owensjanet asked:Have you read any of Denver Snuffer's books?
I haven’t, though I have listened to his interview with John Dehlin. Thought it was interesting. Do you recommend him? Which book, and why?
I haven’t, though I have listened to his interview with John Dehlin. Thought it was interesting. Do you recommend him? Which book, and why?
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently gave a public, bristling attack against two secular philosophies—humanism and atheism—that created a modest amount of buzz amongst the intellectual community of the LDS Church. After having read his talk, I’d like to examine its claims for what it tries to communicate about these worldviews but too casually mischaracterizes and perhaps disservices, even in the wake of its more positive aims and suggestions.
Oaks begins by affirming that “we live in a world where many deny the existence of God” in addition to the eternal truths of “right and wrong [as] defined by His teachings and His commandments.” This “rejection of divine authority as the ultimate basis of right and wrong” is characteristic, he says, of those who the Apostle John called “anti-Christ,” or those who “denieth the Father and the Son” (1John 2:22). Oaks blankets both atheists and secular humanists into this category, comparing their lack of moral adherence to “traditional religious morality” with the Book of Mormon’s teachings on the “great and abominable church of all the earth, whose founder is the devil” (1Nephi 14:7). “Any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God,” says Oaks, must belong “to the church of the devil” (1Nephi 14:10; also see 1Nephi 13:4-6).
There are many puzzling things about these statements.
The first that comes to mind is to determine what counts as those “who deny the existence of God.” Does a denial of a counterfeit “God” cast one into “the church of the devil”? Or is it only through the denial of knowing some extremely intimate “God,” like one who is acquainted with a friend, that qualifies for the ruling, “anti-Christ”?
The second question to unravel is to determine what counts as those who reject “the eternal reality of the truths of right and wrong defined by His teachings and His commandments”? Do those who reject moral precepts grounded in metaphysical constructs count as those who reject morality altogether? Should those who reject moral precepts given by finite and fallible humans always be cast with those who reject “[God’s] teachings and [God’s} commandments”? And should those who replace the metaphysical positioning of religious morality with a morality grounded in humanly-understood principles belong to “the church of the devil”?
These are crucially important questions, ones that Oaks deliberately or inadvertently doesn’t answer. It seems far easier to couch those who reject religion and religious morals into a blanketed set of devils than to wrestle with the harder, more nuanced discussion about why secular humanists and atheists might reject current discourses on the divine and alleged divine morals. It may be even harder to understand how many have rejected and replaced religious morals with more intimately understood principles, not grounded in metaphysical narratives. However, none of this should warrant any sort of vague or oversimplified condemnation against those irreligionists who do not fit Oak’s stereotypes.
In learning what many intellectual atheists and secular humanists specifically reject in religion, I have discovered that their denial of divine authority is inextricably tied to their denial of the supernatural, as well as any ethical absolute grounded in metaphysical propositions. They deny counterfeit “Gods,” are sensitive to religious power gone awry, and yes, use combative reason, satire and ridicule to mock the “people of God,” but such scorn must be understood sympathetically given that we no longer live in a culture where the basic questions of existence are already answered for us. Religious belief, in other words, is not enough to quell existential questioning.
This is why Oak’s amazing blanket statements about atheists and secular humanists does terrible disservice to our evangelical need to understand outsiders—it seems to suggest that unless you believe in God, or unless you accept the divine authoritative foundation for morality, you cannot be moral or spiritual. This is hardly true. Insofar as religious believers can accept the idea that there are admirable people who nevertheless do not believe, must mean that even religious people cannot close off the door to genuine existential questioning; they cannot assume that the knottiest problems of our existence have already been articulated in the holy books, let alone should prevent us from still greater articulations.
To be generous, I do believe Oaks is trying to condemn, and rightfully so, the laissez faire sham morality made “popular [in the] media and in current peer pressure.” It’s the eat-drink-and-be-merry attitude, which, correctly, has done nothing but cause people to pursue shallow, carnal and selfish pleasures. Furthermore, to Oak’s credit, he doesn’t necessarily compare those who deny or doubt the existence of God with those who would default to a morally relativistic lifestyle. Paradoxically, he also doesn’t acknowledge whether one can lead a moral lifestyle without religion, or “God” for that matter. He simply states the issue is “difficult to explain.”
The real challenge of his talk lies in the margins of what is meant by “moral relativism.” Oaks cites several scholars who describe this worldview as anything that admits to “no universally right or wrong answers” to moral questions, and that there are “no reasonable or rational ways by which to make moral distinctions that apply in every time, in every place, and to every person.” To agree with this definition is to automatically claim its contrapositive—that is, that there are, in fact, universal morals that can and should be applied “in every time, in every place, and to every person.”
Oak’s confidence in the existence of moral absolutes, as defined above, makes it difficult to understand, for example, how Joseph Smith could grant an exception to the moral rule when he justified polygamy, or when Brigham Young made an exception to the moral rule when he justified blood atonement rhetoric. “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another,” said Joseph. I wonder how Oaks would respond to Joseph here, for it is this unnerving principle that prioritizes relationships over rules. When we do not acknowledge that our personal relationship with God (or whatever your brand of spiritual conscience entails) is the norming factor in making moral decisions, but instead believe that rules apply “in every time, in every place, and to every person,” exceptions to the rule cannot be granted. And this does nothing but make a paradoxical mess of the development of Mormon theology.
I understand that Oaks was speaking to a very specific audience, namely LDS members, and that although he does not outright state that it’s impossible to be moral without belief in God, he does potently group atheists and secular humanists into the same boat as those of the “church of the devil” and those who are “anti-Christ,” which can only then reinforce the “us versus them” attitude in the minds of believers, thinking themselves to be righteous while those who disbelieve to be unrighteous. Such mischaracterization and oversimplification surely does not help our goal to preach the gospel in more richly nuanced, self-reflective ways.
At one time or another we’ve all heard some form of the familiar adage: “Nothing is as constant as change.”
—Thomas S. Monson (President of the Latter-day Saint Church, October 2008)
No religion escapes the problem of “doctrine.”
What this means is that every good religion must wrestle with the relationship between authoritative creeds, or setting up “stakes,” and the need for continuing revelation, which, in the case of Mormonism, raises some challenging questions that are not altogether easy to answer.
For example, what exactly is “doctrine”? Is it absolute and immune to change? What about the words of prophets and apostles? Are we to always take their words to be axiomatically true, free of human input? If doctrine does not represent the final, inalterable word of God—or ultimate reality itself—but instead refers to our current finite and fallible beliefs about God, and by extension ultimate reality, how do we anchor ourselves in a religious institution that seems built upon evolving, flexible narratives?
I’d like to think about a few of these questions while drawing upon the methodology of Michel Foucault, a Twentieth Century intellectual who uses the existential concept of “power” (what we may, in LDS terms, call “Church hierarchy”) to elucidate the nature and significance of “discourse” (or “doctrine”). I am interested in using Foucault to primarily reflect upon the discursive traces and origins of our LDS past, to get “genealogical,” if you will, and to specifically deconstruct some of the grand narratives that have been framed in Mormonism that once were thought to represent the infallible word of God. Doing so, I believe, will help us locate not only the sites where power produces discourse, or where church hierarchy produces doctrine; it will also help us better understand one of the great paradoxes of LDS thought—the need for “stakes” yet “continued revelation”—captured nicely here by BYU professor James Faulconer:
“Since Latter-day Saints insist on continuing revelation, they cannot have a dogmatic theology that is any more than provisional and heuristic, for a theology claiming to be more than that could always be trumped by new revelation.”
While “dogmatic theology” certainly has no place in LDS discourse, “stakes,” to the contrary, are needed, and their purpose is to ensure the survival of the institution, to circumscribe truth, to define and exclude, to set bounds for what is morally permissible, and, ultimately, to build walls that separate the sacred from the profane.
Michel Foucault: Power and Discourse
Part of what makes his methodology so influential is how he views various cultural, intellectual and economic structures at play within a given society. These structures, located in a certain social “space,” are what give scaffolding to various “power discourses,” which are a set of patterns, beliefs and ideas—not necessarily homogenous—used to sustain relations of dominance.
One example Foucault cites is when leprosy vanished from the Western world at the end of the Middle Ages. While leprosy disappeared, the structures that surrounded it remained. A new “space” opened which replaced the concern with diseased bodies with a concern with abnormal, diseased minds. This cultural shift, or creation of a new social space where certain people could be defined and excluded, represents the sites where power produces discourse. Those in power produce these discourses, which are specifically produced for the benefit of those in power. What Foucault attempts to demonstrate is how when one discourse dies out, another steps in to take its place. And so on and so forth.
Looking at how discourses are produced, Foucault is specifically interested in who produces them, why they produce them, and when discourses are replaced, transformed, and who replaces, transforms them, when, and why. This is the power of his method—it looks for the gaps, silences, and ruptures in historiography when new cultural “spaces” emerge—to better identify ideological conceits.
Blacks and the Priesthood
There are hundreds if not thousands of discourses, some more prominent than others, and many, many within the LDS Church as well. One example of this production of discourse pertains to the priesthood ban for blacks. President Brigham Young stated in 1854 that blacks would never hold the priesthood until “all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood…and have received their resurrection from the dead.” President Joseph Fielding Smith, many years later, similarly stated that this curse would continue “while time endures.” Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in his book “Mormon Doctrine,” called blacks the biological descendants of Ham (descendants of Cain) and thus “essentially” a lesser race unworthy of the priesthood.
However, when the revelation opening the doors for blacks to receive the priesthood in 1978 occurred, McConkie recanted his former position saying: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”
Another example of LDS “doctrine” gone awry that fiercely defined and excluded apostate members, but later was abolished, is found in the infamous belief of “blood atonement.” During the great migration West, Brigham Young and other LDS leaders repeatedly preached about specific sins for which it was necessary to shed the blood of men and women. In his book “Doctrines of Salvation,” Joseph Fielding Smith affirmed that after committing “certain grievous sins,” a person “must make sacrifice of his own life to atone—so far as in his power lies—for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail.”
In locating the sites of power for this particular “doctrine,” D. Michael Quinn argues that some LDS historians have claimed that blood atonement sermons were simply Brigham Young’s use of “rhetorical devices designed to frighten wayward individuals into conformity with Latter-day Saint principles.” While this might be true, other LDS historians like Paul H. Peterson counter this by arguing, “Obviously there were those who could not easily make a distinction between rhetoric and reality,” thus lending credence to the position that the LDS hierarchy during this time was at least responsibility instigative for the “violent acts of zealous Mormons who accepted their instructions literally and carried out various forms of blood atonement.”
Foucault Applied to LDS Discourse
If Foucault’s methodology is taken seriously, it would seem very much to call into question these types of LDS discourses (or “doctrines”) as following the same pattern of evolving discourses that were once believed to be “essential,” but in time were replaced, transformed from old, outdated cultural “spaces” meant to justify the superiority of the dominant group. Part of this production of power (as evident from past prophetic and apostolic views on blacks and violence) is to systematically and sometimes idiosyncratically create “otherness”—that is, how particular groups of people are marginalized, defined, and excluded for the benefit of those in power.
More recent examples of otherness, which for some calls into question the Church’s current essentialist claims, include the role of women in the church, in addition to gender and sexual orientation issues. Foucault, for example, would challenge the Church’s stance towards biological essentialism—the belief, as stated in the Proclamation to the Family, that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose…” If this were true, the criticism goes, and gender is not socially constructed, then it would hold that throughout all generations of time and throughout all eternity that there have never been things like hermaphrodites or androgynous dispositions.
The Church, however, incidentally more aligned with Foucault on this next point, has not taken an “official” stance towards human sexuality, or sexual preference, even while condemning homosexual behavior. Perhaps this is because there has recently been ample scientific backing given to the role that genetics plays in human sexual identity, informing us that sexual orientation isn’t merely about social construction as it was once thought to be by past LDS leaders. Ironically, homosexual behavior is still marginalized, defined and excluded as being separate from “normal” behavior in the Church, and this reality represents what Foucault calls the power of “confinement”—the power used by the state (or in this case, Church hierarchy) to separate what is abnormal from what is normal in order to define itself; only by controlling what is abnormal can the “normal” exist.
One challenge that Foucault’s ideas present to conservative Latter-day Saints relates to their assumption that doctrine represents indiscriminately the final, inalterable word of God—the final, essential discourse!—when in reality probably represents something closer to their own cultural narration. Liberal Latter-day Saints, to the contrary, do not typically suffer from this compunction. They do not find the notion of theological change, or doctrinal discontinuity, unsettling. Instead, they welcome doctrinal alterations as, what Charles Harrell calls, “a natural consequence of having a living, dynamic church guided by continuing revelation.”
For Foucault, part of what continuing revelation implies operates under the dictates of the current power structure, which merely a previous social system produced and believed to be “final” or “absolute,” only later to be replaced, transformed in order to make room for a newer, more dominant narrative. If true, this would seem to underscore a major challenge to understanding current revelation: it masks itself as “fixed” reality when in fact represents a cultural synthesis of newer power, newer knowledge; it is like a plot on the matrix, where as soon as you get out of one system you’re tossed into another.
While it seems that power is impossible to escape, there lies in the fracas of this assumption a series of questions, which, if unresolved, seems to cast Foucault’s entire project to the existential winds of moral relativism: Does it matter at all which set of moral discourses we should respect, given that each is socially constructed to benefit those in power? Why would it matter which ones we respected, if morality, like discourse, is organized around key shifts in the status of power within a society?
The Paradoxical Need for “Stakes”
If answers are available to these questions, we probably should first consider one of the great paradoxes of the LDS faith, expressed implicitly here in Joseph Smith’s uneasy feeling towards the nature of creeds: “The creeds set up stakes,” he said, “and say hitherto shalt thou come, and no further—which I cannot subscribe to…I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled.” Joseph believed the creeds fixed limits on human ingenuity and closed the doors for truth to spring from any source. Paradoxically, notes Richard Bushman, Joseph’s “desire for order balanced the freeing impulse.” He knew that by licensing his followers to speak freely by the Holy Ghost would risk the whole religion to spin out of control, as it almost did under Hiram Page. Joseph was thus torn between the impulse to obliterate the creeds yet sanction them within a legalistic vocabulary: As Terryl Givens observes, “Authority, priesthood, laws, and ordinances, were everything.” “There is no salvation,” Joseph declared, “without a legal administrator.”
Though the “creeds set up stakes” in Joseph’s mind, he would soon come to learn that the need for stakes was imperative to contend against the centrifugal force of individual, undisciplined revelations. This is where the power of the conservative institution comes alive in the LDS religion: The need for stakes, made manifest through the power of sociocentric rituals, laws and constraints, are meant to socialize, reshape, and care for individuals, who, if left to their own private revelations, divorced from the institution, might pursue extravagant, uncontrolled behavior, whereby they become laws unto themselves. It is this institutional conservative power, in other words, that was founded to diametrically organize and regulate the winds of moral relativism.
Turning to Foucault, it seems plausible to concede that a “confinement” of revelations was introduced into Joseph’s theology in order to realign moral relativism to its proper branded social “space,” thus creating a kind of safe haven where the Church hierarchy, and only the Church hierarchy, could produce the authoritative moral “discourses,” while sentencing those who breached them. The creation of this new space involved a series of measures—keys, orders, authorities, priesthoods, ordinances, etc.—which sought to circumscribe rebels and rebellious tendencies to places of judgment, while equally rewarding those who learned to demarcate the bounds between sacred and profane discourses.
In an almost inexplicable contradiction, however, when polygamy was introduced into the Church, Joseph had to justify this apparent breach of the revealed discourse, which before had already established marriage to be monogamous, by teaching what is probably the most unnerving principle of the government of God: “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heavens is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is…”
With Foucault in mind, such an enigmatic, relativistic attitude towards defining morality may be viewed as nothing more than confirming what Bushman reports as “the fears that rational Christians had for centuries about the social chaos inherent in revealed religion”—that is, the fear of power gone awry, power misused, power that must inevitably be renewed, recycled, and transformed from socially produced revelations into newer, braver, more responsible discourses.
Even though Joseph would qualify his revelations, believing they functioned like law, and not relegating them to what Stephen Smoot calls “the same category as current moral relativists who preach the popular laissez faire morality of today,” Joseph did preach that morality arbitrary determined “without law, without revelation, without commandment…would prove [to be a set of] cursings and vexations in the end.” He left us with a profound, albeit divine puzzle to solve on how to balance freedom and control, choice and obedience, whether to be authoritarian or anarchic, legalistic or romantic, disciplined or unbounded, etc.
Drawing a Line
From the bohemian rock musical, “Rent,” a story about struggling artists trying to survive in New York City during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, there emerges a question with such profound existential weight that the answer given seems too sensible to ever deny as the obvious response: “What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” to which Benny, the artists’ landlord, fearlessly responds: “Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand.”
From the hundreds if not thousands of moral discourses there are in the evolving world, it would seem that this response does answer the importance of selecting and then respecting a given moral discourse. However, it still leaves us with the nagging question of which one to choose, and even harder, why we should choose it. One way to interpret this choice is to concede that everyone is to uphold the sacred and ongoing responsibility to draw a line somewhere—a line separating good from evil, virtue from vice, pleasure from pain—and then take a stand, even in the face of our most merciless critics.
For Foucault, it is clear that drawing this line is immensely problematic due to the complex nature of discourse and how people often become trapped and blinded to their own moral matrix. This happens especially in religions where believers assign important adjudicating power to a select group of men whose teachings are not always reliable. This certainly does not have to be the case in Mormonism, though I’m afraid those who are more literally-inclined in the Church suffer from this compunction more so than the margin of liberals in their congregation.
There is even sufficient support from past leaders of the Church that members can still sustain the prophets and apostles without believing them to be perfect or that whatever they say comes directly from celestial spheres. Brigham Young, for example, warned against those who “have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him,” while Hugh B. Brown pleaded with us “not to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit.”Brown continued: “While all Mormons should respect, support, and heed the teachings of the authorities of the Church, no one should accept a statement and base his or her testimony upon it, no matter who makes it, until he or she has, under mature examination, found it to be true and worthwhile.”
In the light of the long history of theological change within Mormonism, such history should surely reveal the struggles, discontinuities and the role of the individual within the institution. It also should reveal enough precedents in the Church to warrant a more flexible posture towards doctrinal discourse. As Harrell argues: “It would be naïve to suppose that all the major doctrinal kinks have been worked out, and that we now have the final word of God on all important doctrinal matters.” Indeed, has it not been suggested that the very “notion of continuing revelation resists theological finality[?]”
In drawing my own line, I believe there is such a thing as doctrine, which refers to our beliefs about ultimate reality, but that these beliefs or narratives we tell in Church are often limited, shortsighted, and subject to further amendment. Doctrine, from our vantage, to use Kantian categories, is “phenomenally” relevant but “noumenally” distant. This isn’t to become discouraged over, only to admit that there are, to borrow Bruce McConkie’s ironic statement, “more things we do not know about the doctrines of salvation than there are things we do know.”
I close now with a quote my brother Trevor recently shared with me by Frances Menlove, one that I think, if its content were ever shown to be untrue, would, as Joseph himself put it, “lay a foundation that [would] revolutionize the whole world.”
“One of the factors which sometimes impede private honesty is ‘the myth of the unruffled Mormon.’ This myth is simply the commonly held picture of the Mormon as a complete, integrated personality, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague the Protestant and oblivious to the painful searching and probing of the non-believer. The Mormon is taught from Primary on up that he, unlike his non-Mormon friends, knows with absolute certainty the answers to the knottiest problems of existence, that in fact his search has come to an end, and that his main task in life is to present these truths to others so that they too may end their quests.
In reality, the Mormon is also subject to uncertainties and doubts. This fact derives inevitably from his understanding of free agency, his freedom to love or turn away, his freedom to choose this path or another one. ‘Lord, I believe … help thou my unbelief’ expresses simply the profound experience of those who seek God. The man who blots out internal awareness in order to maintain to himself and to others the appearance of absolute certainty, who refuses to examine his inner life, may all too often settle for the appearance of a Christian believer rather than for its actuality. No one should doubt that in some way, or for some reason, he is also a doubter.”
 While some LDS apologetics may argue that these past unenlightened views about blacks and violence merely represented a cultural derivation, that the brethren were mere “products of their times,” it still does not excuse the gross abuse of power in the Church hierarchy, and seems even to support the deistic position that God seldom involves himself in the affairs of men but instead lets them wallow in the evil of their own creation.
 This reality of confining the “abnormal” raises the immensely difficult question for homosexual Latter-day Saints: They must choose to remain committed to the church hierarchy and its current, believed-to-be eternal discourse, and thereby lead a life of celibacy and loneliness, or, they must leave those constructs and pursue a life in accordance with their own spiritual conscience.
 The myths of doctrinal inerrancy and scriptural uniformity have given rise to a public, bristling fury of anti-Mormon literature written to undermine the fallacious assumption of prophetic infallibility, and those who base their faith on this assumption are typically more likely to go apostate than those who are more liberal in their doctrinal thinking. Harrell cites the entry on “apostate” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which states: “Apostasy may be accelerated by a faulty assumption that scripture or Church leaders are infallible…Neither the Church nor its leaders claim infallibility.”
 The authority to bridle unfounded revelation is actually inherent in the calling of the Church prophet. J. Reuben Clark told Church members that “only the President of the Church…has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scripture that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.” Harrell observes here that “to state that the president has the right to “change” Church doctrines implies they are not necessarily fixed.”
 Interestingly, Joseph’s theology already took into account the potential dangers associated with these fears and warned against those who used power unethically:
“The powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon principles of righteousness…When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man.”
Explored some ice castles tonight. Got a bit claustrophobic.
After ten years of research, writing, re-writing, and tons of sweat equity, my brilliant, inexhaustible mother completed her first self-published book on the benefits of music for children. It’s targeted mainly for parents and educators, but contains valuable information on how anyone can build a bigger, better brain using music, whether listening to music or playing a musical instrument.
Kirkus Review—the largest independent book reviewer in the nation—gave it a “sterling” review, calling it “a meticulously researched and crafted work…an encyclopedic, invaluable resource for anyone who believes in music education.”
Way to go mom!
John Dehlin: The Ally Within (On Being a Mormon LGBT Ally)
I believe that if you ever feel guilt it is because of your failure to commit acts of love. We don’t believe in love, not truly anyways. We make a great sermon of it on Sundays but then have difficulty crossing the street and talking with our despondent neighbor. We philosophize it to death in the classroom but then abandon it with the first person who offends us. How many of us actually preserve long on love’s taxing paths? Who remains loyal to love when the other pesters you with whims and caprices, without valuing or remarking on your service? Who listens impartially or silently to the traumas and sufferings of others? Yes, it’s easy to love in the abstract and keep people at a distance and love only the idea of loving others, but who can embrace the visceral, face-to-face man or woman who spitefully abuses and rudely commands you? Who can love every leaf, every ray of sun, every bird, animal, open door, lampshade, flower—in short, every everything?
That is the greatest human flaw, not our disbelief in God. We do not trust that others love or that we ourselves love. We have never even tried to build a civilization on love, on our desire for a vaster, more asexual eroticism. In love one abandons all judgment, all logic of good and evil, of beautiful and ugly. What is needed is not to increase our capacity to think, but to love. Love changes one more than knowledge does. Love is more powerful than thought. Real love makes one naturally ethical because the happiness of loving and being loved is so great that one naturally desires to do good. There’s no other conceivable path. When we give up on love, when we no longer want love, because we come to believe that the other doesn’t want to give it to us, is unable to give it to us, or, more awful, actually hates us, we die a million deaths before our actual deaths and effectually suffer in hell—which hell is only hell in virtue of being unable to love.
I recently finished two crosscurrent studies on the controversial nature of morality; one book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion; the other by neuroscientist Sam Harris called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Each book was exceptionally well written, well researched, even while not always well argued, yet both were conducive to an important conversation that is very well needed in the world at large today.
That conversation, based on the culture wars that polarize secular liberals from religious conservatives, largely relates to how powerful or limited we believe the moral capacity to reason is, and reason well, finding Harris and Haidt, both self-proclaimed atheists, fundamentally at odds with each other with respect to this sacred and cursed gift. How they perceive this gift explains a lot about the primacy of their goals to effectuate positive change in the world.
Let me briefly sketch each thinker’s thesis, then move to compare/contrast, applaud/criticize their views.
Haidt believes we must first understand why people tend to follow certain patterns of thought (however silly or dangerous they may seem) before judging their moralities as wrong, or casting away those we don’t like. Conversely, it is a mistake, he says, to question any morality “as really good, true, or justifiable” before we have “cultivated some understanding of what such moralities are trying to accomplish.” Moral diversity is to be empathetically explored first, carefully judged second (Haidt 114-115).
Harris argues that this sympathetic approach is irrelevant, saying that the most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century is to change people’s ethical commitments through scientific persuasion. There are objectively right and wrong answers of how to maximize human well-being, he says, whether we know these answers now or not, and that we not only are able ascertain these facts through reason but should also “convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives (Harris 49).
On these grounds, the chasm splitting Harris and Haidt is entirely the chasm splitting moral descriptivism from moral prescriptivism. This chasm, based on David Hume’s famous “is/ought” argument, entails that no description of the way the world is can ever tell us how we ought to behave morally. A large gulf, therefore, is said to separate facts from values; a gulf that Harris tries to reconcile in his book.
Where Harris leans on the belief that there are facts to be known about human-flourishing, and that we should persuade others to accept these facts, Haidt temporarily sets aside these prescriptive questions in favor of us first coming to grips with a descriptive understanding of why we behave the way we do—what our goals are—and it is here that I find his moral priorities generally more enlightened than Harris. If people do not feel that we first “get them,” or if they sense that we don’t care enough to illuminate their beliefs in the best light possible, chances of us collapsing the gulf between descriptive and prescriptive ethics—what Harris wants to enact through persuasive reasoning—will be highly unlikely. Harms are bound to compound when we apply our competitive impulses to social conversation (in team psychology this is referred to as the “We’re right, you’re wrong” mentality). Problems occur when we seek to persuade others in the absence of our empathy, even if “we” really are right and “they” really are wrong. We must learn, as Haidt insists, to first speak to people’s hearts before trying to strategically reason, alter their paradigms. We must first win their trust.
A lack of empathy seems to underscore the biggest flaw to Harris’ Persuasion Project (see “Harris” points 2 and 3 on pg. 49). Granted, he makes it rather easy for us to agree with him by condemning certain systems of morality, such as religious fundamentalism, to the extent that they are cruel, harsh and to some degree autocratic. I would hope few people would doubt these systems as less desirable for the world. And yet, while I do not deny that religions do, at times, deserve these criticisms, such caricatures do not “render a fair judgment about religion” as a whole (Haidt 288). My brother Trevor agreed to this point when he recently stated: “Atheists consider it a waste of time to try and understand religion and religious believers. They believe a “I’m right, you’re wrong, and here’s why” tactic will save them the trouble of having to invest time into really understanding the religious perspective. As you said, it lacks empathy.” Of course, the same can be said of religious people who use this same tactic to deny the burgeoning growth of scientific knowledge.
Harris tries to deny his cartoon-portrayal of religious beliefs by demanding that he, as well as the rest of his atheistic horsemen, takes “seriously” the “specific claims” of religion, yet this can hardly be trusted in the wake of his own logic that people will often “choose to focus on certain facts to the exclusion of others [like choosing to see nothing but evil in religion], to emphasize the [bad] rather than the [good]” (Harris 139, reversed “bad” and “good”). Harris no doubt has a testimony of apostate religion. His fixation on pointing out where religion goes wrong makes sense, too, given that he isn’t a moral descriptivist, like Haidt, and therefore feels no need to describe religion accurately. But does this mindset not have disastrous consequences for healing our present day culture wars? Do people really respond better, as Harris seems to believe, to systematic reason over empathetic emotion?
According to Haidt, no. If we want to change people’s minds about morality, reasoning is not the way to do it. At least not initially. We first have to address people’s emotions, see the good in their intentions, and convince them that we’re trying to identify with their thoughts and feelings even if we don’t completely agree. This is the first step towards dissolving barriers and putting down guards. People respond first to their moral intuitions, says Haidt, and “if you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion” (Haidt 59).
Ironically, even Harris seems to admit the truth of these claims yet still continues to worship reason as the arbiter of all moral change when he states: “There are, in fact, people who will not be persuaded by anything I have to say on the subject of [morality],” no matter how reasonable it may come across (Harris 203). Haidt suggests this is because reason is typically not used in the service of truth, but instead to construct post hoc justifications for our feelings (86). The “rationalist delusion,” he calls it, is the belief that reasoning is our most noble attribute and that doing it well about ethical issues inspires better behavior. “But if this were the case,” he asks, “then moral philosophers—who reason about ethical principles all day long—should be more virtuous than other people. Are they?” (Haidt 103, 104).
Haidt is skeptical, and so am I. This isn’t to accuse him of being a moral relativist, as Harris mistakenly does, but instead makes him a little more reluctant to label morally ambiguous beliefs and behaviors as objectively right or wrong. That said, I do believe Harris is on to something important when he argues for the objectivity of moral truths—“objective” not because there are truths that exist outside of our conscious experience (like Plato’s ethereal realm of the forms), but “objective” because there really are “right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice” (Harris 30).
As stereotypes about atheism go, it being a bitter, immoral, relativistic philosophy, this sort of argument shatters those antiquated myths ten-fold. Harris contends that in principle, science can tell us what we should do and should want, insomuch that the goal of morality is to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures and minimize suffering. This is the loftiest push away from the current vogue of multiculturalism, political correction, and moral tolerance that admit to no objective answers to moral questions. Harris is able to put forward a persuasive case to the extent that he says that goal-directed behavior—that is, if we are to achieve A, we reasonably ought to do B—plays a crucial role for us either moving up or down the “moral landscape”—a metaphor he uses to express the fact that some people have better lives than others, and that these differences are lawfully connected to states of the brain that govern behavior (Harris 15).
A fascinating question from this thesis emerges.
If Harris is, in fact, correct about higher and lower states of human flourishing, and that these states admit to right and wrong answers about life’s most pressing questions related to things like health and happiness, what purpose would religion serve in our lives if science can contend for a better framework for moral wisdom?
It is clear where Harris stands on this question: religion would serve no purpose. Haidt, to the contrary, does not dismiss religion as swiftly but instead seeks first to understand it by explaining its function as a commune of individuals bounded by norms, relationships and promises that help them “to achieve together what they cannot achieve own their own” (Haidt quotes E.O. Wilson on pg. 303, 313). These communes adhere to strict external constraints in the form of laws, commandments, group cohesiveness, etc. While Haidt admits that these constraints sometimes lead certain religions to demonize other groups (and in extreme cases, leads them to moralistic killings), such constraints operate for the most part to “link people together into healthy, trusting relationships,” to curb selfish behavior, so as to improve the ethical profile of the group, and by extension, the individual (339).
A large, complex discussion can open here regarding the efficacy of sociocentric versus individualistic moralities; the former argues that people flourish best in the context of groups, relationships, and institutions, even if individual needs get dismissed a long the way; the latter replies that any tolerance for personal harm is unacceptable, that the needs of the individual must be placed above the needs of the group, thus suggesting that “any rule or practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned” (20).
Each of these moral paradigms no doubt have their challenges, but for the purpose of answering the question about the role of religion, that is, if it should serve any real moral function in the world at large, Haidt argues that we must first see the benefits of what sociocentric morality tries to accomplish for religion, and the human family generally, even if it isn’t always perfect at doing so.
For religious communes, Haidt draws upon the work of conservative sociologist Emile Durkheim to show that the effect of sociocentric rituals, laws and constraints work best to “socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures” (192). The basic social unit of society is the family, he says, not the individual, for without the hierarchically structured family to help build strong constraining relationships that foster values of self-control over self-expression, the social fabric that holds nations together begins to unfold. In 1897 Durkheim wrote: “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him” (-).
This may seem like a pessimistic view of human nature, that if left to ourselves we will begin to cheat and behave selfishly, yet Haidt’s entire book shows through myriad case studies how there’s much truth to consider here in relation to what human flourishing might mean—the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, representing not a “peak” but a “valley” on the moral landscape. He argues that there’s actually a great deal of evidence suggesting that religions do help groups to cohere, cooperate, and survive much longer than those who live in looser communities with a less binding moral matrix (298-313). The “secret ingredient” to a religion’s shelf life, he says, is based on the amount of sacrifice demanded of its congregational members. The more sacrifice demanded, the longer the religion lasts. The more control over human passions, like giving up certain base appetites, the less delinquency on the streets.
Haidt’s studies show that religions do a better job at binding people together, suppressing their selfish motives through sacrifice, more so than secularly liberal societies typically achieve, so much that the very “ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship” (Haidt 299). Irrational beliefs, in other words, help religions function more rationally—that is, they function to create a strenuous mood among individuals who, in turn, help build communities of cooperative souls. This is evidenced by belief in God, which Haidt argues is a very effective means of social control to “reduce cheating and oath breaking,” and to bring about a stronger moral capital for society at large (Haidt 297, 342).
Secular liberals may find in religion a perfect target for their criticism, calling into question the predations of the communally elite, the margin of victims who often get abused in large groups, etc. These are important concerns that conservative institutions need to evaluate and get better at minimizing. However, because looser communities rely more readily on internal compasses (e.g. reason, personal judgment) as opposed to stricter social pressures that reshape and refine lone bias and egoism, they’re also more likely, according to Durkheim, to devolve into “normlessness” (313). Haidt expounds further: “We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago” (-).
Haidt argues that where secular liberals go wrong is linked to their devaluing the very purpose of what sociocentric morals serve, wanting change and reform too quickly, and not taking into consideration the effects that such changes will have on moral capital at large. Harris is in full agreement here with Haidt here against the tides of liberal doubt, only he doesn’t believe that religion is a better or even legitimate answer for how to effectively create cooperative groups. There are better reasons to be moral, he says, than to believe in God.
I can accept Harris on this point to the extent that the kind of religion he attacks, as do all the atheistic horsemen, is based on a set of beliefs about supernatural agents that incite people to do good or quell evil on the principle of divine commands, which I believe is preliminary but eventually misguided. More naturally-inclined religious paradigms, like my own, see magic and superstition merely as preparatory elements for future, more erudite awakenings, which is to say that mature religious people may initially behave ethically in order to obtain divine merit (duty based ethics) but will later be moral for its own benefits without need of metaphysical grounding (love based ethics). Doing good should be its own reward.
Furthermore, it is true, as Harris argues, that the spread of prosperous, stable, and democratic societies has greatly diminished the need for religious belief in the world, and this phenomenon makes most sense, I believe, in the context of how secularists envision the god-of-the-gaps theory. Carl Sagan sums up the theory as follows: “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do; that is, whatever it is we cannot [currently] explain is attributed to God. And then after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm” (The Varieties of Scientific Experience, 64). And yet, after innumerable philosophers and secular thinkers predicted the demise of religion in the glowing light of modernity, religion still stands.
How can this be?
I conclude now with a few personal thoughts.
The question of religion’s continued existence in the wake of modernity is a question teeming with moral significance, not because it isn’t possible to be moral without God or religion, but because choosing to view religion as something other than conservative dogmatism, or something other than mere superstition, can promote a particular mood about what it might mean to be human. No one yet really knows what it means to be human. We are still in process. We are beginning to control our own evolution through emerging technologies and becoming empowered to control which direction we want to go. Harris argues that we can move “up” or “down” the moral landscape, “that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery” (Harris 206).
To understand that we are evolving, that change is inevitable, allows for the exciting potential of what we may become. For me, this excitement is based on the reality that as science improves our condition to the required degree, and it most certainly has, we can more readily abandon religion yet not the religious aesthetic. Do not misunderstand me. While I believe religious fundamentalism has no place at all in the moral sphere, there are many religions that do promote a mood of unfathomable compassion, and this compassion is what is greatly needed during a time when we have the nuclear power to destroy ourselves but could choose otherwise. Science doesn’t promote compassion. Religion does. Science doesn’t speak to our heart. Religions does. As Haidt argues, we are emotional creatures first, rational ones second. Science can inform our morality for how we should behave and can help give us an objective sense for what is good for humanity, but it lacks the strenuous, narrative power—the mood—to bring about radically compassionate ends.
To argue, like Harris and Haidt do, that as societies become more industrialized, stable, rich and democratic, and therefore feel less and less a need for religious mysticism, is not at all a smack against the normative power of religion itself. It is a testament that religion is becoming fulfilled in humanity, that all of those ancient, scriptural myths about men becoming gods were but training stories, vehicles, to help keep us moral. These stories are now being resurrected with a new syntactical flavor. They are being expressed in symbols that communicate, in a very visceral way, the biologically human aspect of what was once deemed mystical. To grasp the power behind these ideas is to grasp the moral significance of today’s culture wars. It is to see the longstanding war between religion and atheism in its proper light. It is to see this superfluous war of words as a dialectical distortion of what it means to be human in relation to an even stranger concept—the divine. Put differently, God is not losing his place in the universe, as Sagan believed, but to the contrary men are becoming Gods themselves.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014
Shaking my fist at the universe tonight.
Lost the greatest American actor of all time.
Thank you for allowing me to enter the holy moment, time and time again.
You will be sorely missed :(
Jonathan Haidt: Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-Transcendence.
The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives, by Jonathan Haidt
The LDS Church has recently published several articles online at www.lds.org that address many of the controversial aspects of its past—things like polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, the translation process of the Book of Mormon, etc. I am thrilled to see these sorts of issues being discussed in the church, especially in the wake of its more anti-intellectual past. That said, it should be known that while these articles are not intellectual per se, they do rely upon a healthy amount of academic scholarship that help make the historical narrative a bit more transparent.
The most recent publication on The Book of Mormon Translation is of most interest to me. I am very intrigued by what Joseph Smith meant by his declarative statement on how the Book of Mormon came forth “by the gift and power of God,” even when he did not intend “to tell the world all the particulars” surrounding this exact process. I believe that to unveil this process, to pull back the curtain of its mystery, is to understand how divinity speaks to humanity.
Concerning the mechanics of translation, the article takes a very tight, conservative approach to explaining the process. According to many of the scribes who were witnesses, Joseph would place his seer stone into a hat, bury his face in the hat while using his hands to block out extraneous light, and then, miraculously, English words would appear on the stone. Joseph would read the words out loud, and after penning the words, his scribes would say, “Written.”
One advantage to this explanation is that it creates a strong apologetic argument for, say, the existence of Hebraisms and Semitic expressions found in the Book of Mormon. Such expressions reflect a “direct translation” of an underlying Semitic-style language, which are not typical of a Nineteenth-Century derivation. The existence of chiasmus parallels (most notably in Alma 36) further evince the authenticity of the golden plates from which Joseph translated. While these types of Hebraisms certainly do not end the conversation concerning the Book of Mormon’s origins, they do call upon critics to explain where Joseph learned these ancient forms of expressions, if in fact he did just “make it all up.”
The article briefly passes over a second explanation often given to elucidate the book’s origins, sometimes called the “general impressions” theory. “Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates,” says the article, and through this study thoughts or impressions would come to his mind on how to construct the text’s narrative. This explanation perhaps best explains why Oliver Cowdery, Joseph’s primary scribe, was denied privilege to translate. Oliver, believing that he could provide a “direct translation” like Joseph allegedly had, was rebuked by the Lord warning him that he had not yet “stud[ied] it out in [his] mind” and therefore could not be granted the gift. (D&C 9:8-9)
It is interesting to note that such chastisement seems to challenge not only what the article here emphasizes as a “direct translation,” it also challenges those “eye-witnesses” (e.g. Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, etc.) who somehow were able to confidently claim that “English words would appear” on the stone, despite never having their faces in the hat with Joseph.
The general impressions theory, or conceptual theory as it is sometimes called, is no doubt “loose” and interpretative, opening the doors for critics to target The Book of Mormon as nothing more than simple midrash, derivation or cultural preoccupation. It is understandable why the Church does not explore this second alternative to translation, mostly because it seems to undermine the very authoritative fabric from which the book is said to spring. Despite all this, I am very interested in what this theory may imply for modern-day renderings of the term “revelation.”
Because the scriptures are replete with examples of God speaking to his children through revelatory, “joint-heir” processes, there doesn’t seem to be any room for this kind of rapport in a purely-given, purely-received, direct translation.
Don’t be misunderstood.
I’m not saying that the full historical narrative doesn’t give more alternatives—it certainly does—I’m merely saying that whoever wrote this article wants the strongest, authoritarian, homogenous explanation possible, which means that conceptual theories, even while important, will fall by the way side.
I’m also not denying there are indeed moments in our lives when we might receive what Joseph called “sudden strokes of ideas,” or “pure intelligence.” I believe such cases exist. What I am saying is that the article’s explanation to account for The Book of Mormon doesn’t lend credence to what may be a legitimate theory—namely, the general impressions theory—which may perhaps clarify some of its mysterious anomalies that appear in both the text itself, in addition to how the text came about. To illuminate these anomalies, consider the following points:
1). What distinguished Joseph from Oliver in relation to the “gift” of translation? Had Oliver not prepared his mind enough? Was the exclusive right to receive direct, or pure translation given only to Joseph? How do we reconcile the relationship between what we might call “pure” revelation and “worked-out” revelation?
2). The Book of Mormon is often believed to have been dictated to Joseph’s mind by the pure word of God in spite of thousands of changes made to the text since its inception. This raises the awkward question of why divine words would need to be altered if they were delivered directly, purely, and in unadulterated form.
3). The Book of Mormon is claimed to have all sorts of archeological anachronisms present in the text that have yet to be discovered in the pre-Columbian world (e.g. horses, steel, coins, etc.). Critics often point to these anachronisms to discredit the divine authorship of the text, to showcase Joseph’s signature on the text, etc.
A good friend of mine Stephen Smoot has pointed me to articles written by Royal Skousen (here and here) and Margaret Barker ( here, here, here, here, and here) to answer points 2 and 3. Indeed, if Skousen is in fact correct that the overwhelming changes that have been made to the text are merely grammatical, and that few changes were in fact based on semantics, we are still left with the puzzle of knowing when to distinguish between “Joseph the Seer/Translator” and “Joseph the editor,” especially those sections based on semantics. This goes without saying that a direct translation theory would also not account for such changes based on semantics.
The general impressions theory, to me, seems to help distinguish between the above two modes, or titles, of Joseph’s divine call. Assuming that The Book of Mormon is a human-divine enterprise, and not merely (or purely for that matter) a divine one, this theory may explain the “anachronisms” in a way that illuminate how translation processes contribute to a human-divine collaboration. As Stephen argues, “Joseph was rendering an ancient text into a modern language, so he naturally had to borrow phraseology, imagery, wording, etc., from his 19th Century environment.” Blake Ostler broadens this collaboration with what he calls the “expansion” theory:
“The Book of Mormon makes most sense if it is seen as both a revelation to Joseph Smith [the divine part] and as Joseph’s expansions of the text [the human part].”
I also believe that the general impressions theory may help explain why so much of the teachings in the Book of Mormon are reminiscent of orthodox trinitarianism. For example, one begins to wonder what Abinadi meant when calling Jesus, the Son of God, “the very Eternal Father,” or other passages of scripture that trademark a classic Trinitarian expression of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost being “one God” (2Nephi 31:21; Mosiah 15:4-5; Mormon 7:7). These expressions are some of the most difficult passages to explain in The Book of Mormon as being distinct from classical Christianity without suggesting a possible Protestant influence on Joseph’s thinking when he translated, or perhaps, expanded the text in midrashic fashion.  The direct translation argument doesn’t seem to account for these passages, while the general impression argument does.
By and large, “tight” and “loose” interpretations of The Book of Mormon seem almost inevitable. It is truly a marvelous work and a wonder. Loose interpreters need to explain the existence of Hebraisms, chiasmus and other Semitic-style nuances found within the text, even while elucidating the testimonies of those who claimed Joseph appeared to translate off of what we might today call a “Google Translator” device. Tight interpreters need to explain those sections of the book that were semantically changed, how anachronisms might exist, why Nineteenth-Century and classic Trinitarian language are present in the text, and I’m assuming others too.
I am happy, overall, with the article. It underscores the First Presidency’s willingness to rely on better scholarship than perhaps it has in the past, even if it doesn’t entertain more stimulating possibilities. Perhaps the church has learned something from it’s past by entertaining such possibilities. Hiram Page, for example, gives us a great example for showcasing the dangers of competing revelations. And this is perhaps what legitimizing the general impression theory does: it opens the floodgates for everyone to speak authoritatively on behalf of God, even while such revelations may be from counter sources.
It is this very conundrum—the existence of both a direct and conceptual influence of revelation—that makes Mormonism, in my eyes, enormously rich and astoundingly beautiful. As Richard Bushman articulates: “Joseph was designated at the Lord’s prophet, and yet every man was to voice scripture, everyone to see God…The amplification of authority at the center was meant to increase the authority of everyone, as if the injection of power at the core energized the whole system…Though he was Moses and they were Israel, all the Lord’s people were prophets.”
The paradox is truly sublime!
 Stephen makes a good point about Book of Mormon anachronisms: “We have to be careful whenever talking about anachronisms because there is always potential for an anachronism being an anachronism today, but then no longer being one tomorrow as time and archaeological progress advances. This presentation here by the highly respected Mesoamerican archaeologist John E. Clark is a good example of the recent trends in archaeology confirming certain aspects of the Book of Mormon that were once thought to be anachronisms (see also here and here).”
 It is important to note here that during the Nauvoo period Joseph brings increased distinction between members of the Godhead by leaning towards a kind of social Trinitarian viewpoint, which considers members of the Godhead to be distinct individuals but who are one in purpose (not substance). While this distinction is made even stronger by the early 1840’s, there are not to my knowledge any textual evidences in The Book of Mormon that suggest these rigid distinctions, especially when the same classical Trinitarian expressions appear in the 1830 articles and covenants of the church which declared that the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God” (D&C 20:28).
One of the most impressive powers I find in rare humans lies in their ability to draw from the eclectic influences of their environment to produce remarkable works of art. I marvel at the innovation of one such artist, the prophet Joseph Smith, not because of what the content of his work actually says, but more importantly—what it signifies.
This is the argument of Terryl Givens, author of “By the Hand of Mormon,” a book that articulates the singularity of Joseph’s mission: to enact a version of divine discourse within every human being, and from that discourse—revelation!—which revelation is arguably larger and more important than what any church currently claims is infallibly true.
Put differently, this means there is no end to the amount of dialogue needed to illuminate things; no end to the amount of interpretation and re-interpretation of what is claimed to be fixed; no creeds, no immutable doctrines, no end to revising, synthesizing, and even in some cases, abandoning old beliefs in favor of new ones.
True religion, in other words, only has one leg to stand on: continuing revelation.
I used the term “artist” above to describe the prophet Joseph in the Romantic sense: One who uses his environment as a springboard to radically articulate fresh ways of understanding notions such as truth, beauty, value, etc. Givens suggests that this sort of artistry is tied to a concept known as “syncretism,” “a process of inspired eclecticism and assimilation” of cultural ideas that played an important role in the development of Mormon thought. Such syncretism, no doubt, challenges the work of any artist to be original (or in the case of Joseph’s work, to be divine) while at the same time avoiding the temptation to plagiarize.
This is the tightrope act assigned to any artist, to give original expression or re-articulation to what has already been. To succeed at doing so is to be labeled a genius; to fall short is to be marred a charlatan. As church historian Richard Bushman observes: “Genius, by common admission, carries human achievements beyond the limits of simple historical explanation, just as revelation does.” To hold to the side that Joseph’s work is genius, he concludes, “is logically not much different from saying God revealed it.” Hence, to characterize Joseph’s work (and religion in general) as an ongoing process, an ongoing re-articulation of what has been is quintessentially Romantic.
Joseph, the Romantic Artist of the Restoration, saw process as more important than product, and it is from this “process” that Joseph was able to bring forth lost scripture, reinterpret old scripture, and syncretize, mediate new scripture. This process is exactly what Mormons mean when they speak of a “marvelous work and a wonder” taking place during these current times.
What is this “process,” which I speak of?
Hegel referred to an epistemological process of thought not too dissimilar to what the prophet Joseph divined as revelation. Hegel argued that our epistemological foundation is predicated upon a “repeated action of thought”; “a reinforcement of thought,” as Kant argued. Such repetition is based from preexisting thought. Hegel saw the human mind and its ability to reason as constantly evolving, constantly improving, and called the “process” by which history moves forward through constant acts of thought-synthesis “the process of dialectic.”
This dialectic, this process of thought, is key, I believe, to understanding the nature and significance of Joseph’s work; but more importantly, it is key to enacting what Joseph’s work means to engender within us: to have an ongoing, prayerful dialectic between the human and divine aspects of our souls.
The creative co-participation with both divine and human parts working together is at the helm of an important question in Mormon Studies: To what extent is Joseph’s Romance—that is, his articulation and re-articulation of religious past, present and future indicative of divine imprints, or simple derivation?
In response to this question, Blake Ostler observed the following: “It seems to me that the Book of Mormon [for example] makes most sense if it seen as both a revelation to Joseph Smith [the divine part] and as Joseph’s expansions of the text [the human part].” Givens sees this “expansion” theory as “appealing,” for it showcases that the Book of Mormon, like many of Joseph’s other produced works (e.g. Doctrine & Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, JST Bible translation, etc.) are neither wholly divine nor wholly human, but rather a co-participatory hybrid of the two. God works, in other words, in and through the minds of his prophets in a way that church historian Grant Underwood says is “both fully divine and fully human.”
I like these ideas quite a bit because they strip away the misguided assumption that all scriptures represent, under all circumstances, the infallible word of God. As Charles Harrell puts it: “The mediation of scripture through finite and fallible humans necessarily presents a limited and imperfect view of ultimate reality.” To concede human imprints on scripture isn’t to minimize or disparage its content; it is to acknowledge that humans are still in dialectical “process” in coming to know God.
This dialectical “process” and how it applies to Joseph’s revelations can explain a lot about the symbiotic relationship of using your environment to springboard newer, lucid descriptions of scriptural truths. Take for example how Joseph’s involvement with masonry became a catalyst for temple ritual and endowment rites; how Joseph’s exposure to the rabbinical tradition as part of his Hebrew tutelage assisted in his ability to bring forth the Books of Moses and Abraham; how Joseph’s involvement in the magical tradition prepared him to believe in a revelation of gold plates and seer stones in order grant him, as Stephen Smoot argues, “genuine prophetic power.”
Joseph’s environment, in other words, prepared him in many ways to enact a romantic dialectic that would seem consistent with how all great works of art come into being. Not only would he fill in the theological gaps that had not yet been elucidated by biblical revelation, but would sometimes revise and even overturn previously held beliefs in order to approximate a greater sense of clarity.
If this power of dialectical process is at all impressive in the life of Joseph, a man whose work is more important for what it enacts than what it teaches, is it really so different with us to produce yet greater articulations than have existed in our religions?
I recently finished D. Michael Quinn’s seminal study on “Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview,” a book which for some Latter-day Saints may be viewed as enlightening, embarrassing, or in an ironic way— faith-promoting. I saw it as the first and the last. In summary, Quinn argues for the overlapping magisteria between magic and religion, making a case that both traditions have not been clearly demarcated by LDS apologists who seem to believe that religious belief becomes mere superstition “if we admit any relationship with magic.” This makes sense too given that twentieth-century Americans have been secularized by the scientific worldview to the point that the terms “magic” and “occult” have been given polemical definitions such as “the opposite of reality.” However, the nature and significance of ritual, both within religious and magical traditions, creates a divisive prejudice for religious cultures when they seek to validate their own peculiar set of rituals as legitimate, divine, while others as illegitimate, not divine.
Erwin R. Goodenough observes that “it is easier for people to classify a religious practice as magic when it occurs outside their own religion.” John Dominic Crossan notes: “More simply: “we” practice religion, “they” practice magic.” Quinn concludes: “[Crossan] dismisses the religion/magic divide as political validation of the approved and the official against the unapproved and the unofficial.” A problem here Quinn raises relates to how careful and specific LDS apologists have been when claiming they are convinced that magic and religion cannot be the same thing. Hence, “if prayer cannot be distinguished from incantation or [ordinance] from enchantment, sorcery or wizardry,” wrote respected Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, “then religion cannot be set apart from magic.”
We can examine just a few of Mormonism’s rituals and ceremonies that seem to situate its religious practices still very much in the thick of the magical tradition. Put differently, magic and the occult have not yet been throughly extinguished from the modern LDS tradition, or from what many LDS apologists wish to escape, for as Quinn argues, magic in the LDS tradition has simply been “steadily renamed, consolidated, centralized, and regulated its practice.” In examining this relationship between magic and religion, Quinn plays with semantics and uses a figurative lens to showcase the cross-current parallels between both studies as porous, interlacing disciplines.
First, the study of magic and the occult include using “ceremonies or objects to summon or repel otherworldly beings.” For modern Mormonism, this can open up a large, complex discussion on how LDS lay members might draw the battle lines against folk religious ceremonies like incantation beliefs (that magic words, when uttered, summon spirits), and say more current institutional ceremonies like the sacrament—both which are attempting to summon otherworldly agents, or invite the Spirit into a person’s life. LDS priesthood blessings would be another example of enacting a ritual that Mormons believe can either summon divine spirits or repel satanic ones.
Second, the study of magic and the occult includes “the wearing of medallions or other objects for their own inherent powers to bring about protection or good luck.” In a somewhat similar context, faithful Mormons have often regarded the temple “garment” as a kind of spiritual amulet, which they believe “becomes a shield and protection to the wearer.” In Mormon folklore the temple garment sometimes functions as a classic amulet that has power in and of itself. Stories about men and women caught in hotel fires and all their clothing burnt except for where the garment covered clearly shows that the wearing of the garment cannot be simply construed as spiritual metaphor, for as Quinn argues “If [a] man’s righteousness alone were the source of this protection, [these people] would have escaped all injury.” For some Mormons the garment has power to protect only what it touches, like a spiritual talisman.
Third, the study of magic and the occult includes “the belief in witches (humans capable of summoning evil forces) and in remedies against them.” Throughout early Mormonism and even present today, the Saints believe that through prayer and ritual they can manipulate supernatural powers to their advantage, whether it be to cast out demons, summon divine presence, or in special instances, raise their right hand to the square and recite a unique incantation that expunges the very presence of evil and witches (as defined above).
Fourth, the study of magic and the occult includes “the performance of ceremonies to find treasures and be healed from disease.” Modern Mormons throughout the world still use consecrated olive oil to heal in connection with the priesthood ordinance of administering to the sick. “If asked about this now,” Quinn argues, “most Mormons would answer that applying special oil to the head during a religious ordinance is purely symbolic. That definition falters in view of nineteenth-century Mormon practice of applying the oil directly to the part of the body to be healed.” Furthermore, the use of consecrated oil in LDS priesthood blessings, in addition to Christ’s use of spittle for healings, or that charismatics would expect to be healed by touching the hem of a pure person’s clothes, illustrate powerfully what Richard Bushman taught concerning the practical function of magic in the Smith family home: “Magic had served its purpose in [Joseph’s] life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel.”
It is at this crossroads of magic-as-preparatory versus magic as seen by moderns as irrational and anti-religious that early Mormonism emerges. Bushman concedes this point: “Joseph Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity,” a perspective I believe that Quinn himself cannot overstate enough in his book. And in light of of modern Mormonism’s penchant for magic’s continual influence and power on its current traditions and ritual (as illustrated above), I personally believe apologists don’t really have a leg to stand on when attempting to distance the current LDS church as somehow wholly other from the magic worldview. Apologists shouldn’t feel embarrassed either by Joseph’s involvement in the treasure-quest, his wearing of an astrological Jupiter talisman, his possession of seer stones, a dagger for drawing magic circles, or use of magical parchments to ward off thieves and communicate with good spirits.
If these magical things were and are but preparatory elements awaiting to be fulfilled in deeper knowledge, deeper laws and understanding of how the cosmos operate, or how divinity communicates with us, I see then no conflict between magic and religious ritual, for both are necessary in what it means to “grow up unto the Lord.” Magic is to religion like training wheels are to a bicycle.
Take for example when the methods of science have been exacerbated and accompanying prayers to heaven have gone unnoticed. It is in these moments when we can enlist the power of ritual, the power of ordinance. An ordinance is an outward symbol expressing an inner-spiritual reality, as evidenced in the scriptural case of the laying on of hands and the associated verbal incantation for the sick to receive added strength and healing. A recent national study survey indicates that many people have “experienced or witnessed a divine healing” in these regards. The skeptic, however, dismisses these miraculous experiences as nothing more than human placebo effects.
But what exactly is so wrong about placebo effects anyways? Skeptics will often elicit the term in the pejorative, as if to minimize what is happening to the afflicted when they request for a priesthood ordinance to be administered. Now to be clear, what is not happening is some inexplicable supernatural event above man’s capacity to discern. But should man be unable to detect natural causes and effects, he will elicit the term “magic” as being synonymous with the term “mystery.”
The relationship between magic and religion, I think, can be better understood with this notion of placebo. For example, a priesthood blessing is very much tied to the power of the mind and the body’s own healing capacities to recover. A person must believe that he or she can be healed. Belief precedes the miracle, and “miracle” here is nothing more than the unstated but curious power of placebos. In other words, if a person really believed that an objective ritual, once performed, can thereby unlock the subjective and extraordinary power of the mind to heal itself, then this petition must express the power of honest placebos.
Now this isn’t to suggest that mere belief will always cure the believer, but it also isn’t to understate, or worse—denigrate—the remarkable power of the mind and its power to stave of sickness. When we are sick, there ought to be the harmony between applying the best techniques of science in addition to relying upon the miracle of the mind, the miracle of belief, to heal the soul. Again, the term “miracle” in these instances should not conjure up feelings of the supernatural but should be related to our and appreciation for how elegant we really are.
This, from my perspective, places magic and religious ritual within their proper contexts, like Yin and Yang, both necessary for our maturation into godhood.