A Partial Response: Philosophy

I want to thank the many people who took the time to comment on my initial post. You’ve showed me that this guest-blogging stint will be both more stimulating and more time-consuming than I anticipated. I hope it is understood that I cannot possibly respond to all, or most, or even more than a very few of these comments.

I’ll try to write two posts today, the first (this one) addressing the philosophical questions raised by Jim F and others; the second post will bring things back to Mormonism. I think the latter is important because this could easily develop into a debate about theory. I’d enjoy that, but I’m unsure if it would be a good use of the Times and & Seasons website.

So, on to philosophy, postmodernism, Heidegger, etc. . . .

It is true, as Jim writes, that “what is true of God is also true of ordinary objects: ultimately philosophical terms are inadequate to that which they desire to represent, whether divine or no[t].” Yet I nevertheless think a distinction needs to be made here. On the one hand, all discursive statements somehow fail to grasp the concrete particularity of the object they describe. For example, if I say, “that tree is tall,” and the tree is, in fact, tall, then I have accurately described it in one of its manifold aspects. But it is also brown, hard, has green leaves, those leaves are “oak” leaves, its lowest branch looks a little bit like my first girlfriend’s ankle, it’s the tree under which I was married and in which (on a branch that was struck by lightning in 1986) I read the first page of my first Shakespeare play, and so on and so forth, through my own personal experiences and thoughts about the tree and its physical attributes: it has cells of a certain (oak tree) kind, is composed of carbon and other elements, which are themselves composed of atoms in certain configurations, which are themselves composed of sub-atomic particles. Try as I might, it is never possible for me to make a long enough list of discursive statements to capture the essence of the tree. Even when the list is, say, 3,492 statements long — and I find it impossible to think of another one to add to the list — the content of that list does not produce the “tree” I see before me. The lived experience of the tree inevitably slips the bonds of discursive thought — mainly because “experience” (phenomenologically speaking) is a combination of (often implicit) propositions, sense input, and “mind” or “intelligence” (“nous” in Greek). And the propositions can’t “get at” the sense input or “minded” sides of the equation — and without them, there’s no “experience.” This is, I know, not Heidegger’s way of putting it in the “Origins” essay; but I think it ends up in roughly the same place.

So much for that “one hand.”

On the other hand, there are statements about God — which of the opinions, intimations, intuitions, suspicions, etc., floating around in our pre-reflective thoughts can be applied to the divine? And more importantly, how far should we allow our reason (through dialectical questioning and refutation) to move beyond those immediate, pre-reflective givens toward a more refined, rationally acceptable or coherent account? It strikes me that Mormonism (as I understand it) proposes to stop the dialectical ascent very early — very close to the ground of our most basic commonsense, pre-reflective opinions and intimations. “So JS says that God has a body? OK, if that’s what God told him!” The mainstream Christian tradition, by contrast, stops the ascent at a “higher” level — at least by the time of the founding Creeds. Hence God is understood in terms roughly consonant with Greek philosophic categories (like “eternity” and “substance”), which are themselves very far removed from commonsense intuitions (although still much closer to them than most modern scientific claims [bozons anyone?]).

On the narrower (but related) question of whether postmodernism leaves us with “no moorings whatsoever,” I admit that Heidegger and others do leave us with the standard(s) that emerge from within pre-reflective communities; they thus encourage a radical (the most radical) return to the “given” (as it is revealed or disclosed in a “world”) that one could imagine. This is why, I think, so many Mormons find postmodernism to be congenial: Heidegger opens the door to a thorough, profound affirmation of the truth of their own “given.” But of course the content of this “given” that postmodernism affirms is radically indeterminate (indeed, I wonder, with Stanley Rosen, whether Heidegger would have allowed himself to be satisfied with ANY determination of truth, as opposed to insisting on endless, open potentiality that never culminates in any actuality). The point is that postmodern thinkers really don’t provide “moorings,” beyond vague gestures toward there being such moorings out there, somewhere (Levinas is arguably an exception to this rule, but even his mooring is as vague as can be; the “Other” is pretty empty, is it not?). So, the Mormon embrace of postmodernism that I alluded to in my post is a purely negative embrace: Heidegger, et al, clear the ground for a richer awareness of and absorption into the pre-reflective revelatory experience of the LDS community.

One last point. I’m afraid, Jim, that we have very different understanding of Heidegger’s relation to the philosophical tradition. I realize that the European source of postmodernism are less inclined than Americans to dismiss the tradition; good for them. Yet it is, I think, quite misleading to describe Heidegger as an “Aristotelian.” Heidegger’s Aristotle is a radically Heideggerianized Aristotle. And yet he ultimately seeks to go behind even HIM, to find the primordial origins of the West that precede Socrates, the pre-Socratics, and even (one presumes) Homer. Yes, things went badly wrong with Descartes, but this error was prepared by Christian theological errors, which were prepared for by Aristotle’s and Plato’s, and Parmenides’ error before them. All of them flinched in the face of Being; only Heidegger himself (and maybe Hoelderlin) could withstand the violent emergence of truth, which set the West out on its “first beginning” and might, if he and we are up to it, prepare the way for “another beginning.” So, yes: the tradition is there and it’s useful as a means of helping us to think rigorously and to think our way out of our current debased world, rooted as it is in decayed philosophical desiderata. But we can’t learn anything from it in a positive sense.

Well, this has gone on long enough for now. Have fun.

26 comments for “A Partial Response: Philosophy

  1. Damon,

    Excellent follow-up. In contrast to my late-night ramblings, a couple of quick comments:

    “It strikes me that Mormonism (as I understand it) proposes to stop the dialectical ascent very early — very close to the ground of our most basic commonsense, pre-reflective opinions and intimations. ‘So JS says that God has a body? OK, if that’s what God told him!’ The mainstream Christian tradition, by contrast, stops the ascent at a ‘higher’ level — at least by the time of the founding Creeds.”

    I think this is a very original and insightful way to frame any discourse between Mormonism and traditional Christianity: at what point to these two (overlapping) communities of faith elect to “officially” resist the reifying power of discursive rationality? I say “officially” because, of course, millions of Christians and Mormons engage in off-hand speculation about the eternities on a daily basis, but that’s neither here nor there; what matters is institutional and intellectual parameters giving (or withholding) sanction to such speculation. Clearly, the tradition of Christian orthodoxy allows many more products of discursive thought (about the nature of God, the function of the atonement, the status of Mary, etc.) within its doctrinal parameters than does Mormonism at present. One might say, with allusions to Nate’s post yesterday about the polemical discussions which lay behind the rise in the influence of postmodern ideas in Mormonism, that postmodernism has become over the last several years an important (though not uncontested) tool in the arsenal of (some of) those Mormons who don’t want rational Christian theology to “accidentally” define what Mormons believe when there isn’t any revelation saying so, one way or another.

    “The point is that postmodern thinkers really don’t provide ‘moorings,’ beyond vague gestures toward there being such moorings out there, somewhere (Levinas is arguably an exception to this rule, but even his mooring is as vague as can be; the ‘Other’ is pretty empty, is it not?).”

    I won’t derail the discussion entirely, but as you know, I’m willing to consider the possibility that “vague gestures” (in the sense of realities only affectively intuited) can themselves constitute strong normative moorings–Taylor’s and Ricoeur’s “strong hermeneutics” or “strong evaluation” and all that. But of course, to make that claim is to push postmodern thinkers like Heidegger, etc., back towards a more or less “metaphysical” (given a careful definition of the word) and romantic philosophy, a push that, while legitimate, is likely disagreed with by most scholars of postmodernism, including I believe Jim (he likes his Gadamer, but I think he likes the French guys even more).

  2. I like that way of putting it as well. It’s making me reconsider my earlier thoughts on postmodernism. I wonder if perhaps some of the attraction within postmodernism isn’t so much postmodernism than phenomenology. By that I mean that Mormonism focuses in on direct experience rather than Rational Theology of the sort we find in a lot of Greek thought and traditional Christian theology. Postmodernisms of various sorts as well as phenomenologies of various sorts allow Mormons to try and go “to the things themselves” as it were. Postmodernism is more popular simply because it is a correction on the particular views of Husserl or Hegel. For instance with Husserl with have things priveledged over being “ready at hand.” Mormon’s pragmatic tendencies manifest in places like Alma 32 make Mormon phenomenology take that more postmodern approach. (Whether among the pragmatists like James or Peirce, or the postmodernists like Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, Ricoeur, or others)

    I’m not sure if that is true. What’s everyone else think?

    I think that’s slightly different than what you are saying Russell. However I also fully agree with you on the importance of a sense of vagueness in a religion with continuing revelation and eternal progression. I’ve blogged on that quite often.

  3. I have enjoyed the posts I read that were composed by Damon and others on both of the “post modern” threads.

    My take on the Mormon flirtation with post modernism is quite different, and not as erudite, as most of those who precede me here.

    It seems to me that Mormon theology, as Damon has noted, is at the literal end of the spectrum. One has to work hard to read metaphor into much of it. For example (in addition to what Damon noted), JS seemed sure that the Native Americans were of Hebrew origin; that both hemispheres were Lehite playgrounds; that the Garden of Eden was a real place, and located in Jackson county, etc.

    And this is not the place to review the difficulties with Mormon history (for example, insofar what it indicates regarding JS’s trustworthiness, honesty etc.) and what science, archeology, liguistic studies etc. say about the probability that the BofM is real history. Suffice it to say that the literalists find themselves in increasingly heavy seas.

    “Faithful history” (believe and don’t question) works to keep the masses in line. But for the thoughtful Mormon who wishes to continue to be faithful to Mormonism and who has become aware of the data that seriously questions the literal truth of many of his beliefs, things are rough. Enter post modernism.

    A number of the faithful and intellectual Mormons with whom I have dialogued at places like 2think and zlmb have used a combination of Heidegger, Derrida et al to essentially attempt to overturn the “metanarratives” of science and history in order to protect the Mormon metanarrative. Once one sees that picure, it is nothing short of comical. But, some of the intellectual handsprings this exercise requires are, quite frankly, breathetaking. I take my hat off to these folks in that regard.

    I was reminded of this while reading some Susan Haack (for a taste, see http://www.csicop.org/si/9711/preposterism.html and http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/haack-manifesto/). I am grateful to a friend at 2think for referring me to her. I have since discovered that her position is a relatively common one, and ironically, is the natural stromping ground for most Mormons. It is likely only the corner into which Mormons have been painted that has them consorting to the degree they are with the likes of Derrida, Rorty et al.

    Many Mormon intellectuals have adopted what might be called the “silly side” of post modernism in a vain attempt to preserve their faith. Far from using the useful post modern idea that we should critique our dominant metanarrative, they use post modernism to defend against that which might critique their cherished faith and emotion based position. I recently critiqued a long email sent by a BYU science prof. to someone who enquired of him respecting matters in his field that related to his faith. While not getting into post modern theory, he used its concepts to justify taking a faith based position that he acknowledged would be rejected by his scientific peers.

    And so many Mormon intellectuals remain in a state of “misrecognition” as to the nature of their social condition that Pierre Bourdieu (a solidly post modern sociologist) has described, ironically using the tools prescribed for discovery to keep the lights above them turned out.

    In my somewhat jaundiced view, this is no more than another kind of blue pill. We have “faithful history” for the masses, and a particuarly peculiar and entertaining kind of pomo theory for the intellectuals.

    All the best,


  4. Gotta love that “All the best,” all you flirtatious, floundering, comical, acrobatic, trapped, silly, emotion-driven, befuddled, blind, entertaining LDS intellectuals out there.

  5. Sorry Kingsley. That was not intended to be cheeky. I genuinely do wish you andn others here the best, while holding a view that is contrary to all but a few that have been expressed.

    I am not nearly as well grounded in philosophy as most whose comments I have read, and I learned some useful things as I worked through the dense (for me) language in the threads mentioned. I think pomo theory has much to offer, but stand with people like Haack who indicate that it can be (and often is) used for silliness. An example of such silliness is outlined in my earlier post.

    Pomo is often used to ignore the kind of probability based, evidence weighing thinking to which we resort (mostly automatically – see the work of Gerg Girgenenzer – http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/selten.html) as we make the stream of decisions on the basis of incomplete information and not enough time that life requires of us. It is one thing to say “get the most perspective you can”, which is what people like Pierre Bourdieu say, and then show how that is done. It quite another to sink into relativism, which as Jim F. indicated on the other thread and countless others have also pointed out, is an occupational hazard for those who go down the pomo road. I do not know enough about how Jim thinks, or others here, to suggest that they make the error I noted. But, I can indicate that this kind of thinking is in my experience relatively common with the Mormon crowd who are familiar with pomo theory. And, it is difficult not to acknowledge that it fits nicely with the “This is a matter of faith, not reason; don’t place your trust in the arm of flesh” rhetoric on which most Mormons are raised.

    So again, I note a decided trend among those who wish to defend their faith – they tend toward a relativistic use of pomo theory, but only insofar as it serves to protect their faith. This is what produces the peculiar – and indeed comical – mixture to which I referred. We have a guy who with one breath uses Derrida to deconstruct science or history, and can be baited with the next to adopt an near absolutist postion with respect to God’s authority. Why do we do missionary work, after all, if the Mormon way is just one among many?

    In any event, if we apply pomo to Mormonism, we are instantly far beyond GBH’s “It’s all black or white; truth or fraud” (see his talk in PH session in the April 03 Conference), aren’t we? But, says one of my new friends in the middle of a complex double twisting back flip, “Think about what Derrida would say about black and white …”

    I am not so much interested in what Derrida would think as in what GBH means, what I was taught to believe, and most importantly what I was taught to do as a result of that belief. I am also more interested in things like the gay people who commit suicide as a result of the collision between their biology and Mormon society. I am not gay, by the way. Things like this could be largely mitigated by the simple admission by current Mormon leaders that they and their predecessors are as fallible (on this point specifically) as Mormon theology says they are. Many divorces and other serious family difficulties could be mitigated or avoided by the same thing. The fact that this does not happen indicates to me that a well understood phenomenon in sociology is at work – a small group has a measure of control over a large group and is loath to give any of it up, even at the expense of human life. That is, the interest of the institution trumps that of the individual in the eyes of those who lead the institution. Bourdieu has written extensively on this topic in various settings. Plato called it the noble lie, and licensed his philsopher kings to use it. Nietsche called it the pious or holy lie, and indicated that all priesthoods are based on it.

    A little pomo deconstruction of the Mormon metanarrative would be a profoundly healthy thing, in my view.

    Michael Shermer and many others have pointed out that the smarter a person is, the more powerfully the confirmation bias operates in his case. This supports Kuhn’s contention that science progresses one funeral a at time. The old guys (or really smart guys) have a hard time changing their minds, and are really good at spotting patterns in any body of data to support the point of view. That is what I see at work in the Mormon intellectual community.

    I am obviously one of the “not smart” ones, because I did change my mind after about 25 years of adult membership, serving as a Bishop etc. And, I now try very hard to keep an open mind. So, I would be pleased to have anyone here explain to me how, and why, I am incorrect in my views.

    All the best,


  6. Bob: You seem pretty smart to me. The fact that I have no philosophical training whatsoever cripples me somewhat when it comes to critiquing your thoughts on LDS intellectuals & post modernism … I do think you’ve been a little hasty in your implication that the debate over the Book of Mormon’s historicity is all but over, however, & that the “smart Mormon” is sinking beneath the waves because of it. The picture (to me) is a tad more complicated.

  7. Thank you Kingsley for that measured response.

    I did not indicate that the debate is over. “Heavy seas” is a relative term. They are, in my view, heavier now than several decades ago.

    All the best,


  8. “So, I would be pleased to have anyone here explain to me how, and why, I am incorrect in my views.”


    I am not sure that this is possible. You have made a bunch of generalization about how the Mormons with whom you have had interactions use post-modernism. Sorry, don’t know them, so I will have to defer to your judgment of them (although since they are not here to speak for themselve, perhaps it is best to simply reserve judgment). You then affirm that you don’t know much about post-modernism and go on to assert that it leads inevitably to relativism, a claim that folks who have spent their lives studying post-modernism dispute. Finally, you make the claim that post-modernism is invoked by Mormons to sidestep historical difficulties about the Book of Mormon. The problem is that the most extended post-modern arguments in the context of Mormon history have been deployed in the context of the proper way of telling the story of 19th century history, rather than in the Book of Mormon debates. (Here I am referring to the work of Professor Bohn; work which largely predates the current focus on Book of Mormon historicity.) Finally, others whom I know have studied post-modernism very extensively — Clark and Jim F. for example — are not particularlly interested in debates about Book of Mormon historicity. Indeed, I don’t think that Jim has ever deployed post-modern thinking to dicuss that debate in any published piece of which I am aware (unless you count his “Scripture as Incarnation,” which I think is largely unconcerned with Book of Mormon historicity per se). Then as Clark points out, most of the published work in which philosophy has been deployed in the Book of Mormon debates has actually not been post-modern at all, but has relied instead on the work of Kuhn, which is essentially coherentist and neo-Kantian. All of this, of course, is non-responsive to the issue of what you have heard on ZLTM or other internet sources. It leads one to believe, however, that there are Mormons who are seriously engaged in post-modernism who are not engaged in comical gyrations around questions of Book of Mormon historicty. Indeed, Jim F., who probably counts as one of the most informed thinkers on post-modernism in all of Mormonism, is — as near as I can tell after knowing him for over ten years — not especially interested in the questions that you seem to think torture the nights of pomo Mormons.


  9. Nate: Wow! You really know how to let people know what you think, in triplicate even.

    But you’re right: I don’t know what pomo LDS thinkers Bob has in mind. None I know come to mind as fitting his description: using pomo theory to avoid difficult questions. You are also right. I am less interested in the defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon than you can imagine. I accept it as historical, but I have other intellectual fish to fry.

  10. I’m not sure what pseudonyms (if any) Bob has posted under. I know over at ZLMB Kevin and I were discussing Heidegger and a few others relative to epistemology. But it certainly wasn’t relativism but merely a critique of positivism and the problem of verificationalism. But of course there are many critiques of verificationalism without going to postmodernism. Alston, for instance, is a reliabilist and within the analytic tradition. (I have qualms with reliabilism, but admit I’m favorably inclined towards externalism)

  11. “how far should we allow our reason (through dialectical questioning and refutation) to move beyond those immediate, pre-reflective givens toward a more refined, rationally acceptable or coherent account?”

    This is an extremely important question, and one that I think gets at the heart of the differences between Mormon and traditional Christian approaches to faith. I think it is more than one question, though, and the distinctions between the questions make a big difference. One question is, “How much reflection is built into the standard teachings of the Church?” Another is, “How much reflection is acceptable, and to be encouraged (as one among many valuable aspects of faith)?”

    It seems to me the answer to the first question is, as Damon says, “Very little; in fact, essentially none”. If Joseph said God has a body, then he has a body, which until we’re told otherwise presumably includes fingernails, hair on his arms, taste buds, etc. If you shake his hand, you’ll feel the flesh and bones like your own. The standard teaching of the Church is framed with as few philosophical presuppositions as possible, tailored to the understanding of farm hands, shepherds, cabinet makers, and fishermen.

    Yet I think the answer to the second question is, “The glory of God is intelligence.” There are all manner of speculative interpretations of the standard teachings to be found among the Mormons; these are entirely acceptable as long as they are consistent with the standard teachings and are not mistaken for them. Moreover, I take the message of scripture on this to be clearly that God’s ways are not our ways, and ultimately what many of us think of as preflective givens will have to be deeply transformed in order for us to fully participate in eternal life, life in the presence of and in harmony with the will of God.

    I take the message of revelation, and the example of both ancient and modern prophets, to be that our pre-reflective assumptions will have to be radically transformed; regarding how this transformation is to occur, however, it is more primarily a matter of ethical transformation, and it is more important that our learning process be driven by action in obedience to God’s commandments, by attunement to the Holy Spirit, and by a purification of our desires than by theoretical reflection. More important than improving our understanding of substance, essence, self-existence or eternity (at least as these are usually used in theology) is improving our understanding of love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, happiness, humility, patience, and joy.

    Something I think many people miss, especially traditional Christians, is that Mormonism is radically pluralistic, and that this is essential to the Mormon understanding of what faith leads to: eternal progression (I wrote along similar lines a few weeks ago).

    I happen to believe that for Aristotle, “substance”, “essence”, and “being” for personal beings is primarily a matter of ethics (as discussed in his bookds on friendship), but that’s another conversation.

  12. The following quote is partly in support of Ben Huff’s answer to the second question (How much reflection is acceptable and encouraged?). But I think it expresses something else that is of interest to this discussion. According to the Doctrine & Covenants, we are all “enlightened” and “quickened” by God — that God is immanent in us (and I think this is partially what informs us as to our potential to become fully as God is). As we are so quickened, it may be that the very process of reasoning can sometimes be revelation itself. That is to say, one of the modes in which revelation comes is through our reason, quickened by God. This may be an even more radical sense in which the Mormon world is “enchanted” — God is in us.

    And now the quote I mentioned earlier, which seems to tie the concept of reasoning to revelation (emphasis mine):

    the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity–thou must commune with God. (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 3, p. 295.)

  13. This is a response to Nate Orman, Jim F. , Clark Goble and Ben Huff, above.
    Clark, you are one of the people I dialogued with at ZLBM related to pomo theory. I posted under the name “philo” in those days. You and several others (Kevin?, mikwut? …) introduced me to Heidegger and others, and as a result I bought some books and did some helpful reading. My approach to weighing evidence using the kind of probabilities and evidentiary theory that I have come to understand is supported by most who follow the Pierce, Dewey line of thinking was rejected at ZLMB as “simplistic”, “positivist”, “reductionist”, etc. Susan Haack and others have continued the Dewey et al tradition in philosophy, as I understand it. But, I am far from expert in this field. You, in particular Clark, were polite and helpful during my interaction with you at ZLBM, while often disagreeing with my point of view. I appreciated your input. But exactly who said what has blurred with time.
    Nate, you suggested a few things in your post that are inaccurate. I did not indicate that pomo leads “inevitably” to relativism. Rather, I agreed with Jim that this is often what happens. Rorty is a good example of this in much of what he writes recently, coming ironically from what he labels a “pragmatist” point of view. That is what seems to raise the hackles of people like Haack (no pun intended). See the second link I provided above re Haack for an entertaining assessment of Rorty’s sometimes seemingly split personality.
    I am not familiar with the Bohn – Alexander debate. If someone could provide me with references (preferably online), I would like to read it. My guess is that it will run along the lines of the debate I had with Clark et al on ZLMB, and others at 2think. Rorty is a pretty grown up philosopher, and I have no trouble both disagreeing with him, and supporting my position. I read on Damon’s “First Things” site an interesting account of Rorty’s life and ultimate re-acquaintence with spirituality. The man’s journey is fascinating, and enlightening. I understand how and why he came to be where he is. And while being able to learn some things from him, also understand why his approach does not make sense to me on the whole. I am much more comfortable in a camp similar to Haack’s, and believe that the approach that she and others like her advocate is more productive in general.
    As noted above, Haacke’ approach is much more compatible with Mormonism’s by and large pragmatic approach to things than is relativistic pomo. If Mormon’s took “line upon line” and falliblism more seriously, Haack et al would be the way to go. However, since line upon line means that current leaders can be ignored, line upon line only really works within Mormonism when a current leader dis’s an old and long dead leader. Hence, current leaders are not really fallible, in Mormon practise. This leads to the small intellectual corner many Mormons occupy when it comes to matters that Mormons take literally, and the resort to Derrida, Rorty et al for nothing short (in my view) of obscurantism. That is not to say that Derrida and Rorty have nothing useful to say. They have much that is useful to say. It is their use in this instance to which I object.
    Good for you Jim, that you don’t use pomo to deal with the defense of the BofM etc., as did some of the obscurantists with whom I have dealt. But I have to ask – why do you have so little interest in issues of such foundational importance to Mormonism? I would have thought that a philosopher, which proven skills such as yours, would have a vital interest in the espistemology of your faith. I was deeply disappointed to read something by Bushman a while ago that indicated his faith is nothing more than a rejection of the probabilities with respect to JS. Bushman’s testimony can’t be threatened by information of the academic variety because it operates on a totally different plain. This is precisely the mentality that brought is Hitler, Jonestown, and 9/11. In my life, it brought a host of bad decisions that have hurt my career, my wife’s health, my relationship with my children, etc. While my purchase on reality will never be anywhere near perfect, it has radically improved sense joining the separated halves of a birfurcated brain, and beginng to use my best attempt at reason in many areas where emotionalism masquerading as inspiration used to govern.
    Now, lets get down to brass tacks. As noted above, my mind is still open re Mormonism. Jim and others indicated that they have little interest in things like the historicity of the BofM. It seems to me that this, and a few other issues, are at the core of the most important discussions one can have with respect to Mormonism. Let me outline my position, and invite comment.
    Mormonism is of course not monolithic. The Mormonism that is discussed in a few places like this, for example, bears virtually no resemblance to what is discussed on Sundays in Mormon chapels and in Seminary and Institutive of Religion on a daily basis – what I will call “Orthodox Mormonism”. I understand that Momronism resembles many other faiths in this regard, except that most other faiths do not make the “one true church” and only legitimate authority that Mormons make. Because of these claims, Mormons are strongly encouraged to stick to Orthodox Mormonism. This is the faithful history blue pill I mentioned above.
    For those in the know, discussions of the type that go on here are another kind of blue pill. But these produce quite a different kind of Mormon – one that tends not to be obedient in the unhealthy way I was. One who tends to use his religion for a more healthy purpose instead of being used by it, as I was. Had I been introduced to this kind of thinking earlier in life, I might be with you guys instead of where I am. However, given the path I have trodden thus far at least, I am glad to be where I am, and have no desire to attempt a recrossing of the Rubicon.
    Intellectual Mormonism can be whatever it wants to be. Some intellectual Mormons have told me that they use wine on occasion and attend R rated movies with a clear conscience; they accept and reject callings as they see fit; they resign callings when the feel appropriate; they laughed at the sexual counsel given by the FP in the early 1980s; they have “always” read anti-Mormon and intellectual materials in contravention to Packer’s faithful history directives that during the early 1980s while I was an undergraduate were influential in my choice of courses to take, and ultimately my choice of grad and schools (I did not go “East” because I was advised that many who did so lost their testimonies); they did not marry young; they did not start having kids right away; their wives have always worked outside the home; etc. In effect, they do not respect Mormon authority in the manner the authority demands to be respected, while paying lip service to it as required in order to hold a temple recommend when they so desire, etc. This is a Mormonism that is completely foreign to my experience. I believed it all, and was a faithful servant in the Kingdom until about two years ago. I am not discussing that Mormonsim, or any variant of it, here.
    The issue with respect to Orthodox Mormonism is for me quite simple: Is it justifiable to believe what Joseph Smith said about his meetings with God, and the conferral of authority he said he received from God? This is, purely and simply, a matter of credibility. And while this is not the place to parse and weigh the evidence, I have done so to the best of my ability and am of the view that I would not buy an investment, used car, or even a vacuum cleaner from the man. He has a long track record of deceiving people when he wanted them to do something. The evidence in this regard is not perfect – evidence never is. But, in my view it would be enough in most cases to convict on a “beyond a reasonable doubt” basis, and in all cases beyond a “balance of probabilities” basis. I have in mind here things like his lying about his sexual activities, representations he made respecting the Kirtland Anti-Bank, and things he said about his various translation projects.
    The BofM is a particularly interesting case. The evidence is overwhelming in favor of it being a 19th century production. Even its best defender on the DNA issue, Michael Whiting, has admitted that the it would not be parsimonious to take the position that the BofM people were of Hebrew descent. This, in his view, is a faith based position that has not been completely disproved and one which on that basis he still holds. But then again, I note, it has not been completely proved that the earth is round instead of flat.
    The fact of the matter is that we have to make important decisions related to religious matters in this world of incomplete information and not enough time. There is nothing unusual in this. When I am offered a position that invites me to change law firms, or cities, or careers, the same thing occurs. My marriage proposal to my wife was similar for both of us. This kind of situation is a day to day, minute to minute occurrence in each human life. When faced with important decisions respecting which great uncertainty exists, we tend to vote with the majority of the group by which we are surrounded. Religious and other societal groups have exploited this psychological reality from time immemorial by restricting information flows, and hence increasing uncertainty, relative to the decision of leaving the group. This holds groups together and maintains the authority of those who lead. As information flows have increased within Mormon and other communities, I see an increase in the use of pomo theory (whether labeled as such or not) to restore as much of the uncertainty that used to prevail in more information scarce times. This seems to me to be simply an organizational defense mechanism.
    Pierre Bourdieu is my favorite pomo sociologist, but is not well known in North America since he writes in French. He is a contemporary of Derrida. Bourdieu has written extensively on the idea of collective misrecognition – the manner in which both members and leaders of groups fail to appreciate the reality of their relationships. His writings are backed up by some of the most extensive empirical studies ever conducted in the social sciences. One of his favorite targets has been the French academic establishment.
    Misrecognition is nicely illustrated by one of Bourdieu’s studies of a primitive people who did not have a market or barter exchange system to redistribute goods. However, this function was nicely performed by an extensive gifting process, similar in some ways to the potlatch system of the North Coast Indians (Haida, etc.) in Canada. When questioned about the seemingly reciprocal nature of these gifts, all participants denied this – reciprocity would have been problematic in other ways for their society. All – leaders and community members – were certain that there was no reciprocity or barter going on. But, a study of the longer term patterns of who gave what belied this. The society misrecognized the nature of their interactions.
    Similar things can be said respecting Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and other interesting mechanisms in both human and insect or animal life – the reality of many situations is not visible to individual participates without the benefit of perspective creating data or experience. Steven Johnson (Emergence) and David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral) have written relatively recent summary (Johnson) and largely speculative (Wilson) books about how this kind of collective consciousness might work.
    The writings of Bourdieu and the others above are highly explanatory from my point of view of Mormonism. We here have a society with that values agency above all else, and yet is at the far end of the conformist continuum within Western society; a society that values truth, education and intelligence highly, and is governed in terms of information flow by something called the “faith history” policy; a society that values science and decries the dogmatic nature of many other religions, while rejecting the consensus of the best scientists to the extent that they conflict with dogma (see the DNA controversy and other aspects of the BofM historicity debate, as well as the BofA translation debate). I could provide other similar example of gross miscognoition within Mormon society.
    Having seen these conflicts, and weighed the evidence as I have, I was left with a choice. Would I continue to associate myself with Mormonism, despite my conclusion that JS was highly unlikely to have received any special authority from God, or would I be better off elsewhere? After considering what I have come to call the “reality gap” (the gap between the faith world Mormons are taught about each week and encouraged by their leaders to believe and act upon, and my best guess at “reality”), I have decided that I am better off charting my own course with the help of guides who have an understanding of the importance of seeking the best understanding possible of reality that is similar to mine.
    I respond in much the same way to Mormon intellectuals who use pomo language to persuade me that I really do not know what I think I know (I understand how uncertain things are, as noted above), and regular members and a GA with whom I spent a couple of hours, who tell me that Mormonism “works” so well for me that I should not allow little things like JS’s tendency to lie when in a pinch to put me off, and that my Mormon testimony is “a matter of faith” to which “the learning of man” is irrelevant. I again note the striking similarity in result if not form between that last argument and much of what pomo and phenomenological theory do in the same context. That response is, you have no idea how well it works for you until you get some perspective outside of Mormonism (see Bourdieu above for an example of what I mean), and I am no longer prepared to rely upon the emotional experience that is responsible for JW and Taliban testimonies as well as Mormonism to guide me in something this important.
    Again, I would be appreciative of anyone here who feels inclined to point out the holes in my reasoning,
    All the best,

  14. Bob: I think I see a little hole when you write, “Bushman’s testimony can’t be threatened by information of the academic variety because it operates on a totally different plane. This is precisely the mentality that brought is Hitler, Jonestown, and 9/11.” That seems to be hyperbolic slop (again, I’m no philosopher).

  15. Bob: The Bohn-Alexander debates is reprinted (in truncated form) in _Faithful History_ from Signature Books.

    I suspect that your response is rather too long for anyone to tackle. In an attempt to make it a bit more manageable, I take it that you have four basic issues:

    1. Joseph Smith seems to have been a liar, and therefore one ought not to believe his testimony.

    2. The Book of Mormon is a completely 19th century creation (I take it that this is simply the strongest argument in favor of 1, although I understand that you also believe that 1 can be used as a premise in support of an argument for 2.)

    3. Current leaders lie about the past and tell Mormons not to study the real evidence, etc.

    4. The epistemological claims of personal revelation are too uncertain to be relied upon. (I am going to ignore the references to Hitler and the Taliban, which are both inflamatory and inaccurate — if there was anything that Taliban was against it was personal revelation!)

    I am not going to attempt to provide anything like a full response to the issues that these four points raise. (In theory I am working. Hah!) Let me just make a couple of observations.

    First, the debates that I have read with regard to 1 and 2 generally do not hinge on philosophical issues. Rather, they seem to be fought out at the level of interpreting sources, compiling and acessing the value of parralellisms, etc. Indeed, it seems to me that the only places where philosophical issues come in explicitly in these debates is where one accesses the validity of solving issues by appeal to a naturalistic metaphysics. If one believes a la Sterling McMurrin that people just don’t get gold plates from angels, then a critic might fairly point out that the historical question has been predetermined by metaphysical assumptions. However, the fact of the matter is that when I look at this literature (which I confess is much less often than once I did), these don’t seem to be the main issues.

    Perhaps it is a generational thing, but I don’t recall ever being told by any church leader, teacher, BYU professor, etc. NOT to read or study about this or that aspect of church history or doctrine. I have been encouraged by some to be skeptical of this or that author. Some of the encouraged skepticism I think is justified, some is not. (I can say the same thing about my professors at Harvard’s assessment of various legal theorists. For example, my legal philosophy professor thought that law and economics was neo-formalist Langdellism, which IMO is utter nonsense. Another professor thought that one needed to be skeptical of Robert Bork’s use of historical data, which I think is completely true.) At BYU, I was encouraged to “go East” for school, which I did. Indeed, my only contacts with church officials about my interests in church history have been very encouraging. For example, while I was in law school I had a discussion with Rick Turley — head of the Church History Department at the time — about my interest in looking at Mormon legal history, particularlly the anti-polygamy battles, church legal strategy, etc. The discussion occurred in his office in the Church Office Building. He made absolutely no effort at all, of any kind, what so ever to disuade me from any of my research interests. He was nothing but encouraging and enthusiastic about my interest in studying Church history. I fully realize that others have had very different experiences, so I simply offer mine as an example of the possibility that things are less monolithic than they appear.

    I think that the final point (4) is one where there are real philosophical issues. In this area, however, I don’t see that making arguments about the problems of modern metaphysical assumptions is obscurantism. Indeed, I don’t see how one could have any sort of meaningful discussion of the issues without subjecting those assumptions to some level of philosophical skepticism. Otherwise, we are simply assuming in advance the answer to the question that we purport to be trying to answer.

  16. Bob, I’ll just respond to one point for now. My testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not rest on the character of Joseph Smith, and I don’t think it should, nor do I hear anybody in the Church saying it should, nor do I think the logic of the claims of the Church should depend on his character. My testimony rests on my relationship with God. He has spoken to me in more or less subtle ways, and worked in my life, and has, among other things, urged me to continue participating in the work he is doing through the Church. He has won my trust by the satisfaction I have found in living as he exhorts us to, and by the beautiful way his teachings illuminate the human predicament, and my life in particular. Joseph Smith was a mortal, and if the correctness of the Church depended on him, it would be just another human venture. God uses the weak things of the world, as well as the mighty ones, to do his work. Luckily, one needn’t be perfect to talk with God and participate in his work. His work, after all, is to redeem us. The most important question is not whether JS was worthy to know and proclaim God’s truth; the most important question for each of us is how we can put ourselves in tune with God so that we can learn his truth and join in his work. Moroni writes poignantly about his own sense of inadequacy; Moses and Enoch also felt deeply inadequate to be God’s mouthpiece. Moroni’s comfort is that even though his writings cannot reveal all things to us, his readers, the Holy Spirit can (Moroni 10:5). I take the same logic to apply in Joseph Smith’s case. If God tells me to follow so-and-so as his leader, my decision to follow so-and-so is primarily based on my trust in God, not in so-and-so, and I trust God.

    When I have a relationship with God, why would I be anxious to dig through all the debates over Church history? When I get married, I’m not going to insist that my fiancee let me dig through all her high school love notes for evidence about her character. Similarly, my relationship with the Church is established primarily in the present, by my experience with it and with God. I think God’s work on Earth is a matter of real, concrete history, but I’m a lot more concerned to know how he would have me participate in his work now, today. And if I don’t have a relationship with God, then what good would it do me to dig through debates over history? No matter how good Joseph’s character, it wouldn’t be good enough to establish his theological claims.

  17. Bob, as I recall the exchanges, the only real issue was over warrant. When was one warranted in ones beliefs. If you are who I recall, you wanted the adoption of a strong form of verificationalism. Since I don’t hold to that position (and many don’t) then appeals that hinge on that tend to be open to philosophical discussion. As I recall the problem was that your views on why one should adopt verification and the philosophical matters made it difficult to tell whether you were moving towards positivism, a Rortyian pragmatism, or something else. If you took that postmodern references as obscurantism, it was, I think, simply because we disagree over when it is appropriate to believe. But, as Nate said, I don’t think that really means that we are obscuring the evidence, more explaining why we believe the way we do with the same evidence that leads you to disbelieve.

  18. Thanks folks. Here are a few comments in response:


    Nice summary. We will leave what you did not include alone for the moment. I have Faithful History at home and so will look up the debate. I read the book over a year ago, and quickly. That was not a front burner issue at the time.

    I found the difference between your experience and mine interesting. Your experience is in the minority, from my perspective. Holland’s talk from the April 03 conference (stay in the middle of the campsite; do question or doubt or it will harm your children and grandchildren, etc.) is still representative of the advice dispensed to rank and file members. Until a short time ago, I dispensed that myself while parroting the GAs.

    As to your views on points 1 and 2, I will again note that this is where I have seen pomo used, including by those who along with Clark dealt with me a year ago at ZLMB. “History itself is a metanarrative that should not be accepted regardless of how solid the evidence looks. That is, believe what you want; do no be bounded by an interpretation of prior events. One is as good as another. Faithful history as per the Sunday school book is as good as history by Allen, Arrington, Quinn or anyone else.” I reject this as dangerous garbage. If you are saying that Mormon history should be dealt with in what might be called a more traditional historical fashion, or as a court of law would look at it (I take it you are a lawyer?), then we agree. I find little to argue with in the approach of the so-called New Mormon historians. Let’s collect the best evidence we can, tell the story as best we can, and let the chips fall where they may.

    You skipped three. It is in my view important. The initial leaders seem highly likely to often have lied to get what they wanted. The current leaders continue to do similar things. Why should I follow them, or trust them? One of the projects I eventually intend to undertake is a study of how the law of fiduciaries in this country (Canada) could be used to call these people to account.

    Re point no. 4, I do not retract the Taliban etc. statement. Have you read the transcript of the final hours at Jonestown? It was in large part a testimony meeting. I spent time last week with a “recovering” Muslim. The connection between emotional experience and metaphysics can be used to produce extreme behaviour. We are talking about something that is a matter of degree, not of kind, as between the Mormon use of emotional experieince to build testimony, and other more extreme manifestations of the same thing.

    And, I do not object to the use of pomo theory to question assumption, to argue that we need to gain the best perspective possible etc. Much of the debate to which I will refer below re my prior dealings with Clark dealt with this very point. Those are real concerns, and are not obscurantism. But it would be obscurantism to use the silly side of pomo to ignore otherwise persuasive evidence under points 1 and 2, the problems suggested by 3, or the wealth of scientific and anthropological data etc. respecting the emotional experience at the core of 4 that indicates it to be something inside of us that does not point toward any metaphysical reality. Again, we come down to the value of the information produced by scientific theory and experimentation, and how easily one should be prepared to dismiss it based on the strong pomo idea that “science is just another metanarrative”.


    Let me suggest that it is a short hop from where you stand to the kind of strong pomo/phenomenology argument that others such as Haack (with whom I agree) have labelled “silly”. Your position justifies the Taliban, JW etc. as well as it does your own. If you are like most members of the Mormon church, like it our not, the character of JS is relevant to your testimony. This is because the feelings you receive as a result of your LDS experience confirm the truthfulness of the Mormon story, which has JS’s story at its core. If he did not receive the exclusive authority he did from God, as he said he did, Mormonism is at best just another church. More likely it is much worse than most because of the extraordinary things it causes people to do on the basis of the extraordinary claims it makes.

    Your point re marriage is telling. If you are in love, would it be relevant to you to know that the object of your affection had been married to, and defrauded, five other men? Might that change how you feel? I often think of how the information I received a number of years go affected my emotional/spiritual reaction to Paul Dunn. He was one of my heroes. His stories moved me deeply. When I found out that he had lied while conveying the clear impression that they were true stories, his effect on me changed entirely. It is foolish in my view to ignore the connection between information as to physical reality and the feelings we have. Did JS, or did he not, use his position as a religious leader and purported revelation from God to persuade numerous women, some married to other men and some very young, to have sex with him? Did he, or did he not, persuade the Kimball girl to do same in part on the basis that this would ensure the salvation of her entire family? Did he, or did he not, tell at least some of these women that God commanded him to have sex with them by way of angel with sword drawn to smite him if he (and by implication they) did not? Etc. I do not suggest that the answers to these questions are certain. I do suggest that they are critically important to the question of whether we should believe JS when he told people, wanting them to obey him, one conflicting story after another about his visit with a toad that turned into an angel, or an angel, or Christ, or God, or God and Christ, etc.

    Given what we know about how the alpha male of most human groups tends to have preferential sexual access, and how religious leaders tend to fit into this pattern, it seems naïve (or cog dis induced) behaviour in the extreme for Mormons to believe that while their leader’s behavioural pattern fits that of the others to a tee, he is the only one among them who God really did command to have all that sex. If God did not command this, and so he lied about it, it seems likely to me that he made up that meandering series of stories just mentioned about one alleged visit with God. And so he likely did not have any special authority. And so, we have no reason to obey those who base their authority on him unless what they say makes sense. And, when we finally look closely at what they say (and have said throughout time) compared to what other readily available sources of wisdom say and said at the same time, they don’t make much sense.


    My guess is that you are remembering a lengthy discussion you and others had with a poster called (I think) the vines on a similar topic. I read, but did not participate, in that. A fellow named Ray A. participated in a similar discussion with you (I think) and others (for sure) at about the time I left ZLMB. And I do not recall a discussion of any kind with respect to verificationism.

    I agree, however, that the dispute was largely about what constituted proof justifying belief. I thought (and still think) that the evidence respecting things like JS propensity to lie in many cases when he wanted to elicit certain behaviour of his follows has been established beyond dispute. I think that attempts to use pomo theory to avoid evidence that pragmatists such as Haack would accept is a form of obscurantism, and do not mind being called a positivist, reductionist or whatever as a result of that belief. I think that Festinger’s cog dis theory, as developed by people like Cialdini, Aronson and Kohlberg does a lovely job of explaining what I experienced as a Mormon and why I came to believe as I did. Newberg (Why God Won’t Go Away) adds some nice nuerology that explains the wonderful epiphanies I have had. And people like Bourdieu, Pascal Boyer put the big picture together nicely. And, as you know, there is a ton more where that comes from. This puts Mormon experience in context with that of other spiritual traditions, and makes sense of the whole thing from my point of view.

    Am I certain. No, of course not. But, as noted in an earlier post, we all have to make hard decisions based on limited information and not enough time. I seek the most reliable information I can find. When scientific theories (cog dis theory, or Bourdieu’s misrecognition theory, for example) prove themselves to be predictive and/or explanatory of behaviour I see in the Mormon community and all other religious communities, and I compare those theories to what is officered by Mormonism (I feel, therefore I believe, therefore Mormonism is God’s one and only true church) that do not explain what I see outside of the Mormon community, it is clear to me which I should adopt for decision making purposes.

    All the best,


  19. Bob, maybe lots of other people claim to have had religious experiences that indicate theirs is the one true faith/church/whatever. I haven’t researched just what sort of claims they make, but even if they do, that doesn’t mean that my experiences are unreliable. If I were relying on third-person accounts with no reason to believe one over another, all the witnesses would pretty well negate each others’ testimony, but that’s not what I am doing; I am dealing with my own experiences. I have *my* experiences, not those others, and I can think of lots of explanations for strangers’ experiences that are consistent with the reliability of mine. In this domain, my experiences are what I will base my decisions on. I am Emersonian in this, perhaps. Could I be mistaken about what my religious experiences imply? Sure; I think I have been at times, but it’s the best source I have, and the mistakes I’ve made interpreting them are outweighed by the consistency of their message overall with the deepest and most pervasive currents in my entire life experience, through today.

    Should I turn to history to resolve questions of faith rather than religious experience? But expert historians disagree all the time. Why would that be a better way to ascertain the truth than my religious experiences? Scholarship can be very valuable, and some of its pronouncements are pretty solid, but don’t be misled by the cult of academic authority. Religionists are not the only ones who make inflated claims to special knowledge! I’m almost done with my PhD; I’ve learned a few things about how common or uncommon it is for academic disputes, particularly in the human sciences, to be tidily settled.

    I was upset as well when I heard that Elder Dunn had been telling stories that were not true. I had enjoyed his stories, but felt he let us down; couldn’t he have just told us the truth, and drawn out what is inspiring in it? But his stories were not the foundation of my faith.
    Suppose someone did prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith abused his authority and committed serious sins. Inquiries into such matters are highly problematic, given how much time has passed, how many people had reason to slander him, etc, but suppose someone did. Suppose someone proved beyond a reasonable doubt that throughout the Church there is a certain significant statistical rate of abuse of authority of one kind or another. Humans are sinners; is this news? Did JS tell us he wasn’t a sinner? No. Like I said, God has commanded us to come together and help each other work out our salvation. Other people’s sins are not an excuse for me to not love them, nor for me to disregard their place in God’s plan, even if they are leaders and priesthood holders.

    As for knowing my fiancee’s character, sure, if I knew she had a history of problematic relationships on the scale of marriage and divorce, I would probably want to know something about it, but if it was many years ago, all I would really care about was that she had learned since then how to practice real love, which is something I could only know by my own experience with her. I believe in repentance. But the analogy is weak, because the reason I follow my Church leaders is most fundamentally because God asks me to, not because of who they are. Fortunately, as far as I can tell while the Church isn’t run by perfect people, it is run by good people.

  20. Bob, let me add, as a sort of summary:

    I have been down the road of judging the Church by its people, and by their wisdom. I was not persuaded. So if that is what you are doing, I basically agree with your assessment. When I thought I was to judge the Church primarily based on what I heard over the pulpit, and by whether LDS were, in virtue of being LDS, more spiritually advanced than my secular humanist friends, my conclusion was, this is a nice bunch of people but they aren’t the be-all and end-all that the Church is supposed to be.

    Now, since then I’ve had a wider experience of secular humanism, and I think my friends were not representative specimens! They were a lot more delightful than your typical secular humanist. But still, that’s not the point.

    Then I read the Book of Mormon for real, at an age where I could really read it for myself, rather than just hearing old Sunday School lessons playing in my head. And I realized that the value of the Church doesn’t lie primarily in the impressiveness and wisdom and righteous of its members. Rather, the value of the Church lies primarily in its being God’s church, and an important way he has asked me to participate in his plans. I realized that I believe the Book of Mormon, even if I don’t believe everything I hear in Sacrament Meeting about it. I develop my relationship with God through my involvement with his church, and that is the primary reason for me to be involved with it, which has as much to do with the weakness and sin and ignorance of the people of the Church (including myself) as it does with their achievements and love and wisdom. The purpose of the Church is to redeem it’s members, and the sick don’t need a physician! God has asked us all to listen to his Spirit so that we can be nurses to each others’ illness, under the direction of the Physician, Christ.

  21. Bob, I must confess that I don’t recall the exchange you quoted. Certainly it wasn’t from me. I’d never adopt such a Rortyian like position. In a way I actually am closer to Brent Metcalf in terms of thinking there are limits to interpretation. I disagree with Brent over certain other issues, not the least of which being the place of disagreements on epistemic strength. But by and large I think there are places where evidence leads us. I’m not at all convinced that is the case with the Book of Mormon yet. I think that for the non-believer that there is prima facie reasons for disbelieving and that they’d be justified in such beliefs. But I believe that they would be wrong. That’s the problem with evidence – new evidence can change the data a lot.

    I suspect, without knowing the context, that is what the “pomo” person you quote was getting at. With limited evidence there are numerous narratives we can tell. Why do we pick one out above others? Because of how well it corresponds to our biases. Even simplicity is simplicity with respect to a pre-existing set of values and beliefs. Thus Brent Metcalf and I can be equally true to the data but come to wildly differing positions.

    Some move from that to a more relativistic perspective. I don’t think this is really a postmodern perspective, although clearly some postmodernists accept it. But I do think that there are limits on interpretation and that some arguments can be judged stronger than others.

    The big issue is, and always has been, how to deal with the “non-public” evidence which Mormons claim and which non-Mormons doubt. Merely suggesting via parallels that it could be incorrect isn’t necessarily helpful. It ends up being skepticism in a different form. We might, for instance, suggest that our memories are not to be trusted. Yet we trust them. At best the debate becomes one of value rather than knowledge (or over the meaning of what deserves the label knowledge).

    Ultimately that’s what it comes down to – the existence or non-existence of those extra-public phenomena. If you haven’t had them, then all the things you say become most important. If you have had them then you know how you read those things will be radically different. For instance I’ve read most of the controversial books and it doesn’t bother me because of those other experiences. It changes how we read the data…

  22. Bob: Have you read the transcript of the final hours at Jonestown? It was in large part a testimony meeting. I spent time last week with a “recovering” Muslim. The connection between emotional experience and metaphysics can be used to produce extreme behaviour. We are talking about something that is a matter of degree, not of kind, as between the Mormon use of emotional experieince to build testimony, and other more extreme manifestations of the same thing.

    I am not certain how this assessment adds anything to the discussion. It only demonstrates unawareness that those who campaign against a position are just as “testimony” driven as those who campaign for a position. Such a beginning does not inspire confidence in any conclusions that follow because you are just as susceptible to the Jonestown curse as any other group you single out.

  23. Bob: I can’t claim any particular expertise in Islam, but my understanding is that most Muslims do not claim that their faith rests on personal revelation. Indeed, as far as I know, the concept of the Holy Spirit is largely absent from their discussions and theology. The Taliban in particular represented a very conservative take on matters of Islamic law and religion. As I recall from law school, they largely relied on medieval jurists. These jurists in turn, were quite rationalist. One accepts Islam not because of a subjective experience, but because the Qua’ran is self-evidently beyond the capacity of a human being to produce, the historical record of the Prophet’s ministry and revelations is unimpeachable, etc. (There is an entire scholarlly discipline in Islamic law dedicated to meticulously tracing out the provenace of every story and saying of the Prophet.) There is of course a mystical tradition in Islam — the Sufis, al-Ghazali, etc., — but my understanding it is a minority position and not one adopted by the Taliban. My point is that shoe-horning the Taliban or Islamic fundementalism into the categories of post-Mormonism is of questionable intellectual value and it tells us little about either Mormonism or Islam. Because the analogy doesn’t seem to have much analytic substance to it, I simply took it as a blanket claim that Mormonism was potentially repressive and violent.

    Shorn of the hot-button reference, I think that this point is probably right. Certainly, Mormonism contains within itself the possiblity of violent excess — MMM, violent fundementalists, etc. My problem is that I don’t think that this tells us nearly as much as you think that it does. One could point to the same danger of violent excess in virtually any intellectual or ethical system — Marxism, Romanticism, modern science, democracy, etc. Of course, there is an arguement that religion is unusually dangerous and violence. I am skeptical. The history of the 20th century seems like a pretty good counter example.

  24. Bob writes: “Bushman’s testimony can’t be threatened by information of the academic variety because it operates on a totally different plain.”

    The same might be said of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Tolstoy, Kepler, Pascal, Lewis Carol, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Socrates, Newton, Al-Ghazali, ad infinitum. Wittgenstein said much the same thing in the Tractatus: “We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” The sense that the Academy does not have all the Final Answers is certainly not nonsense, nor is it limited to a few maniacs.

  25. Bob: Your willingness to stand by your suggestion that the mentality which you attribute to Mormons (or at least to Bushman, which I think you believe generally reflects the mentality of faithful Mormons) justifies Hitler, Jonestown and the Taliban surprises me. At the risk of derailing the discussion, I will offer a couple of observations.

    1. The evils you mention could find their source in any number of “mentalities” other than the one you mention, which are better explanations for them. For example, the atheist view that one is not ultimately accountable to God, or the belief in a master race rather than the belief that we are all children of God, both do a much better job explaining Hitler than the Bushman mentality you describe.
    2. As a thoroughgoing empiricist, surely you would agree that your statement should be tested against the available evidence. There are millions of Mormons out there. Where are the Nazis, the Jonestowns and the Talibans in Mormon culture?

    Perhaps you did not mean to suggest that this mentality results in those evils, but only that it can be used (or misused) to justify them. If that is the case, then I would respond by saying so what. Elements of virtually every world view—from Mormonism to the Enlightenment can be used to justify some kind of evil. That does not tell us much.

  26. Ben: You wrote, “My testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not rest on the character of Joseph Smith,” & I recall that Brigham Young said the same thing. It is an excellent quote, really colorful & creatively expressed etc., as is typical of Pres. Young, & I wish I had it on hand. Basically he says, “What do I care if Joseph drank, swore, what do I care if this or that is proven, the overwhelming evidence given me by the Holy Ghost & my own eyes & intellect is that he was a true prophet of God.” That is a very bad mangling, I know, but I think it gets at the essence. Someone can say, “Well, there’s this story about Joseph Smith in Nauvoo where he lost his temper, a real volcanic explosion,” to which I might reply, “Yes, but right around the same time he was scribbling down the Book of Abraham with its literally dozens of parallels (some of them flabbergasting) to very old Muslim, Jewish, & Christian texts, none of which were available to him, very few of which were even available in English translations,” etc. My point being, of course, that you can have activity that seems very human & activity that seems very prophet-like going on in the same person at the same time (Scripture attests to this as well), & not that the anecdotes or the parallels prove anything finally. But believers have no reason to jettison spiritual witnesses or intellectual evidences because so & so remembered this one frail-seeming aspect of a great & complex personality.

    None of the ideas posited by non-believers about Joseph’s remarkable scripture-making abilities (e.g.) are really ultimately any more convincing than the believer’s idea that Joseph was what he said he was. On the one hand you have Harold Bloom: “Smith’s religious genius always manifested itself through what might be termed his charismatic accuracy, his sure sense of relevance that governed biblical and Mormon parallels. I can only attribute to his genius or daemon his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available to normative Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly.” On the other hand you have D&C 135:3: [Joseph Smith] brought forth the Book of Mormon … by the gift and power of God.” Both explanations ultimately end in mystery; one is no more “rational” than the other. Something was going in which (to my mind) dwarfs any human weaknesses the Prophet might have had. Everyone can choose sides without censure, of course, but it is no good saying that one side is the ultimate in silly while the other is the ultimate in sense. I really do admire your position, backed up by Brother Brigham.

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