The facts of language and spiritual experience.

“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Wittgenstein’s philosophy confirmed a simple fact that was pretty clear when I was a child, but became cloudier over the course of my education: i.e. the meaning of the words I use is not a matter of my private experience, even if all of my experience is private.

In fact, it is often impossible for me to adequately explain the meaning of many of the words I use, even though I somehow know what they point at, and how to use them.

It seems to me that human language is the same kind of fact as the whistling of beavers building their dams and living their lives. The whistles come to them through their senses, hit their brains, and then – they behave like beavers and build dams. What is the meaning of a particular whistle?  It creates a particular attitude in a beaver.  What are the meaning of words? The attitude that is invoked in the hearer. The whistling is a fact other than the beaver because the whistles change the facts of the world as other beavers react to the  influence of the whistling beaver’s attitude. Continue reading

Is Peniel ground zero for theology?

The fundamental divide between Mormon theology and traditional Christian theology may stem from their starting point.  Moses tells us of how Jacob wrestled with God in the desert in a place he called Peniel – where he saw God face to face. To Mormons, this is the starting point for all theology i.e. the words received face to face with God.  Put simply, the state of being before face of God is considered the only place where the simple Truth can be found. If anything is, this concept is the beating heart of Mormonism.

Joseph Smith’s peniel approach to truth is elegantly simple- and extremely powerful in its simplicity. It slashes through theological argument, making irrelevant entire worldviews. The approach depends on two important moves.  First, Joseph affirms as a simple fact that seeing something with spiritual eyes is equivalent to seeing something with actual eyes, i.e. a person’s vision of reality is the same in character as that person’s real vision. Seeing an angel “in the spirit” is no less trustworthy than seeing the angel with actual eyes. This point is most simply made in Joseph’s statement that spiritual things were also physical- i.e. as much a part of the world as earth, wind, and fire.  This would come naturally to someone who understood the world in a magical way.  Joseph taught that empirical experiences of the prophets, combined with his own, could more clearly explain the magic that was in the world.

This idea is – as Mormons might put it – very strong doctrine. It’s salience comes in its simplicity, it does not distinguish between classes of experience that are often indistinguishable to the person experiencing them. Joseph was in good company in making this move.  In a sense, this was the key intuition founding Descartes’ philosophy that paved the way for clarity in science.

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Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.

The Apostle Paul: the first Mormon?

St. Paul on road to Damascus

St. Paul on road to Damascus (Photo credit: bobosh_t)

Christian J pointed out in the discussion of my last post that he thought the Mormon model of seeking spiritual confirmation of doctrine was biblical. I think he is right. When I was LDS, I was very impressed by Paul’s discussion in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2.  It captured perfectly my view of the core of Missionary work.  Those interested in Mormonism would do well to understand how Paul’s words are lived by LDS today.

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The Weeping God of Teryl Givens

Teryl and Fiona Givens were recently on a tour of British ward houses giving a series of talks entitled “The Crucible of Doubt”. The point of the talk seemed to be to encourage Mormons who may be struggling with doubts. One attendee recorded the talk and shared it.  Another attendee took notes on the talk and shared those notes.  I’ll set aside the content of Givens’ apologetic arguments in order to focus on something he said about Protestantism. Continue reading

Explaining Jesus to a child: the witness of the spirit.

I put my six-year-old son to bed the other night and reminded him to say his prayers.  ten or fifteen minutes later he came down with a huge smile on his face, he wanted to call his mom and tell her something (his mother and I are not married anymore). It was too late so he went back to bed. First thing the next morning he came directly downstairs and called his mother to tell her about the feeling he had when he was praying.  He explained to her, and later me, that he had this amazing feeling when he was praying and could not stop smiling about it.  Watching this experience–like so many I have had as a parent– was like looking into a mirror reflecting myself at his age.

Of course this experience raises so many questions for me, and for perhaps should raise this questions for all Christians: How do we explain the witness of the Spirit to a child.

I actually do not have a good answer– a satisfactory explanation of spiritual experience like this is perhaps the biggest question I have in life. I know there are all kinds, including those that do not involve belief in God, but my son deserves one.  And he deserves one in language he can understand.  I reject many aspects of the explanation he is routinely given at LDS church, and I am not satisfied with what I did tell them.  So I put it to anyone who reads this–how would you explain this experience to my son, if he was yours?

Why Mormonism is only for those who desire it, and why it matters.

In our discussion about the LDS temple ritual.  I mentioned that I do not believe the endowment is for everyone, nor was it meant to be.  It is only for those who desire it.

While this seems to be a somewhat technical/semantic point. I think it is important in the context of the “Mormonism-seems-to-be-a-cult-because-it-has-secret-Rituals” discussion. By saying that endowment is ONLY for those that really want it, I underscore how different this position is from any sort of cult-like view of the ritual. Mormons are not forcing people to do weird things against their will. This seems akin to the same fallacious argument that Mormons are somehow disrespectful for performing rituals for the dead or that they disrespect holocaust victims by baptizing them. It makes no sense in context of Mormon thought and doctrine. It seems that among the pervasive misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations regarding the religion are that Mormons are a cult that pushes people or brainwashes them into making crazy commitments and weird secret rituals against their will.  This is unsupportable by the doctrine or the scriptures.

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