Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Two Big Problems in Church Doctrine

In comments on the post On Doctrine, Nate has identified two big problems in understanding Church doctrine, and judged that I have been mired in the elementary issue of fallibility of prophets that we all should have understood before leaving kindergarten. (Well, those weren't exactly his words!) I would like to get past the trivia, and understand the more important issues: "1. How do I identify what [church doctrine] is; and, 2. How do I understand its authority."

Trying to tune in to Nate's wavelength, I'll take as a starting point these two big questions. As a demonstration of good faith I have gone back and found that two of his posts are conveniently entitled What is Church Doctrine? and On Authority, and read them both, though not the comments that followed. (Reading these posts, along with On Doctrine and the comments that follow, may be advisable to make sense of this post. Even then I make no guarantees that it will make sense; in addition to the fact that I'm none too bright, it's late, and I'm tired.)

On What is Church Doctrine?: The knee-jerk response of a scientist is to be a positivist. Nate's post's dismissal of a positivist view of church doctrine consists of a single simple sentence, the assertion that we have no rule of recognition. How about the following rule of recognition: "That which is presently on offer from Correlation." What deficiencies does this have? (In suggesting this I am not demanding much of "church doctrine," only what Nate calls the "coordinating function" in response to On Doctrine.)

It seems the second question is much harder, how to understand and identify epistemic authority. Nate offers several approaches in On Authority, but no obvious winner. I suppose my present Spinozist leanings (strong skepticism, at least, of epistemic authority) can be traced to a lack of a clear solution to this question.

Again, my instincts are to require at least a positivist foothold, with the rule of recognition (of generalized authority, though not of the truth of specific statements) being simple "infallible proofs," to use Luke's phrase: clear demonstrations of power over nature (the list of signs following them that believe), handling the resurrected Savior, etc. Given these, I could be sympathetic to the Revelation Portfolio and Presumption of Correctness approaches as workaday solutions. But not convinced the postivist foothold is there, for me these last two approaches are worthless.

I agree that the Truth as the Standard approach does not work all or even most of the time, but it does work sometimes---when empirical evidence is available---and should be applied when possible. My sense is that in the rare cases it can be fruitfully applied, the prophetic track record is a history of retreat and reintrepretation rather than vindication (creation accounts, Book of Mormon historicity).

The Personal Revelation approach has a lot going for it: It has strong (almost decisive) support in restoration scripture, and makes some sense with respect to the putative purposes of mortal probation. For many it is an adequate substitute for a positivist foothold, enough of a basis to adopt Presumption of Correctness or at least Revelation Portfolio. For me it is insufficient: taken in isolation, I worry it is plausibly explainable by socialization, and psychological phenomena we know are unrelated to prophetic authority (e.g. being emotionally moved by a movie with a message contrary to the gospel, or experiencing goosebumps listening to a Van Halen song with inappropriate lyrics and a beat and style that "drive away the Spirit," or "sudden flashes of intelligence" that are indistinguishable from inherent human faculties).

Nate seems most sympathetic in both posts to the Dworkin legal philosophy/Coherence Solution, something about trying to tell a never-ending story in which each new chapter is written with an eye toward making the overall product as sensible as possible. But frankly it comes off as a last resort, what remains after all other options are eliminated, "I'll hope this works because nothing else seems to." It comes across this way because no plausible guidelines are offered for how to construct the story, how to judge what makes it "best," and what basis we have for thinking this construction of narrative is anything more than human invention. And, it doesn't seem any stories are actually offered. In fairness, I suppose this is still an unsolved problem. Any progress since these posts?


This is an excellent post, and I -- unfortunately -- don't really have time to give it the attention it deserves thanks to the evil forces of trial calendards and the Santa Clara County Superior Court. (Damn them!)

One or two quick points. First, my apologies if you found my comments regarding what I saw as the confusion between infallibility and authority as unduly dismissive. I didn't mean them to be. I actually don't think that confusion is necessarily a mark of deficiency. We are all basically confused most of the time. No harm, no foul.

I don't think correlation will work as a way of recognizing church doctrine. The problem is that those on the corelation committee do not understand themselves to be promulgating church doctrine, but rather to be comparing materials against it and making prudential decisions about what should be published. In other words, church doctrine is a concept that makes correlation work (to the extent that correlation does work) rather than vice versa.

I actually don't regard the sorts of interpretive or coherentist arguments that I put forward as a punt, a dodge, or a last resort. Rather, I think that it is basically what we do most of the time. This means that there are inevitable disagreements or debates. The question is whether or not these disgareements are limited enough in scope that the approach provides us with any real understanding.

As for prophetic authority, I wonder if you have any real disagreement with basic formulation, namely "Prophets has privileged access to the divien, but only some of the time." Obviously, it will take a great deal of work to make that statement into something useful, but I wonder to what extent you regard it as a fruitful starting place.

As for further progress, my answer alas is no. 
Comment by Nate Oman | 4/25/2005 08:51:00 AM  

FYI. Legal positivism and scientific or logical positivism are quite different. Indeed, back in the day when logical positivism was in its prime, logical positivists (in this case a group of legal philosophers known as the Scandanavian Realists) actually attacked legal positivism.

Hence, you should not feal that any personal affinity for scientific or logical positivism requires any particular allegiance to legal positivism. 
Comment by Nate Oman | 4/25/2005 08:55:00 AM  

Nate, I too have professional obligations today, though they are more easily put off (students clamoring for their final exam study guide).

With regard to church doctrine, perhaps I need to clarify in my mind whether the distinction I've tried to make between Doctrine and Truth---i.e. between official discourse/coordinating function and ontological reality---is useful, or if you see this only as part of the fallibility issue. It seems to me it might be useful: I sense your two posts on doctrine and authority are actually using similar tools and arguments at these two different levels. If the distinction is useful, then as I've indicated the question of church doctrine is much easier than the question of epistemic authority (though still interesting, for one might ask similar interesting questions about doctrine in the Catholic Church), reducing to an analysis of the inner workings of the institution. Hopefully there would be some overlap, but it might be useful to consider them in isolation before determining the nature and degree of overlap.

Provisionally assuming this distinction, I see your point about about church doctrine and correlation. My next question is, have the Brethren given any specific guidelines to Correlation? If so, these guidlines might be an indication of how the Brethren conceive of doctrine.

Your qualified formulation "Prophets has privileged access to the divien, but only some of the time" is the best one could hope for, since as you point out one must have a way of cutting loose Zelphs and moon-men (and sun-men, for that matter, if I remember correctly).

However, I'm not sure I'm ready to take the first part of the statement as a starting point yet (for me personally). As you can see from my post, to adopt the expert witness metaphor, I am hung up on the credentials of the putative expert witnesses. As long as this is in doubt, the question you're interested in, "How do I determine which of the expert's statements are reliable?" is moot. I want to know why I should listen to President Hinckley and not Pope Benedict XVI.

If the credentials of the expert witnesses is a settled matter for you I can do my best to proceed on that basis, but I suspect it is an issue that will keep cropping up with me (and I would be interested to know how it became a settled matter for you).

Thanks for the heads-up on the different positivisms. You can see that may ignorance is vast not just in humanities but in philosophy. I could sense I was committing some sort of bastardization when I spoke of "rule of recognition" in connection with generalized authority, instead of specifics as it's clearly intended.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/25/2005 11:10:00 AM  

One more quick comment. .I noticed I kept saying Revelation Portfolio and Presumption of Correctness together. This probably means they're not worth distinguishing. Presumption of Correctness is probably the more enduing mode, with Revelation Portfolio being a temporary or occasional argument one uses to get into or stay in Presumption of Correctness mode.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/25/2005 11:24:00 AM  

"I would be interested to know how it became a settled matter for you."

God told me and I am inclined to trust him. I don't really have any particularlly unique answer to this question. It is mix of personal revelation, experience, and faith. I realize that there are all sorts of arguments pro and con that one can make, but at the end of the day I find that I almost can't help but believe. At a certain point, the question simply ceased to be very interesting to me. I believe that President Hinkley is a prophet of God. Ditto for Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. I don't think that they are God's exclusive way of working in history of revealing his will, but I do think that they are legitimate authorities. 
Comment by Nate Oman | 4/25/2005 11:28:00 AM  

I'm not sure what epistemic authority means, but the reason that I follow President Hinckley and not Pope Benedict XVI is the issue of authority. One, I believe, is authorized to administer the kingdom of God, while the other is the leader of an organization that does much good throughout the world but is the creation of man.

Regarding spiritual impressions (in reference to goosebumps during a Van Halen song), I know of no other religious organization that encourages its adherants to actually ask God if everything is true. Fundamentalist Christians want their followers to trust only in what their pastor says the Bible says. Jehovah's Witnesses want to convince with years of biblical study that what they teach is true. Islam demands strict obedience without questioning. Judaism believes that God no longer speaks to its leaders. Catholicism sets up the Pope as an infallible speaker for God. We are encouraged, yea, commanded to question and ask the only source of truth. Others may get convinced that flying a jet into a building full of people is God's will, but it's because they didn't ask the one who knows God's will and followed only the fiery teachings of a charismatic leader. The Brethren never ask us to follow blindly.

Now is there a subset within the church of "Shiite Mormons" who will not ever ask, discuss, question anything? Unfortunately, we know and we see this subset. Our responsibility is to be believing and questioning in an attempt to understand God and His will as best we are able.

Now I need to go get my philosophy textbook to understand the rest of these posts.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/25/2005 12:30:00 PM  

Regarding doctrine

This is a very interesting point that I had danced around for years, never directly thinking about it.

Church doctrine does differ depending on whom is asked. We have the 13 Articles of Faith that are fairly precise in their statements (but we must remember the context in which they were written); after that things get more hazy. For me it has always been the scriptures are doctrinal (the Book of Mormon being much clearer than the Bible) and the counsel from the prophets, seers, and revelators in the most recent conference are doctrinal. Outside of these sources (and sometimes within them), I have felt that I am free to make interpretations that fall within what I see as the framework of the gospel (that which brings me, my family and those around me to an increased faith in Christ and increased charity with my fellow man.

I believe doctrine is not well defined for the reason that as individuals, we are only able to do, say, believe, or accept specific things at different times and that there are things that apply to me that mey not apply to another. As much as we would like the Brethren to deliniate everything we can or cannot say, do, believe, the Lord leaves the honus on us to learn and apply the gospel as it was designed: in an individualized fashion.

Books with titles like "Doctrines of Salvation" and "Mormon Doctrine" have filled the (intentionally left) void, creating a more dogmatic culture within the church than Joseph, Brigham, and maybe even McConkie would like.

This could go off onto an entire new thread about the preponderance of schooling yet lack of education and learning how to think critically that exists within the church, but I will leave that for now.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/25/2005 01:19:00 PM  

Nate, I accept your answer, God has affirmed to you the credentials of the expert witnesses. Since this question is no longer interesting to you I'm willing to move on to the one that is, if you have sufficient time and interest in any of the strands above.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/25/2005 01:48:00 PM  

Regarding my comments on Islam:

When not being hijacked for political purposes, Islam is a beautiful religion with kind, loving adherants who love God. I was using those examples to discuss doctrine and searching for truth, not making a general statement about Muslims.

Christianity can become (is becoming?) a similarly political weapon.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/25/2005 01:48:00 PM  

Great discussion, Christian. A narrow point you raised that I find rather interesting is: What exactly does Correlation do? They obviously play a key role in reviewing and approving curriculum materials, but I have never heard any official or semi-official explanation of, for example, (1) who "they" are, (2) how many of "them" there are, (3) what "they" do, (4) what guidelines "they" operate under, and (5) who supervises or reviews the work "they" do. Wouldn't knowing something about Correlation help Church members like you and me properly evaluate curriculum materials and publications like True to the Faith? 
Comment by Dave | 4/25/2005 01:53:00 PM  

Mike, regarding "epistemic authority," Nate has also used phrases like "privileged access to the divine," meaning access to knowledge of reality that we don't have.

In Nate's post On Authority he acknowledges that Personal Revelation is an important approach to prophetic authority. For example, here today he has said it is an important (perhaps dominant) basis for his belief that the Presidents of the Church have authority. But in his post he points out that in practice, people do not go seeking personal revelation regarding every statement by the prophet. Typically they do something else. A question is, what then are they doing in confronting all the specifics, and how valid is it?

One place this gets interesting is when one disagrees with the prophet. If we grant both that (1) prophets have "epistemic authority" in some sense (privileged knowledge), and (2) prophets are fallible, we are faced with a dilemma when we disagree with him. If we simply say the prophet is fallible in this instance, we may be missing out on precisely what is most value about his prophetic authority: the ability to tell us things we don't know. I gather that how to choose between (1) and (2) in any specific case is at least part of Nate's question. I think most would acknowledge with Nate that while, yes, personal revelation is not invoked most of the time, these moments of disagreements are the times it ought to be brought to bear.  
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/25/2005 02:26:00 PM  

Mike,  I should add that I perceive a large part of Nate's interest is not so much working out this dilemma in real time for resolving personal questions or crises, but in trying to understand how privileged knowledge vs. fallibity have played out across time, trying to make sense of the organic whole of the restoration across its historical trajectory with all its twists and turns.

Of course, I should stop putting words in Nate's mouth and let him speak for himself if he chooses, though at least this way he can tell me if I'm understanding him or not.

Dave, great questions, it would be nice if someone with knowledge of the inner workings could enlighten us. 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/25/2005 02:36:00 PM  

Christian: You tend to be more eloquent that I, so please continue to put words in my mouth. I will try to disavow the most egregiously apostate ones.

I don't want to downplay the difficulty and importance of the questions of those who struggle with whether or not the prophets are inspired, how we come to have faith in them, etc. These are obviously important questions that deserve much more detailed answers than those that I have given here. I guess that part of my frustration is that these are ultimately beginners questions in the sense that they are questions that one asks in order to get the whole show moving. Precisely for that reason they are fundamentally important, can also -- in a sense -- be distracting. If one is contantly asking whether or not to cross the threshold, one never really works through what might be inside the door.

Mark, your characterization of Islam is false and unfair. There is a strong strand of unquestioning traditionalism in Islam, but it is couterbalanced by much more subltle thinking. By and large, Islam is taken to be self-evidently true by Muslims, in large part based on the power and beauty of the Qua'ran.

Nor do I think that you can characterize Islamic fundementalism as a form of bad, unquestioning Islam. The theorists -- ultimately they are legal thinkers -- behind the fundamentalism of someone like Bin Ladi or Zaquari are actually among those who have been most willing to break with established Islamic traditions and reinterpret the faith in new ways. These folks are wrong, but they are hardly slavish and unthinking followers of tradition. 
Comment by Nate Oman | 4/25/2005 02:51:00 PM  

Nate:  There I go showing my ignorance again. Thanks for setting me straight. I don't know much of Islamic history and evolution, and I have great respect for Muslims who developed advanced mathematics, contributed so much artistically and literarily during the "Dark Ages" of Europe when the Islamic world was growing, developing, and adding so much to the knowledge of the world at that stage. My inaccurate portrayal weakens my argument.

However, those who follow Bin Ladin or Zarquawi in the name of following Allah are not encouraged to "learn for themselves" if this is God's will.

In our traditions unique to Mormonism, Nephi's experience with Laban can be somewhat equated. His personal revelation is what changes the correctness of the act.

Christian's ventriloquism for Nate "in trying to understand how privileged knowledge vs. fallibity have played out across time, trying to make sense of the organic whole of the restoration across its historical trajectory with all its twists and turns." This will be an interesting discussion. I think that Doctrine has more to do with what we are to DO (and teach) than what we are to think and believe. That is where the expectations are more "set in stone."

I am looking forward to someone answering questions regarding correlation.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/25/2005 06:58:00 PM  

Mike, sorry that the "interesting discussion" you were hoping for hasn't materialized. You can see some of Nate's interest in "trying to make sense of the organic whole of the restoration across its historical trajectory with all its twists and turns" in some of his posts at T&S, such as The English Nature of the Mormon Constitution , Mormon Doctrine and the Path of the Law, and A Tale of Two Revelations.

As we've seen in the comments above, Nate and I are most interested in different things. I am less interested in this aspect of the question, except perhaps as it may illuminate "fundamentals." My interest in the fundamentals stems from the fact that if they are faulty, then asking "How can I tell which of the prophet's statements have epistemic authority?" is sort of like asking "How can I tell which features of the Star Wars movies are telling me true things about astrophysics and cosmology?" (I'm not saying that Star Wars movies don't have value, mythical and otherwise!) 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/26/2005 12:52:00 PM  

Christian : And your  fundamental question is then, "How do we know if the fundamentals for generating dotrine are faulty?" Is that what you are asking?

I will read Nate's posts to get a better handle on where he is coming from.
Comment by Mike Wilson | 4/27/2005 12:58:00 PM  

Yes, Mike, something like that. It's my perpetual question, as you've seen previously.

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/27/2005 09:00:00 PM  



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