That’s a 25 cent word if there ever was one, something for college kids to show Mom and Dad to prove they got something for their money, something a grad student to lord it over others with in the commons. In philosophy it refers to a certain group of theories of interpretation, particularly those inspired by Hans-Georg Gadamer. In religion it refers to the methods for deciding how to interpret scripture. (Perhaps my favorite introductory book related to that question is the classic, On Interpretation and Criticism by August Boeckh—readable and useful.)

Though the name hasn’t been used much, the question of hermeneutics has been a hot topic lately, particularly on Julie’s thread, “JMS Sunday School Lesson #6,” which has had 150 comments as I write this—I quiver in envy. One consequence of that lengthy and sometimes heated but rarely lighted discussion has been an argument about hermeneutics among the permabloggers. One result of our argument was a challenge: write something about how you interpret scripture! Okay, here it is, though too brief to be much more than a caricature. (For more, see “Scripture as Incarnation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures 17-61, edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 2001.)

I think few who know me even a little would be surprised to discover that I have doubts about some things in scripture: I doubt that the flood covered the earth as a whole, I doubt that Jonah and Job are historical stories. I think Paul might not have written the book of Hebrews. I don’t think that Genesis 1-3 are relevant to the scientific question of the earth’s origins.

Indeed, I think that those who worry about the last of these have been tricked. Elsewhere I have argued that what usually are assumed to be literal readings of the scriptures are often not that. Instead, they are secularized readings disguised with religious trappings, secularized because they assume, with the secularists, that the Bible is a scientific document, even if a primitive one:

It is common to understand religious creation accounts as reflections on the origins of the cosmos, answers to the question “why?â€? that are in some sense parallel to the scientific question why. That is a mistake. There may be cases in which myth [a technical term here that does not mean “false story”] functions as a kind of primitive science, but the biblical story of creation is not one of them. The additional creation accounts of LDS scripture, namely, the books of Moses and Abraham, and the temple ritual, are at least equally cases in which scripture cannot be understood as primitive science. The multiplicity of accounts and the differences between them make that difficult, if not impossible. Of course, secularists are not the only ones to assume that the Bible story of creation is a case of primitive science. Some religious people also make that assumption, especially those who consider themselves literalists. Ironically, when people argue for creation science or for what is usually called a literal reading of the Bible, they are agreeing with the secular understanding of things. They use a framework taken from secularism, with its necessity that explanation have a scientific form, to try to understand the Bible. Using that secular framework, when faced with the project of making scripture and science answer the same questions, some give up scripture entirely and others metaphorize it. Still others, those who call themselves scriptural literalists, keep scripture and insist that its account can be brought within the secular myth, though of course they would not say that is what they are doing. But each of these three groups do essentially the same thing, they begin from a secular understanding of scripture and use that secular understanding as the form of their understanding. [. . . These people] disagree about what conclusions that leads one to, but they agree that the secular myth of explanation is the one that must be used for understanding.

Obviously, from a certain point of view, I’m a “liberal.” However, when it comes to deciding how to read scripture and how to teach it, I think that my doubts and suspicions are simply irrelevant. It isn’t those in my classes aren’t smart enough to understand them or to think for themselves about the topic. It isn’t that I feel uncomfortable if people disagree with me. It is that I think that my liberality is irrelevant.

I accept canonized scriptures as that, as canonized: they are authoritative for Latter-day Saints. And, as I understand Church procedure, that means that they have been offered to the body of the Church and accepted as authoritative for us. Not all that has been revealed is canonical. Not all that is canonical has been revealed. What is not now canonical could become so. What is now canonical could cease to be so. Nevertheless, to accept a text as canonical is to accept it as an authority for the Church as long as it is canonical. That is perhaps the most important point in my approach to teaching, accepting the scriptures as canonical, so when I teach a lesson I assume that the scriptures are true as written or at least should be read that way. I don’t read scripture to decide whether Jonah existed. My doubts that he did are irrelevant. I don’t read scripture to decide whether the flood was local or universal. Whatever my suspicions about that, I don’t ultimately care.

I don’t care because I think that those questions are not central to what scripture teaches—though reading scripture without my quibbles may be important to understanding what it does teach. I read scripture to learn what the Lord has to say to me about my relation to him and to other human beings. Understanding that probably requires taking them at face value and setting my scholarly and historical questions aside.

It hasn’t been unusual for me to discover that I learn a great deal about what the scriptures teach when I open myself to them in a variety of ways, including scholarly ones. Other ways of thinking about scripture often help me have new eyes through which to see the scriptures. However, when it comes to teaching the scriptures, I think it is important that I return to the scriptures as canon. Whatever insights I have had about scripture are given place and meaning by the canonical status of scripture.

That does not mean merely repeating the same-old-same-old. Neither does it mean finding some way to shock those in my class. It means finding ways for us to learn, together, from the scriptures. There are lots of methods for doing that. Boeckh suggests some, teacher trainer classes may suggest some, I learned a great deal about doing so by studying literature as an undergraduate. If the canon is my guide for teaching, then I have something by which to judge what to consider and how to fit it in.

Christian Y. Cardall recently described my attitude toward scripture this way: “He would rather leave questions unanswered than presume to dismiss any canonized text and there seems to be querying, even respectful probing; but then simply listening, sometimes, perhaps often, for answers that do not come; but in no case does there seem to be an impatient need to force resolutions.” I took Christian’s description as a great compliment. It is certainly how I hope to read and teach scripture.

[Warning: If you want to debate me or others about my suspicions, this isn’t the place to do it. Go some place else, preferably to some other blog. Though I think that T&Sers are often too quick to delete, I’m going to join them this time: in addition to the usual things that get deleted, I’ll delete anything that I take to be off topic or merely argumentative.]

50 comments for “Hermeneutics

  1. “I don’t read scripture to decide whether the flood was local or universal. Whatever my suspicions about that, I don’t ultimately care. I don’t care because I think that those questions are not central to what scripture teaches—though reading scripture without my quibbles may be important to understanding what it does teach. I read scripture to learn what the Lord has to say to me about my relation to him and to other human beings.”

    It seems, though, that if one _did_ decide to read the flood as universal, one would conclude that the scriptures teach the following, all of which _are_ relevant to what the Lord has to say to you about your relation to him and other humans:

    –God will ‘cover up’ evidence of miracles in nature
    –God will micromanage affairs
    –God will, in major, major ways, contravene the laws of nature
    –modern science is grossly mistaken

    These are not lessons that one takes from the story if one chooses to read the flood as local. I’m not sure, then, how one can decide ‘not to care’ about the flood’s nature when one’s position on it impacts the lessons that one draws from the story.

    I’m also not sure how to decide when the historicity of a story is worth caring about; I’m with you that the sun doesn’t set on Job or Jonah’s historicity, but I’m pretty sure you will agree with me that it does on Jesus’. So where’s the line–Abraham? Moses? Nephi? The brother of Jared? When does it matter (and how do you know) who is and is not historical?

  2. Jim, I must say that its nice to know that I am not alone in my thinking. As a priviledged undergrad at BYU, Bro. Hoskisson and I had many conversations about many of your points. One of the most interesting classes I have taken was a Bible as lit class taught by a jesuit and a Mark Twain scholar. (I highly recommend the book –The Bible According to Mark Twain) I learned more from his insights than many others. I share your opinions on Jonah and Job, and Ecclesiates poses new ideas for me now, too. Myth and ritual are an intergral part of any culture, and I think the teaching aspect of myth is often undervalued. Considering that the Saviour did not actually ever write anything we have personally, and the distortion of well meaning scribes in the Bible,it is nice to know what is and is not canon according to church leaders. Thank you for your insights, and keep up those great lessons.

  3. Jim: Excellent, excellent post. I could have written that myself, only you did it so much better than I ever could.

    Julie #1: When an individual appears as a resurrected being — e.g., Moroni and Elijah — I think that’s a pretty safe bet they’re historical. (This is the major objection I have to the “Book of Mormon is inspired fiction” crowd: How do you seriously deal with 23 September 1823?)

    I think all the people in your closing list were real, but I’m not opposed to the scriptural account exaggerating some events and playing down others. It wouldn’t bother me if the Jaredite barges weren’t exactly the miracle of engineering they’re described to be; it would bother me if Jared and his brother never existed.

    It’s common among all cultures to make their founders out to be great heroes who did unbelievable things. Frequently this results in their stories being exaggerated. Yes, Latter-day Saints do this: We have overlooked Joseph Smith’s flaws and accentuated his virtues until he has become almost a myth. Even our modern paintings of him don’t actually reflect what he looked like, but what we want him to look like.

    So I think we can and should forgive the Old Testament authors for perhaps making Noah’s ship too long or his flood to extensive. They were imperfect human beings who did what all human beings do. What’s important about the flood story is that God remembered Noah (Gen. 8:1), not how much water there was.

  4. Very interesting post, Jim.

    One observation that goes along with all this–it affects, I suppose, my Hermeneutics.

    I often need to remind myself that the language of scripture–which, combined with inspiration, is all we have–must be viewed through the prism of the author. Thus, we have to read something written by Nephi and something written by Alma very differently. Even though the Book of Mormon was compiled by one author, I believe we can glimpse much of the personalities of the individual authors of each book–and the authors’ attitudes color the things they say.

    I have noticed, for instance, that the apparently ever-righteous Nephi has a sort of spiritual self-assurance which is very different from the obviously penitent Alma Jr. While Nephi’s narrative focuses in large part on staying on the narrow path, Alma’s conerns itself much more with redemption and the power of grace. This does not make anything either author says less true, nor does it dampen my respect for or faith in what they say; it does, however, help me to better understand where each of them comes from and I can thus better comprehend the lessons the Lord wants each Prophet to teach me. Just as I would read a book written my Mark Twain (incidentally, what if a dedicated satirist had written a book of scripture–the Book of Twain, anyone?) very differently from a book written by Tocqueville, I try to bear in mind each author’s individuality as I read his words.

    This approach also has the benefit of helping me find threads which run throughout an author’s writing. I have been happily surprised, for instance, to find how Alma’ rebirth affects the things he says and does. The longing for redemption paints the rest of Alma’s story in wonderful, delicate shades. I think I identify with Alma and I often find sweet solace in his teachings.

    In summary, I think trying to know each author and then bearing in mind that knowledge can greatly deepen our hermeneutics–and with my ideas and fifty cents, you can buy yourslef a coke.

  5. Jim, for sure I did mean it as a compliment. I think your basic approach is the one that makes sense for both personal and public communion from within a covenant relationship to a body whose reason for being, whose claimed unique offering, is revelation through hierarchical authority on how individuals should be changed and a godly community built.

    But I do confess I am also relieved to hear you say “It hasn’t been unusual for me to discover that I learn a great deal about what the scriptures teach when I open myself to them in a variety of ways, including scholarly ones. Other ways of thinking about scripture often help me have new eyes through which to see the scriptures,” and that this sometimes even includes certain “doubts and suspicions.” My initial bewildered reaction to your “Scriptural Theology” thread was born of a sense that this simply had to be the case, even though you’re clearly reluctant to discuss it (much less tout it), or allow it to capture significant swaths of your personal interaction with scripture.

  6. Jim, you “quiver in envy” at 150 comments in a post? If you wanted that many comments, it would be very easy to follow the formula and get them (i.e., select controversial topic, make dogmatic statements sure to irritate some camp hardened in their position, then argue almost unintelligibly, resort to ad hominems).

    Regardless, as far as hermeneutics go, asking questions and leaving them unanswered when they cannot be satisfiably answered is only the wise thing to do. However, there are things that can be discerned about the text, regardless of personal hermeneutics, which shed light on their intended meaning. Genesis 1-3 was never intended to be relevant to modern scientific questions regarding the earth’s origins as that was never their purpose or intent, the book of Job is literature and not documentary of literal factual events and even a simple start to end reading will exhibit that, Jonah is told entirely in the Third Person, and so on. These are plain and simple facts that only the ignorant debate.

    When people sit around and argue, as they are about the Flood over on that other thread, it has little to do with the Deluge, or God, or Creation, or Science. It is mainly about proving their personal views are correct, and not really anything else. Once the thought-provoking comments and questions cease and it degenerates into contradiction and nit-picking, its all about pride:I’m right, youre wrong. Jim, you really quiver with envy over that?

  7. Great post, Jim. Geoff J’s musings at New Cool Thang are an interesting example of a hermeneutic here in the Bloggernacle. Agree with him or not, his recent reading of Noah as an allegory was wildly interesting and takes us beyond the tired old, “The Flood was universal,” “The Flood was not universal” argument.

  8. (Although Julie’s point about historicity is a good one: I bet you could tell alot about people’s approach to religion in the church with what they believe about a universal flood.)

  9. Jim F.

    Thanks for your insights on hermeneutics. I have always felt as you describe that the Bible is not a science text. Likewise the Book of Mormon is not a geography or zoology text; however, I also find my self asking Julie’s question about deciding when the historicity of a story is worth caring about. I always appreciate your posts here on T & S, more so that any of the others. While I seldom comment, I do make the effort to read what you write, because I care about what you have to say, and respect very much the way in which you do it.

  10. Mormonism, it seems to me, is characterized by an unusual relationship between historicity and myth — because we have canonized scripture, the D&C, which serves as both. [And here I’m using myth in the sense of being a point of identification and ideology, not in the sense of being something phony.] Notice last year that the curriculum was “D&C/Church History.” Our history hasn’t had a chence yet to ferment into hagiography (try as some of us might to make it so!). It probably seems unnatural to some (most?) Mormons to engage in very sophisticated hermeneutics, or critical evaluation of any sort when it comes to scripture, because the transclucent, crinkly, gold-edged pages that hold the scientifically dubious accounts of the flood are, for those who carry a quad to church, bound within the very same leather as the translucent, crinkly, gold-edged pages that tell us of Palmyra and Kirtland and Nauvoo, etc. etc., places where a few of us have lived and many of us have visited.

    I admire Jim’s approach to guiding discussion on topics without necessarily broaching the issue of historicity. Some may see this as a kind of intellectual avoidance or play-acting, but the fact is that for scriptures to work their power on us, they have to do so from the standpoint of myth — a lens through which to view the world, not an accounting of or for the world (even if they occasionaly do touch upon or coincide with such things). And the myth element of scripture teaching, I think, relies on a consideration of the narrative on its own terms; in my opinion, saying “but this story, by the way, probably never happened,” is just as much a pointless distraction as saying “here’s the evidence, by the way, that so-and-so biologist at Oral Roberts University gives that proves this story really did happen.” Now, there are perhaps venues in which such discussions might be more welcomed — but probably not when Job, or the flood, themselves, and the lessons to be taken from those accounts, are the specific topics on the docket. And I feel its fine to frame stories in language that doesn’t directly contradict one’s views, as long as that language doesn’t contradict canonical views either. (For example, in my primary class full of older, smart primary kids, I don’t think it’s wrong for me to say “On the first ‘day,’ or creation period…” etc.)

    I don’t think at the judgement we will be asked if we believe in the historicity of Job. The historicity question doesn’t seem to me to be “is it a sin, for which one must eventually account, to not believe literally in Job or the flood,” but rather: does not believing in the historicy of Job or the flood decrease our ability to apply the lessons of Job or the flood in a positive way towards our salvation?

  11. Julie (#1): Perhaps I misunderstand your comment, but it seems to me that you think you disagree with what I said but come to the same conclusion. I don’t think the question of whether the flood was universal or local is important to what the scriptures teach. However, if I teach as I said I should, reading the scriptures as literal, then we will discover the kinds of things that you point to. The same is true of historicity.

    jp in lv nv (#2): I’m glad that you find the study questions helpful. Since I have to do them for myself, I’ll keep them up. It only requires posting them after I write them.

    Mike Parker (#3): Though I don’t have the space to explain why here, I don’t think that the differences between scriptural accounts of what happened and our accounts are often the result of exaggeration. (See the article I mention in the post, “Scripture as Incarnation,” for my attempt to explain why I don’t think so.

    Tyler (#4): I think that part of any good reading is recognizing the difference in author, and I would add to that the need to recognize differences in genre, time period of the writing, etc. I think you are right that we too often treat the scriptures as if they were a giant manual produced by one technical writing specialist some place, and that we miss a lot when we take that approach.

    And I think I’ll go buy myself a Coke, but I’ll use my 70 cents. I can’t get to your 50 cents, and it wouldn’t be enough.

    Christian Y. Cardall (#5): Thanks—and I’m always glad to give someone some relief.

    Kurt (#6): “Jim, you really quiver with envy over that?” Well, perhaps not.

    Ronan (##7, 8): I also enjoyed the discussion at Geoff J’s blog. The only thing I would add is that one could come to the conclusion that Noah’s story is the story of a new Creation by looking strictly at the text and taking it literally. I don’t think that understanding requires any particularly modern interpretive tools. I also don’t think that the conceptual categories “theology” and “history” are relevant to understanding the Old Testament because they divide up things in the wrong ways.

    Guy Murray (#9): Isn’t the answer to the question of historicity built into accepting the text as canonical and reading it as a “literal” history? It seems to me that it is. (By the way, “literal” is between quotation marks in the next to last sentence, not to denote that I don’t think scripture is literal—as I’ve said, that is a very complicated issue for me—but to denote that I think we use the word in a way that doesn’t quite apply to scripture.)

    Otto (#10): I like very much what you say: “For scriptures to work their power on us, they have to do so from the standpoint of myth — a lens through which to view the world, not an accounting of or for the world.” I may steal some variation of that in any future explanation of how I understand scripture. It is a good summary of what I think.

    LisaB (#11): I assume that you didn’t mean the response in which you said “You go girl, Andermom!” However, I’m not quite sure how your comment on personal revelation is related here. Could you flesh that out a bit for me?

    And thanks to everyone for the fact that I’ve not had to even think about deleting a comment on this thread.

  12. You go, boy, Jim F.! You’re right. That’s not the comment I meant. I can try to relate my personal revelation comment from Julie’s thread here, though now you’ve cast doubts in my mind as to whether I really understand what hermeneutics is.

    I have come to my methods for approaching scripture through my experience receiving and recording spiritual experiences and those of foremothers and fathers, reflecting on them, weighing and sifting them, interpreting their meanings, revisiting, remembering and reinterpreting. As I’ve done this, I’ve gained an appreciation for the limitations of language, culture, perspective, etc. On the first point, there is no way that a written text is going to come even close to divine portraiture. The best we can do is provide metaphors that try to point to our experience. All metaphors are imperfect. They point. They do not outline. Since I believe the entire point of scripture is to encourage us to desire and seek the face of God ourselves, there is no strictly rational methodology that would suffice. Perhaps our understanding of the purpose of scripture is key to how we then approach the text. Culture and perspective seem obvious enough, but one note on perspective. I’ve said this before elsewhere; I think many times what goes down in a scriptural narrative is assumed to be the way God wanted it to be. Sometimes scriptural authors assume so. Sometimes I think wrongly. If we are trying to get to a closer understanding of God–the Ineffible–from a limited human text, or at the very least inform our reachings, we must consider and weigh all perspectives conjointly, or acknowledge the narrowness of the view.

    Because of my belief about the purpose of scripture, and because I believe those records were constructed in a similar fashion to mine (I know, presumptive beyond belief that LisaB!), I approach the LDS canon in the same way (recognizing the limitations and also the focus and intent of the text). At the same time, I recognize that a President of the church or an Apostle is going to be given more global insight and direction than me in my very limited sphere of influence and stewardship, so I tend to weigh prophetic counsel and visionary experiences more heavily as I examine my revelations in light of theirs. Still, without mine, theirs would be useless to me.

    So, is this about hermeneutics?

  13. Jim, either you didn’t understand my comment or, more likely, I don’t understand yours. This is what I was trying to get at in the first comment. I don’t wish to be a pest, but I find that, while I held your view of historicity and its relevance in the past, I am now questioning it. Let me try again:

    (1) You say that whether one reads the flood as universal or local is immaterial because “I read scripture to learn what the Lord has to say to me about my relation to him and to other human beings.” The problem that I can’t figure out is this: someone who reads the flood as universal comes to very, very different conclusions about what the Lord has to say to them than someone who reads it as local. I list examples of this in the first comment. It seems that historicity does matter.

    (2) We are OK dismissing Jonah’s historicity; I presume you would not be OK dismissing Jesus’. Mike Parker has given us one metric for determining whether we can dismiss historicity: if a resurrected person appears, then they must have been historical (unless, of course, the account of their appearance isn’t historical!!). Other than that, how do you decide whether a story is historical and, more important, if it matters. Jonah and Jesus are the poles; Nephi and Abraham perhaps the middle ground.

  14. LisaB: Yes!

    Julie: I think I did understand your comment, and I think you are either ignoring part of what I say in the post or I didn’t make it clear enough. Or, of course, perhaps you are implicitly agreeing with me. (But perhaps I’ve been talking about logic too much today to be trusted on that–inside joke.)

    I don’t say that whether one reads the scriptural text concerning flood as universal or local is immaterial. I say that whether I believe it is universal or local is immaterial to how I should understand and teach the text. I should take the text at face value if I wish to understand it and put my quibbles aside because they are irrelevant to what the text teaches. So, if the text teaches that the flood is universal, then I must understand it to say that and must not try to make it mean something else, either as a reader or a teacher.

    On that view, I don’t decide whether an incident in scripture occurred or whether a person in scripture was real except in terms of the scriptures themselves–and they rarely deal with that question. In fact, only with reference to the resurrection of Christ can I think of places where scripture takes up the question “Did this really happen?” directly. What doesn’t matter is not what the text says nor the reality it reveals. What doesn’t matter is what I privately think about how a scholar would respond to questions like “Was there a universal flood?” or, frankly, “Did a person named Jesus Christ exist?” I would answer each of those questions differently in a scholarly context, and I could give reasons for that answer. But in a scriptural context, a context in which I wish to learn to see the world differently (to pick up a measure from Otto and play a variation), my scholarly answer to neither of these questions would be relevant. If someone raised the scholarly questions, I would try to find some way to avoid answering them as scholarly questions because I don’t think that’s the point of our discussion in Church classes. But I wouldn’t hesitate to answer them as scriptural questions.

    Probably fundamental to my position on these matters is a heresy, not a religious heresy, but a heresy of common sense: I don’t think there is “the way the world is or was,” which is not to say that there isn’t a world nor that we can say anything we wish to about it. There are a lot of things that one can say about the world, and one can speak about it in many ways, including falsely. But what counts as true and false is not separable from the context in which I speak and there is no context of all contexts. (By analogy, I am denying the “set of all sets,” which is a self-contradiction. See I have been doing to much logic today.) I can talk about the universal flood on Sunday morning and assert that I don’t think it happened on Monday morning because I am not talking in the same context. What counts as evidence, meaning, etc. differs in each of those contexts.

    However, metaphysics aside, even if my philosophical belief about the ultimate character of things is false, I think the method I’m describing is right: understand and teach canonized scripture as it is written (which we do not do nearly as often as we think–we often substitute what “we have always heard” about the text for what it actually says or doesn’t say), and don’t get hung up on questions of historicity.

  15. A too-long addendum to an already too-long response: the resurrection of Christ is the only case that comes immediately to mind in which scripture is directly concerned with the question of historicity, so on my principles I have to take it as historical in scripture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any other case, only that I can’t think of them right now. But there are a lot of other cases in which the text takes up the historicity of a person or event less directly. Mike Parker mentions one class of such cases, the appearance of resurrected beings or, by extension, clear prophetic references to them, as in Joseph Smith’s prophetic reference to Abraham having received a throne. There are others: one cannot read the Book of Mormon as it is written without imputing historical existence to its characters. Only from outside of the text could I assert, “Those events didn’t happen.” As someone (I’m too lazy to go back to see who) reminded us, the story of Jonah occurs entirely in the third person. That is something we find in the text, not in an external reference. What is to be made of that is beyond the scope of this thread, but it could be one element in arguing that the text itself may not insist on Jonah’s historicity. Or it could be an element in some other interpretive move, including one that believes that there was a prophet named Jonah of whom the book of Jonah is a record. I’m not trying to take a side on that one. Even, however, if I think that the use of the third person undercuts our understanding of the book of Jonah as historical, I don’t see how that would be particularly relevant to understanding or teaching the book of Jonah as scripture.

  16. Jim, thank you for your patience with my questions. Would I be reading you correctly if I assumed something along the lines of the following:

    Jim is standing in front of his GD class, asking thought-provoking questions. The class, of course, is in awe.
    Class Member: “But . . . one thing has always bothered me about this story. Did a flood really cover the entire earth?”
    Jim: “What do the scriptures say about that?”

    If I am reading you right, I think this method is far preferable to the faith-promoting rumors with which most GD teachers would answer this question. It doesn’t solve the problem of course, since the scriptures are fallible, but it is probably the best that we can do.

  17. Except for the part about awe, that is exactly what I hope would happen. However, in addition to asking what the scriptures say about that, I’d try to push the discussion in another direction: “What is the significance of the water covering the whole earth?” for example. My general tactic is to let historicity take care of itself–after all, this is a class of Mormon, Christian believers, not a class of religious skeptics–and try to focus on significance, first of all textual significance (How does this help us understand what the scriptures teach?) and secondly personal significance (What does this say about our lives?)

  18. Don’t be crushed. Leave that for the Coke can. Your idea was worth 20 cents, but I can’t get a Coke for the 50 cents you offered, nor can I figure out how to get it from you. So I just paid for it myself (and I think I paid more than 70 cents, dang it). Now had you offered a Dr. Pepper for your idea and 20 cents, I probably would have thought it worth the trouble to figure out how to get the twenty cents from you.

  19. Probably fundamental to my position on these matters is a heresy, not a religious heresy, but a heresy of common sense: I don’t think there is “the way the world is or was,� which is not to say that there isn’t a world nor that we can say anything we wish to about it. There are a lot of things that one can say about the world, and one can speak about it in many ways, including falsely. But what counts as true and false is not separable from the context in which I speak and there is no context of all contexts.

    I found this a marvelously articulate and enlightening observation on a complexity I’ve struggled to comprehend in my life.


  20. greenfrog: Want to read more about this view in a slightly different context? See:

    Faulconer, J.F. & Williams, R.N. (1985). Temporality in human action: An alternative to positivism and historicism. American Psychologist, 40 (11), 1179-1188.

    It’s an excellent primer on this approach to texts or human beings.


  21. greenfrog: I’m glad that was helpful. I was concerned that it might only make things more difficult. I’m still worried that I may have tried to say too briefly something that is fairly difficult to explain unless a person share’s my intuition.

  22. Tell me again your view of “one great whole” Jim? I think you’ve made a statement about that before somewhere on the blogs.

  23. LisaB, I think you’re remembering some discussions of two posts at my blog (here and here). In particular this comment of mine links to two of Jim’s comments related to his view that ‘all truth into one great whole’ may refer to the wholeness of an individual person (whatever that means)—who may participate in mutltiple universes of discourse—rather than a single conceptual system as Mormons pretty universally assume.

    Jim, in my experience this is a groundbreaking concept for Mormons… Is it common in other religious traditions? (I’m guessing it might be since you’ve referred us to a number of books on ‘thinking Biblically’ etc.)

  24. LisaB: Christian has given a good synopsis of my view, and I don’t think I have much more to say than that. I guess that means it wasn’t a synopsis, huh?

    Is that view groundbreaking? I don’t know. If it is, it’s the first groundbreaking thought I have ever had. Everything else has just been adaptation of someone else’s thought.

    Is it common to other religious traditions? Since I don’t know of any other tradition that speaks directly of bringing things together in a great whole, I doubt it. However, the notion of wholeness as a lived rather than conceptual matter seems to me to be implicitly part and parcel of most religions and much philosophy. We use the word “integrity,” but I think we use it too narrowly (just as we do “virtue”). It includes but is not limited to living honestly.

  25. Jim, great post as always.

    Allow me to make an extended plug for the FeastUponTheWord.org wiki that your son created, inspired by your example and reverent approach to the scriptures. Here are a few suggestions and recent improvements to the site that should make it easier for bloggernackers to join and benefit from:

    (1) Recent changes: This is a great place to start, it lists in a blog-like chronological way all the recent discussion and changes to the site. Be sure to exercise the option to “hide minor edits” to remove noise and follow the recent hot topics (for example, check out the recent discussion on Gen 9:4-5).

    (2) Sunday school lessons: This is a new addition, but is growing quickly. Here you can easily look at all the commentary that has been posted to the site that pertains to a given Sunday school lesson (OT commentary is sparse relative to BOM commentary, so there’s lots of room to help). Links to other on-line Sunday school material are also provided and will be continually updated.

    (3) Scripture-related blog threads: If you have or know of a scripture-related blog post/thread, post it here. Unless MA starts a “scripture topic” category, this is your best resource for finding what other bloggernackers have to say about the scriptures.

    (4) Study resources: This page lists excellent sources (on-line and books) for scripture study, including on-line journals and other commentary, 2 different links to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia (since the main link frequently doesn’t work), on-line inspired version of the Bible, on-line Greek and Hebrew translations and notes, and much more.

  26. So is there a link here with this no context of all contexts? Or is hermeneutics an entirely different context?

  27. Oh, and yes, Christian, that was the context. :-) Thanks for the links back to the original discussion I had in mind.

  28. Jim, maybe the phrase ‘all truth into one great whole’ is unique to Mormons, but it is obviously very common for people in many religions (as you point out in your post here) to feel a need to reconcile all knowledge, fit it all into one coherent (typically secular-style) framework, etc. It is your resistance to this tendency that I find fascinating, and was wondering whether you got it from philosophers, theologians in other traditions facing the same dilemma of secularism, or … .

    I suppose Jesus’ declaration ‘Iam the way, the truth, and the life’ is a good endorsement of a ‘personal’ rather than ‘conceptual’ picture of the integration of truth.

  29. Julie,
    For what its worth, I think you gave up to easily. I too think that the stories matter greatly, outside of a strictly scriptural sense. Since according to Joseph Smith, knowing the true nature of God is vital, and since almost all of what we know about God’s nature is through inference–using His actions as a reference–I believe our relationship with, and faith in God hinges on our accurately understanding those scriptural events. It is important for my faith to know whether “God will micromanage affairs” and whether “God will, in major, major ways, contravene the laws of nature.” Can I pray, in faith that God will heal my disabled daughter, contravening the laws of nature, or do I simply pray for strength in dealing with her trials. When I close my eyes at night in prayer do I see a God, great and terrible, ready to divide asunder, or one ready to wrap me in the arms of his love? In the end, while Jim’s approach may be well tailored for GDC, in my life that hypothetical only goes so far.

  30. Robert O: Your response exemplifies one of the reasons I hesitated to write this post: it is easy to misunderstand me to be saying that I approach the scriptures only hypothetically.

    That is absolutely not the case, though I can understand why someone might think that is implied by what I’ve said. Learning about scripture is not a matter of learning something that is merely internal to the scriptures. My experience is that I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from the scriptures, things about myself, things about God’s relation to me and his demands of me, things about the commandments–on and on. All of those things are things about our lives together here, not just things we learn if we treat the scriptures as hypothetically true. But what I have learned has come because I gave up treating the scriptures as if they were either naive history (the best description that an unrelenting secularism can give them) or a history written in the way we currently understand it (the usual view of those we call–I think mistakenly–literalists).

    The scriptures teach me how to see the world, neither through the eyes of thorough-going secularism nor through the eyes of a fundamentalism that takes most of its understanding of the holy from an out-dated secularism, but through the eyes of God and his prophets. When I see the world that way, there are things that I cannot answer intellectually–such as how much of the world the flood covered–but they cease to be important. However, the kinds of things you mention remain important. Can God work miracles? I can be skeptical about the flood. I can perhaps be skeptical about some other particular miracle. But I see no way to take the scriptures seriously, to see the world that they open to me, without seeing a God of miracles, a God who answers prayers–and also one who often does not answer them as we would like.

    In my times of trial, nothing I suspect in comparison to yours, several things have, together, kept me going. Standing out among them are the faith and confidence of my wife, prayer, the remembrance of past blessings, and the scriptures. They are not merely allegorical. They are not merely stories. They are not to be treated merely hypothetically. But I can neither teach nor understand them if I approach them from the understanding of things that the contemporary world–secular and fundamentalist–has given me. However, because I do not think that fundamentalism is the alternative to secularism, I also do not believe that understanding the scriptures as they understand themselves and seeing the world that they give to me means rejecting every other possible understanding. I am comfortable having understandings that cannot be made part of a final rational structure because I do not believe that the world has such a structure. The scriptures reveal God’s world to me, but there are also other revelations of the world, many of which have a place in human existence.

  31. Christian, you’ve asked a good question, but I don’t have a good answer because I’m not really sure how I have come to see things as I do. It happened gradually. Perhaps it started when I did a readings class in graduate school with a conservative Jewish professor who taught the philosophy of science. But all kinds of things have added to that initial experience, reading Heidegger and Gadamer. Reading Ricouer. Talking with Catholic professors who are very good friends and very thoughtful about their own religion. Etc., etc.

  32. I’m glad that was helpful. I was concerned that it might only make things more difficult. I’m still worried that I may have tried to say too briefly something that is fairly difficult to explain unless a person share’s my intuition.

    Yours was clearer to me than this (which, upon reflection, I think might be getting at the same idea):

    D&C 93:30
    All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

  33. Jim,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Granted, its late, and I may not be thinking clearly, but you state,
    “Can God work miracles? I can be skeptical about the flood. I can perhaps be skeptical about some other particular miracle. But I see no way to take the scriptures seriously, to see the world that they open to me, without seeing a God of miracles. . .”

    To me this gets back to Julie’s point concerning historicity. Which biblical figures are literal, and how does one distinguish? Which miracles are “real” and how does one distinguish? How is one to have faith, nothing doubting, when one realizes that the miracle may not be “real.” The paradox of faith is made more paradoxical by the inconsistencies not only in life, but in scripture itself. “Skepticism” and faith appear to be mutually exclusive, at least in my mind.

    “I also do not believe that understanding the scriptures as they understand themselves and seeing the world that they give to me means rejecting every other possible understanding.”

    Granted, the scriptures can be understood on many levels, but I’m not sure how to “understand the scriptures as they understand themselves.” Ultimately, are you saying the interpretive experience takes on a somewhat mystical quality where meaning is imparted outside of traditional western thought. It reminds me of experiences as a missionary in Japan where western notions of logic and thought didn’t seem to apply to much of their spiritual sensibilities. Maybe I’m just a simplistic, dualistic, Cartesian thinker who has a perception problem with slippery hermeneutics.

  34. Having read the paragraphs I linked to more carefully (about Bakhtin’s criticism), a note of explanation is due:

    A major theme of Dostoevsky’s work, at least starting with and subsequent to “Notes from the Underground” is the individual vs. ‘philosophical systems’. For example, Alyosha’s reply to Ivan’s telling of the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov is a kiss. This is kiss is (often) viewed as symbolically saying that human action (uniqueness) and free will transcend any systematic, philosophical thought–that is, rather than engaging in a philosophical response to the points raised by Ivan, Dostoevsky responds through actions (mostly by Alyosha) and religious sermons (by Father Zossima) about love (particularly individual acts of love).

    Where Bakhtin and Jim’s writings seem to differ (at least on the surface) is regarding the wholeness of the individual. Dostoevsky has recurrent themes about individuals not being predictable and not be ‘reducable’ to any systematic thought (many ideas are thought to be a response to Chernyshevsky’s “What is to be done” where there is a ‘classical’ hero–the hero is also socialist, a common ‘rational system’ theme Dostoevsky railed against). Although this may seem at odds with Jim’s idea of a ‘whole’ person, I think the difference is more superficial than substantive. Dostoevsky’s recurrent theme is to emphasize the inherent incompleteness, and hence misplaced emphasis, inherent in purely rational philosophy–the individual, in Dostoevsky’s works, is often placed in opposition to some systematic-based philosophic current (e.g. Catholocism, socialism, or Ivan’s philosophy), and the individual usually comes out making the ‘system’ looking incomplete and fundamentally misguided.

    I’m doing a horrible job explaining all this, but if you want to look where ideas similar to Jim’s thinking are discussed more, Russian literary criticism, esp. about Dostoevsky, might be a good place to start. I know there’s a lot that’s been written about his influence on later existential thinkers (for example William Barrett’s Irrational Man).

    I’m grossly over-simplifying Jim’s point, but I see his main point being a criticism of the notion that we can come up with a grand philosophical system that will allow us to rationally understand all truth–an idea that many thinkers have written about.

  35. One more addendum: I can’t quote any sources, but I’ve read arguments that Russian thinkers have a unique place between western philosophy and eastern thought. Throughout Russia’s history, there’s been lots of tension between ‘westerners’ and ‘slavophiles’ in Russia (e.g. Peter the Great trying to westernize Russia, not without much resistance). Russian Orthodoxy, Russian novelists, and other Russian thought has been viewed as reflecting this tension, Dostoevsky being a prime example. Dostoevsky is more of a slavophile and is fairly critical of his view of where western, rational philosophy was headed, and to him the socialist movement and Catholocism were natural outgrowths of this western way of thinking. Dostoevsky’s thought, in contrast, is viewed as more mystical, and in the sense of being less rational, closer to eastern thought (Russia does, after all, span part of western Europe as well as much of Asia).

  36. Robert C.: You did an excellent job of explaining and summarizing what I’m trying to say. Your last sentence encapsulates well my point: we cannot “come up with a grand philosophical system that will allow us to rationally understand all truth.” Thanks very much.

    I don’t think that the completeness of a person is final. It is something that we have to continually do/be. So, from the perspective of someone who thinks that completeness can be accomplished once and for all, what I’m arguing for is incompleteness. Obviously, however, I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. If I am perfect (Matthew 5:48: teleios–having acheived one’s end or purpose), I conform to the will of God, but that is something that I must continue to do rather than something that happens and then is done with.

    Robert O: It seems to me that your question amounts to: How can I decide questions of historicity without reference to the context in which those questions arise, including my own experiences, purposes, and interests? So, yes, I think you are insisting on a Cartesian way of understanding things and that is the problem you’re having understanding me (in addition to whatever problems are created by me). But unless “Cartesianism and its descendants” and “Western rationality” are the same, which I don’t think is true, I don’t think this is about some non-rational or mystic experience, at least not as “mystic” is used in ordinary conversation.

  37. Jim, the half-life of these threads seems pretty short now days, but if you find time to elaborate on this, I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on scripture study and mystical experiences–I don’t think I follow the point your making to Robert O.

    Here’s a definition of mystical experience from the SEP: “A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.” (This linked article elaborates on this definition, going into more depth of each term given…).

    To me, this seems pretty similar to what I think is usually meant by “spiritual experience”–that is, the modifier ‘spiritual’ implies something more than “standard introspection.” And for me, although much of scripture study is about finding “standard introspection” insights, it is the spiritual/mystical experiences that are what I seek for, and hence why scripture study is advocated by prophets and such.

    Would you say your approach is similar in this sense, or different?

  38. Robert C.: I wrote a response to you, not long, but long enough that recreating it isn’t a snap. Then, when I tried to post it, the T&S server seems to have decided to go down. I’ll write up my answer some time this evening, I hope. I don’t have time to do so now, but I want to keep the ball in the air so I thought I would let you know that I do intend to respond.

  39. Not take pleasure in others’ misfortunes, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one having internet/connection problems on campus today (so I suspect it’s not the T&S server–but then the internet is like the atonement for me, something I’m very grateful for but without a very good understanding of how it all works…). Anyway, thanks.

  40. Robert C: Of course, this mornings response was not only erudite, but filled with poetry, glimmering with it, in fact. And it would have touched hearts much better than anything Wilfried has ever written. But you’ll have to take my word for it and settle for the prose that, for some reason, is the only thing I can produce this evening.

    If we define “mysticism” as you have (there are also other ways that work), then I don’t have any trouble with it. However, the ordinary understanding of it is what I have problems with. Specifically, much discussion of mysticism suggests that in the mystic experience a person loses his or her self. There are, of course, quite legitimate ways of losing ourselves. The ego that is, I believe, constructed and that is part of many experiences isn’t necessary to many more. And we have scriptural injunctions to lose ourselves, which I take to make our wil bend to that of the Father. However, the kind of loss of self implied by much ordinary talk about mysticism suggests something else, namely a loss of individual existence. On my understanding of Mormon doctrine, that is not possible.

    So: spiritual experience–that is at the heart of how I think we must understand the scriptures, but I don’t think we usually equate “spiritual” and “mystical,” so I wouldn’t describe that as mystical.

  41. That helps, I think I understand your point to Rob O. now. Piques my curiousity about possible Mormon concepts of spiritual experience and how they would compare and contrast to different notions of mystical experience–your discussion of loss of self seems a good starting point.

    I think many Mormons believe that animals will be resurrected–do many Mormons also believe in the ressurection of lost papers, posts, thoughts etc., or am I in the minority?? I also hope to see many of my half-baked, poorly articulated thoughts ressurrected in perfect form….

  42. Robert C: I pray that lost papers and posts won’t be resurrected. I’m skeptical that they were as good as I remember them. Nostalgia has evil effects, making the mediocre and sometimes even truly bad, seem good and sometimes even truly wonderul.

  43. That’s true Jim, although sometimes when I’ve found old papers even from college I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. On my own blog I primarily think of blogging as a way of taking notes and forcing myself to think through issues. Going back to old posts has sometimes been a blast. Although it has also sometimes been embarrassing.

  44. Clark: That is also the way blogging works for me, as in this post. It certainly isn’t a full-blown, careful analysis of the issues of scriptural interpretation. It is more like an outline for that analysis. It helps to have people respond to my outline with their questions because it helps me see where I’m still not making the explanation the way I should, which is too often also a way of showing me where I don’t yet really understand how to think about that particular element of the issue.

    But I still don’t want all of this stuff resurrected to exist forever and ever. Regardless of what might come of it later, I think that would be embarassing–and the fact that most of it never results in anything would multiply the embarrassment.

  45. I appreciate not wanting certain half-baked ideas to haunt you in resurrected form forever, but I worry that this chain of thought is a slippery slope: there are certain people I’ve know that I’m afraid I might have the same thoughts toward….

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