Some more on true/false and academic responsibility (a.k.a. intellectual honesty)

*As will soon become apparent, I have been influenced by several posts of late. You might consider this a longish comment.

In a routine meeting, I recently heard a department chair of religious studies describe the relationship he has with his own religious tradition as tortured. He went on to say that the tension between faith and scholarship is essential to what religious studies people do. Instead of seeking a once-and-for-all resolution or peace of mind, as some might like to have, he recommended that his audience just accept the tension and learn to put it to use. It offers a lot of creative potential and leads you to ask really difficult and interesting questions, questions that no one else would ask, he said. Without it, “you’re just an historian.”

By this statement I don’t think his intent was to belittle the historian’s craft — though, maybe it was — and certainly not to say that religious studies is a-historical work. At any rate, I don’t necessarily want to discuss the differences between academic departments and the advantages that could be claimed for one over another, as if people only do a certain kind of work in a certain department. (For the record, I personally think of what I do as historical more than anything else.) I’m also not yet sure how the tension between faith and scholarship could be employed creatively in the academy. But I do have an example or two of how tension between what I’ll loosely call secularism and faith has produced some pretty amazing ideas in religion.

To go a bit further, I would like to posit that learning to live with that tension is the lot of the Mormon intellectual, a lot that tends to be more challenging than that of members of the church who deny or are unaware of there being any tension, as well as more challenging than that of those who choose to leave the church and thereby minimize if not eliminate it altogether. On the chance that such a position is obvious and uncontroversial, I also want to toss out the crazy notion that a comfortably or at least resignedly tense Mormon intellectual might even be more … well, let’s try … academically responsible than those who decide to leave the church. Crazy, I know. My suspicion is that those who decide to leave based on intellectual reasons may not be looking for the truth or answer to a crisis of faith so much as opting to avoid tension, in the same way, though probably not to the same extent, that others might deny tension exists. As I say, it is a suspicion, and I won’t really be supplying evidence or making arguments for verification or falsification, as the case may be. That I hope to find in the comments along with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The comparisons I am going to make serve to illustrate my thoughts. I don’t claim that they prove much of anything.

My first example of a highly creative, tension-produced idea in religion comes from the early church. As we all know from Acts and most entertainingly Galatians, among other things the conversion of non-Jews brought with it the issue of whether or not circumcision should be required of gentile Christians. Less well known are extra-canonical solutions to the enduring problem of Christianity’s inheritance (I’m trying to be diplomatic; if you prefer, read: appropriation and perversion) of Jewish scripture. Allow me to sketch a couple of them.

Marcionites are reported to have believed that the Hebrew Bible was not inspired by the Savior, his Father, etc. They only read a modified Gospel of Luke and Paul’s letters as scripture. Sethians are reported to have believed that the Hebrew Bible was inspired primarily by seven more or less jealous and malevolent angels. However, Divine Wisdom also spoke through the prophets from time to time about the superior deities and the coming of the Savior. So Jewish scripture could still be very much worth reading. Valentinians are reported to have believed that Jesus himself spoke under different sources of inspiration, namely, in order of divinity: the transcendent Savior who possessed him, Sophia, and the God of Jewish scripture. As for the l/Law itself, according to Valentinian thinkers it was divided into three parts, the first attributed to the Jewish God seen as neither the perfect Father of the Savior nor a daemonic angel; the second attributed to Moses, who, “starting from his own ideas, gave some laws;” and the third attributed to “the elders of the [Jewish] people, who are responsible for having introduced some commandments of their own.” The first part of the l/Law, the one inspired by the just God of Israel, had three subdivisions of its own. The Decalogue (1a) was said to be pure and unmixed with evil though imperfect and requiring fulfillment by the Savior. An eye for an eye (1b) and the like was said to be mixed with baseness and injustice and to be destroyed by the Savior. And finally, stuff like circumcision (1c) was said to have symbolic value that the Savior came to reveal.

Each of these three solutions resulted from the tension between faith and secularism, in this case, between Judeo-Christianity and the larger Greco-Roman world. However, the Marcionite solution isn’t very creative or sophisticated. To their credit, the Marcionites recognized that there was a problem, more so than your average proto-orthodox church father. But in order to put an end to the tension they were experiencing, they oversimplified the problem and cut all ties with Judaism and its scripture. In short, the Marcionites did not solve the problem of what to do with the Hebrew Bible so much as find a way to avoid having to address it anymore. The Sethian and in particular the Valentinian solutions, on the other hand, account for a great deal. Whether viable or practical or true or not, I would go so far as to say that the Valentinian solution is the work of genius.

My second example of a brilliant religious idea born (of necessity) in the creative space opened up by faith and secularism in tension comes from the modern church. Not totally unlike the early Christians, we Mormons have inherited a holy book of scripture complete with some potential problems. Attempts at solving the problem of Book of Mormon historicity range from inspired fiction to the expansion model to a post-Columbian setting advanced in this stunning post of last week (or this week, depending where you start the seven-day cycle). I confess that I have spent more time reading around in early Christian literature than in Mormon studies and do not have mastered the sources and issues invovled in Book of Mormon historicity. Nonetheless I would like to compare the Valentinian solution to Christian inheritance of the Hebrew Bible described above with Jonathan Green’s post. And the correlate to the Marcionite solution, you ask? Well, as with all comparisons, things start to break down if pushed too far. It could in some ways be likened to seeing the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction. But how about comparing it to leaving the church? Is leaving really an answer to the problem, or a symptom of tension fatigue?

So there you have it. Must I hand over my aspiring scholar membership card now?

8 Replies to “Some more on true/false and academic responsibility (a.k.a. intellectual honesty)”

  1. Early on, you wrote:

    My suspicion is that those who decide to leave based on intellectual reasons may not be looking for the truth or answer to a crisis of faith so much as opting to avoid tension, in the same way, though probably not to the same extent, that others might deny tension exists.

    I think there are two parts to address…the point about looking for truth and looking for an answer to a crisis of faith. I’ll address the latter part first with a question: don’t you think that an answer to a crisis of faith would be something that avoids tension? Even if the tension is “worked through,” the ultimately goal is in some way to manage it, so that there is no “crisis.” If one continually lives with crisis, then one can have tension…but one will have the crisis too.

    Now, as to the first part…can’t we also say that those who decide to stay based on (reasons you have mentioned in this topic) are not looking for the truth so much as they are seeking “works of genius”?

    What I’m thinking about is your line here:

    Whether viable or practical or true or not, I would go so far as to say that the Valentinian solution is the work of genius.

    I don’t think I have an issue with seeking “works of genius” or “brilliant religious ideas,” but isn’t that *also* not necessarily truth seeking?

  2. The idea of a tortured relationship with ones faith sound interesting to me…though it also sounds a like too much work. My paradox is much more simple.

    Great post g. wesley…thanks.

  3. Thanks, Stephen M.

    And thanks for your thoughtful criticism, Andrew S.

    I think that living in a state of more or less perpetual faith-crisis is what I am suggesting to be the lot of the Mormon intellectual, stated in the most frightening terms. I agree that eliminating or minimizing tension is the ideal goal, conciously or unconciously. But what if the goal does not fit reality, wanting problems to have either/or solutions? Since most of us don’t like to be conflicted, I suspect that it is all too natural to do what it takes to resolve the conflict as fully as possible, even when things are not totally resolvable. This cuts both ways of course.

    Your second point has to be admitted, I think. We can say that. Brilliance and genius and truth are not necessarily companions. Also, I have been an either/or person for a long time and a despiser what seemed to me to be the double-talk of both/and. As they say, old habits die hard. Stopping to think more cafefully, I would describe the Valentinian solution as both true and false. Maybe.

    Thanks, Chris H.

    So what is your paradox?

  4. re 4:


    If the goal does not fit reality, then we take reality into our own hands, changing it. Isn’t that what any goal is about? Projecting a different reality than one that exists? Nearly all human endeavors, I think, are about taking crises of various kind into our own hands. When we hunger, we seek food so that we won’t be hungry. Whether physical or spiritual.

    I think that there are some implications of your thinking. For example, if we should maintain spiritual tension, then why not force ourselves to join a religion that we utterly do not understand, and which chafes against us? Or, why should someone ever convert? Why not make it our project in life to understand and deal with that kind of tension?

    This is certainly a possibility, but I simply don’t think most people seek that from religion. They seek fulfilling answers, in some way, shape, or fashion. Even if all of those answers aren’t forthcoming. Tension is a sign and motivator to change things, not an end state.

    I think if you can admit that the Valentinian solution (which seeks brilliance and genius) can be both true and false, then it should also be possible to admit that leaving and exiting can be both true and false. After all, no one could convert to the church without leaving some other belief system, and I think the reason people switch is because they are trying to work through some kind of tension.

  5. Andrew,

    I’m suggesting that tension is to be accepted, not actively sought out or maintained for its own sake. But perhaps the distinction is marginal.

    I like your hunger analogy. Despite mealtimes (and excluding sleep), we live in a more or less perpetual state of hunger. That is something we just accept as part of life. Until death, there is no one-time resolution of this problem.

    And yes, I am comfortable with the possibility that “leaving and exiting can be both true and false,” as you say.

  6. g,

    I think that such a distinction can explain why one wouldn’t purposefully want to search for a religion one disagrees with, but not necessarily why one would convert.

    hmm…I definitely did not (and do not) see hunger in the way that you have just re-approached it, haha. I don’t see hunger as a “perpetual” state punctuated by brief periods of mealtimes and sleep. I agree there are no one-time resolutions of this, but I hope you aren’t saying you feel hungry all the time even when you eat. Please see a doctor if so, 😉

  7. Great analogy with the gnostics although like Andrew I think the question of truth ought be more key. But I agree that often there are a series of creative dodges in these discussions.

    Since I think that at a basic ontological level life is a series of tensions I don’t have trouble with seeing tensions between competing issues. Like you, I think that those who simply don’t have trouble with all this are overlooked (or worse simply discounted as suffering cognitive dissonance)

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