The Open and Closed Texts of Theology

Foucault's Pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum

One of my all time favor books is Foucalt’s Pendulum by the great Italian author Umberto Eco. It’s a fantastic book about the problems of interpretation all wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. Despite having several famous books Eco’s greatest works are actually as a philosopher and semiotician. A constant theme of both his fiction and scholarly works are the limits of interpretation. He often explains this in terms of the “open text” and “closed text.” The closed text is a text (or any collection of signs like paintings or clothing) that has a very limited number of valid interpretations. The open text by contrast seems to have unlimited interpretations. Within his books his characters often face ambiguous texts out of which they attempt to gain understanding and meaning. The question always remains though: are all interpretations equally valid?

Back in 1990 he gave the O. C. Tanner Lectures on this very topic.[1] It was reprinted in the book Interpretation and Overinterpretation His goal was a way of explaining these issues in a fashion more accessible by the general public. His basic concern is the idea that while there may be an unlimited number of ways of reading at text, not all readings are equally defensible. He tries to walk a tightrope between the view that the meaning of a text is entailed by the intentions of the author and the view that all that matters are the responses to a text people form. He also is trying to avoid the idea that a text only means what the community to which it was addressed would interpret it as meaning.[2]

Part of the problem in making clear the limits of interpretation is that the limits usually are seen as tied to reason in some way. But what is reason? When is a reading rational and when is it irrational? It’s harder to make that clear than it appears at first glance. Without going through all of Eco’s arguments and examples on the topic (read the book above which Tanner is hosting for free) I’ll jump to his model. He postulates a “model reader” who is able to carefully engage with the text and the varying ways of reading it.

…when a text is produced not for a single addressee but for a community of readers — the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involve the readers, along with their competence in language as a social treasury. I mean by social treasury not only a given language as a set of grammatical rules but also the whole encyclopedia that the performances of that language have implemented, namely, the cultural conventions that that language has produced and the very history of the previous interpretations of many texts, comprehending the text that the reader is in the course of reading.

The act of reading must take into account all these elements, even though it is improbable that a single reader can master all of them. Thus every act of reading is a difficult transaction between the competence of the reader (the reader’s world knowledge) and the kind of competence that a given text postulates in order to be read in an economic way. (Eco, 183)

I want to suggest that theology is an example of reading various texts in terms of these strategies. The conclusion of these readings are what we call theology. Doing theology is always making these same balances that Eco talks of. As with any reading, an infinite number of theological possibilities are entailed by a text. Yet not all these readings or conclusions are equally defensible.

I recognize that in certain ways this seems trivial. Of course we don’t want to say reading the Gospel of John could mean Jesus is the anti-Christ, for instance. Yet what makes theological readings into good theology is grappling with the texts, their contexts, the strategies of the authors (which are in turn themselves readings), along with all the contexts we bring to the text. Good theology engages with the text. We’re all familiar with what I’d call bad theology that arises from a-contextual proof texts or readings of scripture that ignore questions of context such as other scriptural texts, original settings, or engages with the text with just a surface reading.

Ultimately what counts for good theology is making an argument. We have to present the arguments for the reading we make. Bad theology as with all bad readings are readings that hide or obscure parts of the text that don’t fit our argument. We find it in all places ranging from classic works of theology such as Augustine up through bad apologetics that uncritically make use of superficial parallels. What count is the rigor of ones argument and most importantly by dealing with and including all the evidence one can. Logic is just a tiny part of this. The biggest part is simply is engaging with the texts that don’t fit your conclusions.

What happens far too often with theology in my view is that people intentionally leave out texts that undermine their views. It doesn’t mean their views are wrong. Just that they have to explain these other points. Sometimes they can’t. For instance, attempts to take the Book of Mormon as ocurring in mesoAmerica have a few huge problems. They can’t explain why metals are mentioned long before archaeology suggests they were in use. In my view any scholarship that denies or hides this problem isn’t doing good theology (or apologetics). Now I happen to think the Book of Mormon did transpire in mesoAmerica as real historic events. But I’d be the first to bring up the problems with this view. It’s just that while this is a big problem my personal view is that the other possibilities have even bigger problems they can’t explain. Not being able to explain every piece is evidence isn’t a problem. Pretending they aren’t there is.

The second problem I tend to see in theology is in projecting what we fear or hope as what theology ought be. While I’m sure Augustine was overall a reasonably good person it seems to me he projects his neoplatonism into his theology without taking up why that way of thinking is superior to others. In a similar way Orson Pratt makes a similar move, only projecting his views of Joseph Priestly’s atoms with his strong hope for an ontological property of free will. Both engage many texts but tend to avoid these central questions.[3] Typically this is done innocently although that doesn’t mean the theology is any less problematic. A reading may be a possible reading but if it’s one of many readings one has to ask why pick this one?

An other way of putting this problem is that when there’s a range of possibilities we should be frank that we just don’t know. Picking one possibility because of our fears, hopes or other such reasons is problematic. My sense is that the Church recognizes this which is why it’s pushed back against many popular theologies that just aren’t well grounded in texts.[4]

The final problem I often see in theology is in creating caricatures of the positions one is arguing against. Now this has a long strong history in philosophy. Often philosophers (especially figures like Plato or Descartes) are presented in a simplified view in order to highlight what one is opposing. However just as in politics, when you take up the weakest form of you opponent’s views your conclusions rarely are any good. It undermines the presentation of your own ideas as well as making your opponents apt to discount your views. Nothing is more frustrating than being told what your theology is when the presentation bears no resemblance to what you actually believe.[5]

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m criticizing anyone in particular with this. Just that I think we have an awful lot of bad theology out there. I think we can all do better. There’s also an awful lot of good theology out there. Often it has problems of its own. However typically the authors absolutely acknowledge issues. They may still argue for why their readings are valid. For instance they might argue for why elements of Joseph Smith’s non-canonical sermons should have the weight scriptures do. They may argue for different ways of reading texts as a way of grounding their theology. They may make arguments of what is necessary for certain agreed upon facts to be true. But what’s common to them is making arguments and being willing to take on all data.

Ultimately our theology offers a lot of possibilities. In many ways our knowledge is far more vague than it may appear at first glance. Yet for all these possibilities we have to explain why any particular one reading is placed above others. Perhaps I’m being overly naive, but I think theology is most useful when it demonstrates that a range of possibilities is more open than it first appears yet acknowledges that we don’t know which is correct. It’s a way of preparing us for inquiry. Yet at the same time theology is at its best when showing how certain readings don’t make sense, aren’t likely, or are not grounded in the various texts that we need to account for. This double move of closed theology that shuts down possibilities and open theology that opens up possibilities must always be going on as we read. The question ultimately is whether we do it in a rigorous fashion.

[1] Yes, this is the Tanner with the famous jewelry store in Salt Lake City. Tanner was a reasonably well known philosopher and professor at the University of Utah as well as starting the the jewelry store. He started up this lecture series with fantastic works by many philosophers and scientists.

[2] This is what John Searle calls the corporate or community meaning of a text. Nailing down this concept is difficult since of course communities have a lot of variety within them. Typically what people mean is an average or typical meaning or how the majority of the community would read the text. Some would argue for various technical reasons that there is no corporate meaning. A wide range of people with very different backgrounds have taken this position against corporate meaning ranging from Karl Popper to Jacques Derrida.

[3] Pratt “appears” to take up this issue of his ontological premises with his famous tract “The Absurdities of Immaterialism” However he really doesn’t take up the question of the idea but spends most of his tract affirming his conclusions in ways that I suspect many of his readers didn’t pick up on. When an idea, perception or feeling is so foundational to how you interpret the world it’s often hard to see that it really is controlling our intepretations. Things either appear “obvious” or “self-evidence.”

[4] I think this change was partially due to Pres. Hinkley especially in reaction to the place of Bruce R. McConkie’s popular theological views. While I think McConkie’s writings get discounted too much by many today it’s also the case that they had an undue place for many in the 80’s and 90’s. Often taking the place of scripture and being treated as the representation of what really was doctrinal. Since then we just don’t see McConkie’s writings having the same place of prominence in the Church, perhaps to help distinguish one possible way of reading texts from many others.

[5] For whatever reason many interlocutors I’ve encountered do this. It’s fine when one is trying to understand an others position. You present a simplified view in the hope that the person you’re discussing things with will correct the view. It’s a way of coming to understand one an other. It’s when the view continues to be held after corrections are made that things get a bit frustrating. Of course to be fair I’m sure I’ve done it a few times too. Fortunately people call me out when I do.

74 comments for “The Open and Closed Texts of Theology

  1. I like these thoughts on hermeneutics and theology. One of my favorite parts is this: “Not being able to explain every piece is evidence isn’t a problem. Pretending they aren’t there is.” I think about this issue with regards to our Sunday School curriculum. Many of our directed readings of scripture and other texts are so focused on reinforcing certain interpretations, that someone reading a Sunday School lesson may not even be aware that these problems exist. Bringing them up in class is generally considered bad form, unless such a comment is carefully framed. But once a person becomes disenchanted with the church, the omission of such discussions feels like a manipulation. There has been talk about spiritual inoculation, but unless that is done hand in hand with the kind of nuanced and open theology you describe here, we will continue to suffer.

  2. I think there’s some truth to that Rachel, although honestly I find most Sunday School readings primarily focused on application. A few times I wonder about the reading assumed for a particular application. But of course a teacher doesn’t need follow them. That’s why I like books like Jim Faulconer’s The Book of Mormon Made Difficult which rather than giving standard readings tries to problematize them. Jim’s pushing the “open” move of that interpretative stance I mentioned. However again I think both moves are necessary. Also of course we have to recognize that beginners just have different needs. Sometimes a simple first order approximation is necessary for them to figure out what is going on. Fortunately we return to each book of scripture every four years so in theory we can do more and more complex readings each time. (Although being the skeptic I am I frequently wonder how often that happens)

    I should note though that I think theology as I’m discussing it is different from Sunday School. There are lots of things important for a theological analysis that I think would be inappropriate in a Sunday School setting.

  3. Thanks for leading me on an interesting line of thought, and showing me that Eco text. I’ll read it thoroughly, although probably after the comment period passes, to be honest. :) I appreciate the emphasis here that any legitimate reading must be *persuasive*, and the point that rigorous analysis of a theological postulation (I liked your use of the word “argument”) should be used in evaluating its persuasiveness, based on its cohesion to the body and tradition of accepted interpretations, etc.

    Simplification is a difficult matter, because it is both necessary and at the same time inappropriate. In some ways, I think what you’re asking for is a better kind of theological community as much as a better kind of theology — not because theology should be limited to the professional (or highly trained), but because it is exhausting dealing with interlocutors who are unprepared to engage with the full facts. The community and the text are intertwined; multiple communities may use the same texts in very different (and appropriate to them) ways; the quality of the community is at least as important as the quality of the arguments in order for good theology to be done.

    Lots of things for me to think about. Thanks.

  4. I’m not sure I like the term persuasive. My complaint is most texts are persuasive to readers but that this persuasion is done in an illegitimate way. Typical persuasion moves are to leave out key issues, misrepresent alternatives or make emotional appeals that a reading has morally good results without engaging with the evidentiary issues. I prefer the term defensible rather than persuasive. This is the old complaint about sophistry versus a quest for truth that’s been around for ages.

    As you note, simplification is necessary so people understand what’s going on. Often you have to bring in a first order approximation. (And indeed I think that’s what the scriptures typically give us) The problem is when that’s as far as we go.

  5. Not totally related, but I also get a good chuckle when post modernists who insist that the author is dead try to either 1) insist that the Nazi’s misinterpreted Nietzsche or 2) get mad at Sokal for his hoax. Are these authors dead or not?

  6. Also, it’s precisely because theology is based around argument that it is so worthless. History has shown that the “rigorous” splitting of hairs over what various passages mean has never led to anything but apostasy (Pharisees, Nicene council, etc.).

    A different, and much better approach is when living prophets authoritatively wield an ultimately irrational combination of re-interpretation, re-writing (JS called it an “Inspired Translation”) and selective-but-inspired forgetfulness in order to canonized, de-canonized and re-canonize various scriptural passages in the here and now.

    Yes, there will still be room for various interpretations, some of which will be more “defensible” than others – but “defensible” has nothing to do the rigor of any argument. We do not get to a better interpretation by a deeper or more rigorous interrogation of the dead text, but by simply asking our living leaders.

  7. Well it differs on the postmodernist of course. I think the good ones (as opposed to the majority of people who are just doing muddled thinking) are looking at that balance of open/closed. They’d ask whether the Nazis repressed aspects of Nietzsche for their own ends. i.e. appropriated in the sense of doing violence to Nietzsche. Then they’d ask whether there are other readings of Nietzsche that oppose the Nazi readings.

    With Sokal it’s really the same thing. A bunch of meaningless ‘quotes’ divorced from a connection are put together as if that says something about all postmodernism. (I actually agree with Sokal that it says a lot about many postmodernists – indeed that was the deciding factor in why I rejected the term)

    It’s not that one rejects the significance of intents by an author. It’s recognizing that no one the author included has privileged access to their intents. All we have are signs of intents and its from those that we have to make a defensible reading. Further the intents (however argued for) don’t control the reading. An easy example of that is an author reading their own work with someone and seeing a mistake in what they wrote. The fact they see it as a mistake is to recognize a difference between what the text means and what they intended to do with the text. It’s just that somehow with texts we think intents matter in a way we’d never recognize with other mechanic processes. If I am running a machine and use it wrong we don’t say my intents control what the machine does. Why on earth would we think that with the mechanics processes of writing or speaking?

  8. To your second point (sorry missed it when I wrote the above) I’d probably dispute what you say. To my eyes the problem of “rigorous splitting of hairs” with no results is due to simply not acknowledging when we don’t have evidence. This is especially true of the scholastic era where theology had more to do with tradition than clear passages. So the point of this post is exactly to stop that sort of thing from happening. Splitting hairs is really a phenomena of trying to make a closed text when the text is demanding an open one. However to conflate that with a problem of reason is to my eyes to miss the nature of reason entirely.

  9. Re 8:

    I totally reject any appeal to “evidence” if by evidence we mean anything that is not a living, authorized person (whether mortal or not). Any focus on evidence just ends up like the various preachers and sects that God told JS to ignore:

    “The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others…. While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him… I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”

    In other words, while Scholastic taught that we should focus on deduction from scriptural authority and only took experience as merely providing an illustration of what we had otherwised learned from scripture, I think that Mormons should relegate theology and the writing of dead prophets in general to that status as well. They are absolutely good and useful, just don’t attempt to prove anything either way with them.

  10. “Nothing is more frustrating than being told what your theology is when the presentation bears no resemblance to what you actually believe.”

    Well, the one thing that may be more frustrating than this is when people who are claiming to defend the theology of Mormonism won’t take ownership of what past leaders have claimed to be truth and find convenient pivots away from that. An individual can believe whatever they want to about god, and still claim to be Mormon. An individual cannot, however, represent Mormonism in whatever way they please and call it Mormonism. One cannot have his Mormonism and eat it too.

  11. Brad, I think most people doing good theology are more than willing to just say leaders were wrong. Take Blake Ostler for instance who reads the King Follet Discourse different from many and largely rejects everything from the Utah period. He’s quite forthright about this and explains why he does it. So to my eyes the ultimate issue is the defense of what texts one privileges.

    Jeff, so if a living authority doesn’t comment on an issue you think we know nothing on it? (I can’t recall if you’ve dealt with that before) As I said, my main problem with the scholastics wasn’t that they were deducing from scripture but that most of the time they weren’t. Rather they were simply sticking to what the living authorities of the time said combined with the major figures they saw as authorities (Augustine, Plato and to a lesser extent Aristotle) You can in particular see that in the Condemnations of 1210-1277.

  12. Clark, you can say that the leaders are wrong here and there and correctly represent Mormon theology. It is one thing if a past leader says something that is not reflective of the general declarations of leaders and understandings members over time of what is doctrinal truth. But too many times I hear intellectual Mormons dishonestly explaining away some seemingly inconvenient piece of theology as not just incorrect but not representative of Mormonism for their own argumentative advantage. If anyone wants to correctly describe Mormon theology, they need to be willing include seemingly fantastic and contradictory ideas. They need to be willing to say, “this is what is predominantly accepted as true doctrine by the leaders and the culture, and my disagreement sets me apart from the conventional teachings.” Or, “there is an apparent discrepancy in what is taught as true doctrine in Mormonism.” It is also misleading and dishonest for anyone to become a relativist to defend absolutist teachings.

  13. I don’t disagree with your understanding of the Scholastic use of scripture, etc. What I was most concerned about is how Scholastic used empirical experience. I suggest that we Mormon’s ought to use theology and scripture in the same way.

    “if a living authority doesn’t comment on an issue you think we know nothing on it”

    No. This would be to treat the living authority as if they were dead. The whole point of living authorities is that you can ask them to comment on an issue. If, after this, they still do not really comment of the issue, then we have no obligation either way with respect to that issue.

  14. Brad, right. I was agreeing with you. In my original post I emphasized that saying one should not simply hide or ignore evidence. I agree it’s common and is done by people on all sides far too often. I think any person making a theological argument has to be able to explain why some texts are dismissed and other ones elevated. Few do. But I fully agree it’s pretty annoying when people do this and then refuse to explain this grounding of their ideas.

    Jeff, as a practical matter given the numbers we have, we can’t ask. Further even if we ask they’ll typically not answer. In particular since Pres. Hinkley became prophet it seems like the authorities go out of their way to avoid commenting on most matters. So for the majority of questions there simply aren’t answers by living authorities.

  15. Jeff, I believe only the Apostles have that authority to answer authoritatively doctrinal questions. Bishops can council with us but don’t have the authority you are ascribing to them. See the following:

    Who is entitled to interpret the doctrine of the Church … ? I am sure that upon serious reflection there is no real difference of opinion on this question among the members. It is so well established by the revelations which we have received and the practice of the Church that the President and his Counselors are invested with this authority that I cannot believe any member will seriously dispute it. In the language of the revelation they, the Presidency, are constituted ‘a quorum … to receive the oracles for the whole Church”

    Now he’s dead, so that might be a problem for you although it’s quoted in a manual currently printed. (grin)

    Also Pres. Benson (also dead) emphasized this (found in that same link).

    “Doctrinal interpretation is the province [function] of the First Presidency. The Lord has given that stewardship to them by revelation. No teacher has the right to interpret doctrine for the members of the Church”

    So again, if they don’t speak, under your model we can’t speak. (Note this to me is a big problem with your model but then as we’ve discussed before I see things in terms of burden of proof rather than an absolute trump as you do)

  16. A couple of responses:

    1) “I believe only the Apostles have that authority.” So you agree that theologians ought to remain silent and can safely be ignored then?

    2) “Who is entitled to interpret the doctrine of the Church.” Of course only those living person who actually have authority over the entire church are able to do this for the whole church. I certain never said otherwise. I’m talking about individual people having full access to both the lower authorities (Bishop and SP’s) as well as the Highest Living Authority (God). Complaining that the Apostles don’t answer my questions is hardly an excuse to chase after the philosophies of men and theologians in general.

    3) To the extent that living authorities republish and clearly endorse the teachings of the dead, I am absolutely bound by what they say…. but not for any other reason having to do with how rigorous any argument may or may not be.

  17. One of the biggest mistakes that theologians make lies in their univeralism which allows no room for an inspired forgetfulness. The church leader guide us to skip over lots of part of the scriptures and choose not to talk about all sorts of church history. It would be folly indeed to simply assume that this silence – precisely because it is silent – is not itself inspired.

    Theologians, by contrast, think that all prophetic statement given to any audience by any person at any time – so long as it was inspired – must all be logically consistent. This is exactly what motivates “going deeper” into the text or seeking out esoteric church history, etc. and all sorts of trust in the arm of flesh. Without this false assumption of universalism, however, theology simply falls apart, and we can get back to trusting in personal revelation and the other, mortal leaders that it councils us to trust in.

  18. “Theologians, by contrast, think that all prophetic statement given to any audience by any person at any time – so long as it was inspired – must all be logically consistent”

    I take that you are conceding that the words of the words of the LDS leaders have not all been logically consistent. I fully agree. I also agree that Mormon theologians engage in too much mental contortionism to try to make everything taught in Mormonism appear logically consistent.

    “we can get back to trusting in personal revelation and the other, mortal leaders that it councils us to trust in.”

    If the collective results of what one perceives as personal revelation are logically inconsistent and the words of whatever mortal leaders of whatever organization are logically inconsistent (even the collective words said to be revealed from god), then why would personal revelation and the words of LDS leaders inherently be any better guide than reason? I would think that logical consistency would be an important goal, even if fully unattainable, to strive towards and that the nature of god would be logical consistency. Is god best understood as logically inconsistent? Wouldn’t god then be a tricky god? Why believe in or follow a tricky god?

  19. Because the logic of mortal man is pathetically weak.

    We can’t even see our own “whole picture” by which to be logical. While the does Lord inspire us in both mind and heart, logic is only one tool in a divine toolbox.

    Reason and logic serve the thinker. I’d rather serve God.

  20. Jeff (17) No I don’t think people doing theology ought remain silent because I don’t accept your model about only living authority mattering. I’d go one step further and say that to talk religiously is always to do theology. We can just be conscious of the theologizing we’re doing and be careful or we can pretend we’re not doing it and then do lousy disruptive theology. (In that way theology is a lot like metaphysics – inherently problematic and completely inescapable)

    To your other point, if I have a theological question though your position you seem to agree requires silence.

    Jeff (18) I don’t think I accept that claim about forgetfulness. This gets at the point I made to Brad. I think there may well be compelling reasons why current leaders devalue earlier teachings. In that I agree with you. I just don’t see it as a black and white issue the way you do.

    As to your second part about universalism I think if we see theology not as a series of propositions but a series of arguments then that objection fails. I think consistency is an important piece of evidence. But it’s not hard to come up with equal support for two contradictory ideas. We’re then left with the situation that we believe one is true but can’t tell which one. Again, I think that an important stage to reach. Such indeterminism ought encourage further inquiry.

  21. “Reason and logic serve the thinker. I’d rather serve God.”

    I’m often surprised at the willingness of some believers to reject reason and logic. Plus, it is unclear exactly what serving god entails and how it is differently from relying on reason and logic. I guess the alternative would be relying on intuition and unquestioning obedience to authority. If that is the case, what makes this pursuit any better than that of others who rely on what they think are revelations/intuition and unquestioningly follow a different set of authorities?

  22. BradL,

    “I take that you are conceding that the words of the words of the LDS leaders have not all been logically consistent.”

    The difference is that I’m saying that all revealed words have not been logically consistent because logical consistency over all times and contexts is a bogus commandment invented by men – learned men.

    “If the collective results of what one perceives as personal revelation are logically inconsistent and the words of whatever mortal leaders of whatever organization are logically inconsistent ”

    I never said any such thing. While I would hesitate to insist that if we freeze time, the beliefs and teachings of one and the same church leader MUST be logically consistent and fully so, I think that there must be some amount of consistency for the sake of understanding the leader in question. I fully deny that this is the case for comparing two or more leaders. Such people will quite often contradict each other, and contradiction of no sign whatsoever that at least one of them must not have been speaking God’s revealed word.


    “No I don’t think people doing theology ought remain silent because I don’t accept your model about only living authority mattering.”

    But it was your claim that I am working with. You wanted to say that Bishops cannot decide doctrine (this was an effort to say that leaders answer questions), but theologians can (precisely because leaders do not answer questions).

    “I’d go one step further and say that to talk religiously is always to do theology.”

    This is *the* ideology that I am attacking. This position conflates at least three very different claims:

    1) I can, if I so choose, interpret any speaker’s claim as if it were an attempt as logical consistency. (A descriptive claim about the subject.)
    2) Thus, any speaker is inescapably and unavoidably attempting – be it well or poorly – at logical reasoning. (A descriptive claim about the object.)
    3) All speakers everywhere have an obligation to be as logically consistent as possible. (A prescriptive claim about the object.)

    None of these claims are found anywhere is scripture and none of them entails any of the later points even though each one presupposes the truth of the points before it. All and all, I’m not impressed. This would be like interpreting every play in the NFL as unconsciously playing poor rugby, which we all have an obligation to play well. It should be noted that economists make this same argument about utility maximization that my example makes about rugby and the theologian makes about logical reasoning. Each person thinks that because they can use their hammer on the entire world, that the entire world has an obligation to be as best of a nail as it can be.

    “I just don’t see it as a black and white issue the way you do.”

    Both of our positions are equally black and white. The only difference is in how the blackness or whiteness is adjudicated and by who. Mine allows no more and no less grey than yours does.

    ” I think consistency is an important piece of evidence. But it’s not hard to come up with equal support for two contradictory ideas. We’re then left with the situation that we believe one is true but can’t tell which one.”

    But why? Why assume that theologian has exhausted all ways of adjudicating claims and that there is nothing more we can do, when they have yet to try any of the ways taught by the scriptures (ask an authorized leader or, better yet, ask God)?

  23. BradL,

    You’re being ungenerous on multiple counts.

    “Plus, it is unclear exactly what serving god entails and how it is differently from relying on reason and logic. I guess the alternative would be relying on intuition and unquestioning obedience to authority.”

    Surely you see how this sounds like a person who is desperate for their particular set of skills to either 1) still remain necessary when they aren’t really needed or 2) more highly valued by others when they don’t seem to care all that much. It’s no different from the lead salesman who threatens to quit since the whole business will go under unless management capitulates to his demands…. .and it then shocked when the business moves along just fine without him.

    “If that is the case, what makes this pursuit any better than that of others who rely on what they think are revelations/intuition and unquestioningly follow a different set of authorities?”

    Here you’re claiming that I defending unquestioning, when I just got done saying that we ought to abandon reason with a dead in favor of questioning living authorities. The difference is not unquestioning vs questioning obedience to a living leader but whether we are going to judge that living leader in terms of 1) the human reason theologians or 2) the teaching of higher living leader (the highest being God Himself).

    Again, the attempt to show that without the “rigor” of the theologian we are all lost in unquestioning and slavish obedience comes off like the desperate and rather prideful salesman.

  24. Since I don’t think I’m threadjacking too much here (correct me if I’m wrong) I’ll tidy up the above argument:

    1) Theological reasoning can be applied to any religious claim.
    2) This means that all religious claims are theological arguments, even if we aren’t conscious of it.
    3) This means that all religious claims have an obligation to be the best case of theological reasoning they can be.

    This is no different from:

    1*) I can hit anything with a hammer.
    2*) This mean that all things are nails, even if we aren’t conscious of it.
    3*) This means that everything has an obligation to be the best nail it can be.

    You guys will accomplish a great deal if you could show how these two arguments differ from each other.

  25. Brad (23) not to interrupt your and Jeff’s discussion, but it’s probably worth noting that Jeff has an interesting yet idiosyncratic philosophical view here. It’s a kind of odd mixture of Richard Rorty’s net-pragmatism combined with something verging on fideism but differing in a few key ways. He and I have been discussing it back and forth for months so a few of my comments were a bit of good natured teasing. While I ultimately disagree with Jeff’s view for reasons I’ll get into, I do appreciate that he takes the place of authority in epistemology seriously.

    Jeff’s view is pretty much that only living authority matters and we ought believe what they say as a trump over any reasons we might have. Needless to say that’s a more extreme view of authority than most hold. He does allow a trump of authority in that the Holy Ghost can trump any statement by an authority. My concern is looking at the difficult cases this raises in practice (such as say Mountain Meadows Massacre, to give one case off the top of my head)

    A deeper issue related to the OP is somewhat akin to the classic argument against positivism. Positivism claimed meaningful and true statements were those that could be verified empirically. The problem was that this principle can’t be verified. In the same way Jeff is presenting a theory of authority and knowledge in a religious context and arguing against theology. However the claims he makes are themselves theological in nature. Further, they aren’t claims made by living authorities in the form he takes them. Effectively Jeff’s problem (as I see it) is in avoiding the hermeneutics.

    You can see this in the OP. While I focused in on theology really I’m just applying a general principle of reading. Any statement has to be interpreted. What makes one reading better than an other reading? For Jeff to appeal to an authority he first has to read that authority. But to make a reading of an authority is to make a theological reading. So to do anything, Jeff has to do what he says we shouldn’t do.

    None of this is to say Jeff’s ideas are worth thinking through. (Nor is it to deny Jeff has his own answers for this line of argument I’ve brought up before – but then so did the positivists)

    Jeff (24) I think we all recognize that many statements are tied to a context. Thus different contexts imply different assertions. I’m not sure that’s what’s mean by contradictions though. Rather when people raise contradictions they’re implying contradictions in the same context. (Whether they can establish that or not is an other matter of course)

    Regarding theologians answering questions, of course they can attempt to answer them. I’m certainly not saying theologies are authoritative. I’d say that if you talk to your Bishop about some theological question most of the time they’ll just be doing reasoned theology as well. Perhaps well or perhaps not. Occasionally they may be prompted by the Holy Ghost but of course they’re still limited in how they can speak theologically with authority.

    Regarding your argument, of course something not being in scripture doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I have to interpret scripture. I make a reading. I don’t see how that can be escaped. The problem is that statements always need to be translated into my understanding of them. We then have to ask how this happens and what the implications are.

    To the theologian, I don’t assume they’ve exhausted all the ways of adjudicating claims. Indeed I claimed the exact opposite in the OP. I typically assume there’s either an infinite number or very close. The question is much more about how to compare claims.

    Jeff (26) I think my argument is different. It’s really a tautology ultimately or at least analytically true by the definition of theology.

    1. Theological reasoning is reasoning about religion
    2. Thinking about a claim rigorously is reasoning.
    3. Thinking about a religious claim rigorously is theological reasoning.

  26. Sorry for the typos. Errors of using an iPad. That should say, None of this is to say Jeff’s ideas AREN’T worth thinking through. Probably you figured out what I was trying to say which kind of illustrates my point about interpretation.

  27. But then the same argument gets recycled all over again with the hammer being “rigor”.

    I don’t see how this makes the argument any less desperate than the self important salesman.

  28. As regards the accusation that I am myself using theology, I have two responses:

    1) I do not presuppose or even desire consistency across different living authorities, so in a very important sense I am not using theology.

    2) The important thing is whether my audience depends upon theology. If they dismiss my argument because it is theological then they already agree with my conclusion that theology can safely be dismissed, so I win. If they do take theology seriously, then they must deal with my argument, so I haven’t lost – at least not for that reason alone.

  29. The argument is really just the broader argument about reason applied to religious-talk. An other way of putting it is to ask if you can avoid reason. The traditional way critics of reason raise the issue is to ask if we can avoid irrationality. And I think the consensus is we can’t. However often a lot of the same arguments work when turned on their head. Can we avoid reason?

    If we can’t then a natural corollary is that you can’t really do religion without doing theology.

    The hammer objection doesn’t work because of course you can hit things without hitting nails. It’s not clear how one can reason without reasoning.

  30. “The hammer objection doesn’t work because of course you can hit things without hitting nails.”

    But Clark, all those other things ARE nails, you just aren’t conscious of it….. See how empty that objection is?

    What, exactly, do you think reason entails?

    By reason I mean a set of social rules regarding who can legitimately ask what questions and what counts as a legitimate answer and from who. As such, these rules have varied enormously over time and across cultures.

    Theology, then, is based in a very specific set of rules, one of which being the idea that one’s priesthood calling or social status is irrelevant since the truth of a claim and consistency across true claims is all that matters. But this is quite obviously an optional practice that is very exceptional from a historical perspective.

    Thus, when you claim that P: “reason is unavoidable” -> Q: “we can’t do religion w/o doing theology”, I say that since ~Q has actually been the historical norm, ~P must also be the historical norm as well.

  31. “Jeff’s view is pretty much that only living authority matters and we ought believe what they say as a trump over any reasons we might have”

    I gather than from his comments. My question is how exactly is it determined who should be considered an authority? I am supposing that his answer might be something akin to, “feel the spirit” or “experience personal revelation” but that begs the question of what exactly that is. Plus, there are many others who follows sets of spiritual authorities who are preach starkly different doctrines that are mutually incompatible with LDS doctrines who claim to have been revealed certain truths by revelation. What are the criteria for determining why they are wrong and why the LDS leaders are right? I think that Jeff is mostly speaking to believing LDS folks, or at least those who claim to believe, but may selectively do so. That said, I think that his views are more in line with conventional LDS teachings than many other intellectual LDS.

  32. Jeff G (24), I generally agree. I just don’t understand how this all squares with the idea that god and doctrine are unchanging. It seems that you are willing to accept that god and doctrine are in constant flux, but that that is just a fact of life and we best follow it. My position is that it is reasonable to think that logical consistency is or at least should be common human value. Humans don’t like being logically inconsistent, it is part of their natures. Even though pure logical consistency in anyone’s words and positions, much like a purely objective viewpoint, is unachievable, it would make sense that we should value striving towards that.

  33. “My question is how exactly is it determined who should be considered an authority? I am supposing that his answer might be something akin to, “feel the spirit” or “experience personal revelation” but that begs the question of what exactly that is.”

    My position is meant exclusively for those who already claim to already have a testimony of that. If such a testimony was itself based in human reason than they have built their house upon the sand.

    “there are many others who follows sets of spiritual authorities who are preach starkly different doctrines that are mutually incompatible with LDS doctrines who claim to have been revealed certain truths by revelation.”

    I fully acknowledge that God might be telling them to follow who they follow as well. Since God in under no obligation to tell me the exact same thing that He tells anybody else, and since I am unable to receive revelation with regards to what they have experienced or should do, there isn’t too much more for me to say. All I can say to such people is testify what I know to be true and do/say all that things that God puts into my own heart.

    “I think that his views are more in line with conventional LDS teachings than many other intellectual LDS.”

    Why thank you. :)

    “Humans don’t like being logically inconsistent, it is part of their natures.”

    1) I’m not sure that it is, especially since (as I argued to Clark) most cultures have no accepted the social practices and rules upon which this kind of human reasoning is based. 2) I see no reason why the natural man is necessarily a good (or bad) thing. The only thing that can tell us which parts or human nature are heavenly or falled is revelation itself, and revelation has not declared rigor to be a good thing.

  34. So many typos. Sorry about that.

    All in all, the idea of theologians digging into texts, etc. seems totally at odds with Joseph Smith’s vision of a universal hierarchy of prophets where,

    “The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh— But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” D&C 1.

    I think the strong one that shall be broken down just are the learned theologians and lawyers.

  35. You see you want to define theology as a specific set of rules whereas that’s not how I define it at all. It may essentially make use of certain rules but it’s not defined by that. Do you see the distinction?

    But in any case that doesn’t avoid my critique which is that you can’t help but use those rules either. You can just try to make them clear or just have them functioning unconsciously.

  36. To add, as to what reason is, I think fundamentally it involves steps of deduction, induction and abduction. The later two have essential ‘gaps’ that make them somewhat problematic in that they don’t guarantee conclusions. Fundamentally I’d say reasoning is simply using signs in which one argues for the steps one is making in a clear fashion. (Rorty comes so close to this during his neopragmatist phase although he misses some key things)

    To the question of testimony again you’re making an opposition where I’m not sure there is one. That is to oppose testimony to human reason implies human reason isn’t part of a testimony which seems dubious. And, of course you’re stuck in that to argue otherwise is to use reason thereby undermining your own position.

    To Joseph’s vision the problem I have with your view is that Joseph encouraged studying texts, learning original languages, reading texts in the original languages and all the sorts of things you disparage as reasoning. How do you reconcile that with your view?

  37. I think a comment of mine might need to be approved or something….

    “To Joseph’s vision the problem I have with your view is that Joseph encouraged studying texts, learning original languages, reading texts in the original languages and all the sorts of things you disparage as reasoning. How do you reconcile that with your view?”

    I already answered this. The medieval Scholastic were not against empirical observation and experience of the world… they just didn’t think it proved anything important. I think the same thing of dead prophets. He have obligations to specific prophets that we have specifically sustained as a sign of covenant. We do not have an obligation to “prophecy in general” or some other universalistic nonsense.

    Scholastic version: Empirical experience was all well and good, so long as it didn’t contradict the (mostly dead) traditional or church authorities. Experience is an illustration of what we already know, not a source of binding truth.

    LDS version: Rigorous deduction from dead authorities is all well and good so long as it doesn’t contradict living authorities. Study and rigor are, at best, illustrations of what we already know, not a source of binding truth.

  38. Yeah the spam filter has been acting up. We’re trying to figure out what’s causing it. I’ll check.

    Note that my point isn’t just about empirics. So I’m not quite sure about the relevance of the scholastics. The issue is that if one things empirics don’t matter much one has to explain why that is the case. There I find the medievals extremely deficient.

    Really my point is that you make living authorities a trump but don’t acknowledge the issue of interpreting living authorities and (IMO) don’t have adequate explanation of what to do when they don’t address an issue. I think we understand each other on that point. I just disagree with your model. I think living authority matters a great deal but that’s one piece of evidence among many that all need to be explained. To my eyes that typically means there’s a burden of proof in which we need to explain the living authority’s statement and explain why it doesn’t apply if we think it doesn’t. Typically that requires a lot of evidence that usually people rejecting them don’t offer. (Again IMO)

  39. “don’t acknowledge the issue of interpreting living authorities and (IMO) don’t have adequate explanation of what to do when they don’t address an issue”

    I guess I’m either not making myself clear enough or I’m not picking up on some contradiction on my part.

    I don’t have a problem using reason and inference in interpret the words of a living prophet. What I am objecting to is treating the statements of two or more prophets in this way.

    As for when they don’t address an issue- even after we’ve asked them – we’re pretty much free to do whatever we want.

    “I think living authority matters a great deal but that’s one piece of evidence”

    But reducing our covenants to a living, breathing person to disembodied “evidence” just is the problem. I don’t make covenants with, nor to I sustain and for this reason see no reason to follow “evidence”. I do these things with actual people. Christ is the way, not his disembodied teachings.

  40. Since my earlier comment seems to have been caught in purgatory or outer darkness, I’m try to summarize it:

    The appeal to deduction is ambiguous and ideologically motivated. I typically involves conflating two very different things:

    (1) An individualistic attempt to draw inferences about the world where such inferences are evaluated in terms of future success/failure. Almost every organism uses “reason” in this sense (natural selection just is this form of reason in which bad inferences die and successful one’s reproduce). As such it requires no morality or obligations of any kind to any kind of “right” reasoning. It is the sense in which the natural scientist uses reason when acting as an isolated lab technician.
    (2) A social attempt at deriving inferences from what another person says in order to morally evaluate their claims where such inferences are evaluated in terms of validity and legitimacy – which is code for there being a legitimate response to any subversive questions that the audience might bring against it. Only humans uses this type of reason as it is intrinsically moral and laden with obligations. The natural scientist enters this realm as soon as they submit their work lab work to peer review.

    Nearly all attempts as claiming deduction to be “natural” or “inevitable” almost always depend upon conflating these two senses and as such amount to wanting to have ones cake and eat it too.

    Consider both the Vienna Circle and the (closely related) Austrian School of Economics. Both attempt to sideline all socially enforced morality and obligatory values in order to ground all claims in reason alone. But this is a total farce since they are attempting to limit human reason to (1) while at the same time helping themselves to the moral obligations inherent in (2). This move is exactly that of Descartes’ attempt at a performative tautology whereby we ought to doubt everything except this very “ought” itself. Thus, all those Austrians attempt to sideline everybody else’s social values in order to make room for an imperialism of their own social values that they smuggle in from (2) which they wrongly pretend to be identical with (1).

    This conflation is especially sinister in the case of theology. In the case of the natural scientist, so long as he limits everything he does to his isolated lab, he might be able to claim to be indulging in (1) alone, but as soon as he submits his work to peer review, he has traded out (1) for (2) – a VERY different kind of reasoning indeed. In the case of theology, however, the practice is nothing but (2)! Thus, the theologian’s appeal to some individualistic sense of deductive logic is a gross misrepresentation of what is actually going on. There is little, if anything at all in theology that counts as the (1) that they are pretending to be appealing to.

    The basic problem is that all the sense of universality and naturalness of rational inference comes from (1), while all the sense of obligation and binding validity comes from (2). Austrians and theologians alike are trying to play a shell game where they strategically switch definitions whenever somebody attacks this unholy alliance that is the conflation of (1) and (2).

  41. “My position is meant exclusively for those who already claim to already have a testimony of that.”

    Precisely. Your words wouldn’t have any meaning to non-believers. I think your position is honest and fair. Believe because god told you so, or you think that god told you so. If you have some revelation that some leader was called of god and you want to be saved by god, then you had best obey that leader rather strictly. There is no reconciling Mormon truth claims with modern reason. They simply don’t make any sense within modern frameworks of understanding truth. They would only make sense because of a supernatural revelation. Intellectual believers who attempt to reconcile modern reason with LDS truth claims are attempting the impossible.

  42. Thank you, Brad! It’s refreshing to find somebody who understands my model for what it is even if they (in all likelihood) do not agree with it.

  43. So, with regard to an open canon, what does a theology mean? In Mormonism, not only is the canon open, but it appears to be open, not only to the Church, but to individuals in the form of revelation. If theology is the study of texts to find meanings, with the intent of discovering the workings of the universe, how much can the idea of discovering the workings of the universe overwhelm the study of the texts?

    Part of the problem is that the universe in infinite and the texts tend to be finite. As a result our true readings necessitate the texts must be as open as possible to encompass these infinities. And our interpretations as broad as possible to pull as much out of the finite texts as possible to apply to that infinity. Infinities always get in the way of theology.

  44. RW (45), the open canon means that you can make different arguments about what texts to privilege. So most Mormon theologies appeal to a lot of non-canonical works. The main important texts are The King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove. Yet because we have the original notes out of which the texts that tend to get published by the Church people making theology arguments can appeal to these textual issues and then debate how to deal with these texts versus more canonical texts. The Joseph Smith Translation while it has quite a few excerpts in the footnotes of the LDS Bible technically isn’t canon except for the parts in the Pearl of Great Price. Again there are often variants on particular verses and theologians can debate what texts to use. Finally given the nature of new revelation as well as the authority of current Apostles their recent talks often are taken as at least very significant and occasionally more significant than scripture even though nothing they say is canon. (Think the Proclamation on the Family as a good example of this) While most don’t quite privilege them to the degree Jeff does, they still are engaged with carefully by many theoligians (but not all — thus my point about needing to argue for the place one gives particular texts)

    The problem you raise is really Eco’s with the open text versus closed text movements. There certainly is a move towards a more open text because of the open canon. Yet in practice we still have to justify our readings. That requirement to justify readings especially relative to competing readings means that many readings are closed off.

    Brad (43), while I think that is agreeable to Jeff’s model, I confess I just don’t see how it’s the only way to treat these texts. Again though perhaps there’s some equivocation over the meaning of reason? I just don’t see why one can’t use reason in all this.

    Jeff (41) I confess I’m not quite following you. What do you mean by “treating the statements of two or more prophets in this way?” Why is it OK for one prophet but not two?

    As to covenant, again I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to. I can’t think of any covenant that I’ve made that commits me to accepting anything any authority says as truth. At a minimum the question of when a prophet is acting as such can’t be avoided. One has to use reason to figure out when they are acting in an authorized fashion.

    (42) Regarding deduction while it’s a part of reasoning typically it’s a small part. My sense (perhaps incorrect) is that you tend to treat deduction as what reasoning consists of. That just seems wrong and probably explains your treatment of reason. Certainly when I use the term reason I am not just talking about deduction but more typically conscious careful hermeneutics.

  45. “What do you mean by “treating the statements of two or more prophets in this way?” Why is it OK for one prophet but not two?”

    Because no two prophets have equal authority. As such, logical consistency never has any role to play. The question for consistency across prophets allows the rules of logic to cut through the rules of bounded stewardship. If we keep the rules of bounded stewardship in place, they cut through the rules of logic.

    I can definitely see how a quest for consistency within one stewardship could be helpful – but even then I wouldn’t press too hard. Once people seek logical consistency across multiple stewardships, they can’t help but pit dead prophets against living prophets and thus become subversive, whatever their original intentions were.

    “Certainly when I use the term reason I am not just talking about deduction but more typically conscious careful hermeneutics”

    Your post placed arguments at the heart of things. This inevitably entails questions of varying legitimacy and answers of varying legitimacy. This is all that I mean by “reason”.

    If, however, by “reason” you mean any and all mental processing, then there simply isn’t much to discuss. The definition has become so watered down that it can’t be used to prove much of anything, let alone what we ought or ought not do or believe. Furthermore, it makes the frequent commandments to trust not in human reasoning totally meaningless.

    Again, this attempt to simply define oneself as both normatively right as well as practically indispensable smacks of ideology and desperation.

  46. Jeff that doesn’t “cut through the rules of logic.” After all you just made a logical argument by explaining they don’t have the same authority. (Although I don’t think you’re out of the woods since it’s not clear to me that two junior apostles don’t have the same authority)

    I don’t mean “any and all mental processing” but again deduction, induction, and abduction. If all you mean are legitimate answers then that avoids the basic question of what makes something legitimate.

    If you just mean legitimate then I confess I don’t quite understand the digression on deduction.

  47. Because deduction, induction and abduction are all nothing but

    1) useful inferences


    2) valid inferences.

    Validity, to the extent that it involves a normativity beyond mere “usefulness”, is always and everywhere a social phenomenon. Within this scheme, the question of whether the inferences are deductive, inductive or abductive are totally beside the point. (Indeed, all focus on the differences between these is a sort of methodology-worship that is very much aimed at dissolving particularistic authority relations such as the priesthood.) Either something is merely (un)useful, in which case there is nothing to talk about since each person can judge such things for themselves, or it is (in)valid/(il)legitimate, in which case it is irreducibly historical and social in nature.

    Theology, like all such practices, amounts to a combination of (1) a forwarding of one’s own interests and pursuit of usefulness and (2) a social practice of being evaluated and offering evaluations that are themselves evaluated. To the extent that theology is aimed at the interests of the theologian, this fact is repressed and disguised. To the extent that it is aimed at validity and legitimacy, it is a social and historical practice based in the very specific and non-universal assumption of the equal legitimacy of speakers. Any appeals to the “intrinsic virtues of inquiry” are ideological mystifications of the real, interpersonal interests that are always at play. (See Bourdieu’s argument regarding taste and inquiry.)

    “If all you mean are legitimate answers then that avoids the basic question of what makes something legitimate.”

    Every moral community just is a self-sustaining, and evolutionary stable equilibrium in which each person is both evaluated by other and evaluates others in a way that is itself evaluated. Whether each person calls X legitimate or not is itself motivated by (1) the useful to the person of doing so, and (2) the validity of the person doing so as measured by the rest of the community. This (2) is, in turn, just an X` that will also be subject to the same process.

    Morality, legitimacy and validity are thus no different from any other self-sustaining ecosystem or economy that finds itself in an evolutionary stable equilibrium. There’s nothing deep or metaphysical about this.

    This model is exactly what my post regarding Deacon was secondarily aimed at. To very loosely use Fregean language (Deacon uses it too), human reason always involves both sense and reference. Reference is not but individual usefulness, and sense is social validity. The problem with the intellectual ideologies upon which theology (and modernity in general) are based is that they presuppose and insist that the person of the speaker is irrelevant to sense/validity/legitimacy. Equality demands this assumption. The priesthood is specifically aimed at setting some people apart from others.

    Thus, we cannot simply drop that sense/validity/legitimacy that is built into the person who is speaking in order to isolate and consider the claims themselves. (We can, but this is itself a social move with moral consequences counter to the gospel.) The relationship of the calling/status/stewardship of the speaker to that of his/her audience is unavoidably an argument in the function that is its sense/validity/legitimacy.

    Moses never had stewardship over Joseph Smith, nor did Joseph over Moses. Neither one was a part of the others’ audience. Why would we ever think that we have any right to pit one against the other without massively distorting the mission that each had to his specific audience and stewardship?

    Finally, to answer your other question, no two apostles have the same authority. All church councils, since JS instituted them, have had specific rules for who gets to speak and in what turn. It is for this reason that there will never be a question of succession. That new Kathleen Flake article is well worth reading on this subject…. You just have to find the time to go on campus somewhere to read it. :(

  48. In other words, theology always seeks to repress or disguise the status/stewardship/calling (of lack thereof) of either the prophet or the theologian him/herself. The primary means by which this is done is through ideological appeals to the equality and/or persons (such that differences in person can be ignored, which means that persons as such can be ignored) or universality of logic/reason (such that no claim, no matter who says it, goes ignored).

  49. Well depending upon how loosely or tightly you mean “it works” I think that ultimately grounds all these “rules.” In terms of inquiry and predicting truths (or events) then that is what works.

    If the argument is the very grounds of why logic seems so amazingly fruitful that seems a bit beyond this discussion. I’d just say I take it as a fact from experience that logic is extremely useful and fruitful.

    Debating Frege here is a bit beyond the scope of what I want to discuss in this thread (maybe a post at your blog?) but I certainly don’t have trouble with the issues you raise. I think I can defend logic, good arguments and so forth. So I just don’t think reason represses or disguises at all. Indeed I agree that authority intrinsically is part of any argument since authority is just the question of privilege of evidence within an argument. The question again though is what establishes authority.

  50. I hope to read Flake’s article when it’s available in a place I can access. I’d be very interested if it deals with one apostle trumping an other.

  51. Your understanding of “evidence” is very peculiar. The overthrow of scholasticism just was an attempt for evidence to subvert and replace all appeals to authority. It seems to conflate expertise with authority when historically speaking these two have no only been very different from one another, but also in a pitch battle against each other.

    This conflation seems motivated by nothing other than the scholars attempt to place themselves on the same level as the authority, if not qualified to pit one authority against another.

    Flake’s article doesn’t flat out say that one apostle trumps another, but it is very explicit in describing how all councils (they being one among three overlapping chains of authority – council, office and kinship) were stratified and hierarchical with assigned places and turns for each member. Her main claim is that the virtues of the early church leadership were filial rather than republican (her words), paternalistic rather than democratic (my words). Here are a few passages:

    “For all its republican references to ‘vote,’ attention to the representative nature of those who are voting, and enactment of legalistic rules ensuring fair procedures, the High Council operated in the mode of hierarchical covenant-making. Participant votes were characterized as an acknowledgement or reception of a particular initiative…

    “The High Council was first limited by the rules which it received by covenant and which placed its members in certain roles vis-a-vis each other, for example, who had seniority and who might speak in what order at any given time. Secondly, the priestly rites of instructing and setting them apart enacted their relation to Smith as the source of their own prophetic delegation. Even the order of settings apart illustrated the hierarchy between the Assistant Presidents and the High Council, as well as the internal hierarchy among the members of the council. Finally, all the new hierarchs witnessed the fact that they were not in all cases superordinate to the members of the church when they observed Smith’s subordination to his father…”

  52. Clark,

    “Again though perhaps there’s some equivocation over the meaning of reason? I just don’t see why one can’t use reason in all this.”

    It is reasonable to believe that god and angels visited Joseph Smith and that god empowered him to translate from a language he had never learned into English by looking at a stone in a hat? No. But I really don’t see the general membership, the LDS leaders, and even the intellectual members to be arriving at that position through modern reason (at least in the way that reason is conventionally understood among the modern secular intelligentsia). They claim to believe that because they think that they had a revelation or felt some external spiritual force telling them that it was true, not because they carefully analyzed evidence in support of such claims. To claim that such a belief can be arrived at through reason is to debase the very concept of reason itself and render it utterly meaningless. If such beliefs are to be considered reasonable, then all other claims to the miraculous must also be considered reasonable. You must by default accept that belief in reincarnation is reasonable as well as a whole host of other claims about reality that conflict with LDS truth claims. In fact, I’m not sure what you would consider unreasonable. Moreover, the claim that JS saw god and translated the BOM doesn’t appear to be gaining much traction in non-LDS intellectual circles. If you think that belief in LDS truth claims is reasonable, then you bear the burden of proof, for this is an extraordinary and unconventional claim. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Your proof could come in two ways: 1) Show me a large number of LDS people who claim to have arrived at a belief in LDS truth claims strictly through reason and not on the spirit and/or social conditioning. 2) Show me non-LDS intellectuals who consider LDS truth claims to be reasonable. Then you will convince me.

  53. Brad, again I think there are many reasonable interpretations and interpretations depend upon ones evidence. Since we don’t all have the same experiences we can’t all have the same evidence. So right off the bat I think we end up with a problem to say something is reasonable or not.

    Let me give an example of that with an example with less cultural baggage. I don’t believe in UFOs and don’t believe aliens have ever visited the earth. However if I was out hiking one night and came upon a space ship in a clearing with some non-humans coming out I think it would be completely reasonable to start believing in UFOS. That says nothing about whether others believe or disbelieve.

    Jeff, I don’t think I’m using evidence in any particular way. Certainly the scholastics accept authority that during the Resnaissance becomes questioned. By the modern era it becomes highly questioned. Part of that is admittedly a recognition of the authority of personal experience, which if I understand you you discount. I don’t. I think I’ve been pretty upfront about that over the months we’ve talked on these subjects. Indeed fundamentally while I have other critiques, my fundamental one has always been over the way you dismiss personal experience.

    While I don’t deny in the least authority in the church works paternalistically I don’t think that addresses the point I raise. Or, to put it a different way, it’s not terribly hard to find examples of Apostles acting in a way that doesn’t follow a trump by seniority. Especially in the 20th century.

    Again a problem you face is that anything Flake discovers is by your model deal prophets and thus ultimately not relevant for contemporary practice unless they explicitly embrace it.

  54. Clark,

    1) You have to factor in social conditioning, superstition, hallucination, delusion, schizophrenia, confirmation bias, the magical worldview, and a whole host of other psychological phenomena that cause people to think that they are witnessing miracles, experiencing ethereal visions, and hearing spiritual voices that they aren’t really hearing.

    2) You also have to bear in mind that religious faith is not reasonable. According to LDS teachings about faith, it is 1) belief without evidence, 2) belief on sparse evidence, and 3) belief on special private evidence that wouldn’t be recognized as valid evidence outside the faith tradition. Faith is strongly intuition-based. It appeals to authoritative traditions to inform belief, not questioning of predominant norms and solid evidence-based approaches. A belief founded on reason is typically grounded in much more evidence than what the LDS church claims exists for its truth claims.

    Besides, if you’re trying to come up with an honest definition of what reason is and how the term is used, you cannot do so without giving heed to how intellectuals around the world use the term. You can’t just decide what reason is from your own personal interpretation. To do so is relativistic and renders what appears to be a fairly useful terms utterly meaningless. The meaning of the term “reason,” as is the meaning of all other words in any language, is determined collectively. The fact of the matter is that the leading intellectuals in this world generally do not use the term to describe belief in angels, supernatural translation through seer stones, revelations, etc. which are all a core part of Mormon belief. This is not an attack on those beliefs, just don’t coopt the term “reason” to describe them. These beliefs are faith-based, not reason-based, and by the church’s own admission.

  55. Clark,

    “Again a problem you face is that anything Flake discovers is by your model deal prophets and thus ultimately not relevant for contemporary practice unless they explicitly embrace it.”

    The point, however, is that it IS relevant to your model. Dismissing it as irrelevant to me does nothing at all to justify your own position. My view is that her account is interesting, but non-binding or authoritative in any sense and, for that reason, non-threatening. Your view, by contrast, is that her account must be dealt with thus making it, for that very reason, potentially threatening.

    I’m trying to use your assumptions to argue that you should give up those very assumptions. There is nothing incoherent about this. Thus, to argue that my conclusion does not entail the assumptions from which they began is not terribly persuasive since this is the very point of my argument. My thesis is that your assumptions lead to my position, not that my own position can support your assumptions.

    “a recognition of the authority of personal experience”

    But this just is the radical re-definition of ‘authority’ that I am asking you to justify. You’re simply assuming it without support.

    Lot’s of (indeed most) communities have rejected the idea that personal experience has authority in any binding sense. For this reason, simply pointing out that the moderns took a different view than the scholastics isn’t a very compelling argument for or explanation of the former.

  56. I think a big confusion here has to do with the distinction between “personal experience” and “evidence” this difference relating to the scope of authority that personal experience is supposed to have.

    You assume that the scope of this authority extends well beyond the individual who experiences it. But how do you justify this assumption? Most communities have not accepted anything like this.

    Furthermore, the idea that my experiences have authority over me and me alone seems like an abuse of the term “authority”. This is what underlies my confusion.

  57. Sorry for not responding for a while – was quite ill this weekend and had to work this weekend to boot.

    Brad (56) mental illness certainly is the usual explanation. However in my example I’m assuming me. i.e. a person without mental illness who is fairly self-reflexive and attempts to think through the alternative possibilities. I think we have to be careful in distinguishing between having the experience ourselves versus how we interpret a third person claiming such an experience where mental illness even if temporary is a bigger concern.

    Regarding faith I think the LDS position is more complex than you let on. Typically as LDS use faith it means trusting God when you don’t know the consequences. LDS thought is far more evidentiary on other points. So it’s more akin to the old example of someone telling you they’ll catch you when you jump. It’s faith that they’ll catch you but knowledge that they are there. This is an important distinction that often gets neglected. Also I’d say that Alma 32 entails that faith can become knowledge.

    As to how reason is used as a term, I’m actually paying pretty close attention to that. I suspect Jeff and I have all read the same books critiquing reason (which was a very popular topic in Continental philosophy from the 60’s through 90’s). While I presented my use in terms of Peirce’s logic, I think it fits most of the critiuque. The idea that reason is just deduction hasn’t been a popular view for a very long time. Arguably not since the era of early modernism – induction in science quickly became seen as indispensable. And it was Hume who noted the problems of this.

    (More later — have to go)

  58. Jeff (57) I don’t see how Flake would be a problem for most views. If one apostle has priority over an other then that’s simply a piece of evidence one needs to include. I already assume senior apostles have more weight than junior apostles as do apostles often quoted over those who are usually neglected.

    As to the justification of ones own authority in interpreting, which I do assume, I think there are several reasons. First, as I’ve noted, I don’t think we can remove our own authority. We have to make interpretations in order to attribute authority to others. That presupposes some validity to our own interpretive conclusions which in turn implies at least some degree of authority. More particularly though is the fact that careful appeal to experience works better than the alternatives in arriving at correct conclusions. (Conclusions that stand the test of time if one doesn’t like the term “true” in this context)

    Again I think Peirce’s “The Fixation of Belief” is rather useful in this context.

    Jeff (58) I think personal experience only has authority on ourselves except to the degree we’ve come to trust others due to their experience. So I’m apt to trust what a geologist says about a geological feature for example. However overall I think we have to continue to inquire which presupposes that while there is authority it’s never as strong as some (say you) portray it.

    To the semantics of authority I’m fine using it however you wish. My basic point is just that authority is never absolute but is in tension with other demands. Your point, as I take it, is that authority is absolute.

  59. Clark (59),

    You’re responding with straw men arguments and tangents.

    “mental illness certainly is the usual explanation”

    You’re not being fair to my point. I’m not suggesting that mental illness is the only explanation for why people believe. We’re talking about if people are arriving at belief in LDS doctrines because of reason. Social pressure, conditioning, confirmation bias, intuition (i.e., the spirit), emotion, preexisting beliefs in magic and the supernatural explain people’s belief in LDS doctrine far more than reason. There are a select few intellectuals (yourself included) who arrived at belief in LDS doctrines at a young age largely for the reasons mentioned above, who attempt to assuage the pangs of cognitive dissonance that have arisen from a modern education by trying to make a case that LDS beliefs and doctrines are perfectly reasonable. The result is a poorly constructed reconciliation of faith and reason that has persuasive power only in believing circles. Truly reasonable propositions have persuasive power across intellectual cultures and disciplines, and use evidence that has wide recognition as valid evidence. “The spirit said so” wouldn’t be considered valid evidence outside Mormonism.

    “LDS thought is far more evidentiary on other points.”

    What evidence (evidence that would be accepted as such across intellectual cultures, disciplines, and environments) does the LDS church have for any of its core doctrines? The LDS leaders claim that the spirit is evidence to its truth claims. But in order to accept that as valid evidence, you would have to first accept that this spirit, as taught by the LDS leaders, actually exists and leads people to belief in the way that the leaders explain that it does. This brings me back to my original point. People are arriving at belief in LDS doctrines because of what they think is a private evidence which wouldn’t be considered as valid evidence in modern intellectual circles or even other faith traditions.

    “faith can become knowledge”

    Not in the way that it is meant in the larger intellectual world. Mormon doctrines aren’t influencing the wider body of knowledge in the world in the least. This knowledge you speak of is better termed as gnosis.

    “The idea that reason is just deduction hasn’t been a popular view for a very long time”

    Straw man. Nothing in what I wrote suggests that I regard reasoning to be just deduction. Belief in Mormon truth claims is not reasonable in the inductive sense either. The truth claims are neither conclusive nor probable. People are not arriving at belief in Mormon truth claims based on the standards that they would usually apply to determine whether a proposition is probable or conclusive. It is belief on no evidence, sparse evidence, bad evidence, and special private evidence.

  60. OK, sorry, was just not able to write.

    I think we’re talking different things. I’m presupposing that a critical self-reflexive person is conducting the inquiry. I’m not trying to understand why any or even most people believe what they believe. How on earth could I know why they believe? I think to assume any particular person is doing so for irrational reasons is a bit patronizing. I’m sure some do, but I couldn’t even guess at how many. Ultimately that’s just not an interesting question to me.

    My point is that there are real spiritual experiences and people can rationally engage with them. Further I don’t think this reason requires a significant amount of education even if I might analyze it with various tools out of philosophy.

    The problem is that if the basis of reason is in experiences that aren’t sharable then that limits how one can discuss them and more importantly share it as a persuasive set of reasons. The reasons just intrinsically demand the experiences. The best the believer can do is try and get people to experience those experiences themselves. Ultimately belief comes from the relationship of the inquirer and God.

    To the point about faith becoming knowledge, again I’d disagree. I don’t think the process outlined in Alma 32 is particularly novel. Indeed it’s pretty close to the portrayal of knowledge acquisition in many theories. You try it out, look at the consequences, make a tentative conclusion and repeat until your belief is firm enough we call it knowledge.

    Really you’re making these judgements based upon being able to provide reasons that would convince an other person of something. My point is that’s just a subset of reason based upon shared experiences. Without those shared experiences you can still reason but you can’t persuade. That’s what that little thought experiment was intended to demonstrate.

  61. But Clark, isn’t assigning who gets the last word on some subject (and the very fact that those outside the council do not get any word at all is also significant) the exact same thing, in practice, as assigning trump cards?

  62. Of course. The meetings and councils do not go on forever.

    Yes, the discussion can be re-opened, but again, there is an assignment for who can do this as well. All of this sounds very “trump-ish”. (It’s really unfortunate that this term has taken on such a negative connotation during this election.)

  63. LOL. Yeah Trump corrupts what he touches.

    I’m really not being flippant but I think there’s a big distinction between temporary decisions and acts and having a final word. It seems to me we always have to act without having the final word because there is no final word. Indeed from my perspective one big plus of your system is that it entails that. Things can always be taken up again.

  64. Doesn’t this entail that nobody should ever criticize a church leader for their decisions or teachings, because in reality no decisions have ever been made and no doctrines have ever been finalized?

    Similarly, no criticisms have never been made either, since they aren’t final. And so on….

    In other words, it strategically tries to redefine key terms in order to give the illusion that authoritative decisions and teachings are never actually being made by anybody.

  65. I don’t see how that follows, although in general I don’t think it is usually appropriate to criticize leaders.

    Note that I distinguished between acting and a final word. My sense is you are conflating them.

  66. Very wrapped up in how I think of all this is the notion of risk. That is we always have to act before we have the final word. In so acting we’re always taking a risk that we might be wrong. That very willingness to act is a kind of freedom in which we take up a kind of responsibility for our actions that go beyond the question of authority around us.

  67. Well I’m assuming that a discussion between two people ends and which point collective action moves forward. I don’t know or care what anybody does in the utter privacy of their own mind.

  68. Right, but that’s what I not only don’t assume but think is wrong. Most actions include as part of the actions rethinking the problem.

    To me thinking is inherently wrapped up in the hermeneutic circle. It’s ongoing and never ends. Things are always being reconsidered.

  69. Whereas I, by contrast, insist that it is always coming to an end, always and everywhere, over and over. Anytime we act, we stop interpreting, reconsidering, doubting and questioning, even if we might choose to do them again later on.

    The idea that it never ends is pure ideology of the intellectuals who are concerned, above all else, with enhancing, if not preserving their own relevance.

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