) deems worthy.  This is exactly what makes this kind of Mormon so prophetic.  This, however, also allows such people to use their reasoned interpretation of prophetic experiences to stand in judgment of all authorities and traditions within the church.  This is what makes this kind of Mormon so intellectual.

This last point needs to be further unpacked a bit, for prophetic intellectuals do not typically see reason/experience as the standard against which tradition/authority is to be measured and judged, for this makes their intellectualism far too conspicuous.  From their perspective, the standard against which tradition/authority is measured and judged is God/Truth.  By very definition the intellectual sees reason/experience as being universal and indispensable ways of engaging reality.  Accordingly, the prophetic intellectual sees reason/experience as the only way in which we could ever possibly get to God/Truth.  Consequently, the prophetic intellectual insists that the crucial tension lies not between tradition/authority and reason/experience, but between our reasoned interpretations of our experience with tradition/authority and our reasoned interpretations of our experience with God/Truth.  Thus, the prophetic intellectual insists that it is not reason/experience, but God/Truth alone which constrains his beliefs, words and deeds.  In other words, the prophetic intellectual construes their rejection of tradition/authority in terms of a devotion to the higher principles of God/Truth.

Ironically, then, the very hegemony of reason/experience is exactly what makes it invisible to the prophetic intellectual.  By making it the universal and indispensable way in which we are obliged to engage reality, reason/experience becomes both ubiquitous and indiscernible to the prophetic intellectual not unlike the air around them.  The perceived necessity of reason/experience is exactly what places its legitimacy beyond question: reason/experience uncritically become the mental tools/values according to which all other mental tools/values are prioritized and integrated.  This invisibility of reason/experience is thus what makes the transformation of the tension between tradition/authority and reason/experience into a tension between the former and God/Truth so seamless for the prophetic intellectual.  From their perspective, reason/experience is not engaged in any battle at all, but is instead the battlefield on which God/Truth and tradition/authority engage each other.

Finally, the ubiquity and indiscernibility of reason/experience to the prophetic intellectual is also what makes anti-intellectualism so difficult to clearly identify within the scriptures.  Since reason/experience is universal and indispensable, prophetic intellectuals are forced construe the scriptures as condemning some other form of intellectualism or as not condemning any kind of intellectualism at all.  Thus, the prophetic intellectual will attempt to drown out scriptural passages that are clearly and consistently anti-intellectual in the cultural or hegemonic sense that I have been using with scriptural passages that are clearly pro-intellectual in some other and unrelated sense.  More concretely, when the scriptures clearly state that we should not rely upon – or at times actively reject reason/experience, the prophetic intellectual will typically change the subject to how much God does want to us be smart, educated and prophetic. In this way the consistency between intellectualism and prophecy is preserved or even reinforced.

In summary, I have argued within this post that there is no principled incompatibility between intellectualism and prophecy.  The belief in the universal access to prophetic experiences is what makes such Mormons so prophetic.  The belief that all interpretations of such prophetic experiences are fallible is what makes such Mormons so intellectual.  For the intellectual, the universality and indispensability of reason/experience which defines them is exactly what makes reason/experience invisible to them.  This invisibility of reason/experience serves two purposes:  First, it obscures anti-intellectualism within the scriptures.  Second, it allows the intellectuals to transform any tension between reason/experience and tradition/authority into a tension between God/Truth and tradition/authority.  With this transformation in place, the prophetic intellectual is able to reconstrue their rebellion from tradition/authority in terms of a higher allegiance to God/Truth.  Consequently, whatever discord the Mormon intellectual might feel towards the tradition/authority they see around them, they strongly embrace the prophetic elements which they see at the heart of their religion.


  1. The Imporovement Era, June 1945 stated:

    When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.

    In response to this a Unatarian minster sent a letter to the president of the Church, President George Albert Smith in part quoting Brigham Young:

    “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwa[r]t the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give their leaders did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

    Here is Presdent George Albert Smith’s responce:

    …The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.

    I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.

    The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.

    On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

    Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498) Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”

    I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.

    In the advocacy of this principle leaders of the Church not only join congregations in singing but quote frequently the following:

    “Know this, that every soul is free
    To choose his life and what he’ll be,
    For this eternal truth is given
    That God will force no man to heaven.”

    Comment by Howard — November 13, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

  2. I’m very interested to see how well you identify with the prophetic intellectual in this post, Howard. Obviously, you won’t agree with my evaluation of him, but do I at least describe him in a way which rings true to you?

    Comment by Jeff G — November 13, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

  3. Jeff wrote:

    I’m very interested to see how well you identify with the prophetic intellectual in this post, Howard.

    Well I’ve quoted both the Moses and Brigham passages (along with D&C 9:8) in opposition to your anti-intellectual follow the prophet right or wrong without question argument and apparently served as your template for the prophetic intellectual so I’m not surprised you’re interested.

    But you might be surprised to learn that I have strongly argued against the CCD argument opposing an appeal to authority citing Jesus as that authority. And I would accept Joseph as that authority in bloggernacle discussions since the restoration came through him but the ban on blacks fiasco casts some doubt on necessarily accepting others on that same unquestioned plane. Yet here I am arguing George Albert Smith’s response. Why? because it agrees with Joseph’s and for what it’s worth given his lack of consistency Brigham’s. So I think modern prophets gain creditability in discussion when their position is backed by prophets greater than themselves.

    I don’t think of myself as an intellectual because the stereotype is one who is intellectual to the exclusion of all else. That isn’t me, I have an emotional side, I’m introspective and I have a spiritual life, I follow the spirit.

    The prophetic intellectual will tend to place a strong emphasis on those sources of legitimacy within Mormonism that are democratic…

    It depends what you mean by democratic but this is not strictly the case for me however I think you would have a very tough time making the case that Jesus’ ministry was conservative, that his focus wasn’t inclusive or that he was punitive so if he leads the church in it’s recent conservative bent when exactly did his politics change?

    the prophetic intellectual strives to answer that question not by appealing to tradition/authority, but by seeking, pondering and praying

    I often do both, but is something wrong with going directly to God? The issue is whether you want a personal relationship with God or prefer it brokered for you.

    Finally aren’t you over intellectualizing this?

    Comment by Howard — November 13, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  4. Interesting discussion, Jeff. You didn’t discuss presuppositions, and it seems like those on the prophetic side must employ a few (that God exists; that he self-discloses; that prophetic humans can discern communication in that revelatory disclosure from God) that a secular intellectual can dispense with.

    So in your view are all Mormon intellectuals also prophetic intellectuals? Could one be methodologically secular but personally prophetic? Doesn’t all this just boil down to (using more familiar terms and contrasts) metaphysical naturalism versus methodological naturalism versus supernaturalism?

    Comment by Dave — November 13, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  5. Elder Dallin Oaks:

    As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord. (From a CES Fireside on May 1, 2005 in Oakland, CA)

    Elder Packer explains why General Authorities do not deviate from general advice:

    We cannot, however, because of their discomfort over their plight, abandon a position that has been taught by the prophets from the beginning of this dispensation. The question then is, “How can we give solace to those who are justified without giving license to those who are not?”

    Comment by Howard — November 14, 2013 @ 7:54 am

  6. So the idea that when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done is in error and does NOT express the true position of the Church.

    We are to use our own thinking and always use the reason and good judgment God gave us to work out our own salvation and we have the liberty of thinking and believing as we please.

    General Authorities dispense general advice but there are exceptions to that advice.

    Since LDS prophets stopped using the phrase “thus saith the Lord” or some similar trigger to identify revelation we are left to confirm what is and is not revelation via. the spirit.

    So, with the spirit we are able to discern more specific divine guidance for our own stewardships. Without the spirit we are left to follow the general advice of our prophets and the scriptures.

    This is quite different that what you have been arguing, in fact George Albert Smith seems to destroy your position in a single letter. Do you have other authority you can appeal to with enough power to overcome Smith’s letter?

    Comment by Howard — November 14, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  7. I have really enjoyed these posts, although I am sure my understanding is weak. If I were to summarize some conclusion in my own words I would say that the intellectual in rebellion against tradition/authority can make an appeal to God/truth through prophecy, and thus maintain a sense of faithfulness in spite of the rebellion.

    Thanks for the thought you are putting into these.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — November 14, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

  8. I think this is a fairly good characterization of a Mormon intellectual. I may hesitate with how quickly you lump reason and experience into one category and contrast them to God/truth, and tradition/authority, but that might just be quibbling, so I’ll leave it.

    I’m interested in where you take this. If I wrote this post, my follow up would be to show why reason/experience aren’t nearly as reliable of tools to measure God/Truth and tradition/authority as many Mormon intellectuals seem to think. I suspect you’re going to take it a different direction though.

    One thing you’ve pointed out, or at least implied, in the past is that tradition/authority doesn’t really give much reverence to someone’s reason/experience. One reason you’ll find the Brigham Young quote everywhere is because there just isn’t many other statements like it. Even the George Albert Smith letter that Howard references, on closer inspection, probably doesn’t go as far as Mormon intellectuals would like it to. Furthermore, when you read something like Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, you can see the markings of some actual hostility between reason/experience and tradition/authority. I’m not sure there is any good way of reconciling the two categories, and that’s why I suspect Mormon intellectuals are keen to ignore Benson’s talk. The tradition/authority side has made reconciling the two categories a zero sum game. And yet for a lot of people, myself included, that just “feels” wrong.

    Comment by DavidF — November 14, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

  9. By the way, one thing I really appreciate about your posts is that they’ve forced me to confront the fact that I can’t put forward a very good argument, based on our religious texts, of why reason should ever trump tradition/authority. Taking that for granted has given me some tunnel vision, and this has been a good wake-up to be more self aware of my assumptions, even if I’m not totally convinced that I should give all of them up.

    Comment by DavidF — November 14, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

  10. DavidF,

    Those were the best responses to this that I could have ever hoped for. I don’t expect you to embrace any kind of extreme anti-intellectualism that I’m not even sure that I myself embrace. All I was hoping to do was hold up the mirror a little bit.

    I’ll respond in more detail once I have more time.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 14, 2013 @ 9:20 pm

  11. Jeff this has been a very intriguing set of posts that has chimed a lot with what I’ve been discovering about my own spiritual life recently. In many ways I feel like I’ve been living a transition from being a Mormon Intellectual to…something else…what it is exactly I don’t know.

    What is still unresolved for me, though, is how the primacy of authority applies outside of the church, namely in other faiths, and also how this interacts with our duty as citizens to be politically engaged. One of the attractions to intellectualism is its ever-elusive promise of objectivity. It always appears to be *just* beyond our grasp. That kind of tantalising closeness is seductive, and people stick with the paradigm thinking that the next discarded axiom will finally bring us to the promised land.

    I find it hard to see how to get people to even relate to a paradigm that in a very real sense simply abandons a pretense at objectivity. I don’t know how to sell that concept to someone sufficiently so that they will either a) seriously investigate or b) take me seriously in the public square, because once you make that final switch in primacy, you are suddenly speaking a very different language.

    Comment by Fraggle — November 14, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

  12. Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals are problematic for a number of reasons, he was President of Q12 at the time not President of the church which seems to conflict with his first fundamental The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.. SWK who was the President of the church was unhappy with the talk and had ETB apologize to Q12 for giving it and later as I recall to the 70s as well. It is not doctrine.

    Comment by Howard — November 15, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  13. Howard,

    ” but the ban on blacks fiasco casts some doubt on necessarily accepting others on that same unquestioned plane.”

    I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time discussing your (obviously strong) objections to the ban. In terms of this post, both authority and tradition were for the ban. You are/were against the ban. I would also say that reason and experience were probably against the ban. Thus, would this be a case of you measuring and criticizing tradition/authority by the standards of reason/experience?

    (I also think that you see authority is a different light than I am trying to portray in this post, but I’ll develop that point in a later post.)

    Comment by Jeff G — November 15, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

  14. Eric,

    That would definitely be the way that the intellectual would depict their rebellion against tradition/authority. They would construe prophecy as just another kind of experienced reason-giving. In this way, the intellectual almost weaponizes their reason/experience by giving it the stamp of God/Truth. As I said in the post, this mindset is totally incompatible with priesthood authority, but this does not make it inconsistent with itself.


    You’re right, I have no intention on focusing on the reliability of reason/experience. I think such an argument would merely reinforce the intellectualism which I am trying to argue against by suggesting that reason/experience don’t live up to the intellectual’s standards, as if those were the only standards that mattered. My posts are not about showing how any or all modes of thought to not live up to intellectual standards, but instead try to show the contingency of those intellectual standards. In other words, when people say that reason/experience aren’t all that reliable at painting and accurate and consistent picture of the universe, I say, “so what?” Who ever said that that’s the truth that we are supposed dedicate our lives to other than a bunch of philosophers?

    Comment by Jeff G — November 15, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

  15. Fraggle,

    You bring up some good points and questions which I simply don’t have any definitive answer to. You’re right about objectivity though. It’s simply a word that intellectuals use to try and pretend that they are being neutral about things which we should not, indeed, cannot be neutral about.


    I think the Benson’s talk carries SOME weight, but I certainly don’t think it can be used as a trump card by anyone.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 15, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

  16. Jeff wrote:

    Thus, would this be a case of you measuring and criticizing tradition/authority by the standards of reason/experience?

    No. When it comes to opposing the church’s position I do not operate on reason and experience alone nor do I think others should. This was not a case of reason and experience vs. prophetic revelation. I used reason and experience and I sought the Spirit on that specific issue. And in the end isn’t that what SWK finally did? Btw, if you check around you will find others who received spiritual confirmation opposing the ban.

    I refer to the ban as a fiasco because when one considers four statements taken together it is self evident that something went wrong and that gives rise to significant fallibility concerns and remaining silent and not speaking those concerns just perpetuates the error. 1) Blacks cannot hold the priesthood. 2) Blacks can hold the priesthood. 3) The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. 4) Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

    Close your eyes, cover your ears and hum if you want but clearly all was NOT well in Zion!

    Comment by Howard — November 15, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  17. Jeff G.,

    “I think such an argument would merely reinforce the intellectualism which I am trying to argue against by suggesting that reason/experience don’t live up to the intellectual’s standards, as if those were the only standards that mattered.”

    Actually, it need not go this way. I mentioned Montaigne earlier, who used Greek skepticism to show why we need to have faith in God. The gist of his argument was that we can’t possibly know what we claim to know through our own devices because we simply aren’t capable of having the kind of knowledge of the universe that we think we have. But God does have that knowledge of the universe, so we ought to abandon our weak claims to the eminence of human in favor of faith in God’s wisdom.

    Comment by DavidF — November 15, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

  18. *eminence of human [wisdom]…

    Comment by DavidF — November 15, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

  19. Jeff in the previous post I provided a link to a Newsroom article that states: Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. Nor does it necessarily constitute revelation! In fact if one believes SWK and Elder Perry, revelation is quite rare these days.

    Your position seems to assume it’s simply reason/experience vs tradition/authority where it’s implied or assumed that tradition/authority = God/truth! But tradition/authority never completely equals God/truth because God/truth must be dumbed down to be understood as tradition/authority and because inspiration is more man than God and revelation while more God than man still includes some of the man! So in addition to being rare, revelation is inexact.

    Your assumption that the intellectual relies solely on reason/experience seems to betray your calling him a prophetic intellectual. If he’s open to prophecy why do you rule out his use of personal revelation?

    Comment by Howard — November 15, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

  20. Howard, I don’t have much time right now, but I did want to say that you seem to have seriously misunderstoody post. I have not ruled out personal revelation at all, but have instead built it into my categories. Like I said, there is no principled difference between prophecy and other naturalistic phenomena. More later.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 15, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

  21. Well, you left personal revelation out when you asked: would this be a case of you measuring and criticizing tradition/authority by the standards of reason/experience?

    Comment by Howard — November 15, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

  22. Howard,

    Personal revelation fits in the reason/experience category, broadly under experience. So my experience with God, which includes revelation, becomes a tool by which I critique what a prophet says. But this leads us to a critical flaw in the Mormon intellectual’s position. Consider this example. Suppose I get a personal revelation that contradicts what the prophet says. In reality, God was revealing to the prophet the general rule while revealing to me a personal exception, because my circumstances are unique.

    If I use my personal revelation to evaluate what the prophet has said, then I might run the risk of thinking that I’m right and the prophet is wrong, because I believe that my personal revelation trumps what the prophet said, which is only allegedly inspired anyway. But if I use my personal revelation to criticize the prophet, then I’m not actually criticizing the prophet because of my revelation, I’m criticizing the prophet by coming to an intellectual conclusion about my revelation, i.e. that my revelation applies to everyone and not just me. And that’s one way a Mormon intellectual can be inspired, but also totally wrong at the same time. And I’m sure there are other good examples of how this could play out if we thought about it for a while.

    Comment by DavidF — November 15, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  23. Howard, the reason why I don’t mention personal revelation too much is that it is a phenomenon which all sides agree to in this debate. The reason for this is that we all agree that there is no conflict between God’s reason/experience and His tradition/authority. We simply have no way of approaching the question of whether the legitimacy of God’s tradition/authority derives from the rightness of His reason/experience or the other way around. We all agree that whatever God says is right, so there’s nothing much to talk about here. The question, then, becomes what do we do when we disagree with somebody who’s tradition/authority or reason/experience can be called into question?

    That said, however, I feel like you have helped me unpack my position in a different and useful way:

    The intellectual, always being suspicious of tradition/authority, will never attempt to ground reason/experience in that foundation. Rather, they will say that the legitimacy of God’s tradition/authority derives from the rightness of His reason/experience which is beyond question.

    Rather than being suspicious of tradition/authority, the scriptures actively praise it. I don’t think that the non-intellectual will necessarily insist on grounding the rightness of God’s reason/experience in tradition/authority, but they will not feel compelled to actively reject such a position either.

    I think we are in a better position now to approach a kind of ambivalence which I see in personal revelation.

    The intellectual (and I do see you as being one of those) goes to God looking for greater light and knowledge which they construe as better reason/experience. The intellectual goes to God, not because He is the proper priesthood authority to approach with any such question, but because His reason/experience is beyond question. Thus, why in the world would you not go to God with any such question? For the intellectual, personal revelation is similar to looking something up in the most perfect encyclopedia we can imagine. Most importantly, the intellectual sees no reason why their own appeal to this encyclopedia is any different than anybody else’s appeal to the same encyclopedia.

    The non-intellectual, however, does not see personal revelation solely in terms of reason/experience. For them, the tradition/authority of the person doing the asking (as well as the Person doing the answering) is VERY important. In their mind, going straight to God every single time we disagree with a church leader to find out who is right and wrong is akin to second guessing your boss by always going over their head. In other words, the non-intellectual goes to God with a question not solely because of His omniscience, but because of His social position relative to us. The non-intellectual does not necessarily question who is right and wrong on some issue, but instead questions the rightness or wrongness of various courses of action, especially as these apply to priesthood leaders.

    In summary, the intellectual will have a strong tendency to speak as if he and God were the only people worth talking to on some issue by continually emphasizing personal revelation. For them, there is only one relationship which matters. A non-intellectual, however will not assume that he and God are the only people worth talking to on most issues. To them, there are at least three relationships that matter, that between him and God, that between his priesthood leaders and God and that between himself and his priesthood leaders. As such, they will not necessarily downplay personal revelation, but they will discuss other relationships as well.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 18, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  24. DavidF (way back in 17)

    ” I mentioned Montaigne earlier, who used Greek skepticism to show why we need to have faith in God.”

    But that’s exactly the problem I see, that while it claims to undermine reason, it only does so to the extent that you embrace the very reason that it’s supposed to be undermining. But I’m not trying to demonstrate the limitations on reason so much as the contingency of reason derived from the Greek tradition. For this reason, the argument which I have presented isn’t very philosophical in nature. Instead, my posts have had a little bit more of a psychological/sociological flavor to them, wherein I simply try to make us a little more self-conscious about the values that Mormon intellectuals uncritically embrace.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 18, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

  25. “But that’s exactly the problem I see, that while it claims to undermine reason, it only does so to the extent that you embrace the very reason that it’s supposed to be undermining.”

    I guess then my question is, so what? I’m not sure why this is a problem.

    Comment by DavidF — November 18, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

  26. The problem is that Montaigne makes it sound like the only thing that can legitimately constrain reason is reason itself. This just is the full blown intellectualism that the scriptures reject. What I’m trying to show is how reason can legitimately be constrained by tradition and/or authority, a position which Enlightenment thinkers like Montaigne would never accept.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 18, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

  27. Well, Montaigne was actually pre-Enlightenment, and because he was a staunch Catholic, and he used his attacks on reason to support Catholicism and God’s authority manifested in the scriptures over reason, I doubt he’d even be considered a proto-Enlightenment thinker.

    Montaigne’s argument goes something like this, if we add the assumptions:
    -In the realm of ideas, there is man’s reason and God’s thought.
    -Man’s reason can’t arrive at knowing everything that is good for him (i.e. we can’t arrive at an objective morality all on our own)
    -We need the (Catholic) Church, as God’s representative on earth to tell us how to be moral with respect to God’s desires for us.

    I’m not sure if there is anything about Montaigne’s argument that the scriptures reject (assuming the scriptures support Catholicism, of course). And I don’t see how Montaigne is using reason to diminish religious authority. Quite the opposite, Montaigne seems to be arguing that the reason’s inherent deficiencies force us to look to God to correct us when we’re wrong. As far as I can tell, Montaigne is following a different track to arrive at a very similar conclusion, and his track doesn’t necessarily contradict your track, so I’m not sure I see the problem with Montaigne’s argument, besides that it’s not the same one.

    Comment by DavidF — November 19, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  28. There are still a few problems I have with this, although I think we might both admit that this is hardly a crucial figure:

    1) He still makes it sound as if he’s saying, “since we can’t figure out all the right reasons ourselves, we need the catholic church to fill in that intellectual gap.” In other words, he doesn’t seem to believe that tradition/authority can or should trump reason, but that the proper use of reason can and should be used to parse true from false traditions and authorities.

    2) Even if that’s not really what he meant, my main concern is that this is exactly how the intellectuals within the church today will read him. As such, I don’t much care what he believed himself, so much as what the intellectuals today believe.

    3) It is my position that the intellectual will try to minimize or even deny the distinction which I am trying to draw between reason/experience trumping tradition/authority vs the other way around. I see Montaigne’s position, as you have outlined it, as blurring rather than accentuating this distinction by making it clear that we need church authorities, but leaving it very ambiguous what role these authorities are to play in our lives.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 20, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  29. Yeah this is getting into technicalities. Montaigne didn’t actually make reasoned arguments to parse between true and false traditions. He figured that there was no way to rationally conclude whether the new Protestant churches were right, or the Catholic church was, so the best thing for anyone to do is to stay a member of the church in their area, rather than trying to figure out who was right on their own (I think Mormonism gives a compelling alternative to Montaigne’s position by throwing in continual, personal revelation).

    It’s probably not fair to demand that you give a thoughtful critique of Montaigne based on the short summary I present. I’ll eventually get around to doing a post on his thought, and how I think it works well under the umbrella of Mormonism, but I probably won’t get around to it for a while.

    Comment by DavidF — November 20, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

  30. As an interesting side note, because I can’t totally resist myself, Montaigne’s suggestion for everyone to stick to their faith was probably more a pragmatic solution than an idea born from skeptical thinking. France was having its share of violent conflicts created by warring Catholic and Protestant princes. I imagine he was just trying to figure out the simplest way to stop the bloodshed. In saying that, though, he was a very faithful Catholic.

    Comment by DavidF — November 20, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

  31. I think Socrates’ expression “the unexamined life is not worth living” is compatible with the gospel, though maybe not with certain cultural/political adaptations of the gospel. Obedience does not usually preclude scrutiny, examination, understanding, or reflection. I realize you may be taking liberties with Socrates on this, and I certainly wouldn’t deny the truth of the Adam reference, but I think Socrates may be a useful antidote to certain strained memes of obedience within LDS culture.

    Comment by Comet — December 7, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

  32. I can’t help but wonder by what standards you are gauging the difference between the gospel and cultural/political adaptations of the gospel since I can’t easily find such a distinction within the scriptures. In my experience, it is the intellectual who is passing judgement on what constitutes a cultural/political adaptation or a strained meme within the gospel in order to fit their religion into their intellectualism. Not too paint with too broad of a brush, but this clearly shows which side of the bread these people have buttered.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 13, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

  33. Jeff,

    I’ve read a few of your posts today and am going to try to engage with your positions.

    The first question I have is what human faculty is used to understand authority and tradition? Is the reason that is used to read and write according to tradition the same one that is used to read and write according to reason/experience or is it different?

    Your theory seems quite developed in terms of what intellectualism is, but I don’t know what to make of the anti-intellectualism. Even the anti-intellectualists write and speak, they make arguments, they tell stories, on many levels they appeal to the intellect. I can imagine a faculty of spiritual insight or obedience to authority, but it doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the mormon tradition/authority.

    The actual intellectual acts seem pretty similar between religious knowledge and secular knowledge.

    Comment by TroyP — December 15, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

  34. Another aspect of this question is separating thE Mormon tradition of anticlericalism from anti intellectualism.

    The tradition seems firmly against the catholic intellectual tradition but you don’t seem to be counting them as intellectuals since they aren’t ccd centric thinkers.

    The tradition also seems anti ecstatic and anti aesthetic outside traditional forms so there seems to be a lot ore going on than the dichotomy of ccd centric behavior and the tradition.

    Comment by Troyp — December 15, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  35. Here are a few more questions and comments.

    I’m not sure of the way that you think people acquire values or cultural highest goals but it seems like you are contrasting reason with an alternative and the alternatives seem to be a feeling or spiritual awareness or a thinking that is imitative rather than reasoning.

    Let’s take a simple example. A composer submits a song for a new hymn and it sounds like a showtune. Say something like hello dolly but with an lds message.

    To me that wouldn’t sound reverential and I could feel that way based on the fact that I’ve never heard a hymn like that before or because it doesn’t feel reverential.

    Keep those alternatives in mind as I ask the next question.

    What kind of experience lead to your understanding that the scriptures don’t support ccd type intellectualism? It seems to me that you find it so obvious that you will be tempted to answer that only an intellectual could ask such a thing. But I don’t think your reason is at all responsible for your understanding of the scriptures so I’m trying to determine if it is a spiritual experience such as a burning in your bosom or if it is an imitative experience such that you are acting the way prophets act and you don’t see them act like ccd intellectuals.

    I’m really not sure which of the three modes (reason, feeling or imitation ) ground your values.

    You seem to place a large trust in the meaning of words which is more characteristic of values based on words but that is mainly when you are critiquing another position. When you express what you do believe you are more likely to take the feel of the scriptures as obvious.

    But the whole enterprise uses words rarely found in the scriptures such as legitimate, values and intellectual. How can I understand your post from a tradition authority perspective when no one in the tradition talks like this?

    How can I tell if your post is charitable and patient for example. What prophet or scripture best tells me how to understand you?

    Comment by Troyp — December 16, 2013 @ 7:59 am

  36. Troyp,

    I would recommend reading this post again (if you haven’t already:

    The intellectualism which I attack has nothing to do with faculties of any kind at all.

    As for anti-intellectualism, I would certainly place myself in that camp along with a certain aspect of Mormonism, but I wouldn’t call the tradition against which I am contrasting intellectualism “anti-intellectualism” at all. A more accurate title (although still somewhat ambiguous) would be premodern/traditional religious thought as epitomized in the scriptures.

    You’re right that I haven’t described them in too much detail yet, but there are reasons for this. First, my target audience is the intellectual who tends to not be very aware of the choices that he makes and contingent values which he internalizes in his approach to religion. Second, there is already so many intellectual depictions of religious thought which drown out the relatively few intellectual depictions of intellectualism within the bloggernacle. Third, I will say more, but my first two posts haven’t required me to say very much about traditional religious thought.

    I think this post does make clear, however, that the premodern, traditional religious thought which I defend is not some kind of spiritual awareness or some such. Indeed, I think that such an approach to religion would be largely incompatible with the traditional approach which is largely based around an appeal to the authority of social position and tradition.

    I get uncomfortable using words like “tradition” and “reason” since these are exactly the words which I feel the intellectuals have reinterpreted to their own ends. I a certain sense, “reason” as understood by the intellectual definitely belongs within the intellectual camp, but I would never say that traditional religion is not rational in its own way. Rather, the rules that constitute good reasoning simply differ between the two mindsets.

    As for your question about interpreting a hymn, again, I don’t think feel has too much to do with our evaluation of various behaviors and speech acts. I do think that only an intellectual would be interested in your question, but I don’t think that is all that important for my purposes. What is important, is that only an intellectual would frame the question the way you do in terms of experience and reason alone.

    A premodern religious mindset would say things along the lines of “we always have sung this song” (an appeal to tradition) or “the prophet says we should sing this song” (an appeal to authority). They would also be inclined to say things like “this song is so true” even though the lyrics contain numerous inaccurate depictions of reality. An intellectual would reject all of these things.

    There is a certain kind of obviousness to the interpretation which I’m bringing to many scriptural texts, but I don’t think I’m leaving my argument there. Rather, I feel like I’m bringing an interpretation to them which is much more coherent and fluid than the typical intellectual interpretation. The intellectual tends to cram the scriptures into his own mindset in which the give and take of dialectic argumentation is a good thing and the fallibility of authorities is really important. But even a casual reading of the scriptures will show that they embrace the exact opposite of these things.

    Finally, I would resist your interpretation of my perspective as a traditional one. A traditional one would include the more “Iron-Rod” types in the ‘nacle, a label which doesn’t fit me all that well. What I am trying to do is turn the tools of intellectualism back on itself in order to defend a traditional, premodern kind of religion. My strategy is that if you can’t follow or have no interest in the content of my posts, then you probably aren’t the intellectual that I’m arguing against. If you can understand my post and are interested in this subject, then you almost certainly are an intellectual and therefore are the target of criticism here.

    I have part 3 almost ready, and I’ll be posting it soon enough.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 16, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

  37. Jeff G,

    Ok, I’m starting to understand a bit better.

    A few things I still don’t understand.

    1. Isn’t a spiritual experience, an experience? I can see where CCD intellectuals wouldn’t want to ground an argument on that type of experience, but doesn’t one “experience” an answered prayer or a still small voice or even the sense of tradition being violated?

    2. Mormonism seems to be founded in a non-traditional restoration of tradition. Its at best half-heartedly traditional. Furthermore, mormonism seems to be founded in the modern tradition of each individual having a conscience and a universal relation of all people as God’s children. This seems to be somewhat at odds with the premodern religious tradition of people having an incompatible status based on hierarchy, kinship or clan relations.

    Most of LDS discussions of truth assume that truth applies to all people which seems inconsistent with a pre-modern mindset.

    3. On a more intellectual level I’m questioning whether being a speaker of a modern language necessarily entails a modern mindset. I’m questioning whether one can have a premodern, authoritarian (I’m not sure what word to use next – mindset, worldview, being…) and also use modern language. I admit that this is speculative but its not clear that one can maintain the necessary enchantment of a premodern religion and also communicate with a modern. How would you ever know if you were using words the same way? Since the modern has no way to grasp an appeal to tradition and authority – its part of the culture. Authority no longer exists for many people. Its like saying fairy or elf – people might know what you mean but you can never be sure.

    Comment by TroyP — December 16, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  38. You said “The intellectualism which I attack has nothing to do with faculties of any kind at all.”

    But the attack does presume that a person can hold a premodern /authority position or have values based on premodern values.

    That would seem to require an explanation of how one holds values. What I am asking is what part of a person’s being(faculty?) determines whether they hold modern or premodern values?

    What about premoderns that hold values that you find false. How did they come to hold those values and are the cases different for those that value true religion. For example, are they both based on what they are told by others, some by God and some by Satan, some by following their reason and others by following revelation?

    Its not clear to me how you understand people to acquire their values.

    Comment by TroyP — December 16, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  39. These are all really great comments. Many of them will be cleared up a bit in my next post. The rest I’ll have to address when I have a bit more time.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 16, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  40. TroyP,

    1. Yes, spiritual experiences would certainly count as an experience. Many intellectuals would be uncomfortable accepting the spiritual experiences of others, but a Mormon intellectual would no principled barrier to third person verification of such experiences. It should also be noted that the intellectual can also bring logic and reason to criticize spiritual experiences by showing their supposed incoherence or inconsistency. For these reason, a Mormon intellectual will place A LOT of religious weight in spiritual experiences.

    2. Just as there are many different ways of being modern, so too there are many different ways of being premodern. To be sure, Mormonism has internalized modernism by rejecting many social distinctions as irrelevant. One social distinction which they have fully embraced is that of priesthood ordination. That’s what makes Mormonism so premodern or whatever other label you want to put on this (maybe “anti-modern” or “non-modern”?). The fact that they do not place EVERYBODY on the same standing in terms of making and vetting speech acts is enough to distance Mormons from intellectualism.

    2a. In my past posts I have argued that the intellectual/modern definition of truth is not the same as that found in the scriptures. Very briefly, Christ is the one and only truth and way for everybody, and truth consists in approaching Him through that unique and universal path.

    3. I think that the vast majority of people alive today see the world through a roughly premodern mindset. On the other hand, the vast majority of people who have gone through systems of higher education do not see the world in this way at all. But just as the modern mindset can be taught by way of academia and other such ways, so too the premodern mindset can be (re)learned in similar ways. (In fact, this is very much the point of my posts!)

    As for your next comment:

    I would say that the we learn how to be premodernists in the same way we learn how to be modernists or how to play any other games, language or otherwise. I don’t see how my position requires any such explanation.

    With regard to the truth or falsity of values, I think you have things backwards. Truth and falsity are things that are based in values rather than the other way around. Values are the rules by which we call something true or false and as such cannot themselves be true or false.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 17, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

  41. Now things are becoming way more clear.

    Cool, you are a post-modern mormon that has premodern values!

    You said, “Very briefly, Christ is the one and only truth and way for everybody, and truth consists in approaching Him through that unique and universal path.”

    I don’t know many others in the LDS tradition or with LDS authority that consistently use truth quite this way.

    If we don’t know how we acquire values, how do we know who is Christ?

    Comment by TroyP — December 17, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

  42. I don’ necessarily reject the post-modern label, but I doubt I would ever use it to describe myself (it just means too many things, most of which I disagree with). I would prefer pragmatist, since I think that’s a bit clearer and less politically loaded.

    I think that there is more consistency in that usage than might seem obvious at first, but you’re right there is bit of tension in the term. It seem very clear to me that the vast majority of scripture does not endorse any kind of correspondence theory or map metaphor of truth. A lot of this language still lives strong in the church today, but correspondence usages certainly have found their way into our vernacular. I’m not at all against this, so long as this usage makes no pretensions to universality and exclusivity.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 17, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

  43. Let me see if I understand this.

    Truth, for those with Christian values is the path and the way to Christ.

    Determining what that way is, is based (I think from earlier posts) on following tradition and authority.

    However, sometimes, such as in the case of Joseph Smith there is a new authority and tradition that comes into the world.

    People come to hold the values that show Joseph Smith to be an authority by a process that you don’t think is important but its the same process that everybody uses to acquire their values like reason or hedonism or Christianity or whatever.

    It would seem that people with different values inhabit different realms with incompatible ways of perceiving truth.

    This makes sense in why you want to use intellectuals own discourse against them.

    However, I’m not clear on why anyone with a different understanding of the path of Christ should be influenced by your words.

    Take a person who says ordaining women is the path to Christ. You appeal to authority and they say that they are the way by which God reveals his knowledge to leaders. You appeal to tradition and they appeal to the tradition of new revelations.

    Your words and writings only have influence if they influence values because values are the way we assess the path to Jesus, but I have no way of knowing if your writings are bringing me closer or farther from the path to Jesus without some understanding of how they change my values and you don’t think you need to offer this.

    This seems like the path to skepticism or solipsism. I seem to have no way to assess my values. They just exist and determine my truth.

    Have I misunderstood you?

    Comment by TroyP — December 17, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

  44. You’re pretty close, although I might disagree with the scope of the denials and affirmations which you attribute to me.

    For Christians, there is no value-neutrality to truth at all. The way I like to think of it, is that the instrumental notion of truth that the intellectual tends to endorse is basically a map of the world whereas the value-laden version that the premoderns accept is more like getting directions – similar to a Liahona. It is for this reason that personal revelation is framed as celestial information for the intellectual and celestial guidance for the premodern.

    There are many ways that somebody could come to accept Joseph Smith as an authority, but I think that you and I both would be suspicious of the authority who is treated as such because he says so. That’s not what I’m saying. We come to accept new priesthood authorities for the same reason that we come to accept new managers, coaches or guardians… because an even higher authority lets us know that we should.

    I similar thing could be said for tradition. An appeal to tradition is an appeal to how we’ve always done things and as such cannot on its own legitimize drastic revisions in policy such a women ordination or some such thing. Yes, tradition does change over time, but over a long time and rarely if ever because of a single publicized decision.

    You are right is suggesting that there is no independent way of measuring modernism against premodernism. Each can be measured by its own standards and those of the other, but there is no objective way to decide between the two. The closest thing to such a standard would simply be an appeal to pragmatic value, but this is anything but a straightforward process.

    One of the reasons why I’m writing these posts is because the bloggernacle is full of people measuring their premodern religion by modern standards, and the results aren’t pretty. There are also quite a few people measuring modern thought by premodern standards. What I’m trying to bring to the discussion is a modern evaluation of modern thought which can be held up against a modern depiction of predmodern thought.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 18, 2013 @ 2:26 pm