Saturday, March 26, 2005

Spring's Great Truths: Stranger than Fiction

An idea in Newsweek's cover story this Easter Week, From Jesus to Christ, reminded me of the old adage: "Truth is stranger than fiction." It also reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Mormon missionaries. (You don't have to read the Newsweek story to read on, but you should at least watch the short skit.)

Now that you've had a laugh, I am obligated to cash out the connection.

In discussing the despair and confusion of the disciples during and after the Passion, the Newsweek article argues that the story of Christ's resurrection was so strange, so foreign to the cultural context, that it's not something the disciples would have simply made up in order to win friends and influence people. On the contrary, an arresting painting in the article depicts the crucified, burnt, and torn bodies of the Coliseum. The resurrection must have a historical basis, the argument goes; for if the PR department were designing a promotional campaign, they would have come up with something more easily sold.

The Saturday Night Live skit reminds us how strange talk of gold plates and seer stones is in our own day. Hence the Newsweek theory could be replicated as an argument for Joseph Smith: His story is so strange, it must be true; why would he make such easily-ridiculed stuff up? Joseph himself may have had this in mind:
No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don't blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself. (TPJS, p. 361)
Not unexpectedly, neither do the writers of Saturday Night Live---which in this case serves as a much milder, but no less public, Coliseum.

Strangeness for its own sake as a marker of truth is a foreign notion to a physicist. As a discipline, physics seeks the elucidation of a cohesive set of a few key principles, a tight logical basis that unifies (and hence "explains") diverse phenomena. In this enterprise, it is elegance, simplicity, and beauty that are prized as hallmarks of truth (second, of course, to empirical confirmation of predictions).

I can imagine that systematic theology might strive to be like physics or philosophy in this respect, but early Christianity and its Restoration are not really about "system"---at least, not primarily. Instead, they are history, narrative: compelling stories of God's power at work in the world. The disciples with their doubts, confusion, and frailties, and the sectarian war of words and tumult of opinions: The likes of these are too much for elegant, beautiful "system." Instead, they are the birth pangs of new stories---stories that more "overcome" than "solve."

The opening of a tomb, and the opening of a new dispensation, are hailed by millions as great truths of Spring. They are so perceived not because of their coherent elegance, but because of their surprising strangeness. Truth is here discerned not in the clean logic of man, but in the wonderful and strange power of God.

[Thanks to Rusty at Nine Moons for bringing the Saturday Night Live skit to the Bloggernaccle.]

47 Comments:

It's interesting that you bring up the focus on simplicity in science. In rough outline one could characterize the development of physics as a search for simplicity. It started with a dispute over which element was fundamental. Amid the ancient Greek argument over fire, water, earth, and war, some monists argued that everything was made of neutral atoms. Once atoms were discovered, we found out that there are dozens of different kinds of atoms. So we started talking about the composition of atoms. The result was the same; viz., we found several different types, and once we exceed 3 or 4 different types of "fundamental" entities, the notion of fundamental entity becomes less interesting. So now we're hypothesizing about strings. My point is that the drive toward simplicity in is (a) basically due to human aesthetic taste, and (b) is imposed largely from without. The interesting thing to me is that physics always seems amenable to this kind of reductionism, but serious religious proves less easily tamed. 
Comment by Arturo Toscanini | 3/28/2005 09:44:00 PM  

After the reductionist exercise---the analysis---should come the synthesis, and this may be the harder part. Whether some phenomena (e.g. consciousness) traditionally "overpowered" (as opposed to "explained") by a religious interpretation or explanation can be successfully explained by integration of knowledge obtained by reductionist approaches remains to be seen.

It could be there are "spiritual" ontological realities responsible for these phenomena; or there might be naturalistic causes whose explanation eludes us simply because the synthesis proves intractable. As long as explanation eludes us---and as long as longings for less frequently observed phenomena (e.g. resurrection) are with us, the strange and powerful religious explanations will be with us as well.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/29/2005 11:00:00 AM  

This thread reminds me of Tania Rands's Sunstone Review of Martha Nibley Beck's latest book, wherein she quotes Beck as stating: "the harder something is to believe, the truer it is likely to be. The more I think about it, the more this seems to be the way things are with life in general."  
Comment by pete | 3/30/2005 07:20:00 PM  

Of course, Joseph Smith himself gets "explained" by environmental theories that reduce him to cultural symptom: though his claims sound wild to modern ears, they were all too familiar in his own milieu--or so object his detractors.

It sounds like you're making two different arguments against faith claims here (though you're doing so gently and respectfully, of course!): first, that there is reason not  to believe religious claims (namely their strangeness); and second, that there aren't enough reasons left to believe religious claims (that is, there are few remaining phenomena that are not satisfactorily explained by science). I find the latter more troubling than the former: the sense of strangeness, I think, is generally more a consequence of the ego-bound nature of human consciousness than of the object of contemplation. But

Finallly, while I love the way you talk about physics, I suspect there's a bit more social practice at work there in the lab then you're letting on. Conversely,  
Comment by Rosalynde | 3/30/2005 09:41:00 PM  

Sorry about the dangling "but" and "conversely"--I have no idea what I was about to say, if anything! 
Comment by Rosalynde | 3/30/2005 11:07:00 PM  

Rosalynde (and everyone), I'm sorry something weird is going on with some of the comments. I'm especially sorry some of Rosalynde's---what looked like it was going to be the important part---may have gotten lost!

You're right, I am worried about what it is that cannot be explained by naturalistic ideas. (Mike, there's one recurring concern!) And I do accept that physicists' sense of beauty is conditioned, but this is probed in the face of empirical experience, and modified as necessary.

I don't think the point of the "environmentalists" is that Joseph can be collapsed to cultural symptoms. The Restoration is a great tapestry, which many believers see as being essentially handed over directly by God---both the threads themselves, and their final weaved arrangement. The environmentalists suggest that all the important threads were already lying around somewhere. But in this, they are not suggesting that Joseph is reduced to a pile of threads; there still must be genius to weave them together into something useful. And that final product can  be strange, even if the individual threads were not. Indeed, the Saints as a body were too strange for the United States to bear, and Joseph himself was too strange for this world.

The question is, Is the genius required to weave the threads (and spin a few of one's own) into a tapestry beyond mortal capability? While it might be too much for a mortal to come up with all the threads and the weaving, the weaving alone might be conceivable to some.

 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/30/2005 11:21:00 PM  

Rosalynde may be referring to environmentalist stuff more like Dan Vogal's recent biography of Joseph Smith, in which Vogal takes the environmental case far enough that's it's not clear that he even finds Joseph to be an original or innovative or genius level religious thinker (at least not during the period in which Vogal covers him; viz., until he leaves for Kirtland). Vogal's strong suit is (as always) his exhaustive research that brings to light so many facts about Joseph's environment. Indeed, Vogal's is an ambitious project, and one which he executes surprisingly well even if it falls somewhat short of his goals. 
Comment by Arturo Toscanini | 3/31/2005 12:14:00 AM  

Oh my, Arturo, another book to add to my reading list.

I should not have spoken as if I was speaking for all environmentalists. I was just expressing what I see the place of those arguments in the larger picture to be. 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/31/2005 12:52:00 AM  

One additional response to Rosalynde: I didn't intend the original post to be necessarily "against faith claims." I meant to highlight a certain feature of religious solutions, and let the reader take away what they might.

Of course you're at an advantage, being aware of previous commentary of mine; you guessed right about what I think some might see an opening to take away. But would a stranger have guessed my concern with those notions from this piece, without first reading my response above to Arturo? (I love examples of what is unintentionally revealed in prose, and I gather that's a big part of your discipline...)

You did a good job with the pessimistic reading... I'd be curious to see if you can come up with a believing reading, if only to tease out (even unintentional) believing impulses that might be on display.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/31/2005 02:19:00 PM  

Christian: What worries you about things that cannot be explained by naturalistic ideas? I am neither a physicist or a philosopher, but my understanding of naturalistic is that which is perceived by the senses and can be explained, tested, proved by hearkening to natural laws. Is that correct? If so, how do we know that the natural laws we think we know and understand are the fundamental laws? Or are they built upon something greater, something more profound that is as yet unperceived and perhaps imperceptible? We know that truth is given line upon line, precept upon precept. Perhaps one of the many ways that we are to "wait upon the Lord" is to trust in His impeccable timing in giving us the answers.
 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/01/2005 01:29:00 AM  

Mike, thanks, I should clarify what I meant when I said "I am worried about what it is that cannot be explained by naturalistic ideas."

My concern here is one you must be familiar with from a specific arena: the "God of the gaps" criticism deployed by believers in evolution against creationist resistance. The criticism is that creationists look at every gap in understanding, and assume it's the power of God that explains it. The latest incarnation is the Intelligent Design program, intended to promote this perspective in a constitutionally acceptable way.

The trouble is that more and more phenomena are explained by naturalistic perspectives---or at least, plausible naturalistic stories can be told. Without a smoking gun, one cannot logically rule out wider realities of the kind you speculate about, but with plausible stories in hand backed by some evidence, one is sorely tempted to apply Occam's Razor  to the putative "wider realities".

The question is, how far can this "edge of objectivity" eat into traditionally spiritual arenas? How far can naturalistic explanations go toward explaining our scripture, our consciousness, our emotions, our conscience, our powerful spiritual experiences we attribute to the Holy Ghost? These kinds of questions fall under this "recurring concern", and will be explored here (I expect) over time.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/01/2005 06:36:00 PM  

So you think I can make you a believer with close reading? Maybe that English major is good for something, after all: "Professional Activities: Savior on Mount Zion."

I think I can make a pretty good case. First, it's useful to distinguish between scientific and faith-based epistemologies, and between their respective methods of knowledge-making, the better to judge each kind of truth-claim. It would be manifestly silly to require discursive knowledge to exhibit the same qualities of reproducibility and falsibfiability that scientific knowledge displays--"If your reading of the Iliad isn't precisely the same as mine, then one of us must be wrong"--but this does not mean that discursive knowledge cannot be evaluated or, indeed, disproved. Your distinction between "explaining" and "overcoming" is helpful, I think--though, being partial to explanation myself, I can't help thinking that "overcoming" might be something of a smokescreen.

I actually think that LDS truth claims are of a variety of kinds--narrative and historical, as you point out, but also philosophical, rhetorical, and, yes, empirical. Thus a variety of methodologies are required to evaluate them, none rigorously reproducible, probably, but some indeed testable.

The point is, I think your willingness to countenance various kinds of truth is helpful and hopeful.  
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/03/2005 11:00:00 AM  

By the way, on Joseph and environmental heuristics, I'm always a little suspicious of arguments that place a lot of weight on the category of "genius," a la Harold Bloom. My own investigation of the most celebrated of all geniuses--William Shakespeare--leads me to believe that the invocation of "genius" generally masks some sort of ideological agenda or some critical failing. Shakespeare's "genius" turns out to be composed of verifiable historical, material and aesthetic specificities. And I suspect that "genius" is an equally unsatisfying accounting of Joseph's achievements--his charisma and considerable abilities granted. 
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/03/2005 11:07:00 AM  

Well done, Rosalynde! If an entry on your CV is insufficient recompense, feel free to send me a bill (a benefit of not having the priesthood: there don't seem to be any prohibitions against priestesscraft).

I think Elder Bednar's talk today exemplifies, by both precept and specific example in his own life, that recognition of the strange, "overcoming" or "overpowering" presence of God in our lives is integral faith (at least for most people). He describes a "crisis": he doesn't understand why he's called, he feels inadequate. A strange happening manifests the power of God: the selection of his favorite hymn for conference weeks before his call. He now has no need of logical explanations for his call, and need not mentally wring his hands, second-guessing his adequacy. This happening becomes his story of God's power intervening and overcoming in the origin of his ministry, his apostolic creation myth. He doesn't use the word "strange," but the notion is implicit; it is only the remarkable, the not normally explainable, that invites attribution to divine intervention.

I think his description of recognizing the Lord's "tender mercies" has an obvious rhetorical problem that may also be a substantial one. He says one must not dismiss such happenings as "coincidences", while at the same time noting that one recognizes them as divine by their "timing". But the meaning of "coincidence" is to happen at the same time. So it sounds like he's saying, 'You must not dismiss the event as a coincidence, but instead recognize its divinity because of co-incidence.' Perhaps your preference for "explanation", and your concern about "smokescreens", derives from an intuition that such tautologies too often underlie these sorts of claims.

In your list of kinds of truth claims I was surprised to see "rhetorical"; I would've thought that would be a method of making a truth claim, not a basis for one. Not seeing experiences with the Holy Ghost on the list, I was curious if that belongs in the "empirical" category, or in the "strange manifestations" category, with this list representing everything else.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/03/2005 09:19:00 PM  

On the environmental stuff, it almost sounds like the Bard has been successfully reduced to "cultural symptom". If so, knowing you as one who has studied both Shakespeare and Joseph, if you found the reduction possible in one case and not the other, I would think your conclusion worthy of serious consideration.

On the other hand, I get a sense you've succeeded at pulling the wool over my eyes: Setting up the straw man of pure environmental Joseph, goading me into using the word "genius", and then knocking down the separate straw man of "pure genius"---when what I really offered was the possibility of a creative and synthetic human faculty availing itself of a wealth of environmental raw material.

Clearly environment plays a nontrivial role, but that cannot be all even in Shakespeare's case; if it were, there would be Shakespeares and Josephs popping up all the time. There's something  special going on that either originates with them or is channeled through them; if calling it "genius" masks an intellectual's ideology or laziness, I would worry that calling it "revelation" is subject to similar criticism.

Obviously we can't go further without recourse to specific evidence, something to be deferred to future discussions. But if you agree at least in principle that there are possibilities in between the aforementioned extreme straw men, perhaps we can retain a mental post-it note of this discussion, so as not to have to clear this underbrush away again next time.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/03/2005 09:41:00 PM  

Ah, Christian, if only I had such a fine sense of strategy, to goad you to "genius" and then spring the trap... I might actually be able to give my husband a run for his money when we play checkers! No strategy, no wool, just trying to be smart for you. You're right, though, that "genius" and "divine" can both be appeals to ignorance, though the latter needn't be so (in my view). William and Joseph both possessed remarkable abilities, to be sure: in Shakespeare's case, though, the extremely successful afterlife of his ouvre can be explained by a number of material factors external to the work itself.
 
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/04/2005 01:59:00 PM  

Your last point about Shakespeare brings up another important dimension to be kept in mind when assessing the factors leading to the enduring iconic status of any cultural phenomenon. Orthogonal to the genius/environment continuum are the vagaries of historical contingency (or, even more inscrutable for analytic purposes, the provident intervention of divine will). What would the fate of Christianity been without Constantine's official imprimatur? What would have become of Joseph's legacy without Brigham's firm and practical consolidation of Joseph's theology in the splendid isolation of a Desert Kingdom?

You and John should graduate to chess. Even my 9-year-old daughter Rachel can give an interesting game. I started her on chess after she ruthlessly took advantage of a careless move of mine in checkers, and legitimately beat me. Even though I'm not particularly skilled or practiced in chess, it's sufficiently complex that I think it'll be awhile before she manages to beat me. My wife Kimberly, however, has legitimately beat me in chess (carelessness again, I tell myself). In my heart of hearts I know it was a six-sigma fluke , but we've got a lot of games to play before I can accumulate the statistics to prove it!
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/04/2005 02:00:00 PM  

This sounds like an interesting conversation, if only I could follow. I have the dictionary by my side trying to figure out what you two (Chris and Rosalynde) are saying. I recognize a couple of words, like checkers and chess. Vagaries and orthogonol weren't in my vocabulary but now are.

It seems that "objectivity" implies making a judgement based on perspective. As Bro. Nibley stated (and I paraphrase): if we look at the world only in that way which is perceived by our senses, we are looking through the telescope which provides significant depth and information. However, by limiting ourselves to that perspective, the telescope remains fixed in a certain direction and anything outside that scope is not even considered.

I too, as Rosanlyde stated, am hopeful as you are willing to continue to consider multiple ways of learning truth. The most important question is when there is a conflict (which I understand that is what we are trying to resolve), which method do we trust implicitly? I may becoming tautologic (see, I am learing new words) on this subject, but I believe that it is at the foundation of the discussion.

As for coincidence: I too believe that this is appealed to much too often in the LDS culture. There are many times that the Lord does guide our steps and sets things in our path. However, too often we claim this "divine intervention" when there is in reality no right to do so (sometimes when the situation is in direct conflict with established, revealed doctrines and practices). As often as good outcomes are credited to Heavenly Father's intervention, death and other perceived trials are "blamed" on Him. We don't recognize that this life is "a crapshoot" (to quote a mission companion). Mortality is loaded with unknows (part of the schooling), both good and bad, and our agency is so highly valued that one-third of the hosts of heaven were consigned to outer darkness to preserve it.

We must recongnize that He is our Eternal Father, seeing everything that was, is and will be as an eternal now in a way which we (knowing only TIME) cannot comprehend. When we come to that realization, our trust in Him becomes more complete and full, even when we don't understand the whys or hows or whens; and as importantly we feel less obligated to find explanation in everything that happens in our lives. We just continue to live it with kindness toward our fellow children of God and faith the the redeeming love of Christ.

I am probably too simplistic in this view, but it's what works for me. I don't believe that I am sticking my head in the sand, as I enjoy exploring every point of doctrine in an attempt to understand my Father and His Son more and more fully trust them.
 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/04/2005 02:02:00 PM  

Mike, I like your even-handed approach. Not wanting to blame every "bad" coincidence on God, it seems most consistent to not reflexively attribute every "good" coincidence to him either. This is the posture that feels most natural to me; perhaps it comes from our scientific reluctance to attribute cause without a clear evidentiary basis.

However, for the sake of discussion I might also point out that not all thinking believers share the "crapshoot" paradigm, and find instead another route to intellectual consistency. (It would seem my primary instinct is to be contrarian, in the service of exploration; while I agree with you, Mike, I can't help pointing out the other side---even if it means taking on the role of "God's advocate", not necessarily my default stance on this blog!)

Elder Maxwell, in particular, in his book All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience , argues for what might be called "strong versions" of both Omnipotence and Omniscience. I don't have the book in front of me to check, but he probably milks the "sparrow's fall" for all it's worth, and also wrings every drop of theological significance possible from the word "all" in D&C 59:21  and D&C 78:19. He attributes everything to God, both good and bad; he allows for agency, but argues that, through his foreknowledge, God orchestrates humanity's baleful choices in such a way as to provide precisely the "tutoring" experiences each person needs. He acknowledges that such a comprehensive stance is "hard doctrine", but he seems to think it's necessary to true faith. It also constitutes a theodicy that seems to be self-consistent, if tough from this mortal perspective.

My problems with this view get back to a theme of the original post: How do we discern the hand of God? In Elder Maxwell's universe, it's everywhere, orchestrating all things. Part of my trouble with this is that I just can't see this Central Planning down to the sparrow's fall really working; which may just mean that I lack faith, and fail to appreciate the true extent of God's knowledge and power. But my bigger problem with it is a methodological one: How do I know God? The view explains everything, and therefore ends up explaining nothing, because there's no testability. If his hand is everywhere, it can't discerned anywhere.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/05/2005 11:18:00 AM  

Rosalynde, I'm coming late to this conversation and wonder if you'll return, but if you do, I'd be interested in knowing what are the specific material factors external to Shakespeare's work that explain its enduring quality? 
Comment by Brian G | 4/05/2005 11:20:00 PM  

Christian,

I disagree that Elder Maxwell attributes everything, both good and bad, to God. Multiple times in that chapter he emphasizes that in no way does the Father's foreknowledge impact our agency. Bad people do bad things. Good people do bad things. The rain falls on the righteous as well as the wicked. God is never the source of evil works. Does He cause the father of 6 to fall asleep at the wheel and accident leaving him as the sole survivor? Or was it the 2 hours of sleep and the fact the he was the only one wearing a seatbelt?

And although our Maker doesn't chose for us, His perspective (and infinite love) allows Him to use these occurances to "school" us (as Maxwell is so fond of saying) in the most efficient and effective way possible.

What do you mean you can't see the Central Planning down to the sparrow's fall really working?

As for seeing the hand of God: this is a question that is difficult to address. Over that past 3 years I had many converstions with an agnostic, humanistic, (at times hedonistic) friend regarding God. He is unable to see the hand of God in the things that I feel so clearly demonstrate the influence of a Supreme Being. Now, am I imagining this influence, creating this for myself? I don't believe so. I have had too many (although not dozens) of personal experiences that have burned so deep into my soul and mind that I must admit and recognize His hand in my life. But the evidence is only individually perceived and unable to be externally perceived.

Is it an easy way out to appeal to the Pauline precept in 2 Cor 4:18?

"While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. "While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

The data seems to show that focusing on the "things that are seen" and working on entire societies to affect change in the world has never worked. The philosophers of the Enlightenment seemed to be convinced that through evolution in human thought and knowledge, good government programs and education available to the masses, the world, by now, would be utopic. We can see that these principles haven't brought about the anticipated changes. Therefore, in what are we to have TRUST?

Hence, I continue to operate under the premise that God lives, He loves me, and cares so completely about my infinite existance that He is willing to lose me in order to make me like Him; that His omniscience and infinite love is the only way to real happiness and real change.
 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/06/2005 01:24:00 PM  

My question of "What do you mean you can't see...etc? should read "What do you mean when you say you can't see...? It was not meant to be personally accusatory in any way.

 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/06/2005 01:58:00 PM  

Mike, I can see how the first part of that sentence of mine could cause confusion. Let me quote the entire sentence, and then try and clarify.

"He attributes everything to God, both good and bad; he allows for agency, but argues that, through his foreknowledge, God orchestrates humanity's baleful choices in such a way as to provide precisely the "tutoring" experiences each person needs."

I agree that Elder Maxwell allows for agency. I didn't mean that God was the instigator of all "bad" things; these can arise from individual agency or the normal operations of nature. But also he places us in their way, or refuses to remove us from them; and in this sense God is responsible for the fact that we experience these things, even if he's not the instigator.

Let's take your example to make things concrete: "Does He cause the father of 6 to fall asleep at the wheel and accident leaving him as the sole survivor?"  I think Elder Maxwell would allow that God may not the direct cause; but he would also argue that he foresaw this accident from the foundation of the world, and sent spirits (wife and children) who would learn all the mortal lessons they needed from a shortened mortality, and another spirit (the father) who would need this specific tutoring experience.

"And although our Maker doesn't chose for us, His perspective (and infinite love) allows Him to use these occurances to "school" us (as Maxwell is so fond of saying) in the most efficient and effective way possible." This makes it sound like God doesn't necessarily know or arrange the occurrences ahead of time, but just lets things loose and makes lemonade out of lemons as the need arises. This is how I (and sounds like you) think it would be, but I think Elder Maxwell would disagree: he sees it all perfectly arranged and orchestrated ahead of time.

When I say I can't see the Central Planning down to the sparrow's fall, I mean I don't see the whole universe completely foreseen and arranged in advance. (The image is the failure of communist planned economies.) I see the universe's evolution as a contingent, local, adaptive affair, with God (if there is one) making adjustments as things go along, and taking care of loose ends in the spirit world or the Millenium as necessary. Self-consistently orchestrating all individual choices and flukes of nature, in just such a way as to provide the perfect tutoring for everyone, just seems like such a delicate house of cards that would fail if one thing were the least bit out of whack. A robust, flexible, adaptive plan would seem much more like the "real world" to me.

Maybe we disagree about what Elder Maxwell thought; if so it doesn't really matter, the important thing is that we get straight what I think. ;->
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/06/2005 08:47:00 PM  

Mike, on the other part of your comment, I know that spiritual experiences can be very powerful; I've had several myself. The trouble is, there are all kinds of people who believe all kinds of things, some strongly enough to give their lives for. For all I know they come to these convictions through experiences of comparable power to mine; I can't get inside their head to know.

Important, then, are occasions like the apostles and Nephites handling the resurrected Savior, witnesses handling the gold plates, etc. But what frustrates me here is the rarity: the witnesses who experienced these things are not knowable to us, it's hard to know if from this distance we can accurately judge their credibility or understand their worldview. The statute of limitations has expired, I like to say.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/06/2005 09:01:00 PM  

Christian,

This back-and-forth is very interesting to me.

"Self-consistently orchestrating all individual choices and flukes of nature, in just such a way as to provide the perfect tutoring for everyone, just seems like such a delicate house of cards that would fail if one thing were the least bit out of whack. "

I think that my statement regarding God using our decisions in an efficient and effective manner in no means was meant to imply that I don't believe that God knows the end from the beginning. I believe that He does; that with perfect precision He knows when each sparrow will fall. And I agree completely with your above quote. That, to me, is the granduer of God, that if anything were a bit out of whack the house of cards would tumble. How can we have implicit trust in a God that does not have that view and ability? If from the foundation of the world there was none other name (except Christ) give whereby man could be saved, what happens if Christ doesn't perform the atonement? Does God have another te perform the act just in case? I don't believe so. For me, it is requisite that God be completely and totally omniscient in order to have faith in Him.

In Lecture on Faith, Joseph said: ""seeing that without the knowledge of all things, God would not be able to save any portion of his creatures; for it is by reason of the knowledge which he has of all things, from the beginning to the end, that enables him to give that understanding to his creatures by which they are made partakers of eternal life; and if it were not for the idea existing in the minds of men that God had all knowledge it would be impossible for them to exercise faith in him.""

Because we don't see the beginning from the end, we are unable to grasp the dynamics and process completely, or even fathom the ways through which God accomplishes these things. However, this doesn't mean the process doesn't work this way. Gravity and quantum mechanics still apply to me even though I don't fully understand how they operate.

Lastly, as to the rarity of physical evidences and witnesses thereof: I don't believe that God is to blame for this; we must look to our own situation. Are we ready/willing to respond as needed to that additional information? The Book of Mormon is replete with the argument that these physical witnesses are as a result of faith, not a generator thereof. Would it make us all feel better if President Hinkley would say over the pulpit in Gen. Conf. that the Lord visited him and told him "Thus saith the Lord?"

Of interest, between conference sessions here in Utah, KSL ran a feature on the Manhattan temple. At one point during the piece, Carol Makita asked Pres. Hinkley how he came up with the design for the Hong Kong and Manhattan temple, he responded with "I really don't like discussing the way in which these things come. I'll say that I felt inspired." What does that mean? I don't know, but it may generate conversation about the topic.

I feel that in so many ways the Lord withholds information specifically to try our faith. Agency and Faith are those two companions which are absolutely necessary to generate the submissiveness and humility necessary for eternal life and exaltation. Maybe we can discuss why some other time.

 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/07/2005 12:08:00 AM  

Hi Brian! If Christian will allow me a very brief excursion... I don't mean to suggest that the special qualities of Shakespeare's work can be fully accounted for by environmental factors, but those qualities--perhaps chiefly the sophisticated reflexivity of world and stage--are rooted in the material specificities of his position in the emergent professional and commercial theater, as playwright, player, and theatrical entrepreneur. And the remarkable afterlife of the Shakespearean corpus owes much to the unique (and temporary) social breadth of the Elizabethan theater audience, to the ways in which England came to conceive of itself as a state in the world, the way in which the idea of "authorship" matured at just the right time for Shakespeare's First Folio, and a host of other factors.

Is this what you were asking about?  
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/07/2005 12:21:00 AM  

Yeah, that was what I was asking about, but I don’t know if I buy it, Rosalynde. Of course, I’m certain you’ve studied the topic much more than I have, but the way I see it nearly all the things you mention can be attributed to Shakepeare’s phenomenal talent as much as his environment—with the possible exception of England’s concept of itself in the world (I’d love to hear more on how that contributed to Shakespeare’s enduring success). I would argue it was precisely Shakepeare’s talent that made him capable to attain and succeed in the multi-faceted role he played in the emerging theater. Isn’t it logical that his remarkable ability to write drama accessible to people across the social spectrum—a gift evident from the start—was what created and/or drew that unique audience and kept them coming back? Isn’t it true the First Folio was gathered by Shakespeare’s colleagues who saw the value in his work? Don’t we have many of his works today because they were in part reconstructed by actors who could still lovingly remember and recite the lines because they’re so amazing? If the environmental factors were nearly as significant as you suggest I would imagine that at least one of Shakepeare’s contemporaries, Marlowe maybe, would benefit as much as Shakespeare has, but I’m afraid no one comes close.

Perhaps I just don’t share your suspicion of the use of the word genius. I think it’s a fine word that’s perfectly useful, even necessary, to describe both Shakespeare and Joseph Smith. As fun as it is for academics to take aim at sacred cows and take them down a few pegs (something I’m sure I would’ve attempted to build a career on had I become an academic) I think it’s silly to argue Shakespeare was not all that gifted and was just in the right place at the right time. I would never say environment must be completely divorced from talent when we consider the success of incredible people, but in my way of thinking the one true hallmark of genius is the rare ability of an individual to either consciously or unconsciously shape and react to the environmental conditions he or she were born into in such a way as to assure their work will last. Hundreds of years later historians and critics may look back and marvel over how all the stars were lined up perfectly, but I suggest in the case of Joseph Smith and William Shakespeare they shoved a lot of those stars into place themselves. Although, I might concede that in the case of the Prophet Father in Heaven might have done much of the heavy lifting for him. But who knows maybe He digs plays and moved some things around for Shakespeare too.
 
Comment by Brian G | 4/07/2005 03:48:00 AM  

Excursions are welcomed and encouraged---especially from Rosalynde, for whom I would gladly go out of my way to hear elaborate on any topic whatsoever. Even if it were something as banal as the municipal garbage system, I'm sure I would hear something interesting and informative.

Brian G, welcome, and thanks for your contribution---and for supporting me on the genius thing!
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/07/2005 08:21:00 AM  

Mike:  Would it make us all feel better if President Hinkley would say over the pulpit in Gen. Conf. that the Lord visited him and told him "Thus saith the Lord?" 

Now that you mention it, I for one would feel a lot better! Having listened to them for years, I believe they are good, honest, and sincere men; therefore I would take a declaration of the kind you described quite seriously.

Thanks for the exchange, I think I understand how you see these issues. And yes, these and related ideas will surely recur in connection with other threads.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/07/2005 08:29:00 AM  

Brian, I and other researchers don't see environmental theses as diminishing the stature of Shakespeare the man or of the Shakespearean corpus; on the contrary, while the invocation of "genius" tends to rhetorically throw up the arms and genuflect without saying anything interesting about the work, an inquiry into the mutuality of artist and environment can add value to our understanding of both work and man--the greatest tribute, in my mind. We use the word "genius" precisely when we've reached the limits of our knowledge, when we don't have anything new to bring to the texts.

As for your specifics... No, it wasn't Shakespeare's work that created the social dynamism of the Elizabethan theater, although his work greatly benefited from it. The inclusivity of the audiences predated Shakespeare's height of success. And Shakespeare's Folio might never have been compiled, and certainly wouldn't have had the same cultural meaning, without Ben Jonson's "Works" preceding it.

I don't see any of this as diminishing Shakespeare's achievement, but rather serving it by clarifying its meaning.

 
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/07/2005 11:06:00 AM  

Christian  For now it sounds like we've agreed to disagree on certain aspects of this issue. I too think I know how you think and look forward to the opportunity of continuing to explore for truth in this forum. 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/08/2005 02:49:00 PM  

Just a few question:

What role does the Book of Mormon have to play as physical evidence and as a witness of the Restoration? It is available for anyone to look at, read, and determine its truthfulness (although not in an absolute physical way). Does this book provide something physical to lean on in an important way? Nibley props it up as THE evidence of the restoration, THE evidence of the prophetic calling of Joseph. Does the physicality of it provide confidence for those wanting that type of evidence?

 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/11/2005 08:23:00 PM  

Elder Packer made similar assertions in his talk  in Conference, and also added others of Joseph's scripture that combine to constitute and "unshakeable testimony".

A book is, of course, a physical object; but as physical objects go, its characteristics are unremarkable. The golden plates were remarkable, but the witnesses of them do not have significant impact on those who do not already believe for other reasons. This is because they are not presently available for inspection, and because even in their time the witnesses were too limited to be taken as a serious basis for belief in such unusual claims.

Beyond the primitive physicality of the medium itself, the content of the book opens the possibility of "tangible" contact with the real world, through archaeology and dependence upon other texts and cultural influences. But both believers and unbelievers find plenty of ammunition in both these areas; for the vast majority, there isn't anything sufficiently compelling to change peoples' minds from views they hold for other reasons.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/12/2005 04:18:00 AM  

"For the vast majority, there isn't anything sufficiently compelling to change peoples' minds from views they hold for other reasons."

Of course, the same could be said about the evolution/creation debate! Conviction can triumph over all forms of knowledge, even those that are testable.  
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/12/2005 12:26:00 PM  

I disagree that the characteristics of the Book of Mormon are "unremarkable." A physical copy of the book (pages and print) may be unremarkable, but the Book itself is not. The book claims to be newly revealed scripture (very remarkable) making very remarkable doctrinal points. It claims to be an ancient record (also remarkable) and gives fairly significant details regarding that world.

Few detractors have read the book or taken what it says (not what we as Mormons sometimes think it says) into serious consideration. Given the claims the book and its coming forth make, it merits much more serious consideration than it receives outside the church.

Teryl L. Givens' book By the Hand of Mormon  is a great read regarding the coming forth and content of the BoM. It discusses some of these previously stated points and other ideas brought up on this blog (including a very interesting treatise on what the BoM teaches about the personalness of revelation).



 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/13/2005 06:54:00 AM  

Rosalynde, Mike, you make good points. Conviction does indeed often triumph over evidence, even preventing willingness to examine evidence, on all sides. Believers are often unwilling to even learn about evidence for evolution; unbelievers are often unwilling to seriously study the Book of Mormon. Both think it a "waste of time", given what they "already know". This prejudice is obviously unfortunate, and often reprehensible. To be charitable, on the other hand, prejudice is necessary to some extent: We don't have an unlimited amount of time, and some initial filtering to decide where to focus our attention is unavoidable.

Mike, Terryl Givens' book is indeed quite good. Times and Seasons had a 12 Questions with Terryl Givens, here  (it won't be hard to guess which question was mine). In that same thread I also unleashed a fusillade against "dialogic revelation", here.

A post on the Eight Witnesses has been intermittently gestating in my mind for awhile, so look for that down the road.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/13/2005 08:13:00 AM  

Christian said: "I also unleashed a fusillade against "dialogic revelationOuch " Ouch! But I think you have hit on something very important. Why hasn't that "dialogic revelation" continued? I know that for me (not a prophet and Givens says I should have same access) I have received no new information through prayer and fasting. I have had those "yes/no" responses through the mechanism described in D&C 9. But I wonder if the reason that no specific information has been given me is because of how I ask and the lack of confidence I have to ask specific questions. Does that prevent me from getting specific answers? I believe so. I also wonder how much more specific information I need to make the decision and changes that will increase my faith in my Savior unto salvation; however, this sounds like I am too lazy to put forth the effort to gain knowlege the Lord is willing to give: I live "below my privilege."

As for those who we feel are more "entitled" to the dialogic revelation: Are episodes like the explosion of temple building due to the change in that philosophy too unimportant to qualify? Are the changes and information becoming available not doctrinally-changing enough to justify the prophet saying "Thus saith the Lord?" Does the Lord want to continue to nurture this increase in acceptance of His Latter-day church to such a degree that the Brethren are asked not to invoke the name of the Lord when pronouncing changes so as to make it more palatable to the world? Are we as a membership not ready/willing to take on new requirements? Lastly (and I believe most importantly), when those wholesale changes in information/policy/practive come, and I believe they will, will I be trusting enough in the process to stay with the Brethren?

These are rhetorical questions that I am still working on. Any thoughts are appreciated.
 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/13/2005 03:47:00 PM  

Mike, your responses are all possibilities, though I personally don't find them particularly compelling. On the temples, for example, it's not hard to imagine that any competent CEO, given an understanding of the Church's mission, would've made similar moves upon receiving the influx of cash during the boom of the 90's.

The "living below our priviliges" could even be extended to the leaders themselves, I suppose. In response to this post , I argued that Elder McConkie may have felt this way (see this comment to get the context, and then this comment for the main argument).

I don't think it's so much new requirements I'd expect, but as discussed in The Elusory Breath of Life and the subsequent comments, it would seem that some more information would be timely, given advancing science and technology. As another example, the theory of evolution wasn't around in Joseph's time; now that we know enough to ask more questions, some further information would be nice.

In all such cases, as John Welch pointed out on that thread, this may simply be because no prophet has cared about it enough to ask (again, "living below privileges"). But the fact that the initiative is so one-sided, that all such revelations come only in response to desperate asking is, to me, a red flag indicating `human construction': to connect back to the original post above, it could be the `great revelations' represent human creativity called forth by the need to solve pressing problems.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/13/2005 07:47:00 PM  

I am trying to think about any great revelation that didn't come in response to question. In this dispensation, I can think of none. Moses and the "burning bush" seems to be independent of seeking, but the details are sparce. He didn't seem to be "wanting" something.

So we are left with either "human construction" or that this is the way that God reveals things to His children; that He can only reveal Himself to us if we seek Him. I know that isn't satisfying in the least and you are looking for something more, but it seems that given the history of revelation the odds of the method changing are not good.

So what are we to do? Continue asking, hoping, praying for guidance that comes through that Still, Small Voice? Walk in faith assuming that something will happen to bring about the change we are waiting for? Reject the entire process as flawed because it lacks empiric evidence and therefore is not worth persuing?

This is a difficult situation to consider: being between the ultimate rock and hard place. For me, I am just grateful that often enough, when I just open the Book and Mormon and read from its pages without seeking or wanting anything, the Spirit speaks to my soul the truthfulness of the book. I don't believe that I am creating the feeling. Am I deluding myself? Maybe, but I guess the alternative is so unpalatable to my mind and inconsistent with what I have known that I don't want to pursue it.  
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/14/2005 12:29:00 AM  

Mike, an understandable and respectable position.

Hopefully, there will still be interesting things to discuss.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/14/2005 06:16:00 PM  

Christian, thanks for the polite "Down, boy" rejoinder.

When I say I don't want to pursue that alternative line of thinking, it definitely doesn't mean I won't continue to enjoy discussing it.

 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/15/2005 12:57:00 AM  

Okay, so this has nothing to do with the thread (except for its title), but since a bunch of San Diego ex-pats hang around here, I thought I'd mention it...

Though I love California, and I particularly loved San Diego, I've never understood what spring means to the rest of the human race until this month--away from CA! I've finally figured out what people mean when they say, "Oh, you must be glad to live in a place that provides you with a full four seasons": what they really mean is, "Summer, fall, and winter will probably suck, but just wait until spring--you're gonna love it!" And they're right--I love it! The air is actually sweet to the taste, and the detail of blossom and leaf is nourishment for the eye: I didn't realize all winter how hungry I was getting for visual complexity of color and shape until I started gorging on it this month. And I'm still not full. I have every window in the house open all day. I send my daughter out to dig up grimy fistfuls of the little blue violets that grow in the lawn, and put them around the house in drinking glasses. Every day I'm certain that, Paris-like, I've finally determined which of our seven flowering trees is most beautiful. I don't mind mowing the lawn every third day.

San Diego, forgive me, but your be-ravened eucalyptus doesn't hold a candle to the cardinal in the dogwood. 
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/15/2005 01:37:00 AM  

Oh Mike, I didn't mean it as "Down, boy". I'm glad you're still interested in discussions.

By the way, did you get the invitation for the evolution blog? Doesn't look like you've joined yet.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/15/2005 09:36:00 AM  

Rosalynde, I've had a similar experience in Tennessee. (And yes, Spring is on point, at least close enough, not that it matters at this low-traffic site---even lower than I previously thought, as I had to own yesterday!) I periodically have hunger pangs for the open spaces, and "real" mountains, and even the dryness and deserts of the west. But four true seasons, and the panoramas of color, can indeed be breathtaking. So much green against so much blue, and for most of the year, not just a month or so as in the East Bay hills of CA. And there is a certain tiring sameness about the pleasant La Jolla weather. Here, Spring and Fall in particular are treasured here against the drab cold and uncomfortable humidity.

I don't know the names of all the trees and bushes in our yard and elsewhere, but I do love the progression through them. It begins with white, with the Bradford pears that pass quickly; now we have some pink ones, I don't know what they are, and an unusual small variety of dogwood with smaller, red/white blossoms instead of the big white ones. (Along the road at this time one also sees bright purple trees sticking out amongst the green.) Later will bloom, around the perimeter of the yard, trees/bushes the previous owner planted in a deliberate sequence, going purple, pink, white, pink, purple, and repeating. Last, during summer, I think, are huge bright blue blossoms on some kind of bush. And the less colorful in our yard are nice too: a tall cedar, and a large oak the tree service people tell us must be two or three hundred years old, and a small grove of sassafrass.

We too have a resident cardinal near our kitchen window, where it leaves many pecking scratches. It's a stunninng bird, but I confess it would probably be dead if I still had the pellet gun I used as a kid in the CA hills. For awhile we had a third car in the driveway it could not stay away from, perching on the side mirror, hanging downward looking at itself---while leaving copious droppings down the side of the car. Now the car is finally sold, and perhaps we can become better friends again.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/15/2005 09:58:00 AM  

I forgot to mention what really sold me on the house when I first saw it. It's near the top of a hill on a bend in the Clinch River, surrounded by a view of the hills rising from the opposite bank. Most of the year they're beautiful green, covered with the various species of trees; but when we first encountered the house they were clothed in the full range of gold, orange, and occasional red we get back east, not just the comparatively drab yellow and brown mostly seen in the west. I could hardly believe the sight; we put down a deposit within a day, I think, maybe even that same evening.

 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/15/2005 10:05:00 AM  

Christian,

I think I felt that way because I felt preachy and didn't want to come across as such.

As for the evolution blog, I have my oral board exam in 3 days!!! After that I will be able to spend time coming up with some posts and will join.

Rosalyde,

Where did you guys move to? We too have moved to a land of four seasons (Tucson didn't count with its four seasons being not-so-hot, hot , very hot, hot, then back to not-so-hot). We are now in Cedar City and enjoy it. The colors of the leaves aren't so spectacular as Christian describes, but with the mountains having the red background with intermittant splashes of green year-round and white in the winter, we enjoy its unique beauty. 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/15/2005 12:56:00 PM  

Hi Mike--

John and I both finished up last year, and moved to St. Louis, MO in June. John's doing an internal medicine fast-track (haha) research residency (PSTP) at Washington University: an intern year, two years of residency, two years of research, and a fellowship year (hem/onc). So we'll be here for six years all together (one down!). We like it so far, although we're far from family--despite my complaints above about summer, fall and winter, the weather hasn't been as bad as I was expecting, and it's a great place for raising kids, with good schools and lots of free fun stuff. John likes his program, although he regularly exceeds the putative 80 hour week!

Cedar City is great--you chose a great spot! Say hi to Jenni for me.  
Comment by Rosalynde | 4/16/2005 12:38:00 PM  

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