Thursday, July 28, 2005

More on Worthiness and Testimony

One subject mentioned in a recent post was the connection between worthiness and testimony. Discussions with Pete raised a couple of interesting issues.

First, the outliers Saul, Laman and Lemuel, and Alma: Why did they receive concrete manisfestations, that are usually thought of as being reserved for the most worthy?

Second, there seem to be two different paradigms of the mechanism by which unworthiness impairs spiritual communication: (1) God withdrawing his presence, and (2) the unworthy individual’s ‘reception’ of a divine signal of constant strength getting mucked up. I made a subsidiary, more or less æsthetic argument against mechanism (1), saying that it seems unlike the way I would hope loving parents would act towards disobedient children. Pete brought up a different perspective, one that suggests mechanism (2): “it’s simply the difference between the kid running around shouting vs. the kid who is sitting still and listening—both have access to the parent in the room talking to them.”

Does Mormon doctrine clearly spell out which mechanism is at work? Scriptural notions of ‘God not dwelling in unholy temples’ and ‘the Spirit ceasing to strive with man’ seem to support mechanism (1). On the other hand, the notion of ‘hearts hardened against the word’—more in line with mechanism (2)—also appears in the scriptures.

Thinking naturalistically, and wondering about the extent to which the subjective experience of ‘testimony’ could be explained without the existence of God or the Holy Ghost, I discussed the possibility that the worthiness requirement’s efficacy may derive from the peace of social conformity, and therefore may not be good evidence of the reality of the Holy Ghost. In this connection, a description of testimony by Elder Richard G. Scott is instructive:
A testimony is fortified by spiritual impressions that confirm the validity of a teaching, of a righteous act, or of a warning of pending danger. Often such guidance is accompanied by powerful emotions that make it difficult to speak and bring tears to the eyes. But a testimony is not emotion. It is the very essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions. These choices are made with trusting faith in things that are believed and, at least initially, are not seen. A strong testimony gives peace, comfort, and assurance. It generates the conviction that as the teachings of the Savior are consistently obeyed, life will be beautiful, the future secure, and there will be capacity to overcome the challenges that cross our path. A testimony grows from understanding truth, distilled from prayer and the pondering of scriptural doctrine. It is nurtured by living those truths in faith and the secure confidence that the promised results will be obtained.
I appreciate Elder Scott’s recognition that powerful emotions are not necessarily diagnostic of the Holy Ghost. I also think his description of testimony as the essence of character (think ‘worthiness’) and trusting expectation (think ‘desire’)—having both behavioral roots and peaceful, optimistic fruits—is accurate, and perhaps even telling. Notice that choices generate conviction. What I don’t see in this description is anything of evidentiary value; it strikes me as a plausibly naturalistic process, not necessarily connected to a putative spiritual reality. It ‘works’ in some sense, leading to a functional, peaceful, and meaningful community; but it may be a working system of our own human devising. After all, the Amish system works just fine too, in its own ‘Pleasantville’ way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Yes, My Stake President is a Lawyer

It is the written policy of our stake that some are forbidden from having internet access and watercraft of any sort. Are these desperate preventive measures against the expanded dominions of the destroyer who, nowadays riding in power not only upon the face the waters (see the section heading to D&C 61, and verses 14-19), but upon cyberspace as well, is ready to consume both literal and virtual surfers?

No, it turns out these are not severe prophylactic measures against the wiles of the adversary, but remedial elements of our stake’s welfare policy, from which I quote (capitalization is in the document as I received it from our high councilor):
When is a person ready to receive welfare assistance from the Lord's sacred funds?

Church assistance is available only after the members have:

1. exhausted all personal resources

2. eliminated all expenses not essential to sustain life (i.e.. cable TV, cell phones, internet services, most pets (cats, dogs, birds etc.) monthly payments not necessary to sustain life, including but not limited to furniture or other rentals, etc)

3. have sold off all items of value not necessary to sustain life (i.e.. second, third or even a single expensive vehicle, watercraft of any sort, expensive electronic equipment, jewelry other than wedding rings, etc)

4. have downsized their housing, if possible,


6. are willing to work,

a. paying a full tithe
b. living the Word of Wisdom
c. living the law of chastity
d. attending church meetings
e. fulfilling church assignments, including home and visiting teaching

When members have met these seven standards, they are ready for temporary assistance from the sacred funds of the Church. When they do not meet one or more standard they are not ready. That a bishop may help someone when they are not ready and will benefit less is always possible, but the Bishop must make sure that such aid from the Lord's sacred funds is no more than is needed to sustain life and that the member is working towards meeting all seven standards.
This policy got me into trouble. The problem was not that we’re on Church welfare and were found in violation, but the lack of decorum characterizing my response when it was read over the pulpit in our ward. Knowing that our stake president—a lawyer—authored the document, and hearing the lawyerly turns of phrase (“including but not limited to”) and exhaustive bills of particulars, my amusement grew until it broke through the surface in audible laughter at the phrase “watercraft of any sort,” earning me a sharp elbow from my wife.

(The phrase “watercraft of any sort” is actually a nontrivial matter that merits the specific mention it receives in the above policy, because of its impact on fishing, which is mostly done from boats on lakes and rivers in east Tennessee. As in the book and movie A River Runs Through It, fishing takes on a near-religious importance for some in this region, as exemplified by a bumper sticker on our ward mission leader’s pickup truck: “Everyone believes in something. I believe I’ll go fishing.”)

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.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Concern for the Fate of Humanity, Rendered Quantitative

Did you like numbers in the mission field? If so, you'll love this.

Be sure to scroll down far enough to see the rapidly increasing counter. And if you scroll down further, you can see how they derive their numbers. And if you scroll down even further, you can see they have more where this came from!