Saturday, February 18, 2006

Get off the speculation train

I know this title is unoriginal, but I decided to hijack it for my present snarky purpose of busting Geoff J’s chops. (Geoff, sorry dude! This is probably ill-advised, but I’m just gonna get it off my chest anyway. To put a positive spin on it, take the individual treatment as a back-handed compliment. ;-> Though I should clarify up front that some of what I say below ended up slanted to cover no only Geoff’s brand of speculation, but also more material (i.e. relevant to real life) pickings and choosings among statements of varying authority that I would not attribute to Geoff—a subject I planned to post on separately, but that also ended up getting entangled with this one.)

I haven’t been a regular participant in Geoff’s threads, but I interactively test-drove a couple in the last week or so. In the end I found the immersion in speculation to be a frustrating wrestle with a Tar Baby. (And I suppose this briar patch of a post is my way of trying to make a self-styled Br’er Rabbit escape.) I’m not sure what Geoff is trying to do: serious pursuit of truth, or admittedly personal and unverifiable expressions and explorations of what he happens to feel is an æsthetically pleasing metaphysics, or just mental gymnastics for the sake of pure intellectual diversion. To make a parallel analogy with another oft-expressed faculty in our world, are we talking a serious attempt at procreation; a mutual and loving but heavily æsthetically-motivated non-procreative encounter; or purely recreational habitual auto-eroticism? Perhaps my frustration derives from an incorrect assumption that the first of these options—serious pursuit of truth, the siring of actual knowledge—is the goal.

What restrains our speculations? Geoff seems to just want to know if what he suggests is absurd or impossible. However, there is little that is absurd or impossible as a matter of logical or semantic necessity. A few more things are ‘impossible,’ or at least incomprehensible, according to known physical law and the more plausible interpretations of historical data; but believers accept some such ‘long shots’ on the basis of trusted prophetic experience and revelation, hoping for revisions and extensions of current scientific and historical understandings. Beyond physical law and history (physical, geological, biological, cultural, …), the only thing one has to suggest anything about eternal realities is revelation—if, of course, one accepts prophetic authority.

In this context, it is the manner of handling the revelations in the process of dealing with subject matter that can only be known by revelation that gets my goat, raises my hackles, blows my stack (and here I begin to speak beyond Geoff alone). I am sympathetic to, even persuaded by, the notion that scripture may be heavily human-mediated (or worse); but I think one is really at sea—or lost in space, to anticipate a comparison I will make momentarily—once one’s cosmic scenarios require the throwing of various pieces of scripture to the wind while retaining others, without some sort of method or specified basis for doing so beyond intuition, idiosyncratic preferences, desired alignment with particular modern social mores, or even personal revelation. Uncoupled now not only from physical law and history, but freed from the constraints of canonized revelation and authoritative statements as well, the cosmic discussion enters a kind of fantasy realm in which the reliability of the relation to eternal realities is about the same as that of science fiction novels and blockbusters—but without the mythic relevance and entertainment value (and possibilities for eye candy) of engaging sci-fi plots (and characters) of epic proportions.

Which is not to say that revelatory speculation might not be a fun hobby, or more seriously for some (not Geoff), even a compelling need in order to believe and act in accordance with what simply must be so without facing the pain of a material break with one’s socio-religious milieu. Maybe I’m reading intentions incorrectly, but I just don’t think we should kid ourselves that it ultimately amounts to anything beyond the expression of personal preference among the unlimited range of imaginative scenarios—anything that can be convincing, or be taken seriously in a public way as a kind of eternal worldview.

43 Comments:

Christian, you're not alone, man. There's a lot of calvalier speculation on certain blogs (I won't name names). Most of what I read over on some of these blogs makes a scriptural exegete like myself writhe in pain. Eisegesis is rampant with some people -- it's almost become one of the characteristics of Mormonism -- that our people allegorize and speculate themselves into an eisegetical black hole, which is terribly ironic given Nephi's (a veritable canonized Mormon saint) injunction to "delight in plainness." I cringe that some of these speculators are (gasp) ward mission leaders or gospel doctrine instructors. 

Comment by David J | 2/18/2006 12:04:00 PM  

Sheesh -- just after I write a post  praising you for your ability to play bloggernacle "animal ball" and not mind the roughhousing we go through, too!

Ok, as for specifics... 1) The Abraham post you participated in is one in a series where I am investigating the idea that the pre-Abrahamic tales are allegories in general. My specific quest then was to see if the investigation ought to be aborted outright, not to prove the theory. Since there was not enough to scuttle the investigation I'm now moving on to see if there is compelling evidence to accept it or not. 2) The beginningless human spirits post got very squirrely but in the end yielded some valuable insights on how to separate the various issues like infinities, spirit birth, the differences (or not) between intelligences and spirits, etc.

So based on this post, here is the real problem it seems you are dealing with: You want to investigate spiritual matters without receiving any personal revelation from God. But that misses the whole point doesn't it? The only reason to study these things is to get revelation, IMO. Eternal life is to know God, not to just know about him. As Moses said: "Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!"

As Mormons, why should even care about doctrine and theology if the heavens remain sealed? Isn’t the idea that the heavens are opened again the fundamental message of the restoration?  

Comment by Geoff J | 2/18/2006 12:34:00 PM  

Christian: I like to tie my view to scriptural meaning (as best I can) and plausible views of the physical world. But I have really enjoyed reading blogs because I am exposed to new ways of seeing things, considering ideas that would not have occurred to me, confronting arguments for views that make impluasible views more plausible, and confronting naysayers and ill-wits and bad-faith types who insist on plausibility in the face of overwhelming arguments (like your tie to determinism for instance) {grin}. Such an approach expands my horizons. I've encountered plausible arguments for positions I thought long dead, like positivism, and speculation about scripture that has opened new vistas of seeing with new eyes.

Further, as Geoff says, serious contemplation and thought (with the heart and not just the head) is the first step in personal revelation. There is more in heaven and in earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio!  

Comment by Blake | 2/18/2006 01:12:00 PM  

In all fairness to Geoff, his posts aren't always as "out there" as his past couple have been. His recent sheep post is more along the lines of what he usually treads. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 2/18/2006 01:12:00 PM  

I have not personally met Geoff, but there is something about him I like, I am certainly not alone in this. I did find the Abraham discussion a little frustrating for me. I felt like a amature weightless astronaut at times. If we assume large batches of scripture are pure symbolism, including the individuals, and that prophets like Joseph Smith were wrong about things they taught, then my theory holds, so what do you think? Where is there to stand? Which way is up? I am not used to being that abstract. I want to maintain at least a few things as a foundation. I am probably missing a few things and I am a novice at this type of discussion. 

Comment by Eric | 2/18/2006 02:18:00 PM  

More responses later this evening, everyone. But I just a couple things very briefly...

First, my blog description above touts possible feminist perspectives, but I have rarely provided anything along those lines. Moreover, in this post my mention of sci-fi eye candy was given only from a male perspective. Let me redeem myself: here  is something for the ladies.

Geoff,  I hadn't read the dunkball post yet. I wish I could say I had, and was giving you what you asked for here! This post is meant in that spirit you described. It's blunt and direct, "roughhousing" as you put it, but I would not want it to make friendship impossible. That I would regret very much. I'll respond more to the specifics of your comment later. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/18/2006 03:40:00 PM  

Setting aside issues with respect to specific people, there's a conceptual core to Christian's argument here that I find useful. The basic issue is one of evidence: what kind can we possibly count in favor of, or against, a theological position? We don't have publicly replicable experience of the divine, other than in texts about other people's experience (like the scriptures, etc.). But we have the hermeneutic cycle which makes the texts pliable to theory. Furthermore, there's the simple fact that our sacred texts often seem to contradict one another.

Sometimes, then, we take in response the position that anything which isn't clearly disproven by all of the relevant textual evidence is acceptable. At other times, we require interpretations to have a plausible fit with a close reading of at least one portion of one of the sacred texts. (Personally, I greatly prefer this second option.) Another mechanism for weighting evidence that I've seen used is to emphasize the most recent texts whenever they conflict with older ones. The fourth approach that I've seen employed is to favor the words of specific individuals or literary characters who are held to be the most reliable sources of truth.

Nonetheless, you've helpfully raised my most fundamental concern about strictly rational theological reasoning: if we aren't really sure about the status of the different components of our sacred texts, and we don't really know God's favored hermeneutic with respect to those texts, and personal revelation leaves different individuals with different approaches to theology, then it seems to me that rational theology simply has too little grist for its mill. Perhaps it would be better for us to instead discuss our experience of the divine directly... 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 2/18/2006 04:40:00 PM  

David J,  "eisegesis" was a new word for me.

Geoff, it is true that I think about and even question the validity and nature of revelatory experiences, but I am completely mystified as to why you bring personal revelation into this particular discussion. For one thing, in Mormonism publicly acceptable personal revelation is essentially restricted to confirmation of ideas in official sources and 'tactical' revelation for the exercise of legitimate stewardships. Personal revelation doesn't play any role in public discussions of speculative ideas (such as many you are interested in) that are not plainly manifest in official sources. Moreover, in at least one of the threads in question you explicitly denied revelation on the matter.

This irrelevance of personal revelation to public discussions of doctrine means that in principle (rank and file) believers and unbelievers alike can participate on an equal footing for purposes of doctrinal explication based on authoritative texts. Since you like analogies, I'll make one here: one can discuss a dynamical system under assumptions of Newtonian mechanics, or special relativistic mechanics, or general relativistic mechanics, without making ideological commitments to any of these; one can play the 'Newtonian game,' or 'special relativistic game,' or 'general relativistic game,' so to speak. For a similar 'doctrinal game' to proceed meaningfully, some sort of ground rules are needed, and reasons given when idiosyncratic uses of the text are made.

My frustration in the threads in question (and I suspect it would be the same in many subjects you take up), is twofold. First, many subjects are so far beyond the content of authoritative texts that there really isn't anything to work with (and remember, personal revelation does not---or ought not!---count)---so there's too little grist for the mill, in RoastedTomatoes' phrase (and I think he was speaking of more mundane, better-attested subjects; the problem is incomparably exacerbated in the wild subjects you take on). Second, while I am not necessarily opposed in principle to carefully reasoned attempts to tease out the human elements in order to accommodate empirical realities, I am less sanguine about doing so in order to support a wild theory. And your attempts to do so seemed arbitrary to me; I could not discern the 'rules of your game', so to speak, or get reasons out of you for some of your idiosyncratic choices.

I had, in other words, similar concerns to those of Eric. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/18/2006 09:09:00 PM  

Blake,  I share your interest in blogging for similar reasons to those you mention. And I like Geoff, and am curious about some of the topics he brings up. I guess I just got frustrated by the fact that in this particular case I could not discern a methodology for ignoring or inconsistently treating large segments of Joseph's revealed corpus, and a perception on my part that things might have been taken more seriously than the evidence and the arguments to date justify.

As for my obstinate insistence on the plausibility of determinism... that's something I'd like to continue when I can gear up to it again. I tried to summarize  my bottom line on a recent thread at T&S. I found it interesting we both ended up with an 'all roads lead to Rome' idea, even if you were speaking of the general success of God's plan (whatever that means) while I was referring to a similar idea on an individual basis. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/18/2006 09:43:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  I'm running out of steam this evening but I appreciate and agree with your insights. I would think testimony meeting would ideally be a time to do what you suggest, "discuss our experience of the divine directly," to give each other a feel for how  we think we know what we know, and not just what we think we know, so that revelation might be a more publicly understood (though of course never directly transferable) phenomenon. But on the other hand Elder Oaks says  "We usually just affirm our testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel and give few details on how we obtained it," which I confess disappoints me. Also, depending on the nature of the particular discussion, to "discuss our experience of the divine directly" in the context of public interpretation of scripture might be perceived as an inappropriate injection of personal revelation.

I share your interest in the evidentiary value of revelation... Here and here are two posts of mine that are old enough that you might not have seen them. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/18/2006 10:05:00 PM  

Regarding David J's first comment (I missed it as I posted mine):

It reminds me very much of what classical musicians have always said about us jazz and rock musicians. In college the complaint was that while they were studiously reading and interpreting the music of the masters, it was like we were just making this stuff up as we went. And of course they were right -- we pretty much were. But we found the the constraints they were held to (essentially playing only a canon of music from long dead composers) unbearable and painfully boring. So it is with my preferred style of theological explorations I think -- it involves a lot of improv. Sometimes it doesn't work out and sometimes it does but at least it isn't boring along the way. Classical music played well is wonderful thing and so is scriptural exegesis done well by trained experts. But as for me... I prefer to rock. ;-) 

Comment by Geoff J | 2/18/2006 11:06:00 PM  

Christian: I am completely mystified as to why you bring personal revelation into this particular discussion. 

That is because we are looking at these questions very differently. My primary goal is to know God and my primary means of knowing him is to follow the example of the prophets (all of them) and constantly try to improve my dialogic relationship with him. So while the theological questions I occasionally tackle are interesting -- finding the answer to them is not really the end I have in mind. The end I have in mind is to know God personally.

Now you may ask why I post on these speculative things… I think it is because part (not all) of the process of knowing God is to ask these sorts of things. Abraham said of himself: "desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge". I ask the questions and ponder on them because the process draws me (and often readers) into the scripture and often closer to God.

So basically I consider my working through ideas in an iterative process. When I get an new doctrinal idea (like my latest though that Abraham might be the first literal prophet) I first check to see if a new idea is impossible based on clear and definitive revelations. If it is not clearly impossible I move to the second phase and see if there is enough evidence to make it a viable contender to the traditional ideas. All along the way I consult with God and see if he cares about my digging or if he wants to nudge me in one direction or another. Mostly I get this message back: "Carry on, kid. I'm glad you're at least thinking about me and this sort of thing instead of Babylonian stuff." When I get that message I count it as a blessing and carry on.

I know you got all bent at my recent Abraham thread when I suggested that Joseph Smith might not have been right in his assumptions about the literalness of the pre-Abrahamic prophets -- but as you know we don't worship Joseph and he was not infallible. I don't mind thinking out of the box and asking these kinds of questions, and since I am a nobody I can do so without much recrimination. If you disagree with me, well, that is not unexpected and you are free to dismiss my questions or theories. I may be wrong. All I know is that God isn't mad at me about seeking and His approval is really the knowledge I am after anyway. And who knows – some of my ideas may end up being right too.  

Comment by Geoff J | 2/18/2006 11:32:00 PM  

Christian, thanks for the links to your older posts on personal revelation. The "City of Angels" post, in particular, was wonderful.

As is perhaps my specialty with respect to religious issues, however, I have some ambivalence with respect to your treatment of the relative value of different forms of evidence about the divine. You are clearly correct about the partially socially constructed nature of personal revelation, if only because we work out the meaning of such revelation in terms of received categories. And I surely prefer to ground theological discussion in publicly available texts, because such texts are equally accessible both to different constituencies in the here and now, but also to different instantiations of our community over time. What does it mean to claim continuity with Mormons of the past, after all, if our discussion disregards the only information that we know ourselves to have shared with them?

On the other hand, it's unclear to me that other forms of information about theology have any meaning whatsoever in the absense of personal revelation. How do we know which of the world's many sacred texts are important (or that any of them are) without some kind of direct message establishing authority? If that message comes via some other person, how can we know to trust that person? In the end, some personal acquiescence is the necessary basis of all information about the transcendent -- and that acquiescence seems insufficiently justified if not produced via personal revelation.

Like everyone else, I've had my experiences with seeming personal revelation that is demonstrably meaningless. My favorite instance was a revelation experience that I had while a teenager in which it seemed to become clear to me that polygamy was going to be restored and that I would be required to marry two young women who I really didn't like. Obviously, I reject that message completely -- yet that rejection is necessarily somewhat unprincipled because the supposed revelatory experience was indistinguishable in itself from other experiences that I take as meaningful.

Even so, it seems to me that personal revelation is a necessary condition for acceptance of any other evidence of the transcendental -- and therefore that other forms of evidence for theological reasoning are at least as unreliable. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 2/19/2006 01:08:00 AM  

Geoff, your comparison between music and theology is workable, to some extent.

My problem is this: Mormons typically speculate. It's the fuel that keeps the flame alive, and I'm not saying it's wrong per se, others do it as well (ever read the patristic writings? Shoot, this website is named after a medieval Portuguese Jew who heavily speculated). My problem is when a theological model (Mormons lack a detailed systematic theology, so speculation abounds) is impugned upon scripture where the intent of the author is something totally different. Classical examples that make me queesy: Jeremiah 1:5-6 as a plug for pre-existence, Malachi 3 as a plug for vicarious temple ceremonies, etc. etc. I don't mind it when people sit down and speculate from  a verse of scripture, but what I do mind is when people speculate from a scriputre, and then stick their ideologies back into the scripture (Christian, that's the definition of "eisegesis" -- putting meaning into a text instead of drawing it out, which is "exegesis"). Another example of this is Paul's supposed mention of the latter-day Mormon restoration movement. He saw no such thing, or he would have been more detailed about it.

Also, Geoff, scriptural interpretation (or hermeneutics) need not be confined to snobby rules like some of the musicians you site regarding classical vs. jazz/rock music (I'm a musician myself and a fan of both). The biggest rod by which exegesis is measured is, last of all, common sense. Cavalier speculation is not common sense. I find it difficult when Mormons sit down and find the restoration, the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith at every turn of the page in the book(s) of Isaiah (contra fundamentalists like A. Gileadi); or take the garden of Eden episode or the book of Revelation and twist and turn it until Mormonism drops out (contra Bruce McConkie), etc. Sound meaning and insight can be drawn out from a text without the snobby rules. I've done it myself many many times in graduate school.

RT -- Nicely said. 

Comment by David J | 2/19/2006 10:39:00 AM  

Christian, your thinking on this post and others reminds me of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript . I'm not qualified to talk about this work very much, but I think the distinction he makes between objective truth and subjective truth is useful in thinking about religious knowledge, esp. regarding doctrine. I think too often we try to think of doctrine (doctrine we speculate about, hence the connection to this thread!) as objective truth. But I don't think objective truth is really comprehensible to us in any useful spiritual sense, and so prophets and sages talk to us more in metaphor, allegories, poems, and narratives without much concern for object truth. I believe, as I think Kierkegaard does, that a first step of faith is to let go of our obsession with objective truth and realize that in order to truly understand the essence of life we need to worry more about abstract concepts such as love, faith and humility and how those define God and our relation to him and to each other, and that other types of thinking are misguided and doomed to failure at the outset in terms of helping us understand life.

Note, I'm a bit indoctrinated right now by Robert Alter's works that Jim Faulconer's recommended. Not that any of my muddy thoughts he's to be blamed for, but I think the "scripture as art" approach he takes is a profound and important one to understand, esp. for us who live in the scientific age...


 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/19/2006 11:03:00 AM  

I think from the perspective I tried to articulate above, theological speculation should be judged more in terms of what it makes us think about than how it pertains to objective reality. You basically consider this in your post as a possible motivation, I'm just trying to say that I think such an exercise can be meaningful. If an abstract painting makes us think of something other than what the author intended, I don't think our experience with the painting is wrong or invalid.

On the other hand, that's not to say an expert in art can't help us appreciate the painting on a deeper level, just like there are different types of scriptural readings and theological thinkng, from highly speculative to very careful thinking and close textual analysis.... 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/19/2006 11:15:00 AM  

David,

Well said. I think one of the problems here is that we're mixing specifics (a couple of my recent posts) with generalities (comments on exegesis and eisegesis in general). My comments here have dealt with the former mostly. 

Comment by Geoff J | 2/19/2006 01:05:00 PM  

Everyone,  thanks for the continued interesting discussion. Once again I'll be working through it a bit at time as best I can as the day goes by.

Geoff J, I like rock too (both to listen and play). But in terms of the three possible descriptions I gave in the main post, I think your comparison to improvisation resonates more with "personal and unverifiable expressions and explorations of what he happens to feel is an æsthetically pleasing metaphysics" than "serious pursuit of truth."

I think I understand now why you brought personal revelation into the comments here: it sounds like for you, speculation is a catalyst for a personal relationship with God, a sort of small talk or common interest you share with God to get conversation started.

Interesting, but to be honest the revelatory angle unnerves me as much as a lack of intellectual consistency or justification annoys me (which need not bother you in the least, of course!). If President Hinckley were to teach about how to go about getting revelation, and what to seek it on, and what it means to know God, and what it is important to know about him that is important for becoming like Christ, I have a very hard time imagining him recommending prayerful and public speculation on abstruse metaphysical or even historical realities that are way beyond what (he would say) the Lord has seen fit to make plain in the scriptures. In fact I think he would find that a little worrying, since if anyone would have the authority to do so in connection with both revelation and public discourse (which apparently are both in play here), it would be the prophets themselves. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/19/2006 03:58:00 PM  

If President Hinckley were to teach about how to go about getting revelation, and what to seek it on, and what it means to know God, and what it is important to know about him that is important for becoming like Christ, I have a very hard time imagining him recommending prayerful and public speculation on abstruse metaphysical... blah blah blah... 

Christian, you too are speculating here. And not only that but why are you speculating about what President Hinckley would say, why not speculate what God (the Holy Ghost) would say? President Hinckley has to speak to everyone, the Holy Ghost speaks to individuals.

It sounds like the Holy Ghost has indicated to him that this is a great way (for now) for Geoff to get to know God. Obviously President Hinckley wouldn't be able to suggest this method to everyone, he HAS to be vague. Incidentally, I take that as an invitation to follow the Holy Ghost to learn how to get to know God better. 

Comment by Anonymous | 2/19/2006 07:50:00 PM  

Wow. Nice response Rusty (Anonymous). That was essentially what I was fixin' to say to Christian, only you probably said it better than I would have... 

Comment by Geoff J | 2/19/2006 09:30:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  I agree that personal revelation or something like it is necessary to the adoption of a religious worldview---though really, I suppose something along the lines of what you call "personal acquiescence" is necessary for deep commitment to any  worldview, even a secular one.

Your response to those old posts made me realize that different posts of mine can seem to come from completely different places, perhaps giving incorrect or at least incomplete ideas about what I "really think," how I see the "big picture." In part this is a result of internal disarray on my part, not being sure what to think of the "big picture," but there is a little more to it than that. I started to try and explain the method to the madness, but got bogged down into what may be further developed as a separate post. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/19/2006 11:19:00 PM  

Robert C.,  thanks for the pointer to Kierkegaard. Jim F. has pointed me to the Christian existentialists in the past and I need to check them out someday. I like the "scriptures as art" idea very much, probably too much from an orthodox viewpoint... I don't know exactly how Jim would compare and contrast scripture with art; on the one hand he says scripture is not history or science in the modern sense (and neither is art), but on the other hand he insists that scripture is literal in some important and misunderstood sense (unlike most art). 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/19/2006 11:20:00 PM  

Rusty  and Geoff, you're right, it was silly of me to speculatively put words in Pres. Hinckley's mouth. I suppose my point was just that it would seem so weird, so counter to we usually receive (which, presumably, is what the prophet considers important), that it would make one think twice. But since Jim F. was mentioned above, I think he's a good example to keep in mind by way of modest focus: even without going off into la-la land he can get plenty deep to satisfy anyone's need for intellectual profundity, as evidenced by the collective Bloggernacle head-scratching that results from some of his posts on basic issues that don't require cosmic speculation.

It's fair enough to say that Pres. Hinckley has to speak to everybody, while the Holy Ghost speaks to individuals... But how much does the Holy Ghost divulge to individuals beyond what Pres. Hinckley is willing to reveal, and if he does, then how much should Geoff (unlike Pres. Hinckley) speak to the whole world about it? At what point does it cease to be a house of order? Geoff's answer above is, "I'm a nobody, so it's no problem." Well, okay then. ;-> Carry on.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/19/2006 11:23:00 PM  

I think it's important, in the approach I'm advocating, that scripture not be viewed the same as secular art. Also, I don't like Kierkegaard's use of the term subjective truth, b/c the connotation is too . . . well, subjective. I think "eternal truths" is a better term to use in Mormon culture. But just like "eternal life" has connotations beyond just living forever (immortality, a la Moses 1:39), eternal truths (should) connote truths different than just objective truth.

And so, with this definition, I'm saying that scripture is a tool for helping us come to understand eternal truth better. And since eternal truths are something that are understood spiritually as opposed to just rationally, we have to exercise faith instead of just our brains to understand it.

But the brain can and should be exercised in the process of scripture study, in a way that I think the Jewish tradition does well (and it is what Jim F. emulates well). But the process of exploring possibilities that the scriptures allow allows for a type of nonlinear learning that, say, textbooks don't allow. Hence the analogy with art, since art can be viewed or read on multiple levels. 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/20/2006 11:23:00 AM  

Robert C.,  thanks for the further explanation, which helps me better understand the knowledge and truth you're after. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/20/2006 01:41:00 PM  

Christian: But since Jim F. was mentioned above, I think he's a good example to keep in mind by way of modest focus 

Ummm... Well since Jim F. appears to have a policy of generally not speculating at all I'd say perhaps you just don't like out-of-the-box and adventurous theological exploration. Don't worry -- Not everyone can handle it after all. ;-)

even without going off into la-la land he can get plenty deep to satisfy anyone's need for intellectual profundity

Speak for yourself, dude.

as evidenced by the collective Bloggernacle head-scratching that results from some of his posts on basic issues that don't require cosmic speculation

Hehe... Is that supposed to be a compliment? It sure sounds backhanded to me. I for one really enjoy Jim's posts. But they certainly don't cover all of the topics I am interested in discussing.

But how much does the Holy Ghost divulge to individuals beyond what Pres. Hinckley is willing to reveal

Well, why don't you ask him yourself?

and if he does, then how much should Geoff (unlike Pres. Hinckley) speak to the whole world about it?

Well, why don't you ask him yourself?

At what point does it cease to be a house of order?

Well, why don't you ask him yourself? 

Comment by Geoff J | 2/20/2006 01:42:00 PM  

Geoff says "Jim F. appears to have a policy of generally not speculating at all." I think this raises an interesting and important issue. Jim F. definitely seems to advocate exploring different possible meanings of a text. How is Jim F's exploring different than speculating? I see speculation and the type Jim exploring as both being in the same family or genus in terms of pondering, wondering, thinking, etc. I see the difference more in terms of the degree of care one takes in adhering to what is textually supported. Here, Geoff's more wild speculative threads and Jim's approach probably represent the different ends of the spectrum quite well. But I am arguing that both approaches are similar in terms of exploring what the text could mean, without imposing our own paradigmatic presuppostions/judgments onto the text.

(Jim's SS lessons are pretty silent in terms of exploring possible meanings of scripture, but I think his writing elsewhere demonstrates an affinity for exploring different possible meanings that are only hinted at in the questions he posts at T&S). 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/20/2006 03:21:00 PM  

Good points Robert.

I think another key factor is the social and professional position Jim F. is in as a venerable BYU philosophy professor vs. the maverick position I am in as a young-ish Internet entrepreneur and Mormon thinker. I can afford to fairly punk-rock in my style and push boundaries and I happen to be of the disposition to do so. What Jim says has more consequences than what I say (because of his position in the world and because of the traffic T&S gets) so he has to be much more cautious than I do. (Of course this also explains why the brethren must be most cautious of all about what they say... Another interesting development of becoming a global church. I am considering a post on that subject). 

Comment by Geoff J | 2/20/2006 03:38:00 PM  

Hung on my bathroom mirror to ponder every day while shaving until I truly "get it":

Note to self: follow up on what I learned from Geoff. The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, wild-ass speculation. The more tenuous the connection the real world, the more irrelevant to daily life, the more valuable it is. Scripture study is not about listening for the text to speak on its own terms but about using it as a springboard for doctrinal creativity. Grahsshoppah, don't discuss but instead pray to know if Mahstah Geoff's ideas are not true. Read each post as if a personal likening of Moroni's promise has been appropriated as an unwritten but implicitly understood codicil. Remember that President Hinckley and Jim F. are secret mavericks like unto Geoff in their fearless searching and generation of doctrinal, historical, and metaphysical esoterica. Unlike them you are a nobody, so gird up the loins of your mind to publicly say what they cannot. Follow their secret punk rock example rather than the sham proclivity to an unending stream of watered-down pabulum they are constrained to exhibit in public. 

I know I have a long way to go, but my hope is that with consistent daily affirmation it will eventually sink in. ;-> 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/21/2006 01:20:00 PM  

LOL. Dude that was funny!!! 

Comment by Mike W. | 2/21/2006 01:33:00 PM  

Hehe.

Apparently the Snarker does indeed get under your skin, Christian. I'm sure he or she will be thrilled!  

Comment by Geoff J | 2/21/2006 02:31:00 PM  

Yes, I must give credit where credit is due: Snarkernacle's Kung Fu angle  made me laugh out loud. But poor Snarker, he blew a HUGE chance to snag obvious, um, low-hanging fruit: How could a post feature both Geoff and martial arts without working in Monkey Steals the Peach? Especially when it's Snarker's official T-Shirt?

Slow down, Snarker, you're missing important details in your haste!

And just for the record, I'm not as against speculation as my snide comment suggests, when it takes what I see as its proper place, as an occasional hobby. My quibble or concern is ultimately that the degree of seriousness with which it is taken and engaged in be proportionate with the reliability of the method. I hope ultimately there's no bad feelings if differing opinions about this persist. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/21/2006 03:47:00 PM  

I was just readin this and had to quote it here:
"In the acquisition of sacred knowledge, scholarship and reason are not alternatives to revelation. They are a means to an end, and the end is revelation from God." (Elder Oaks in his "alternate voices" talk )

I was pleased to see that the same argument about means and ends that I used here have been used before by more influential voices than mine. It is pretty ironic though, considering the implication you seem to be making about me being some wild (and dangerous?) alternate voice, no?

When it is headed toward the destination of personal revelation, maybe you ought to hop on the speculation train, bro.  

Comment by Geoff J | 2/21/2006 07:28:00 PM  

Geoff,  I certainly agree that personal revelation is an imperative in Mormonism. But to quote myself above, my understanding is that "in Mormonism publicly acceptable personal revelation is essentially restricted to confirmation of ideas in official sources and 'tactical' revelation for the exercise of legitimate stewardships. Personal revelation doesn't play any role in public discussions of speculative ideas (such as many you are interested in) that are not plainly manifest in official sources."

Is your understanding different from this---that Elder Oaks is saying personal revelation is to be expected on "out of the box" things like, say, multiple mortal probations? My understanding is that the revelation Elder Oaks is speaking of would be confirmation that the scriptures and authorities are true, not new doctrine. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/21/2006 11:03:00 PM  

my understanding is that "in Mormonism publicly acceptable personal revelation is essentially restricted to confirmation of ideas in official sources and 'tactical' revelation for the exercise of legitimate stewardships. 

Then, in my opinion, you understand incorrectly. The scriptures make no such claim and Elder Oaks pointed that out in that same talk:

"As the Book of Mormon says, “Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God.” (Alma 26:22.) ... The correct relationship between study and faith in the receipt of sacred knowledge is illustrated in Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate ancient records. He failed because he “took no thought,” but only asked God. (D&C 9:7.) The Lord told him he should have “stud[ied] it out in [his] mind” and then asked if it was right. (D&C 9:8.) Only then would the Lord reveal whether the translation was correct or not ... God has promised that if we ask him, we will “receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that [we may] know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.” (D&C 42:61.)"

Now you'll notice that I never make any claims about my own personal revelations (or even lack thereof usually) here in the bloggernacle. Those confirmations and impressions are my business and not yours (or anyone else’s). But I am anxiously engaged in studying these things out in my mind around here.

Is your understanding different from this---that Elder Oaks is saying personal revelation is to be expected on "out of the box" things like, say, multiple mortal probations?


Yes. 

Comment by Geoff J | 2/22/2006 01:12:00 AM  

Geoff,  I've been pondering your comment but unfortunately don't have the time today to respond in as much depth as I would like. Briefly, though, two things. First, I think it is a mistake to equate "mysteries" with subject matter that is not well-attested in scripture and prophetic teaching. Second, while you say you don't discuss your personal confirmations and revelations, in practice the way this conversion has gone gives the strong impression that you are  relying on revelation in connection with "out of the box" topics you bring up in public, and that this affects the way you interact with others who do not share your revelatory basis in publicly "studying it out." I think this reveals a pitfall in bringing up such subjects at all, even if one's intention is to avoid making the discussion revelatory. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/22/2006 04:49:00 PM  

I've been busy and out of the loop recently, but let me just add a quick comment that I think Christian's right about the public discourse. Yes, personal revelation may be the ends that motivates inquiry and study, but unless one has a mantle of authority (traditionally, father in a family, bishop in a ward, and only the prophet for the church), then for purposes of public discourse the metric is how well a certain idea conforms to canonized scripture and prophetic statements, despite how rockin' the speculation or speculator might be.

And I think this is the reason that unsupported public speculation is eschewed in Mormon circles, even if one isn't a BYU prof. Though I do believe there's an important place for exploring unorthodox interpretations of scriptures and prophetic statements, after all, isn't challenging traditional views the coal that keeps the bloggernacle barrelin' down the tracks?

Comment by Robert C. | 2/25/2006 09:25:00 AM  

I just came across the phrase "Spirit-does-all laziness"  by Ronan at BCC and thought it was relevant to this discussion. (Actually, this post brought it to my attention.)

Perhaps the difference between Jim F.'s brand of exploration/speculation and Geoff's can simply be viewed as varying degrees of laziness, no? 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/25/2006 11:24:00 AM  

Robert:  Though I do believe there's an important place for exploring unorthodox interpretations of scriptures and prophetic statements, after all, isn't challenging traditional views the coal that keeps the bloggernacle barrelin' down the tracks? 

Yes, clearly this is one of the reasons  people come to the bloggernacle. But by way of homage to traditionalist views, my choice of diction in the post I just linked suggests that the bloggernacle might be viewed by many as a runaway train! ;->

As for Spirit-does-all-laziness... Clearly in coming to this post I became impatient with a perceived lack of non-revelatory method in connection with speculative topics. This is cognate to the frustration non-Mormons and (some intellectually inclined Mormons) feel with us in connection with things that are 'basic' and well-attested for us, but 'speculative' to them. However, as my recently-expressed attitude about apologetics suggests, (unlike Ronan apparently) I cannot fault Mormons for not getting intellectual about something as basic as the First Vision. If Mormonism is true it does not seem to me that the Lord would require intellectual analysis of such things to be saved. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/25/2006 09:05:00 PM  

"If Mormonism is true it does not seem to me that the Lord would require intellectual analysis of such things to be saved." 

Unless, of course, intellectual analysis is not the tool of the devil that some mormons think it is, rather a primary source of revelation as, thankfully, some authoritative mormons have suggested. In which case, applying this tool to the basic claims of the church would make perfect sense in proving its truthfulness. For me, the truth still has nothing to hide and avoids no microscope.

But, I believe you agree with this too. 

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/25/2006 11:52:00 PM  

The Book of Mormon does require reading and pondering of itself as a condition of testimony, but the sort of activity I would call "intellectual analysis" doesn't seem to be necessary, at least for everyone---not least because not all people are well suited to it, and yet salvation is offered to all.

Now I don't know how good I am at it, but I kind of like intellectual analysis, and am personally inclined to apply it to Mormonism. In principle, I do share your feeling that truth has nothing to hide, but I think expecting it to "prove" the Church's truthfulness is asking too much. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/26/2006 04:02:00 PM  

Christian, we're definitely on a similar track.

"I think expecting it to "prove" the Church's truthfulness is asking too much."

Perhaps, and expecting it to not _disprove_ seems a reasonable expectation...for as you know, it only takes one false result to seriously cripple the most aesthetically pleasing theory.

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/26/2006 07:17:00 PM  

I suppose it has indeed turned out that way in the eyes of many. But theologians are crafty: they'll find a way to preserve the essentials. (Continuing revelation is, of course, an apt tool for this purpose.)

In this theoretical physicists are not much better: they also are skilled at preserving the core of their cherished notions in the face of inconvenient data. Grand unification persists as an important idea after its initial instantiation in SU(5) gauge theory was experimentally ruled out... 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/26/2006 10:37:00 PM  

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