The Inevitability of Pain in Mormon Intellectual Life

Twenty years ago, there was an interesting debate between two political philosophers at Harvard that ultimately does a lot to explain the inevitability of pain for Mormons who embark on intellectual discussions of their religion. The first philosopher, John Rawls, argued that the most important value in a well-ordered society was the ability to change our beliefs. Human beings, he argued, must be thought of primarily as beings whose beliefs are secondary to their choices. Hence, the highest political good was liberty, which preserves the ability of free individuals to revise and choose their beliefs. The second philosopher, Michael Sandel, argued that Rawls’s argument for the priority of liberty was mistaken. By conceptualizing human beings first and foremost as choosers Rawls, according to Sandel, had denied the possibility of having beliefs that were constitutive of our identity. In other words, according to Sandel, some beliefs are not simply things that we as fully formed and choosing individuals take from the philosophical and spiritual cafeteria of life. Rather, these beliefs define who we are prior to any choosing that we may do. I think that Sandel’s basic insight did a lot to explain the intensity that swirls through Mormon discussions.

People can get really riled up when talking about Mormonism. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is — I think — that in some sense Sandel was right. There are certain beliefs that we have that are not simply things that we have chosen, but are part of who we are. When these constitutive beliefs are attacked, we are faced not simply with a set of arguments marshaled against some abstract proposition. Rather, we face an attempt to negate some part of our being. And so it hurts and we lash out. Our beliefs about God, the Gospel, and the Restoration are very likely going to be these sorts of constitutive beliefs. Hence the heat that one often sees in Mormon discussions.

There are a couple of ways that one can react to attacks on one’s constitutive beliefs. First, one can become hyper-defensive, responding with a thunderous broadside to every musket pop, no matter how small. Second, one can simply withdraw from any discussion in which one’s constitutive beliefs are challenged. Third, one can separate one’s beliefs from one’s being. This doesn’t mean that you think that the beliefs are false, simply that one doesn’t think of one’s self as being defined by them. Finally, one might try to develop certain virtues that allow one to cope with the pain of attacks on one’s constitutive belief, a kind of intellectual version of the Roman cultivation of calm forbearance in the face of pain.

I don’t like the first three possibilities. Hyper-defensiveness is spiritually and intellectually exhausting. It requires that one devotes enormous energy responding to every possible challenge, no matter how small. Withdrawing from any discussion in which one’s constitutive beliefs are challenged means that ultimately you will be deprived of many — if not most — of the conversations that you might have about the things that matter to you most. Finally, working to sunder one’s identity completely from one’s beliefs, so that every possible discussion is an abstract tourney between concepts and their relations seems to render one’s soul somehow shriveled and draws the fire and blood from conversation.

Which leaves us with the final Stoic possibility. I think that we want constitutive beliefs. Our life is richer and more meaningful when we are defined by our convictions. This, however, necessarily involves the possibility not only of being wrong, but being tragically wrong. To be wrong about a constitutive belief is not simply to be mistaken about the world, but also about your very identity. Constitutive beliefs — coupled with conversation — also makes pain inevitable. Intellectual life becomes like the tourney of opposites that Lehi describes in 2 Nephi 2: we know the sweet only by guaranteeing that we will also taste the bitter.

32 comments for “The Inevitability of Pain in Mormon Intellectual Life

  1. October 24, 2005 at 3:05 am

    The other alternative is that we don’t choose our beliefs at all. Rather beliefs are something that happen and we can at best provide fertile ground.

  2. Nate Oman
    October 24, 2005 at 3:21 am

    Clark: Even if we don’t choose our beliefs (and I think there is a lot of merit to this claim), we are still left, I think, we the phenomena of certain beliefs that seem to constitute our identity in some basic way and some that don’t.

    For example, there is a real sense in which I didn’t choose my belief in organic evolution. Given my education and my assessment of what I know about the evidence in its favor, there is a sense in which I had no choice but to believe in organic evolution. On the other hand, this is a belief that I seem to have on a take it or leave it basis. I think that ID attacks on organic evolution are mistaken, but I don’t feel like they touch on my identity in any way.

    My emotional and spiritual reaction to attacks on Christ or the Restoration, however, are qualitatively different. My reaction to these arguments is simply more intense than my reaction to arguments about organic evolution.

  3. October 24, 2005 at 7:20 am

    “Even if we don’t choose our beliefs (and I think there is a lot of merit to this claim), we are still left, I think, we the phenomena of certain beliefs that seem to constitute our identity in some basic way and some that don’t.”

    Well put, Nate. And I like your invocation of the Stoics. I think a lot of what they advocated ends in a kind of diffident universalism, which I don’t care for, but to the degree that the Stoics remind us of the strong virtues and groundedness in tradition which dialogue with others demands, then their example is an important one.

  4. Mike
    October 24, 2005 at 10:24 am

    If we don’t choose some of our central beliefs, what happens if we later choose to re-evaluate them in light of new experience or new information? Here is where the intellectual pain gets hot.

  5. October 24, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    Nice reflections, Nate. I’m inclined to think of the intellectual approach to deep questions as one where truth is the touchstone of conviction and those engaging in that sort of academic or reasoned dialogue are willing (at least in theory) to adjust their beliefs when faced with compelling evidence or argument. In other words, the intellectual model doesn’t allow for constitutive beliefs, just confirmed and defensible ones. But no one is a perfectly dispassionate intellectual in that sense. Everyone has personal views they adopt as their own and defend from attack.

    The Mormon approach (or any other religious or personal perspective, including various secular worldviews) requires that some of those constitutive beliefs not be fair game for intellectual questioning, at least in most discussions. “Some questions just shouldn’t be asked” seems like a position that most Mormons, regardless of how “intellectual” they are, would affirm, while a few might be less willing to grant even their own constitutive beliefs privileged status. There’s something to be said for both views, I think. Maybe a way to bridge the gap is to argue that the “question everything” approach is proper in some forums (a symposium or a private discussion, perhaps) but not others (Sunday School).

  6. Blake
    October 24, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    Nate: Great post!

    I disagree with Clark regarding whether we choose our beliefs — and I believe that it is a question for psychology rather than philosophy (the question of whether we ought to choose our beliefs is philosophical). The massive evidence from psychological studies (and socialogical studies as well) regarding self-deception and cognitive dissonance makes it pretty clear that we choose how we will weigh beliefs and how we give up beliefs when they don’t match conduct and how beliefs can be ignored etc., distorted, adopted etc. Only philosophers believe that they have compelling beliefs that are beyond their control to not believe or believe it seems to me.

    As for me, the greatest pain in being an LDS writer is knowing that I have gifts to give and that they are not valued in my community. I don’t mind a heated discussion (translate that as “passionate”) if it is done in a respectful and honorable way. There is a lot at stake in the discussion of Mormonism and it is inevitably going to arouse a great deal of passion. Yet being ignored as irrelevant is the toughest for me — and I disagree with those who believe that only narrative theology (i.e., literary approaches) or history per se have value for Mormon identity or thought.

  7. Jim H.
    October 24, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    I believe, therefore I am?

    I have a good friend who has lately taken up the habit of saying “I choose to believe.”

    Perhaps it helps him to distinguish his faith as more volitional (hard-won?) than the kind which some may “accidentally” find or discover, have thrust upon them, or insist they’ve always had. I suppose this could allow him to feel either less or more threatened were someone to attack his belief.

  8. Jack
    October 24, 2005 at 1:19 pm


    The problem with the psychology/philosophy dichotomy is that psychology suggests that we are making choices whether we “know” it or not. This seems to suggest that were are unable to control some of our decision making processes–especially in our formative years–because we are simply not aware of everything that’s going on in our heads. In my experience with counseling (as a counsel-ee, mind you), I’ve heard again and again: this is what YOU did (refering to the coping patterns I adopted as a child). Well, It’s true that I did–that I adopted certain false beliefs because of abuse. But it’s true only in the same sense that an animal makes decisions because of instinct. That said, it seems to me that we are going to adopt certain beliefs merely because of how we’re designed.

  9. Wilfried
    October 24, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    Excellent post, Nate. The “change of beliefs” is an issue nearly all converts are confronted with, perhaps not always on an “intellectual” level of reasoning, but certainly as part of their expected transformation from old to new identity.

    I will not venture deeply in the discussion, but just remind how unique our eleventh Article of faith is in that respect: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

    Not only is the recognition of the rights of others to “think differently” remarkable, as it includes our obligatory acceptance of differing views, but the expression “dictates of our own conscience” seems to indicate how strongly beliefs are to be viewed as constitutive of our identity.

  10. Jim F
    October 24, 2005 at 2:34 pm

    Blake: I disagree with those who believe that only narrative theology (i.e., literary approaches) or history per se have value for Mormon identity or thought.

    I know that I may be hijacking the thread, but I doubt that the hijack will last, given the small number of people interested in its point.

    Perhaps I’ve overlooked someone, but I don’t know of any LDS thinker who believes that only narrative theology (which is not, in my mind, a literary approach) or history have value for Mormon identity or thought. I, for example, think that narrative theology and historical theology have perhaps the most value for us, but I don’t think it would be accurate to say that no other kind of theology has value.

    Someone interested in narrative theology should look at Hans Frie’s work, probably The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative

  11. October 24, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    “The Mormon approach (or any other religious or personal perspective, including various secular worldviews) requires that some of those constitutive beliefs not be fair game for intellectual questioning, at least in most discussions.”

    This is very broadly true. There are no systems of thought that don’t require unproven axioms. If these axioms are provided to us through revelation, we can do quite well, but we will not prove them for another person, at least not without the kinds of signs that God is unwilling to hand out.

  12. October 24, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    Blake, I’m not sure how the question, “what ought we believe” can be answered without the question of how we believe. I’m also not sure I agree with you on the psychology. The issue isn’t whether we can act so as to effect a belief. Merely what kind of control over the belief we have. Those who deny volition see the control to be an indirect one. So I think we’re talking apples and oranges.

    With respect to this thread though I certainly agree with Nate (#2) that belief can merit our identity. However I tend not to think we have some fixed essential identity. Rather I think identity is wrapped up in narrative structures. (To turn the discussion back to Jim)

    However with respect to mortality, I’m fairly confident a lot of core beliefs are presented because of our brain and thus are innate. So I’m certainly not opposed to the idea that some beliefs are part of my embodiment in mortality. Of course at a certain point I suppose we have to clarify what we mean by belief.

  13. Blake
    October 24, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Jim: I would have taken your comments at Yale as an argument against any kind of philosophical theology or analytic approach ot philosophy of religion. That said, if narrative theology and history are the “best” approaches, as you say, then how do we go about getting a handle on this valuation — or is it just a personal whim? Moreover, why think that history can address theological issues per se? Or why think that literary approaches even address the kinds of issues addressed by philosophical theology and analytic approaches to philosophy of religion? Or do you see approaches as a kind of sickness that a certain kind of person just can’t avoid (say, someone stuck at the ethical level of discourse a la Kierkegaard)?

    Clark: Just what do you mean by “beliefs” that we cannot choose? I mean the cognitive beliefs that guide action. (As a pragmatist, I wouldn’t waste my time with any other kind)!

  14. L.Jean Snow
    October 24, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    The reality of on going revelation, the knowledge that more is yet to be revealed than has been revealed is, to me, one of the most comforting doctrines of the restored gospel. We don’t have it all. That requires adjusting our beliefs. Repentance isn’t just a change of outward action. Repentance is also growing in ones ablity to change beliefs without losing testimony. That may be painful, but so is getting to the top of a mountain to get a better view.

  15. Adam Greenwood
    October 24, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    I know that on the few occasions I’ve been able to have a civil discussion about church matters or tradition with the apostates (ha!) and wreckers (ha!) that dominate the blogosphere, I’ve started with a mental ‘ave, caesar, nos que morituri te salutamus’ before jogging out into the arena for Adam Greenwood’s Last Stand, Part XXI.

  16. October 24, 2005 at 7:14 pm

    Blake, the pragmatists are famous for denying volitional beliefs. Beliefs certainly guide action but the pragmatists typically take both doubt and belief as not open directly to will. What we can do is conduct inquiry which produces experience which can change belief. And those beliefs then affect action. This is the subject of many of Peirce’s lectures and I believe James largely followed him, albeit doing more with the psychology of the times. If you follow the link I gave you’ll find an extended quotation by Peirce on this. Peirce’s concern with pragmatism can be seen as how we can deal with changing our beliefs. His essay, “The Fixation of Belief” is probably the best introduction to this.

  17. Julie in Austin
    October 24, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    Perhaps pedantic to point this out, Nate, but I have to believe that the chips may fall differently based on one’s convert status: it is pretty much inconceivable for me to think of my beliefs as constituting my identity. Was I a nonentity before 1992? I know what I look like without my belief in the Restoration. It was still me.

    an apostate and wrecker

  18. gst
    October 24, 2005 at 9:18 pm

    “Wrecker” is a great Stalinist word. Also, don’t forget the saboteurs!

    I’ve been reading Solzhenitsyn lately.

  19. Julie in Austin
    October 24, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    You can call me a running dog capitalist, too.

  20. Adam Greenwood
    October 24, 2005 at 9:51 pm

    Trotskyite. Counter-revolutionary. Right (or Left, take your pick) Deviationist. Premature anti-fascist. Enemy of the People.

  21. gst
    October 24, 2005 at 10:03 pm

    Actually, Julie, that sounds more Maoist than Stalinist. So 10 years in Kolyma for you.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    October 24, 2005 at 10:11 pm

    10 years? 10. Lousy. Years. What would Uncle Joe have said?

  23. gst
    October 24, 2005 at 10:17 pm

    10 years in Kolyma was an effective death sentence, without any of the mercy of a speedy bullet in the neck delivered in a dank cellar of the Lubyanka. But on to sunnier topics…

  24. October 24, 2005 at 10:29 pm

    So here’s my question about all this: I have the same “constituents” as Nate in almost every way that matters. But at some point my sense of identity shifted in a mysterious way that left me on the other side of the fence. I agree with Nathan that this shift seems like something that comes deep within. And it’s hard to resist and deny. But this leaves me questioning how “consituent” this sense of identity is. Since I’m now on the other side of the fence, an “apostate” as Nate affectionately calls me. I resist the notion that this deep sense necessarily persists over a lifetime. If you believe that, then the “apostates” have always made an act of bad faith, of denial. I just don’t believe that. Can be true. Is not necessarily true.

  25. DAdam Greenwood
    October 24, 2005 at 11:21 pm

    I think, Susan Doe, that Nate O. would argue that your identity is different now. In other words, ‘constitutive’ does not mean ‘innate and unchanging.’

  26. Nate Oman
    October 25, 2005 at 9:06 am

    I think that Adam’s response basically captures what I would say to both Julie and Mom. I am not saying that we cannot question our constitutitive beliefs (quite the contrary), nor am I denying that our beliefs can change, nor am I denying that a constitutive belief can become a non-constitutive belief and vice versa. Saying that we have certain beliefs that are tied up with our identity is not the same thing as saying that either our belief or our identity cannot change. Having been very young at the time of my mom’s anti-conversion and having not known Julie at the time of her conversion, I obviously cannot speak from personal experience, but I would be rather surprised if these shifts in belief did not have some effect on how the two of you understood your identities. Of course, if it did not this doesn’t necessarily mean that the distinction between constitutive and non-constitutive beliefs is invalid. It may simply be that religion is not a constitutive belief for you. I am not claiming that religion is necessarily constitutive. (Indeed, I have lots of religious beliefs that I think are probably not constitutive.) Rather, it seems that such beliefs are more likely to be constitutive.

  27. mrs
    October 25, 2005 at 9:48 am

    Because of the doctrine of continuing revelation, we know that some of our religous beliefs are actually conterfactual; at some point we will receive revelation that will change some parts of church doctrine, and therefore the set of beliefs that we have. How does this affect the ideas proposed above? Will our identity change when these clarifications and expansions are received?

    One corollary is that Church leaders are actually wrong (in the sense that they are not in agreement with things as they really are) on some undetermined number of doctrinal points — the most common historical example is the belief by some of the Twelve in the 70’s that people of African descent had done something in the pre-mortal life to deserve their priesthoodless status here. Various talks in the Journal of Discourses would also apply here. Of course, trying to guess which points they are, or identify where we may be right, and they may be wrong is a dicey proposition at best.

  28. Blake
    October 25, 2005 at 11:13 am

    Clark: I am not claiming that we can just believe willy nilly anything that we might choose (e.g., I cannot bring myself to believe that there are pink elephants flying about my room right now). However, just as both Pierce and James teach, belief is a matter of searching for evidence and study, carefully weighing what we value, how we weight the evidence and ignoring largely what is uncomfortable for us to confront (the effect of cognitive dissonance). The best statement of this will to believe is the James’s Will to Believe found here:

    So I’m not sure we are in disagreement, but I am sure that our beliefs about religion are not just foisted upon us to the extent we actually choose into our beliefs and choose to live them. I'[m more Humean on this issue than we are: I see reason often being deployed to defend what is already believed and the evidence being selectively viewed to support an already existing belief structure (in the sense of Kant’s categories that are a priori in the sense that they act as a lense through which we view the world but not in the sense that they arie wholly independently of our experience and reason that puts them in the web of beliefs in the first place).

  29. October 25, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    For most of us mortals, personal belief systems consist of a mixture of a priori propositions (such as the first Article of Faith: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”), knowledge derived from personal experience, and environmental influences (family, friends, school, workplace, church, etc.) . And any of these can filter and/or impose some kind of meaning to external events. It seems to me that the human race has an innate and universal need to interpret whatever is going on, and belief systems play a major part in the process.

  30. October 26, 2005 at 1:53 am

    Blake I’m not sure we disagree that much. I just think we have to keep clear the exact relationship between will and belief. Choice is a little more problematic a term since it isn’t clear if we ought analyze it at a high level or low level, metaphysically speaking. (And even among Libertarians it seems that there is a wide variety of opinion there)

  31. Julien
    October 28, 2005 at 11:19 am

    Nate, are there any essays/texts documenting the particular Rawls-Sandel debate at Harvard, and if yes, how can I get to them? I just finished a short research paper dealing partly with the broader debate between liberalism and communitarianism and am taking a Rawls seminar in political theory this semester, so that would be quite useful. Thanks!

  32. Nate Oman
    October 28, 2005 at 11:22 am

    Julien: Check out the sections in TJ on the priority of liberty. Sandel’s response about constitutive beliefs is in _Liberalism and the Limits of Justice_. There is a nice summary of the debate in _Liberals & Communitarians_ (I forget the author now).

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