More about Mormon theological epistemology

How does a Mormon know if a doctrine is true?

Today at the Fall 2013 General Conference of the LDS church, Elder Dieter Uchtdorf gave a very well-received (by my friends and family) talk on those who leave the LDS church.  I don’t think it’s available to read yet but Jana Reiss gave a bit of an overview with some select quotes here.

I wanted to highlight a couple of those quotes and unpack them a bit:

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question of whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly that it was restored by a young man that had questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”

And here’s another one, also quoted by Reiss:

Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.

I have wondered before on this blog why it seems like the standard exit narrative of Mormonism these days seems to be that a person believes totally in the church, then comes across some troubling historical truth that casts doubt on the church, and then the person’s whole testimony in the principles/theology/practices of the church comes crashing down.

It makes me wonder because that just never happened to me.  There isn’t one particularly troubling aspect of LDS history that makes me doubt the church.  Rather, I just felt that Mormon theology could stand or fall on its own merits, and when I really started studying the history of Christian theology, I started to feel like Mormonism simply couldn’t compete.

So why do historical events trouble some Mormons?  What is driving the whole “faith crisis” narrative?  Readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that one answer might be that Mormons lean heavily on arguments from authority, and this reveals something deeper about theological epistemology for Mormons.  How does one know a doctrine is true, on Mormonism?  The process seems to be: find some trustworthy source of truth.  This source could be the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or Thomas S. Monson.  Then, whatever that source says must be true.

On Mormonism, how does one, say, find out that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones?  A Mormon might say you just pray to know that Joseph Smith is a prophet.  The good feeling you have then confirms that Joseph is a prophet, and then you can trust the doctrines that he teaches (including that God has a physical body).

However, if you find out some historical fact that seems to cast doubt on Smith’s truthfulness or character, then suddenly your testimony may come crashing down (along with your belief that God has a physical body).  There doesn’t seem to be any philosophical or logically deductive reason why God must have a physical body (a reason that might be somewhat analogous to all the Classical Theist philosophers’ arguments that God cannot even in principle have a physical body), so the deeper doctrines of Mormonism can seem somewhat strange and arbitrary to outsiders.

Combine this with a general pragmatism that seems pervasive in the attitudes of church members (as exemplified by this recent post by Daniel C. Peterson, which I’ll probably respond to soon), and it doesn’t seem like Mormons generally look to the theology or doctrines of the LDS church themselves in order to determine whether Mormonism is right.  Joseph Smith could have said that God is blue with pink hair, or lives on the Moon, or is a unicorn, and as long as these doctrines 1) come from a trustworthy source and 2) pragmatically inspire you to live a good life, then you should just go ahead and believe it.

In other religions they might say you can know if a church is true by whether it teaches correct doctrines, but the downside there is that when people are free to decide which doctrines are correct on their own, they sometimes spend their life jumping around from church to church, trying to find the one that believes exactly what they do (in other words, a church made in their own image).  “Gee, I like this church, but they hold to a Pre-Tribulation Rapture and I think there will be a Post-Tribulation Rapture, so I guess I’ll quit and find something else.”

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Mormonism and Pragmatism

william jamesIn my experience (and I reiterate that this is just my anecdotal experience), most Mormons have a sort of crude Pragmatist theory of truth.

As a psychology student who studies religion, I have a huge soft spot in my heart for William James.  In fact, my first son’s middle name is James for that very reason.  James and some other American philosophers developed a philosophical theory of truth that the average person probably wouldn’t understand (I barely do), but the naive version is this:  we can judge whether a belief is true by whether it “works.”

I put “works” in quotation marks because the biggest criticism of Pragmatism is that the criteria for “working” is not very well-defined.  But I think a lot of people, and Americans, still kind of hold the naive version of Pragmatism as true (we’ll just call it Naive Pragmatism, or NP).  And I think this is especially true for Mormons. Continue reading

The unenviable position of Mormon apologetics.

(this piece has been cross-posted from an older philosophy blog, Aristotle’s Revenge)

I have seen quite a bit of banter lately about Mormon apologetics lately and wanted to throw in my $0.02. Recently John Dehlin publicly stated:

I just want to go on record as saying that 20th and 21st century LDS apologetics (FAIR, FARMS, Maxwell institute) will go down as destroying more testimonies than any other single Mormon influence. That’s what happens when you blame the victim, or give very poor and evasive answers to credible issues.

Now I actually think this is unfair for a number of reasons. First, people don’t go to LDS apologetics unless they are a Mormon who is already struggling with their testimony (very few Mormons, ex-Mormons, or non-Mormons look to FAIR for casual, unbiased, light reading on a Sunday afternoon). So it’s hard to say that the apologists are really “destroying” these testimonies, as though they were completely whole beforehand and then the apologists strapped some plastic explosives to them and pushed the plunger. Second, I am not convinced that if there were no apologetic wing of the LDS church, we wouldn’t be seeing the same people exiting the LDS faith. It could be that the apologetic defense is ineffectual, or in John’s words, “poor and evasive,” but in this case they’re simply failing to stop a person from doing what they were already considering doing. Third, there is the implication that apologists bear the ultimate responsibility for other people’s testimonies. This is problematic to me because, if the LDS church is true in any sense, then ultimate responsibility for a person’s testimony rests with the person and God. To think that an apologist could somehow thwart the work of God (if that’s what it is) seems backwards.

However, it is the case that a modern LDS apologist does have a tough job to do if they really want to mount a case for Mormonism. In order to do so, they would have to do the following things: Continue reading

Enchanted Glasses

I recently barged in on this recent post at Irresistible (Dis)grace but then I felt bad because it was a big long thing and it wasn’t really replying to Andrew’s main point.  So I’m going to just reprint it here.

Andrew, at the end of his post, said this:

As John H writes, I — as a 21st century guy — am living in a post-enchanted world. In some ways, this is what led me “out” of the church…but in other ways, it’s what keeps me from re-conceptualizing the scriptures as metaphorical. At some level, I think, if this isn’t literally true, then what’s the big deal, even though in general, I value the subjective. (Basically, my subjective experiences are mediated by cultural scripts that value literality and objectivity.)

I wonder what it would be like to step out of the 21st century mindset of the sterile, post-enchanted world. I know plenty of folks online or offline who have done it, but their stories seem so strange to me. I just don’t grok it.

Still, I feel that the mundane, non-magickal world isn’t necessarily better, more enlightened, or more advanced than the enchanted worlds of yesteryear. Rather, the same sorts of marginalizations happen — the same inequity of power structures exist — but this time, things are just so much more boring about it.

And here was my reply: Continue reading

The “Hidden-ness” of God and Agent Detection

Archaeologists have determined from aerial images like this in the Amazon that humans must have once built these structures.  They have no known natural cause.

Archaeologists have determined from aerial images like this in the Amazon that humans must have once built these structures. They have no known natural cause.

In response to a question posed by my friend at Comparative Religion, I have been reflecting on the so-called “hidden-ness” of God.  The idea as posed by my friend is, “Why does God often seem absent or hidden from this world?”

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in my life!  During some difficult times in my life I prayed long and hard for God to just show Himself to me, or give me some kind of indicator that I’m not wasting my time.  And yet the “confirmations” of God’s presence seemed to come at different – seemingly random – times.

But then I also began to reflect on what it means to hide, and what it means to be detected.

Continue reading