Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 5

February 26, 2010

In this part, I’m going to introduce some theories of language and epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge), and I’m going to try really hard not to be too pompous or obscure. Let me say at the outset that I am coming at this subject from a background in literary theory, not necessarily philosophy, but then I don’t see a clear line between the two.

It’s tempting to define postmodernism simply as a rejection of “truth.” Indeed, Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism as “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge.” As such, he continues, postmodernism “is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.“ This shorthand definition is more or less apt, but there are bigger issues afoot.

Let’s start with what most human beings would consider “common sense”: I exist as a person, and I perceive the world around me (obviously I’m skipping over a whole lot of philosophical thought, but this is an Internet post, after all). Fredric Jameson describes this as a “realistic epistemology, which conceives of representation as the reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies without it.” In other words, I am the subject, and what I perceive that isn’t “me” is objectively real. We assume, then, that we can know the truth about what we perceive.

An extension of this idea is that our perception of things can be communicated to others. Jameson explains that the “realistic” approach “projects a mirror theory of knowledge and art, whose fundamental evaluative categories are those of adequacy, accuracy, and Truth itself.” Thus, we judge language and art based on their ability to accurately or even adequately represent reality, or “Truth itself.” Scripture, for example, is language that is true in that, for believers, it represents the realities of the divine. For scriptural inerrantists, the language itself, being “God-breathed” (I love that term), is a perfect transmission of what God means to say.

In the same way, when humans communicate with each other, we think we can express objective reality (and even our subjective thoughts) adequately to each other. Thus, language is inextricably bound with how we perceive what is “real.” (I’ve just made a huge leap, but bear with me.) Very basically, we can consider language to be a system by which humans interpret what we perceive (that is, “things” only mean something when they are structured or transformed by language). For example, a dream is, properly speaking, a series of thoughts or images or feelings that we experience when we’re asleep. But dreams “mean” something only in context. For example, if I dream about a dog, it means something different than the same dream would mean to someone who was recently mauled by a pit bull.

In this same way, reality means something only in context, and that context is inescapably bound in with language and culture. As one scholar writes:

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature). [He defines the “umbworld,” or nature, as the “human environment,” which is not only physical, but social.]

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively act upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

Note that I’m not distinguishing culture from language, but instead I’m suggesting that, taking Todd’s definition, the contents of our mind (speaking collectively as well as individually) are bound up, structured, and constantly transformed by language. So, taking another huge leap (I can do that, because this is my essay), we can say that language, culture, and nature are all “the same thing.” As Todd put it, language and culture inform how we think and feel (how we experience nature), and nature (the physical and social construct) recursively transforms language and culture. There is no distinct line between nature and culture (the contents of the mind are not separate from what is “out there”).

In a sense, language is what is “real” (that was a massive leap) because that’s all we have. But how does language work? Here we turn to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who suggested the notion of the Sign as being “the basic unit of language.” This Sign is made up of two components: the signifier and the signified. I’m going to cheat a little and use dictionary definition (no, this isn’t a sacrament meeting talk), but I want to be as precise as possible. Merriam-Webster defines the signifier as “a symbol, sound, or image (as a word) that represents an underlying concept or meaning.” The signified, therefore, is “a concept or meaning as distinguished from the sign through which it is communicated.” Take, for example, the word “curelom.” The signifier could be either a written word, a spoken word, a picture, or a symbol representing the idea of a curelom. The signified is the concept or meaning of “curelom” (or any of the symbols or sounds meant to represent it). The signified is conceptual, not real (not that anyone thinks cureloms are real in any sense). As Saussure put it, “A sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern” (note that Saussure originally defined the Sign in terms of oral speech, though it has since come to mean language of any kind).

For Saussure, language consisted of the system by which Signs are used together to create meaning. He conceived of language as being the intersection of two axes: the axis of Selection (metaphor) and the axis of combination (metonymy); see this drawing for a visual representation of these two axes. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Simply put, a word or Sign means something because it has been chosen out of all the other possible words or Signs and it has been placed in a particular place between other words or Signs. For example, let’s use a sentence from Karl Pilkington: “You never see an old man eating a Twix.” We understand what the word “man” means because it has been chosen from the infinite number of other possible words it could have been (dog, stocking, Kazakhstan, and so on) and because it has been placed in a particular place in the sentence as opposed to all the other possible places it could have been (and indeed all the other sentences it could have been in). For Saussure, then, meaning resides where the abstract rules of language (langue) are applied to a specific choice (selection and combination) of speech (parole).

Although Saussure was a linguist concerned with how language works, his work did much to shift the study of language and culture away from the “common sense” notions I mentioned earlier of language and perception as representing something real. In a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to psychology and literary theory, the focus turned to the systems of Signs that constituted the world. What is real became in some senses not something that you could know but rather that you made. As Hungarian literary theorist György Lukács put it, “Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity.”


Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 4

February 24, 2010

We’ve established that most apologists rightly see their work as being outside of academic science, though at least one commenter suggests that the work of apologists is legitimate science that is only excluded from the academy for its unpopularity: “Many correct notions in science have started out unpopular, as have many incorrect ones been eagerly embraced based on incomplete scholarship.” But as I’ve noted, the business of apologetics is not merely “evaluating the data and their interpretation”; rather, apologetics has its eye on a conclusion and thus evaluates and interprets data so as to support that conclusion.

I’m going to generalize here and necessarily gloss over a lot, but I suspect most of my readers (all five of them) are familiar enough with Mormon apologetics that I need not go into detail. That said, there have historically been two kinds of apologetics: one that looks for external evidence that supports Mormon truth claims and another that looks for internal evidence (such as in LDS scripture) that corresponds to what is known about the external record.

As I mentioned, from the beginning of the early LDS church, church members have pointed to external evidence, usually archaeology, to validate uniquely Mormon claims of truth. Particularly in the area of “Book of Mormon archaeology,” Mormons have a long history of trying to locate in the “real world” the cities and civilizations described in the Book of Mormon. Early Mormon newspapers pointed to Mexico and Guatemala as possible locations for Zarahemla and its residents. But serious attempts at archaeological support for the Book of Mormon came in the 1950s with the founding of the New World Archaeological Foundation, which as archaeologist Michael Coe tells us, “had been founded to find for the Mormon Church these relics, these ancient remains” of Nephite civilization. But no solid evidence has appeared. Coe explains:

The Book of Mormon is very explicit about what the Nephites brought with them to this land: domestic animals, domestic crops, all of Old World origin; metallurgy, the compass, things like that. Just take domestic animals, for example. I mentioned horses and cattle. Nobody has ever found the bones of horses and cattle in these archaeological sites. Horses were already in the New World, all right, but were wiped out about 7000 B.C. by people coming in from Asia. They never found horse bones in these early sites between the prime period, which is 500 B.C. to A.D. 200.; never found cattle bones there; never found wheat or rye and these other things that they grow in the Middle East. Plenty of evidence for all kinds of other things that are Native American, but nothing there. And that’s the problem: They simply haven’t shown up.

This kind of apologetics continues today, though not with the optimism the NWAF folks once had.

The second kind of apologetics attempts to find consistency between what is in LDS scripture with what is known about the external historical record. In short, these apologists try to draw as many lines between known points in the “real world” and the descriptions of Nephite culture in the scriptures. A good example of this approach is what Douglas Salmon describes as an “exegetical trend … to draw endless parallels to texts from the ancient Near East and beyond in an attempt to validate” LDS scripture. The leading figure in this movement was BYU professor Hugh Nibley, whom Evangelical scholar Paul Owen describes as a “top rate scholar.” Nibley put his scholarship to use in the attempt to situate Mormon scripture within an ancient setting by finding parallels between the two. Salmon continues, “The number of parallels that Nibley has been able to uncover from amazingly disparate and arcane sources is truly staggering. Unfortunately, there seems to be a neglect of any methodological reflection or articulation in this endeavor.” Of course, the problem with using such parallels is that one must, as Samuel Sandmel writes, “describe source and derivation [of the parallels] as if implying connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.”

This search for parallels has in many ways supplanted the earlier search for archaeological evidence among Mormon scholars. BYU anthropology professor John Clark explains this approach: “Confirmation of historic details of the Book of Mormon would substantiate Joseph Smith’s account of how it came to be and thus validate his seership and the divine origin of both the book and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Thus parallels are seen as “confirmation of historical details” in LDS scripture. Clark argues that “the lower the probability that Joseph Smith could have guessed a future fact, the stronger the likelihood he received the information from a divine source. Consequently, the most compelling evidence for authenticity is that which verifies unguessable things recorded in the Book of Mormon, the more outlandish the better. Confirmation of such items would eliminate any residual probability of human authorship and go a long way in demonstrating that Joseph could not have written the book.” I’ve written a response to Dr. Clark’s piece elsewhere on my blog, but his approach seems to be the most widely adopted approach by apologists from Brant Gardner to Kerry Shirts to John Sorensen. Michael Coe describes Sorensen’s approach, which I think is illustrative of current efforts:

To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it — to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this — but there’s no actors. That’s the problem.

Thus both approaches in many ways are a dead end (it goes without saying that no apologists would agree with me here). The earth stubbornly refuses to yield any confirmatory archaeological evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon, except for evidence that only the believing find compelling. And the parallels drawn rarely do more than, as Douglas Salmon puts it, “demonstrate that humanity does share a great deal in common.”

These two more or less fruitless approaches have led to what I would call a “defensive” apologetics that, rather than argue positively for evidence, deflects contrary evidence. Basically, the approach is to reinterpret both LDS scripture and external knowledge as a way to maintain plausibility for Mormon claims and then dare critics to prove those claims implausible. This is basically the approach of one Internet poster I know who has consistently said that, because no one has adequately proven that Joseph Smith made everything up, we have no reasonable basis for rejecting Joseph’s claims. Similarly, BYU professor Bill Hamblin once mocked me because I told him I wasn’t interested in explaining “how Joseph did it,” again, arguing that, unless critics can explain exactly how the Book of Mormon came to be, we cannot know or even believe that it’s a fabrication.

Part of this endeavor, as I said, involves reinterpreting truth claims in light of current scientific knowledge. Thus were born notions of a limited flood and pre-Adamite evolution; early beliefs that all native Americans from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego were literal descendants of Lehi gave way to theories that suggested the absorption of a small Nephite group into a larger, pre-existing population located into a specific part of Central America. One friend of mine joked that the purpose of such defensive apologetics was to reduce the geographical area of Book of Mormon lands to the size of the book itself.

But this reinterpretation is not really negative but necessary and natural. The field of study, in this case Mormon truth claims, is always determined by those who study it; as the student learns more about that field of study, the field itself must adapt to the student’s changing perspective. Thus the tools, the methods, and even the text are subject to change and reinterpretation. Given the failure of traditional Mormon apologetics, it is not surprising that the field has shifted; just as fundamentalists clung to overconfidence in science until, as George Marsden puts it, it was “too late,” so too has the defensive strain of apologetics recognized that it must shift the field of study away from science and toward a more accommodating perspective. It is within this reinterpretation of Mormonism that the terminology of postmodernism has been appropriated.

Recognizing the constant shifting going on (we’ll talk about Kuhn and paradigms in the next installment), some apologists have attempted to define their approach as “liberal” or “postmodern” as contrasted to “fundamentalist” critics who are stuck in naive Enlightenment rationalism. “New religions” apologist Massimo Introvigne dismisses LDS critics as those who “are persuaded that, thanks to Enlightenment rationalism, an objective concept of ‘science and truth may allow them to reach factual, empirical, ‘scientific’ conclusions on the Book of Mormon and its origins. … On the other hand, the late modernist and postmodernist position that knowledge is by no means objective and that ‘true,’ universally valid historical conclusions could never be reached, is held by Latter-day Saint conservatives.”

Convinced, then, that they occupy the more solid and sophisticated scholarly ground, some apologists take Introvigne’s flawed dichotomy and run with it, mocking critics such as Brent Metcalfe and Michael Quinn–“fringe iconoclasts,” they are labeled derisively–as believing that “it is imperative that scripture be treated as inerrant and that Mormons accept targeted statements from religious leaders as infallible.” Conversely, “the average Mormon” has a more nuanced view of “truth” and holds “more theologically liberal positions.” Like the Grinch hearing the singing Whos on Christmas morning, we are told that truth does not come from study or research: “we have a simple promise that is not dependent on extrapolating truth from disputed facts by using current standards of science and logic. ” If ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). This is where truth resides for believing LDS.”

But is this application of postmodernism appropriate? How does one define postmodernism, and what does it have to do with Mormon notions of truth? Does postmodernism really mean that we must subordinate science, reason, and logic to a subjective, spiritual experience that leads us to accept Mormonism not as “true” but as “an inspired program” that provides “certain definite spiritual and social opportunities and values”?


Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 3

February 17, 2010

When we left off, Mormonism was dealing with the clash between modern scientific ideas and its own truth claims. I used the example of Darwinian evolution because it’s instructive as to the response of the institutional church to new and challenging theories. But this wasn’t the only front in the conflict. Far from validating Mormonism’s claims, advances in such diverse fields as archaeology, history, and Egyptology had brought new challenges to the faith. No longer were criticisms of the church coming solely from polemical “anti-Mormons,” but even the religious anti-Mormons were employing scholars in their critique of Mormonism. Rev. Franklin Spalding, for example, in 1912 sent copies of the three facsimiles from the Book of Abraham to noted Egyptologists, who confirmed the spurious nature of Joseph Smith’s explanations of them.

Initially, then, the institutional response was to exclude challenging or controversial scholarship as topics of discussion both in church and educational settings among members. Just as we have seen with Evangelicals, science and religion seemed to have been relegated to different spheres with different purposes, “two sciences” dedicated to the building of different but equally valid structures, although it must be said again that Mormonism always privileged spiritual truth over rational or scientific truth. Joseph Fielding Smith said in a conference address in 1930, “The word of the Lord means more to me than anything else. I place it before the teachings of men. The truth is the thing which will last. All the theory, philosophy and wisdom of the wise that is not in harmony with revealed truth from God will perish. It must change and pass away and it is changing and passing away constantly, but when the Lord speaks that is eternal truth on which we may rely.” Simply put, when faith and “the teachings of men” collide, one must always choose faith.

Eventually, however, the teachings of men could not be ignored, and they slowly made their way into the curriculum at church institutions. By the time I took a freshman biology class in 1982, evolution was taught openly and clearly. However, the professor (who would shortly thereafter serve as a mission president) began his discussion of evolution with a disclaimer to the effect that he had a testimony of the gospel and of our divine heritage as children of God but that for the purposes of science, evolutionary theory had the most explanatory power of any theory and thus would be taught. Similarly, two of my Latin American history professors insisted that what we would be studying about pre-Columbian history was in no way related to what we would read in the Book of Mormon. One of the professors went so far as to say that “there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. Anyone who tells you othwerise is lying.”

Thus the exclusion of religion from “real” science had not only become complete, but Mormon scholars had apparently accepted that exclusion. Study of Mormonism’s religious claims was to take place in a religious context, not in the scholarly study of anthropology, history, literature, and archaeology. That doesn’t mean that scholarship wasn’t brought to bear on religious ideas, but rather the intent of the scholarship was not so much to discover as it was to bolster the faith claims of the church. As such, then, apologetics is a different pursuit from secular science and thus properly has no place within the secular academy. Daniel Peterson, head of the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS) wrote,

The unspoken conventions of the academy work strongly against sectarian apologetics or confessional testimony. Arguments directly for or against the truth claims of Mormonism would be beyond the pale at a mainstream academic conference or in a mainstream academic journal — just as arguments for or against Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, or Buddhism would be.

For what it’s worth, I appreciate this convention. I think it proper and useful. It helps, among other things, to maintain peace in the “public square.”

Am I hesitant to advocate my position? Am I embarrassed by my religion? Do I lack confidence in my overall beliefs? Good grief. I should think that if anything about me is obvious, it ought to be that the answer to those questions is an emphatic No. But I would no more bear my testimony of Mormonism in a secular academic conference than I would bring a ham sandwich into a mosque, wear a tuxedo to a football game, or start a political argument during mass.

Strictly speaking, to engage in “faithful scholarship” is not so much a process as it is a perspective or attitude toward the process. Apologetics brings secular knowledge and research to the effort to validate or rationalize religious truth claims, an effort that as Dr. Peterson rightly says would inappropriate in an academic setting.

Some critics have suggested that engaging in apologetics taints one’s academic reputation. It’s not surprising that some apologists take offense when their apologetics are criticized; although they recognize that apologetics and secular scholarship are separate fields, they clearly feel that there is some overlap and that their apologetics are a reflection of their “legitimate” academic activities. Witness, for example the sarcasm apologist Bill Hamblin uses in announcing the publication of a biography of Muhammad: “More proof (if any is needed) that DCP is a pseudo-scholarly hack.” The implication is that, if the apologist is a recognized scholar in another field, his or her work in apologetics must likewise be respected.

So, there is often an awkward tension between the desire to be taken seriously in producing apologetic works and the recognition that one must sacrifice some academic legitimacy in doing so. An instructive example is Dr, Jeffrey Meldrum, a biology professor at Idaho State University. Meldrum brought his academic credentials to a FAIR treatment of “DNA and the Book of Mormon,” but the article turned out to be an apologetic work based on the premise that DNA evidence does not apply to Lamanites because kinship is not necessarily related to genetics: “memes are stronger than genes.” But at the same time Meldrum’s expertise is called on to bolster Mormon claims, his work in Bigfoot studies is dismissed as irrelevant. The reason for this is that Bigfoot studies and Mormon apologetics have both been banished from the academy, while proponents of both seek legitimacy for their own endeavors.

This outline of the relationship between scholarship and apologetics is not meant to suggest dishonesty or shoddiness among those who would defend their faith. I have interacted with many apologists whose integrity and intellect I respect completely. But I would suspect that, although they would see their endeavors as legitimate, they would agree that they are outside the boundaries of academic study.


No More Mr. Nice Guy

February 16, 2010

I was raised to be nice. In our family, you never made a scene, never complained, never did anything that might make someone else feel bad. Unfortunately, being nice at all costs can really cause some problems. Sometimes when you aren’t getting the right kind of service or help when dealing with a salesperson or a business representative, being nice just means you’re not going to get what you need from them.

I used to cringe when I would see someone getting pushy with, say, an airline ticket counter agent or a waiter. Can’t they see that this person is just doing his or her job? If I were the one having problems, I would wait quietly and patiently as I had been taught, and then of course I’d usually be ignored.

But I’ve learned to speak up for myself and not be pushed around so much anymore (old habits die hard). Yesterday my wife and I went out to lunch for a belated Valentine’s Day date at La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant in Provo that we used to go to quite often. We were seated, given our menus and glasses of water, and then promptly ignored for 25 minutes or so. I said, “Let’s just go. I’m tired of waiting.” So we left.

I guess it would have been more appropriate to raise a fuss, but here I was in a restaurant that wasn’t my first choice, being ignored. So, we went out for dumplings and noodle soup. No, I didn’t raise a stink, but it’s a good sign that I even did what I did. I’ll take progress as it comes.


Postmodernism and Mormonism, Part 2

February 14, 2010

The Love Affair with Science

As I wrote in part 1, Mormonism cannot be said to be “anti-rational” in that despite what I see as the privileging of the ecstatic, there has always been a strong faith that Mormonism would be vindicated by scientific discovery. An instructive parallel to Mormon attitudes toward science can be seen in the response of Evangelical Christians to Enlightenment ideas. In his book “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism,” George Marsden describes how Evangelicals responded to the Enlightenment with great enthusiasm for scientific discovery, which he terms a “love affair with Enlightenment Science.” They believed that all knowledge came from God, and thus reason and science were just more tools for approaching knowledge. Thus, Christianity itself, they believed, was rational and would ultimately be validated by scientific discovery and reason.

However, there were two currents of thought in Evangelicalism regarding science. The first suggested that although scientific methodology was uniform, one’s conclusions depended on the approach one took. Thus, “Christian and non-Christian scientific thinkers were not working on different parts of the same building, but on different buildings.” Anticipating Thomas Kuhn’s ideas of paradigm, this argument for “two kinds of science” implicitly recognized that Christians and non-Christians were “working from differing starting points and frameworks of assumptions.”

The second approach to science expressed faith that there was no conflict between religious belief and “objective” science, so evidence for religion was to be found in the material and rational world, as well as within subjective “spiritual” experience. As B.B. Warfield expressed it, “It is not true that [the Christian] cannot soundly prove his position. It is not true that the Christian view of the world is subjective merely, and is incapable of validation in the form of pure reason.” This optimism about the compatibility between faith and scientific discovery was grounded in Enlightenment ideas about the free exchange of ideas and information, which would inevitably lead to more truth and knowledge. As Warfield put it, “Men of all sorts and of all grades work side by side at the common task, and the common edifice grows under their hands into ever fuller and truer outlines.”

This faith in the rational is not absent in Mormonism but rather runs concurrently with belief in the ability of the subjective to produce truth. From the very beginnings of Mormonism, its leaders provided the twin proofs of spiritual experience (see part 1) and objective evidence. The Book of Mormon was attested to by witnesses, not just the singular supernatural experiences of Joseph Smith; of the eleven witnesses, eight saw only the physical plates and made no claims to supernatural witness. Similarly, Martin Harris was dispatched to show the “Caractors” to learned men to vouch for their authenticity.

Joseph Smith clearly believed that science, specifically archaeology, would corroborate Mormon claims. In an 1842 editorial in church newspaper “Times and Seasons,” he wrote”

“If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.-were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized-that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent-that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood’s researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guat[e]mala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people-men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Morm[o]n unfolds their history.”

This appeal to external evidences suggests that, like the Enlightenment rationalists, early Mormons believed that the free exchange of ideas and information could only strengthen their case. Church members were convinced that their faith was confirmed by the spirit but could also be demonstrated rationally. Mormon missionaries were sent out not only to preach but to debate. Parley P. Pratt exemplifies this appeal to reason. He believed that Mormonism benefited from “candid investigation.” His faith was not merely subjective. “I have traced it in all its bearings, weighed it in every possible light, and am prepared to impart to others that which, I trust, will satisfy and enlighten the inquiring mind.” Similarly, in an 1841 tract “Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon,” Charles Thompson writes that his purpose is not to bear testimony but rather “to present the scriptures, facts, and sound reasoning, to convince the judgement and enlighten the mind; he has endeavored to address himself to the intellect, not to the passions of the people, that if any should be converted they might be able to give a reason for the [h]ope that is in them with meekness and fear.”

Thus Mormonism, just as the broader religious community, moved forward with an optimism that faith and reason would together build a more enlightened future. As George Marsden writes, “By 1859, evangelicals, both scientists and theologians, thought they had discovered an impregnable synthesis between faith and reason. Scientific reasoning, the kind they most respected, firmly supported Christian faith. In principle, they were deeply wedded to a scientific culture, so long as it left room (indeed, a privileged place of honor) to add on their version of Christianity.” This assessment applies equally to Mormonism and its relationship to science and reason.

And then came Darwinism. Ironically, Marsden writes, Christian response to Darwinism wasn’t so much hostile as it was “ambivalent.” To Christian theologians, evolutionary theory presented “no new problem. If God could guide the natural evolution of mountains, he could creat other entities that way.” Eventually, however, secularists moved to exclude religion from the scientific conversation. They believed that “positive science must replace inferior ways that civilizations had previously used to find truth. To do this, the essential first step was the reform of science itself, to remove it from any connection to religion. … Science that continued to have the traditional references to religion must be called nonscience.” Until around 1910, Marsden writes, there had been two schools of thought among scientists: “one that viewed such traditional questions of reconciliation of science to the Bible as relevant, and another that saw them as wildly irrelevant and illegitimate.” After 1910, religion had effectively been banished from the scientific conversation, and the clash between the two became more like open warfare. Thus began what Marsden describes as the “dark ages” of Evangelicalism when evolution and science were attacked and demonized by believers.

We see this same clash of perspectives within Mormonism. In the early part of the twentieth century, BYU president George Brimhall began an effort to “include in [his] faculty … the best scholars of the church.” Brimhall’s hiring of “three of the most highly credentialed Utah academics of their day” to the theology faculty brought “a contagious enthusiasm for the latest intellectual pursuits” to BYU. Darwinism was taught openly and unashamedly (Brimhall himself remarked, “I too am an evolutionist”). One student showed the attitude of reconciliation between Mormon beliefs and science: “I had been a teacher of the Bible in several of the organizations of the church and now for the first time in my life I was learning some truths which made reasonable explanations of Bible difficulties.”

But this mingling of religious and secular truth had by this time had become illegitimate, both for believers and scientists. Thus, Horace Cummings, church superintendent of schools, had “expressly forbidden” any textbook on the Bible “written by a non-member of our church.” Investigating the new emphasis on scholarship, Cummings reported to church leaders that the recently hired scholars were “applying the evolutionary theory and other philosophical hypotheses to principles of the gospel and to the teachings of the church in such a way as to disturb, if not destroy, the faith of the pupils.” After being questioned by six of the apostles, the three professors were dismissed. Heber J. Grant wrote, “We were of a unanimous opinion that it would be unsafe for them to continue teaching at the Brigham Young University.” In the aftermath of the dismissals, Thomas Martin wrote, students and faculty members became afraid to share their views on “matters of scientific and sociological value for fear of losing their positions and receiving the boycott of the church.”

Still, the belief that science and reason supported faith persisted in the church. In 1915 apostle John Widtsoe published “Rational Theology,” which he defined as follows:

A rational theology, as understood in this volume, is a theology which (1) is based on fundamental principles that harmonize with the knowledge and reason of man, (2) derives all of its laws, ordinances and authority from the accepted fundamental principles, and (3) finds expression and use in the everyday life of man. In short, a rational theology is derived from the invariable laws of the universe, and exists for the good of man.

Nevertheless, Widtsoe had accepted the separation of science and religion: “No attempt has been made to correlate the doctrines discussed with current philosophical opinions.” That said, he still believed that there was “a surprising harmony between the Gospel and all discovered truth.”

Others, however, believed that scientific theories that conflicted with orthodox Mormonism should be rejected. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in 1936, Satan “has instilled into [humans’] minds the doctrine that they are not the offspring of God–‘begotten sons and daughters unto him’–but that they are the sons and daughters of lower forms of life. Satan has made many believe that such a thought is ‘beautiful,’ and that they have reached their present stage of development through long processes of change called ‘organic evolution,’ and by those processes have outdistanced their less fortunate ‘ancestors’ and ‘cousins’ among the animal and vegetable creations. How much more beautiful, noble, and inspiring, is the doctrine revealed from God!”

Against this backdrop of tension between science and faith emerged Mormon apologetics, or the effort among believers, without official sanction necessarily, to find rational evidence for Mormonism’s foundational claims.


Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 1

February 11, 2010

Given the trend in some circles of Mormon apologetics to adopt a postmodern stance, I feel motivated to discuss what postmodernism is and how it relates to Mormonism. I suspect that most postmodernists would be amused that some apologists have appropriated the terms of postmodernism as a means of promoting Mormonism’s truth claims over the inferior and naïve claims of rationalists.

Before we get there, some background is in order. A favorite punching bag of some Mormon apologists is Enlightenment rationalism, or the belief that scientific study is the most reliable means of discovering what is real (obviously, that’s an oversimplification, but it is sufficient for this brief discussion). Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant famously stated that the Enlightenment was “man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity” through the “use of one’s reason in all matters.” Thus, reason and science provided knowledge of what is real. Kant’s motto, “Sapere aude (dare to know)! Have courage to use your own understanding,” applied in general terms to the Enlightenment as a whole. It was a movement of optimism rooted in the belief that the human condition could be improved through the rejection of superstition and dogma in favor of rationality. Central to this belief was the idea that by educating the public, one promoted the free exchange of ideas and thus the enlightenment of the entire society; in that sense, enlightenment was a community effort rather than an individual endeavor. Enlightenment ideals of reason informed the American and French revolutions, the push for scientific discovery, and the rise of Industrialism.

Of course, with the advent of the Enlightenment came inevitable backlashes. One such response was Romanticism (and no, I’m not talking about the Nicholas Sparks kind). Romanticism explicitly rejected the power of reason to approach external reality and the ability of society to work together toward that reality.

Instead of grounding reality in reason, Romanticism asserted that reality was found in strong emotion within the individual. Society and culture, rather than providing a place for public discussion and enlightenment, put up barriers between humans and the real or divine; only by removing ourselves from society’s taint could we approach what is real. This notion is exemplified in Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which a young man “polluted” by society must leave his home and family to wander in search of himself:

And slight withal may be the things which bring
Back on the heart the weight which it would fling
Aside for ever: it may be a sound —
A tone of music — summer’s eve — or spring —
A flower — the wind — the ocean — which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound;

In short, it’s the experience of emotion through through impressions, whether in nature or in art, that break the heart free from the societal chains that bind it. But the reality of the Romantics is not the physical or rational, but rather what Emerson calls the “Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” So, for the Romantics, truth is an affair of the heart, not of the mind. Keats puts it most succinctly:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This experience of truth is often described in ecstatic terms, as heightened emotions that provide clarity and oneness with the universe. Emerson describes it thus:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear…. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances-master or servant, is then a trifle, and a disturbance. I am a lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I have something more connate and dear than in the streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

This theme of truth in individual experience permeates American literature and philosophy through the nineteenth century. Thus Thoreau rejects the “so-called comforts of life” as being “positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”; he retreats to Walden pond to find the “pastoral realm” where he can discover “the essential facts of life.” Similarly, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, contact with society and its rules “deforms” Huck’s “sound heart”; only when he and Jim are away from the rest of the world, on Jackson’s Island and on the raft, can Huck find his true moral compass. Melville describes social construction as a “pasteboard mask” covering the real; Ishmael thus discovers the real on the journey away from home.

Mormonism resides within this American Romantic tradition, which is not surprising given that it arose in the midst of the Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment. Within Mormon scriptures, truth is “things as they really are,” but again the experience of truth is through emotion, described variously as a “burning in the bosom” or an ecstatic experience of being released from the “incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction.” A good example of this Romantic ecstasy comes in Alma 18-19, when King Lamoni escapes the traditions of his culture and experiences the divine, sinking to the ground as if dead:

Now, this was what Ammon desired, for he knew that king Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul, yea, he knew that this had overcome his natural frame, and he was carried away in God (Alma 19:6).

In Mormonism, then, finding truth is an individual endeavor, and it occurs outside the rational as an experience of emotion that, to steal a phrase, is “instantly apprehended” as being from God. Even at its most practical, the Mormon experience of the real is grounded in emotion. Alma 32 describes a process of planting a seed, or conditionally accepting the “word” and putting it into practice (what Thomas Monson has helpfully summmarized as “fake it till you make it”). After putting the seed into practice, you will discover through experience that it “is a good seed.” But even then “good” is defined not as “what works” but as something that “will begin to swell within your breasts”–again, an emotional experience quite removed from the rational. And this ecstatic experience is called knowledge:

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

In keeping with this notion of truth in isolation, we find in Mormon scripture moments of revelation when prophets are alone, removed from the cares of family and home. Lehi goes forth to a place where there is a “rock” (presumably somewhere outside of urban Jerusalem) where he sees a vision of God on His throne; only then does he return to his family. Nephi and Moses alike are “caught away into an exceeding high mountain” to be shown a vision of the “world and the ends thereof.” Enos has his ecstatic conversion “in the forests.” And of course Joseph Smith does not have his experience with the Godhead until he removes himself from sectarian influence and “retire[s] to the woods.”

None of this is to say that Mormon experience of the divine isn’t “real.” Rather, Romanticism provides the vocabulary by which Mormon ecstatic experience is interpreted. And clearly that Romantic tradition carries on in the everyday experience of Mormonism, from monthly testimony meetings to the instruction that missionaries help investigators “recognize the Spirit” through feelings. When we understand that in this Romantic context, “truth” is conveyed in emotion, the statement “I know the church is true” becomes understandable.

I would caution that we not call Mormonism necessarily “anti-rational,” however, as the church teaches the value of education and scientific knowledge. But clearly the ecstatic is privileged over the rational. For many Mormons, when scientific information conflicts with testimony, science is held to be incomplete or simply wrong.

So, with this understanding of where Mormonism comes from in its “methodology” for approaching truth, we are ready to discuss the appropriation of postmodern terms to the defense of Mormon Romanticism.