Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Existential Mormonism?

My post On the Evidentiary Value of Spiritual Experiences started an exchange with Nate that I ’ve decided to promote to another thread. Even if you don’t want to read the entire previous thread, I’d suggest starting at least with Nate’s comment here , as the present post is not completely self-contained, and will seem somewhat random and unorganized unless understood as a response to previous discussion.

I appreciate and sympathize with the pragmatic, existential approach manifested in Nate’s comment. I don’t think it’s the usual Mormon position, at least for most Mormons on most days. It seems to me that the usual Mormon position involves strong epistemic claims that are used to legitimize demanding moral/ethical prescriptions.

I do think it’s possible in principle to come to valid epistemic judgments about the relative viability of doubts about kicked stones and Heaven’s Gate, but I agree that (usually reliable) baseline judgments of “dysfunctionality” strongly filter the time and effort people are willing to put into making such epistemic evaluations.

It’s true that modern Mormonism is much more “livable” than 19th century Mormonism. I suspect society at large would consider 19th century Mormonism “dysfunctional” (to use the word thrown out above)—with modern Mormonism being merely unnecessarily rigid, or at worst somewhat impractical, but still sufficiently demanding to make many less than excited about putting a lot of effort into evaluating its unusual epistemic claims.

I’m not so much bent on proving a claim for a manifestly superior system of rational belief, as in examining the validity of the asserted connection between the epistemic claims and moral prescriptions. I wonder if it wouldn’t be more honest for Mormonism to take a more existential approach more in sync with Nate’s comments on the other thread: acknowledge that conclusive knowledge of cosmic realities is not realistically obtainable (or at least not expected to be generally manifest), and instead take the approach that being Mormon boils down to a choice of values, one (perhaps the “highest,” if you like) among many “functional” ways to live a life, rather than asserting with such definitiveness that everyone else is wrong on the epistemic issues. This would still be consistent—perhaps even more than the worthiness/revelation paradigm—with the idea of mortality being a probation, in the very important sense of manifesting our choice to live in a particular way.

An existential approach to Mormonism has difficulties, of course. One is that modest deviations from Mormon morality are not sufficiently dysfunctional to motivate the demanding requirements in the absence of epistemic authority. Perhaps more relevant to understanding how Mormonism’s historical development has led to our present circumstances is the fact that strong epistemic claims were required in the past to motivate behaviors that were “dysfunctional” from a mortal perspective: secret and defiant polygamy, leaving civilization for the wilderness, leaving families for long missions, etc. The heavy reliance upon epistemic authority remains as a kind of historical hangover, part of our habits and self-identity, even now that Mormonism is sufficiently “livable” in mortal terms to make arguments for it primarily as a good way to live a mortal life.

I suppose saying the struggle for revelation is somehow necessary to the gospel’s probative and transformative purposes is about the best answer that can be given to my concerns, but depending on the phase of the moon and what I eat for breakfast, I find myself of late anywhere from quite disappointed (at best) to very skeptical (at worst) about this. I’m not so sure the epistemic torture is helpful or healthy; I can’t help thinking that the gold plates traveling roadshow would actually be helpful, as it would motivate us and free us to get on with what would be the manifestly necessary (if challenging) work of individual repentance and community development. (In this sense, I share frustration about continuing harangues about fundamentals!) But without the golden plates traveling roadshow, emphasis on fundamentals is continuously necessary to persuade conversion from—and dissuade conversion to—worldly alternatives that are eminently functional and, for many, more attractive from a mortal perspective.


I've always considered myself to be an "existential Mormon"--at least, for as long as I have believed I had something of an understanding of what that means. Kierkegaard's approach, in particular (don't ask me for citations, it's been a while) seems to fit well with my view of the Mormon view of faith and knowledge. And I think many Mormons take an existential approach based on personal exeperiences with the Holy Ghost. I think that you can have an existential defining "moment" in which one can find use to form the foundation for your beliefs. I don't necessarily think Mormonism is compatible with all forms of existentialism (Sarte's atheism or Nietzsche's nihilism, for example), but I think in some ways, Mormonism, which relies on personal testimony and revelation, is pretty closely aligned to existentialist thought. 

Comment by BTD Greg | 7/12/2005 06:00:00 PM  

Some day I'd love someone to do an extended and formal writeup on Kierkegaard and Mormonism. I don't claim to be a Kierkegaard scholar. I've read a bit. But I guess I don't quite see the Kierkegaardian angle many do. It's a book crying out to be written. I actually can see the Nietzschean Mormon where Zarathustra discovered God wasn't dead just overlooked. That seems much more understandable for me. 

Comment by Clark | 7/12/2005 07:15:00 PM  

Guys, I’ve waded into water way over my head by using the word “existentialist;” my philosophical background is weak, so pull no punches in educating and/or correcting me.

I will venture to say I’m skeptical that a typical Mormon’s outlook is “pretty closely aligned to existentialist thought.” (Maybe Mormonism will evolve or mature or something to the point that this becomes the case, but at this point I don’t think it’s the traditional or majority view.) The word “personal” in “personal revelation” has a superficial connection with individuality and personal choice, concepts I gather are important in the existentialist tradition. But I see two important differences. First, Mormon confirmation through the Holy Ghost is not typically conceived as a mere choice to believe or a ‘leap of faith,’ but as a reliable perception of an objective, external reality. Second, I argued in a previous post linked above that the Mormon experience of “personal revelation” is in reality not so personal, but heavily dependent upon the conventions of our religious community and its authority—a reality that, according to my superficial understanding, would be inimical to existentialist thought. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 7/12/2005 08:37:00 PM  

Yes, it could be that I don't know what I'm talking about and/or that I just am not very in tune with what a "typical Mormon" belives. I'm not sure. But I think the "leap of faith" is not that far from the "seed" sermon in Alma 32, as well as some other passages in the D&C that I can't point to at the moment, but will come to me later. 

Comment by BTD Greg | 7/12/2005 09:28:00 PM  

Nice post, Christian, quite appropriate for someone who codes his blog in shades of grey. I think the position you are sketching is better described as the pragmatic approach to truth rather than as an existential approach. Not only does pragmatism reject LDS-style personal revelation as an avenue to truth, it also reject empiricism and rationalism as ultimately up to the task of establishing truth with a capital T. It critiques inflated scientific claims as well as religious ones.

I'll follow Nate in, uh, distancing myself from the epistemic claims of popular Mormon discourse. I think Mormons practice pragmatic thinking but good luck getting any Mormon to admit that is what they are doing. The officially sanctioned and unofficially enforced norms require any active Mormon to adopt personal revelation words to tell the story of their testimony. I think the heavy emphasis on evangelism in the Church is partly to blame. 

Comment by Dave | 7/12/2005 10:15:00 PM  

I guess I don't see any Kierkegaardian "leap of faith" in Alma 32. Indeed it seems Alma 32 is quite opposed to such a leap of faith, since the whole point is to put the idea to the test. Kierkegaard would say regardless  of the outcome of the test one ought believe. Indeed faith to be faith must be irrational. But it seems Alma 32, while not quite a scientific method, is dang close and certainly involves a lot of rational behavior. (The difference from science is the need to believe or at least hope - but even that isn't as different as I think some present it)

As for whether Mormonism is intrinsically existential, I suppose it depends upon what one means by existential. I do think Mormonism places choice in a rather fundamental place. (Although I disagree with Blake Ostler that this necessarily need be an ontological kind of freedom - but I don't want to get into that topic again) But certainly the way Mormonism has free agents being something at least co-equal with God and in extreme forms the basic constituents of existence itself is something I think existentialists can accept. I also think that in a way Mormonism can be seen to have a healthy distrust of essences, preferring to start with existence itself.

But does all that make us existentialists? I suppose to a point. But unless one brings in the other aspects, I think there is the risk of misunderstanding ourselves. Certainly I just don't quite see the Kierkegaard. Although I do see the Nietzsche a bit.

As Christian says though, Mormons seem tied to evidence and signs and not leaps of irrational faith. 

Comment by Clark | 7/12/2005 11:40:00 PM  

Your reading of Alma 32 is very different from mine. I don't see it as anything remotely approaching the scientific method. The results of the "experiment" are not obejective or verifiable, but experiential. And the only way you can initiate the whole thing is by making a conscious decision to believe.

I'm baffled by your Nietzsche comments. Perhaps you could elaborate. I've always disliked Nietzsche intensely, which I'm sure has prevented me from truly understanding him. 

Comment by BTD Greg | 7/13/2005 10:35:00 AM  

The moral of this story is to be careful about using philosophical polysyllables. When I used the word "existential" I did not mean to import in Kierkegaard and Camus, but only to point out that religious belief is about much more than knowing. It is also about being and personal transformation. I am not so much interested in distancing myself from Mormon epistemic claims than trying to point out that Christian seems to be invoking a parituclar model of knowledge, namely scientific certainty, that I find dubious. I believe that I know certain things on the basis of revelation. However, I don't think that knowledge is a matter of removing the possiblity of doubt. I am more inclined to see knowledge as being a set of beliefs upon which one is consistently willing to act and which prove to be adaptive, using the term "adaptive" in the broadest possible sense (eg Eistein's theory of relativity is adaptive for makng sense out of the path of light around massive objects). I don't think of knowledge as being a position outside of it all from which we can gaze on "reality" and on our "beliefs" and be certain that the two match up. There is no outside of the picture (even for God in Mormon theology). We are situated in life, making our way through it, using the tools that we have.

Hence, I have had experiences that I believe are best accounted for as instances of the divine confirming to me the truth of particular propositions. This are not outside occurences that simply validate this or that proposition, however. They are themselves powerful expereinces that need to be account for. I think, given everything else, that they come from God. I could be mistaken about this, but generally speaking this possiblity is no longer one that I worry a great deal about. It is rather like the abstract possiblity of belief in solipcism -- it could be true, it presents an interesting and difficult intellectual question, but it is simply not one that I am all that interested in. To my mind this is not something unique about religious beliefs. I think that ALL beliefs to one extent or another are like this. 

Comment by Nate Oman | 7/13/2005 04:30:00 PM  

Clark: For what it is worth, I have always liked Nietzche's will to power, and I agree that there is a great deal that is very Mormon about Nietzche... 

Comment by Nate Oman | 7/13/2005 04:32:00 PM  

Nate, I found myself nodding my head as I read your comment (at least up until the part about Nietzsche). I think I'm oversimplifying, but much of what you said touches on why I think existentialism isn't so far from Mormonism. 

Comment by BTD Greg | 7/14/2005 12:58:00 AM  

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. ‘Pragmatic’ may be a better word, as it doesn’t have (as far as I know) a history of use as a philosophical term. However, I do think that ideas associated with the philosophical terms ‘existential’ and ‘utilitarian’ are relevant to this discussion.

I think there are some significant similarities and differences that could be identified between Alma 32 and scientific methods. It’s not a trivial question that could be decisively answered one way or the other; an essay describing various subtleties would be more appropriate.

I don’t know a lot about Nietzsche, and therefore probably will not say anything too intelligent, but I’ll open my mouth nevertheless…

I’ll venture to say I think there is something of the “will to power” manifest in Mormonism in a corporate or collective sense (the dynamic, expanding, virile, boldly independent church and kingdom of God), particularly in the 19th century, when this will was so strong it was very nearly self-destructive. It might be said that this collective will is simply a manifestation of the individual wills (particularly the leaders), but I think it’s ‘more than the sum of the parts,’ in the sense that each prophet (including Joseph) saw himself as caught up in something much bigger than himself.

I also think there’s something of the will to power in the individual sense in Mormonism, in the exalting ambition for kingdoms, thrones, principalities, and powers in eternity, and in the requirement to be creative and independent to some extent (“anxiously engaged”) in the exercise of mortal stewardship. But there seems also to be something anti-Nietzschean about Mormon tendencies toward slavish adherence to rigid ethical prescriptions.

More on Nate’s comments on knowledge and belief later today (hopefully—I'm attending a two conferences this week and next with grueling schedules).  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 7/14/2005 10:50:00 AM  

Nate’s view of knowledge may describe the typical, practical way we ‘know’ things. But I have some quibbles.

1. The depiction of a scientific “certainty” capable of “removing the possibility of doubt” is a bit of a straw man. Science is about actively seeking tests that function to reduce  doubt through continuing and extending experience, but cannot claim to eliminate all logical possibilities of doubt. To use the impossibility of removing all doubt as an excuse for refusing to work at reducing (or confirming) it where possible could be simple laziness or willful ignorance. (Of course, in this we all make personal judgments about where investments are likely to yield returns, and cannot judge each other too harshly here.)

2. Is saying “knowledge as being a set of beliefs upon which one is consistently willing to act and which prove to be adaptive” somehow different from or beyond science? I don’t think so, as it sounds like a description of collecting and analyzing ‘data.’

3. To make one’s way in the world using beliefs that prove adaptive in our experience is admittedly all that can expected of anyone, but there are two issues that arise here related to whether a given set of beliefs should be considered to have normative authority over other people:

(a) The test of whether something is ultimately adaptive is not always easy, and religious propositions and prescriptions often fall into this category. For example, the Heaven’s Gate ‘graduation’ was not adaptive from a mortal perspective, but conceivably could have been from an eternal perspective.

(b) Something that is adaptive in one’s personal experience may not be so adaptive for others. Mormonism can be quite adaptive in mortal terms for a married male, but it might not be so obviously adaptive for African-american males before 1978, females in any era, those with a homosexual orientation, single people, etc.

Because of such limitations on determining what is adaptive, care should be taken in making assertions about what should be considered normative for others. Nate may not be making normative claims, but the prophets certainly are, and Mormonism does generally in its claim to be the only true church. Such normative claims could only be valid if based on an epistemology that gets beyond personal adaptivity.

My concern that this has been achieved in Mormonism is twofold: currently accessible prophets are either not having concrete empirical experience with the divine that is in principle available in our theology, or are not disclosing it; and in the rare cases where Mormon propositions make contact with the empirical mortal world (e.g. creation of the earth and man, and historicity of the Book of Mormon), the record shows worrisome trends of retreat and reinterpretation rather than the growing vindication that is normally expected of true theories as data accumulates. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 7/15/2005 10:41:00 AM  



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