Ledges on the Slippery Slope

One of the better bible blogs is Alan Lenzi’s Bible and Ancient Near East. He is also the featured interviewee at biblioblogs this month. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

The part that hit me the hardest was his description of how he lost his faith. In a nutshell he lost it by trying really, really hard not to. Allow me to quote him here:

I began studying the Bible very carefully years ago. I began studying with people outside my tradition about 11 years ago. I began to see things that caused problems, in my opinion, for a high view (traditional inerrancy) of scripture (about 11 years ago). I reconciled myself to a different view of scripture that took into account much more fully the human and historical features found within it (about 9 years ago). I then began to read about religion more broadly (outside parochial Biblical Studies) (about 8 years ago). I realized that the same exact things I see in biblical texts and among my religious convictions occur in other scriptural texts and religions. So, I concluded, the only thing that made scripture and Christianity special was my preconceptions and experience (about 6 years ago). I saw that many people have tried to argue that the content or ideas of Christianity were superior to these other religions. But on the theological level these ultimately seemed strained and apologetic to me. Not wanting to give up my faith, I lived as a mystic for a while—the Liberal Protestant solution (see below) (about 6 years ago). This was not satisfying for a number of reasons. So I got brave and took the final step into agnosticism (about 4.5 years ago). It was rather scary at first. But now I feel like I’ve been liberated from a very heavy existential burden.

A few things strike me about this. This is not a standard Mormon exit narrative. The standard Mormon exit narrative will usually involve a truth claim. A series of events leads up to a final awakening where the one who exits discovers that “the LDS church is not true” and then leaves the church. The length of time for this to happen varies, but almost always there is a switch from the church being true to the church being false. Not once does Lenzi make any truth claims of this sort.

Second, later in the post he talks about how in his capacity as a teacher of the Hebrew Bible he “will often suggest to them theological avenues they can explore that they might find helpful to reconcile faith and historical inquiry.” That doesn’t sound like a bitter person. And let’s face it, if you were to show up on one of the ex-mo boards and ask if anyone has any suggestions for reconciling faith and historical inquiry you probably won’t get much in the way of helpful advice.

Third, on the way to losing his faith Lenzi tried a multitude of options to stop the process. While it sounds like he found some toe holds on the way down the slippery slope he never found a ledge on which to set up permanent camp. Why do some find ledges while others do not? What are the ledges on the slippery slope?

Later, he gives the “short short version” (to quote from Spaceballs) of the loss of his faith.

Let me give you the shortest version of this story now. I allowed human autonomy to displace theological conviction as my primary interpretive framework, and I then gave a wide array of evidence an honest read (see advice to believers above.). The result was logical and compelling.

Again I want to focus on the lack of truth claims. It’s not that Christianity was untrue, it’s that secular humanism was more “logical and compelling.” A common retort from a believer would be along the lines of saying secular humanism might be logical and compelling but that it does not account for the mysteriousness aspects of life. Lenzi would respond, “Although I recognize the mysterious nature of much of our existence, I’m not able to acquiesce to theistic mysticism because it seems to revel entirely in one’s imagination.”

So my questions to you readers: Is there a ledge on the slippery slope that he missed? and How does a believer respond to someone like Lenzi?

15 Replies to “Ledges on the Slippery Slope”

  1. I’m just curious as to what he found appealing in humanism. It seems rather akin to the mysticism or human imagination element in my book.

    I’m not sure there is a response since the only sufficient response is based upon some repeated phenomena. And no intellectual answer can provide that.

    It just seems to me that the ground he sees as firm is just as soft as the ground he left. Maybe it’s more comforting but it seems to have just as many intellectual problems.

    The problem is the problem of nihilism and the problem of a ledge is the problem of anti-nihilism. As I know you know lots of people have attempted to argue for ledges. I’m not sure people end up convinced by them. Everyone just seems to find what they enjoy eventually.

  2. I studied other religious texts and theology before finding Mormonism. I see that they have very good ideas, and I would be surprised to find out they didn’t have true inspiration in their foundations.

    I guess I was a secular humanist for some years.

    It’s pretty much impossible to see what someone else has experienced. Sometimes it can be a mistake to take an approach to sacred texts that is too intellectual, while sometimes it can strengthen you to go there.

    At times I have found myself at odds with what I have been told at Church. It can take a while to understand what’s going on, but so far I’ve always come up on the “safe” side.

    I doubt there are patent solutions to these questions. Spiritual experience is subjective.

  3. I thought about putting up something on this as well. It reminds me of the BAR interview with four scholars about faith and scholarship, two having lost their faith. Link

    I think some of the problem is starting with unrealisticly high expectations, ie. inerrancy (as both Lenzi and Ehrman did.) I also think the different structure of LDS faith (ie. authority of scriptural books is not the lone or central authority) provides a ledge of sorts for LDS when discovering these problems.

  4. From looking over his blog, this guy is not LDS right?

    It seems you want to compare his exit from Christianity to similar exits from Mormonism. And that you see a lack of truth claims in his exit.

    Is it reasonable to ask if he ever made any specific truth claims before he started down the slope? Might this explain the lack of a true/not-true switch?

  5. He seems to have missed the line about how God has spoken to all men in all ages, but to us through his son, Jesus Christ, but he started at the place that starts most people down the road to loss — the hard inerrant approach.

    He just never stopped the unwinding because he never left the unwinding path.

  6. This topic reminds me of a presentation given by Blake Ostler last year.

    So, I would like to distinguish between two types of knowledge claims. First, I’ll call these the “Insane Epistemological Certainty” claims – with emphasis on insanity. We must be able to completely discount all rival interpretations of our experience or we cannot claim knowledge, at least that’s the claim. The problem is that only an insane person really worries about whether they are a brain in a vat or stuck within the Matrix. So I’d like to distinguish that from a second type of knowledge which I call “Pragmatically Meaningful Knowledge.” Based on all of our background knowledge, and the way that we must live our lives, to trust our experience is the only thing that really makes sense; and I suggest that it’s the same with religious experience. It’s the only thing that really makes sense of our experience.

  7. Wow, this is a great post, David (why don’t I hang out more at FPR?).

    When you say “toeholds” on the slippery slope, are you talking about toeholds in any particular faith tradition (i.e., Mormonism) or toeholds in a general belief in Christ? If it’s the former, I don’t know, but it’s my guess, that a varying degree of belief/practice is acceptable in most faith traditions, so the adherent does have some wiggle room to operate comfortably within the religious community while not wholly subscribing to its tenets.

    Perhaps an example in Mormonism is attending Church weekly and holding a calling, but choosing not to attend the temple? Again, I’m not sure, but the liminality and emotional churning a person experiences between the stages of belief and non-belief seem to be too unhospitable to camp there for very long. Interesting post!

  8. “Pragmatically meaningful knowledge.”

    I like it. Reminds me of William James’ pragmatism, of which I am also a fan.

    Mormonism is true for me because it “works” and because of my perception that it is the path God wishes me to take. And that path includes accepting, with faith and some difficulty and reservations, Mormonism’s teaching that in some manner The Church is the only true and living church on earth with which God is pleased, and that we are to invite everyone to affiliate with The Church.

    That being said, had I been born in a family or culture of another faith tradition, I would not be surprised if I would have accepted and followed, with God’s blessing and encouragement, that faith tradition as well (including its teaching, if it had one, that it was the “only one true way.”)

  9. The problem may be found in the last sentence of the short version — “The result was logical and compelling.” That suggests the wrong ontological framework for evaluating faith — the whole point of faith is that it is illogical. If it were logical, it wouldn’t require faith; if it requires faith, it can’t be logical. I suspect any attempt to evaluate faith claims against a logic framework must always result in dissatisfaction — the only kind of “evidence” in favor of faith is by its nature excluded from the argument. What’s amazing isn’t the slide into agnosticism, it’s the stubborn determination not to slide.

    It might be interesting to try to understand where that stubborn determination springs from. Some of it may be socially or culturally induced; some might come from a reluctance to leave/disappoint a heritage legacy. But at its heart, the quest for religion is that of the triumph of illogic, the compelling fascination with the extra-ordinary and unprovable.

    The Mormon experience asks for truth claims — it’s culturally demanded to see religion through the prism of “I know” — which sets up the slide for people who want to test knowledge through empirical and measurable means. And they grab at chiasmus and quetzalcoatl on the way down as temporary ledges that ultimately cannot support. But the testing process is itself flawed — we seek that which resonates/is recognized by the sempiternal soul, a highly illogical but satisfying connection for those who willingly let go of the need for logic to define religion.

  10. We were visiting some Evangelical friends over the weekend–we spent three days with them and attended their Methodist service on Sunday morning (they choose a new non-denominational or Methodist congregation each time they move to a new town–so far they’re with the Methodists after their most recent move, although based on our conversations, they may change again soon). They are very faithful, searching people, who believe in personal revelation. They lead very LDS lives in terms of personal habits because they have been inspired to do so.

    So, we talked for quite a while on Sunday after church about religion, including a bunch of explanation of our LDS beliefs. Our friends described their frustrations with their own tradition, which seems to give some pretty unsatisfying answers about e.g. the justice of God, the necessity for ordinances, the afterlife, etc.

    We of course shared our testimonies of the restored Gospel–really, they got the content of about the first 4 of the 6 old-style missionary discussions during the time we talked (our Stake President challenged us all to read Preach My Gospel recently, so we were overly prepared for this discussion).

    Never at any point in our discussion did either of them make a statement that was framed in terms of truth claims. This is simply not the way they think, apparently. The Bible is true for them because it is true, not because they have proven it in some way. (In fact, interestingly enough, at least the woman dislikes sermons that focus on anything but “the Gospel”–meaning the four gospels–because all that Pauline stuff is just so confusing and contradictory). When we discussed the issue of tradition–i.e. people believe what they are raised to believe–they didn’t have any answers–this did seem to be one of the things that bothered them the most.

    Even though they are obviously searching and obviously dissatisfied with what they have, we haven’t been able to get them to read the BOM we gave them. My reading of this has a lot to do with this idea of truth claims–it just doesn’t seem to occur to them that the way to find the truth is to test different things until you find something that holds up. They seem to think that there is some argument that is going to make what they already believe make more sense.

  11. Nitsav writes, “I think some of the problem is starting with unrealisticly high expectations.”

    This is an interesting idea. If I’m understanding correctly, you’re suggesting that people who start at the top tend to slide eventually all the way to the bottom (if they slide), where people who start in the middle are able to maintain equilibrium. If this is the case, the obvious question is: why can’t people who start at the top, whose “descent” is scalar, stop when they reach this “middle” point of appropriate expectations?

  12. Great post. This is a question that many thinking believers confront. Mileage may vary, but it seems to me that faith, in the end, is a choice. A risk, an act of courage even. I like Bushman’s comment about how could he leave Mormonism when it provides so much goodness. Christianity certainly has problems but after taking the risk on trying out belief, the risk has paid off for me.

    I agree with Nitsav that Mormonism may provide a number of different ledges or resting places, either on the way up or the way down. The inerrancy / ‘insane epistemological certainty’ approach can and does seem like a comforting spot to many but it does seem like it’s metastable. Has never really worked for me.

  13. That suggests the wrong ontological framework for evaluating faith — the whole point of faith is that it is illogical. If it were logical, it wouldn’t require faith; if it requires faith, it can’t be logical.

    I don’t have time to really comment too much. But can I say how much I disagree with this view of what constitutes faith? To me faith is what “fills the gap” where we don’t know but it still has to be consistent with what we do know.

  14. I’m agree you entirely on that Clark. I think it is completely wrong to say faith is by definition illogical.

    For instance, my faith that God exists rests upon my personal revelatory experiences. There is nothing “illogical” about that (even if I can’t cause others to have the same experiences).

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