Hopeful Agnostic Sympathetic Mormon

I appreciated Chris H’s post and wanted to respond regarding the boundaries of Mormonism, the needs of individual and community, and especially the role of criticism within the Church. I hope to build on the deep respect that Chris and I have for each other and the positive tone of this site to foster a productive discussion.

The Role of Criticism and Needs of the Individual

To start with the most controversial of Chris’ points… the need to “shed the poisonous elements which claim to be part of Mormon liberalism, but which, in fact, have no interest in promoting faith and are in many ways very harmful to the [liberal Mormon] movement”. A few points we agree on: I agree that individuals who feel the LDS Church needs to be *destroyed* should not be a part of the institution. To be part of the institution with that perspective would truly constitute a double agent, wolf in sheep’s clothing, viper at the hearth. I also agree that it should be a given (though we too rarely implement the principle) that we should focus on the approaches that will most likely meet with success. I fully agree that we need to focus on loving each other, working together, and giving weight to positives.

I think we disagree, however, on the role of criticism in the Church. My question is, how do we parse problem and solution, distill poison from antidote? Though I agree with Chris that some approaches and tones are more productive than others, I feel that the hurt and frustration so many feel is also legitimate. And a closed forum seems like a reasonable place to share those views. 🙂 The institution deserves love and loyalty, but so do its members… even more so I would say. I think the LDS emphasis on supporting leaders and the institution at all costs can be unhealthy and destructive, just as an overemphasis on the negatives can be.

Here is how I approach criticism. I am fully sympathetic and fully critical of the Church. I give full weight to all the positives and all the negatives. I think I have a gift for maintaining this tension, and I am not saying the approach is for everyone. But it is important to me to acknowledge fully the beneficial and destructive, good and bad, healthy and harmful. I see the whole, and love it. Now, I am critical of the Church *because* I love it. I want it to succeed. I cherish Mormonism and want as many people as possible to be able to benefit from it. I especially mourn when people feel unwelcome, that they don’t belong, when they feel the need to leave when , according to the principles of the gospel, they should not have to.

This topic is probably worthy of a separate post, but I “sustain” the Church leaders without always agreeing with them. And if I think Church policies and practices are harmful, I will stand up for my beliefs—in the most positive, productive, and loving way possible. I want to remain in the Church. But I also sincerely hope it becomes better and I want to be a part of the solution as much as I can. I have a model of revelation that makes this work for me—I think that revelation is given to us “according to our expectations”, and so the leaders of the Church are sincerely doing their best with the world views and understandings that they have. I think God gives them as much truth as they can accept. I also think they are wrong about some issues, caught in outmoded paradigms. I realize this is controversial, but I think scripture and logic support this approach.

I will meet Chris’ declaration with one of my own. I think that the differences between our faiths can foster productive exploration. I am grateful that Chris has “recently rediscovered [his] faith in Christ and come to terms with [his] Mormonism”.

I have not “rediscovered my faith in Christ”, though I do feel at peace with my Mormonism.

The question is whether I have a role in the community, as I define myself as a “Hopeful Agnostic Sympathetic Mormon”. Here is how it works for me (perhaps should also be its own post; thanks for bearing with me). I will preface this by saying though I am sincerely agnostic, I am also open to the Mormon narrative being true in many ways. I love the idea of Jesus as my Savior, Heavenly Father and Mother greeting me in heaven, and all the other Mormon beliefs I cherish. Functionally, in most ways I live like a believer. I hope that many of these ideas have at least some truth to them. You could say I live by faith while also thinking WAY too much about the limitations of knowledge. 😉

Religion, Symbols, and Perception

First, I think everyone needs to be true to oneself. The same approach will not work for everyone, but I find this one to be very satisfying.

First, I believe in the symbols and meaning of religion even if I am agnostic about the referent of those symbols. I sincerely believe in the power of belief in God, the power of belief in the priesthood, the usefulness of choosing to live within a world view with loving Heavenly Parents and eternal friendships and progression and individual worth and indomitable hope. I love the Mormon worldview and I “live as if it were true” even though when I press the limits of my intellectual belief I admit I don’t know if I can accept it literally—in fact, if most of it were true it would be a pleasant surprise. I find love the parallel of religion to language—I delight in the dance of effective language and wordsmithing. Does it make a bit of difference that there is no objective correspondence between the letters I am typing and objective reality? Not at all.

As I said before, I see religion as a shortcut to access metaphysical principles we don’t fully understand. So I can enter a different state of being and thinking that is a religious worldview and find meaning and benefits in that state of being. There are real benefits to believing in a caring deity, to prayer, to believing in the potential of every person we meet. There is power in accessing a mythical framework to forgive yourself and transcend limitations. At the same time, I fully acknowledge the weaknesses and potential damage that these same principles can do…. The avoidance of responsibility being one of the greatest among them.

Do I wish that I could just believe in things literally again? Sometimes, kind of. But not really. Because this approach allows me to consciously choose the very best of religious tradition and put it together into the way I want to conceptualize myself and the universe, kind of like a form of metaphysical home decorating. And I am aware of the hurt and negatives that come with my cultural conditioning, and I can reject them and live a model of my religion that represents the best of its potential while putting aside damaging elements.

Second, I am realistic about the fact that we cannot engage with reality outside of our own perceptions (and our conceptions, though we can change those). This is a big philosophical reason I am agnostic, but it also helps me interact with literal believers with love and integrity. I realize that the way they see the world is REAL FOR THEM. Thus I can engage with that reality honestly and respectfully even though I personally don’t believe it in the same way they do. This is where my ideas of precise communication and “translation” come in. I don’t want to shatter their productive worldviews with my doubts, though I can find opportunities to challenge unhealthy aspect of culture and religion. But by focusing on the underlying principles of the literalistic stories, I can communicate with integrity. So if I were speaking about the Atonement, I could speak fervently about the power of the Atonement to overcome our weaknesses and find peace and transform our characters… For me, the Atonement works as a sort of cosmic drama with different parts of me playing the role of sinner and savior. But I can translate it easily over to the person who takes it all literally.

And here is the central idea… whether Jesus is objectively the Savior or simply a very effective symbol, IT DOESN’T MATTER. It doesn’t matter because the only reality we can engage with is the intersection of our perceptions/world views and others and the outside world. That is the reality of others that I engage with. Meaning transcends explanation and carries its own truth, a truth worth respecting. Thus I can be an agnostic active Mormon and engage with literally minded members and still have integrity to what I believe… and have a hard time believing.

People have asked me if I am “really a Mormon”. Here is a partial response: For me, I am Mormon because I believe the Church and its leaders and its history are all inspired of God. I am Mormon because with all its faults, I don’t know of any religion better, especially once you factor theology and potential into the mix. And most importantly, I am Mormon because this is my faith language, my heritage, my people. I love this community and religion and want to do all I can to make it as healthy and good as possible.

I realize many will feel uncomfortable with this model, but I have a question:

If the alternative were between someone rejecting Jesus or accepting this model, which would you prefer as believers? Can reality be affected by our beliefs? If Heavenly Father and Mother, Jesus Christ as our Savior, all the elements of the Gospel…. if these are true, there is nothing we can do to change that.

What we can do is choose what we believe. We can choose to live in a world, live a life where all these things are true for us. And those beliefs will interact with our lives for the better, and in that space of personal experience, the reality is unquestionable. This is what living by faith is for me; I just happen to be someone who needs to work out all the details as much as I can. 😉 I am trying to craft and approach that is resiliant because it works no matter what happens to be “real”.

These views could be harmful. They could be dangerous. But I also seek to promote faith… just a resilient, aware, conscious faith.

Do I and those like me deserve to be “shed” from the body of liberal Mormonism?



I realize that my views are

1) Hard to wrap one’s head around
2) Easy to be misunderstood
3) Seem paradoxical to the point it is hard to accept someone could believe them sincerely.

Perhaps these are fatal flaws, but I find this approach useful, and I think the tension and detail lead to productive exploration.

172 Replies to “Hopeful Agnostic Sympathetic Mormon”

  1. The weird thing is that i’m very firmly a believer, and i agree with pretty much everything you wrote about symbols and reality, including the it doesn’t matter bit.

    I don’t think i’m going to go through the stress and worry of figuring out a label for what i am, though.

  2. David B,

    I am gratified to hear that you are “very firmly a believer” and agree with the points I make. That is precisely the point… my goal is to model and verbalize an approach that resonates across a wide spectrum of belief.

    Yeah, I think too much. 🙂 In my day to day life I am not so worried about labels, and I am very responsive rather than proactive in my relationships. I do find it productive to think through the boundaries and limits of these issues. We all have our hobbies, right? 😉

  3. “Do I and those like me deserve to be “shed” from the body of liberal Mormonism?”

    I guess the real question for me is, do “liberal Mormons” expect the Church to change its declared positions on doctrinal and cultural issues to come closer in line to the worldview of liberal Mormons.

    I find myself often at odds with many members, especially in the areas of science and religion. Unfortunately, there are many in the Church who hold to positions that they think represent official doctrine of the Church and would condemn others who have different viewpoints, when the truth is that on many of these issues, there is no official doctrine.

    I don’t plan to change my opinion on these issues just because some Sunday School teacher in 1972 taught them such-and-such. I also don’t think the Church needs to come out with an official statement validating my viewpoint. Especially in areas where people could mis-interpret a recognition of a point of science as a rejection of faith.

  4. On the “role of criticism in the church,” I’d like to avoid the idea that only the most vocal folks are criticizing the Church, or that they go about it in the best ways.

    My question is, how do we parse problem and solution, distill poison from antidote? Though I agree with Chris that some approaches and tones are more productive than others, I feel that the hurt and frustration so many feel is also legitimate. And a closed forum seems like a reasonable place to share those views.

    I can think of many negatives, in addition to positives, of an echo chamber–especially regarding an echo chamber built on the idea of letting everyone speak their minds. We might see such a place as a bastion of free speech, but there are other methods of silencing people that don’t involve explicitly stated rules or heavy-handed rule administrators. I agree that pain and grievance often need some airing, some discussion, some search for catharsis. At the same time, that very search can turn toxic too. It can become self-defeating. It’s difficult to determine when we should simply accept a loved one as they are and when (and how) we should encourage or facilitate change with them.

    Here is how I approach criticism. I am fully sympathetic and fully critical of the Church. I give full weight to all the positives and all the negatives.

    I know you feel this is a gift, but I’m not sure this is humanly possible (or even preferable?). I’ll grant it, though, and say that whether you feel this way or not I see it as extremely difficult to embody this, to put it into action so evenly. You feel the need to advocate for a position which you feel is not as widely shared or which needs explanation or defense, and thus the neutrality you feel inside is not enacted anyway (as this post shows). This doesn’t invalidate all of your points. Like you, I feel to “mourn when people feel unwelcome.”

    And if I think Church policies and practices are harmful, I will stand up for my beliefs—in the most positive, productive, and loving way possible.

    It seems that is what Chris would say as well, hence his reference to Eugene England and others. Heck, even Hugh Nibley had plenty of criticism. Again, the question seems to come down to what people are opposing and in what way. Armand Mauss had a great article in Sunstone about this years back:


    We keep trying to reinvent a wheel that has never been completed to begin with!

    First, I think everyone needs to be true to oneself.

    Now we’re getting into some steep territory! Suffice it to say here that I wonder about starting the discussion from a foundation of individualism. It tends to overlook things that influence us, ways that exist prior to our being aware of them, the way we affect others, and community in general. This can get into some very difficult discussions about self and community. Politics start coming up, then we’re in a real muck. Being “true to oneself” has precedent in the thoughts of past thinkers wiser than me, and I am still wrestling with these ideas myself, but it ought to be pointed out that what seems to be a self-evident(!) truth is quite a large assumption, one that you might need a bit more agnosticism regarding.

    We have a word you could use to label your reluctance to be openly positive about metaphysical matters, “the veil.” This isn’t a way to prove Mormon doctrine to you, but to suggest a possible way for you to weave it into the Mormon worldview.

    You wonder “Do I wish that I could just believe in things literally again? Sometimes…”

    For me it isn’t so neat a dichotomy, either literal or something else. I see a blend, and a variety of matters blending.

    Do I and those like me deserve to be “shed” from the body of liberal Mormonism?

    I think you’ve articulated your views well, I appreciate it a lot, helps me know where you’re coming from. I’m not personally looking to “shed” folks from the body of “liberal Mormonism.” I’m looking to shed an over-abundance of complaining, an eagerness to accept the worst-case scenario when it comes to the Church, an over-emphasis on labels all around.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I put a post together this morning on the topic, but I’ll wait until tomorrow to post it. Me you and Chris make a nice trilogy of posts.

  5. Looking forward to reading your post BHodges, and to the ensuing discussion. I always appreciate your thoughtful and substantive comments.

    I will respond point by point when I get a chance.

  6. I’m going to take what I think you’re saying and apply it to a slightly different scenario to see if I understand you correctly.

    In essence, it is as if you were adopted into a family at birth. This family has other children, some adopted, some not. Although you grew up in this family, you feel no emotional connection to them. Because you believe in the structure of the family, you use language and portray yourself in a certain way to make them believe and feel that you love them as your family because they love you, and that is their reality.

    If this is awkward analogy bears any resemblance to what you are saying, I can see why you might feel that it is kinder, better, to “translate” the clinical admiration you feel for them into the warmer emotions they feel for you, or to “translate” the intellectual admiration for principles which you have into genuine belief in those principles. It seems to me, however, that you are probably deluding yourself as to your own motivations. You claim you are doing it to protect their worldviews.

    I don’t think that this bears any likeness to the “integrity” you mention. Integrity is, in large part, being outwardly true to what you inwardly feel. You are deceiving others as to your own position for their “own good” by rationalizing that there is some common meaning behind the “symbols”. I don’t believe in that method of parenting, and I don’t believe in that method of living a life.

    Your choice between “rejecting Jesus” and adopting this model is a false one. This model you outlay is already a rejection of Jesus. If He is truly only a symbol, the meaning behind the symbol is mere illusion. The Atonement by its very nature cannot be mere allegory any more than rich men sitting in their living rooms and telling stories of helping the poor has any value to the child in the alley outside dying in the snow. The Atonement has meaning because it is real.

  7. SilverRain,

    I appreciate your efforts to understand my position and am glad to have the chance to clarify.

    I absolutely feel an emotional connection to my faith family. I love them, care for them, and want what is best for them. I enjoy participating in the same rituals as they do. I am part of the community. And the Mormon faith language is the one I choose to maintain in my spiritual life.

    I have to ask… where does this “clinical admiration” idea come from? Perhaps because I am speaking so precisely and breaking down my belief into its components and angles? Participating in religion is a very soulful/emotional experience for me as well as an intellectual one.

    Concerning integrity, we all constantly filter our inner thoughts and feelings to our external words and actions. The definition of integrity I find most useful in regard to internal/external coherence is that my external behavior conforms to my internal values. I love and care about my community, so I want to communicate in a way that is most helpful to them.

    If you asked someone to pass the potatoes, and they would not until they had read to you a book about the molecular makeup of potatoes (which would be “true”), that would not be doing you a service. You don’t want to know about the molecular makeup of potatoes at that moment; you just want to eat.

    For the record I am as honest about my beliefs as appropriate in any given situation. I told my bishop about my agnosticism during my temple recommend interview, and during a testimony meeting I talked about belief vs. knowledge. It went over very well.

    Concerning Jesus, I suspect you are missing my central point. Pray tell, SilverRain, how exactly would you distinguish whether Jesus as Savior is a symbol or “real”? What does “real” mean to you in this case? I assume you mean “corresponding to external reality.” I would assume you have personal experiences that have confirmed to you that the Savior is “real”. I fully respect that. But I would also affirm the philosophical point that you have no way of transcending your “situatedness”, the fact that you are you, in order to apply those personal confirmations to a statement about general reality.

    I would flip around your final example… I would say that *any* story that motivates “rich men sitting in their living rooms” to go out and serve the “child in the alley outside dying in the snow” is TRUE and useful, whether “fiction” or not. The motivation the men feel that results in positive action produces its own reality. It is in this sense religion at its best is “real” and “true”.

    I hope that has clarified where I am coming from.

  8. Let me clarify. The gospel would be the family in this case, not the analogy family as your faith family.

    I chose “clinical admiration” for lack of a better way to say it. You admire certain aspects of Mormonism, but you don’t believe they are really true, as in actually happened. You believe they are, at best, symbolic of some cosmic truth which can be reached through any number of symbols, right?

    I used the family analogy, because it seems that you enjoy the structure and/or appearance of the family, but you don’t participate in the meaning behind what a family is. In other words, you enjoy the structure of the Mormon religion (including the emotional ties it comes with) but you don’t believe it is strictly true.

    Thank you for your clarification of integrity. I suppose I’m at a loss to see how your actions are beneficial to them. Could you explain? At first blush, they seem more beneficial to you than to them.

    And before I go on, I want to say that I have no opinion about whether or not you should remain in the LDS church. I leave that entirely up to you.

    But I’m not saying that the story motivates them to go out and serve the dying child. I’m saying that they are feeling like they’re helping because they told the story, yet they don’t have the actual practice of doing anything. If you are motivated by a symbol, that is great. But what I’m saying is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has no meaning strictly as a symbol. If a real man didn’t really die when he could have lived, than there is no condescension of God. Jesus is more than a really jolly guy who did really great things. He is a sacrificed God. That can’t mean anything unless it is real. That has nothing to do with my perception of reality, but to the efficacy of the Atonement as a symbol.

  9. Enoch – your last sentence rings eerily close to the precept of “not everything that is true is useful”. Most important, you alone determine the usefulness of the “truth” when you withhold information from others.

    When the Church withholds information in the missionary discussions, in conference talks, in lesson manuals, and in Church magazines, I feel betrayed when I stumble across the information the Church is withholding.

    Take President Julie Beck’s recent talk about the history of the Relief Society for example. It seems pretty clear from President Beck’s talk that we are not going to be learning in our official Relief Society history lessons about Mormon women giving blessings of healing. This is a glaring omission from the history of the Relief Society, and it leads me to question the Church’s motivation for withholding this information about women participating in priesthood blessings.

    Do you see any similarities in the Pres. Beck example to your approach of translating your non-traditional beliefs to be accepted by believing members?

  10. @ECS (#9): You have to be careful here—there is a particular amount of time available to transmit information in such things as missionary discussions and relief society lessons and and so on, and there is more that could be transmitted in that time than the time available allows. This means that some selectivity is both necessary and to be expected.

    The issue at hand isn’t whether information isn’t being transmitted, it’s how the (explicit or implicit) decision is made on what part of the information that’s out there is to be transmitted.

    Talking about information being withheld (a rather loaded term, by the way) doesn’t really get to the root of any problems that might be out there, nor does it start any sort of discussion about how to decide what counts as important history.

    I mean, i personally don’t care whether i ever find out what Brigham Young had for breakfast on 17 October 1857—but if that never appears in lessons or other church publications, i suppose somebody could argue the church is “withholding” that information. Yeah, that’s a silly example (since i’m pretty sure everyone can agree that that’s an unimportant piece of history), but consider that some out there find the fact that women in the church used to give blessings of healing equally unimportant.

  11. By the way, Enoch, ECS’s comment is a fairly good example of the sort of approach to Mormonism I find disconcerting from people who often use the label “TBM,” from the sort of people Chris might have been referring to in his post. The assumption is that the church is led by a bunch of liars, that the real history of the church shows it as false, etc.

  12. This is a great discussion. If we assume there is no God end of discussion or he is a figment of our imagination if we assume there is a God he must be good, evil or neutral but to the extent he is neutral he is meaningless to us so again end of discussion. God is either good or evil pick one what is the meaning of good without evil so someone or some symbol must play the opposing part. Does it matter if the supporting actors in this drama are “real” people or manifestations of God or just symbols? If so why? Does it change the gospel in any way?

  13. I am not Enoch, so maybe I don’t get what he’s saying at all.

    But I think what he’s saying when he says something like

    First, I believe in the symbols and meaning of religion even if I am agnostic about the referent of those symbols. I sincerely believe in the power of belief in God, the power of belief in the priesthood, the usefulness of choosing to live within a world view with loving Heavenly Parents and eternal friendships and progression and individual worth and indomitable hope.

    is this:

    Spiritual experiences happen. Religions work. (Note the plural). People’s lives are improved. Changed in a remarkable and super-human way. Whatever this refers to, it is a life-changing thing. Hence, the symbol. Hence, the power of God.

    Even without knowing the *referent* of these symbols, one can still recognize the efficacy therein. And, one can choose to approach the symbols from one tradition or another, based on their temporal, geographical, or ideological proximity.

    So, it’s a bit of a different thing than not believing the Atonement is real or saying it’s “clinical admiration.”

  14. Wow, BHodges. Wait, let me guess. You must be one of those idiot TBMs I’ve seen hanging around at church lately.

    David – I’m not interested in Brigham Young’s breakfast either, but I am interested in the fact that women were allowed to perform and participate in blessings from which they are now prohibited. I think that this fact should be included in a history of the Relief Society. Of course, this is just my opinion. Other people may differ on the importance of womens’ ordination, and whether we should include this in official versions of church history.

    WRT using the word “withholding”, I could have used “omitted” or “deemed unimportant”.

    I didn’t mean to barge in and stir things up with my first comment, but apparently it struck a nerve or something. I apologize if my earlier comment was too strident and dismissive for the conversation here. I’ll now go back to lurking….

  15. Chris, that was an invitation to define more specifically those who deserve in your opinion to be “shed” and those who deserve to stay despite heterodoxy and criticism. What are the boundaries between these groups?

  16. Q: Do you secretly strive to create your own religion despite protesting (too much, perhaps) that you absolutely are not doing anything of the sort and that you have no intention of doing so?

    If the A: is Yes, then you may need to be shed.

  17. Silverain, I agree with much of what you write. I was disappointed when you wrote that you had absolutely no opinion whether Enoch should stay or go. The opposite of love is apathy. One could read the statement to mean that you don’t give a d— what happens to Enoch. I do not think that is what your statement meant. I think it meant that your view about whether Enoch stays or goes is the same as to whether anyone else stays or go: it is completely up to us. But even so, I still differ: I agree with a paraphrased view of John Donne, that no member is an island, that when any member leaves, the Church is the less.

    I agree with Chris’ points in general, except I don’t think the left wing of the Church needs to shed particular members. I do think, though, that some of us should shed certain attitudes. As Enoch looks for the positive and affirming in religion, including our own, I think those of us on the left and right should also do so.

    I don’t think ECS’ legitimate concerns about hagiographic, even cleaned up history is a sort toxic criticism that is inappropriate. On the other, attributing evil motives and assuming “white washing” is known and intended to be fraudulent or evil would be toxic. At a minimum it would be a conversation stopper. But I don’t read that in what ECS wrote, notwithstanding her justifiable anger about apparent suppression of history.

    In sum, as an openminded person, I start from the proposition that members and leaders of most faiths, including my own, are striving to do the best they can. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we act from base motives. Sometimes as human beings we are deceptive. But most of us try to do the right thing most of the time. (Even people I don’t like or who I disagree with.)

    I think it is just as objectionable to take a DAMU position (note, I say DAMU position, not a DAMU person) that most or almost everything about the institutional church is evil, fraudulent, or harmful, as it is to take a TBM position (position not person) that Church leaders cannot err (other than perhaps in choosing the wrong color tie) or that the “institution” and its correlated teachings are inerrant.

  18. SilverRain, have I mentioned recently how much I enjoy your comments?

    Enoch says: “And here is the central idea… whether Jesus is objectively the Savior or simply a very effective symbol, IT DOESN’T MATTER”

    “Pray tell, SilverRain, how exactly would you distinguish whether Jesus as Savior is a symbol or “real”? What does “real” mean to you in this case? I assume you mean “corresponding to external reality.”

    Enoch, I am sympathetic to your point of view here. I agree that powerful symbols can mean a lot to us all. And I agree with you that it would be an awful thing for you to go around shattering people’s faith, especially given that you are an agnostic.

    However, I think you might be missing SilverRain’s point, so let me illustrate as best I can it with a real life example.

    A close family member lost his wife. He looks forward to seeing her in the resurrection. There is absolutely — beyond doubt — a difference between actually believing someone will live again and seeing it as a symbol. The difference is enormous. This is so regardless of whether it is true or not.

    But even more so, there is a unthinkable difference between actually seeing a loved one live again and believing they will but they actually won’t.

    In so far as what you are saying is “even though I believe it is not true, I see that believing in the resurrection is a powerful thing and I don’t want to break the spell” Then I have to agree with your choices.

    But if you are saying that to yourself (or to any human being) it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. This is obviously not true. If you were to find out that the resurrection were real, it would rock and shatter your world as well it should. (Thereby casting doubt on this statement: “I am trying to craft and approach that is resiliant because it works no matter what happens to be “real”.” I doubt such a thing is possible without serious consequences either way. If nothing else, you lose out on the benefits of belief of a literal resurrection as per the above.)

    Therefore, the only basis for making such a statement is by starting with the assumption the resurrection is not true *and* that there is no truth out there superior to that untruth. Given those two assumptions, the rest of what you are saying then makes perfect sense to me and I can fully agree with it.

    But these two assumptions form a profound truth claim about reality all it’s own — well on par with belief in the resurrection. And they have logical consequences that I am not sure you are following through with as they form an profoundly pessimistic worldview if taken to their conclusions.

  19. Wow, BHodges. Wait, let me guess. You must be one of those idiot TBMs I’ve seen hanging around at church lately.

    Doesn’t really demonstrate the inaccuracy of my comment, but maybe that isn’t what you were aiming for.

  20. …legitimate concerns about hagiographic, even cleaned up history is a sort toxic criticism that is inappropriate.

    I agree.

    On the other, attributing evil motives and assuming “white washing” is known and intended to be fraudulent or evil would be toxic. At a minimum it would be a conversation stopper.


    But I don’t read that in what ECS wrote, notwithstanding her justifiable anger about apparent suppression of history.

    That’s where we disagree. 🙂

  21. ECS (#15): Apologies if my response was what pushed you back into lurkerdom—your voice is one of those that’s needed in these sorts of conversations, IMO.

    I was just trying to point out that what’s historically important and unimportant is open to discussion. I actually think that the fact that women gave blessings is quite important. However, i also recognize that there are those who believe that it isn’t actually all that important, and some of them have quite rational, reasonable explanations for why they find it unimportant—and though i don’t find them compelling, i certainly understand why others do.

    This is the difficulty in these sorts of discussions—what ends up being crucial often isn’t the actual facts of the case, it’s who gets to determine how those facts are presented.

    And i don’t know of any way to keep that from being really, really messy.

  22. DavidH—Yes, that is the opposite of what I meant. Not having an opinion as to whether he should stay or go is not the same thing as not caring whether he stays or goes. I don’t personally know him or his situation well enough to have an opinion, all I know is what is presented here. With opinions such as that—which ultimately have nothing to do with me—I prefer to leave it up to the person and those with stewardship to make those decisions. And even if I did have a right to judge whether or not he should stay in the church, I’d be sure to gather more information than could be gathered on an internet forum.

    Thanks, Bruce, I think that’s a good illustration of what I mean. I have two basic points.

    First, certain symbols only have meaning insofar as they have reality. If there is efficacy in the symbols, there is a reality behind those symbols. Symbols are helpful only insomuch as they touch on actual power. This hearkens back to the worn-out analogy of planting gunpowder in the hopes it will produce more. I believe the Atonement is one of those. It has no meaning if Christ isn’t literal. This is also what Bruce is touching on.

    When I read your main post above, I hear “well, the poor savages don’t understand that planting gunpowder isn’t real, but there is value in them planting it because at least they’re getting their exercise and feeling good about future results. They might as well plant gunpowder as seeds. I’m not going to be the one to disabuse the poor dears.”

    Maybe I’m misreading you. But I’m having a hard time seeing it otherwise.

    Secondly, you, Enoch, claim to be behaving this way to preserve the faith of others because you believe it has value, even if it’s not the value they think it has. Sort of as if corn is growing where they plant gunpowder, but only because corn seeds dropped there on their own last year, and watering the gunpowder also happens to be watering the corn. I bring up the possibility (note possible, not definite, since I really have little objective information about the situation) that your generosity in not popping the symbol bubbles of the faithful around you, while probably true on some level, is a veneer over your real motivations. It seems quite possible to me that it is your own worldview you are protecting. This way, you can condescend to the level of those around you who do not have your enlightened view of things without actually having to defend and utilize your beliefs. You can enjoy the benefits of their trust in you, and avoid the consequences of stirring up the chaos that your admission of agnosticism would create.

    I am trying to see it from both your perspective and the perspective of those around you. Were I one of your loved ones whom you were “protecting” I would feel deeply betrayed when the truth came out.

    And I admit I may be completely misinterpreting your position.

  23. No time to say much. I have some really grave concerns about the whole “it doesn’t matter” applied to any symbol. I’ll try and divorce that from the religious angle because I don’t want to appear to be criticizing your religious views. My view on religion is that we should welcome everyone to Church unless they really are a threat of some kind. (Including those excommunicated) I tend to think the best place for a non-believer is at Church since maybe they’ll be touched by the spirit and become a believer. As for degrees of belief I’m open to everyone there. I get a little more squeamish about people who don’t believe being in leadership positions. (I recall a friend who went to a Stake President for counseling about losing faith about the Book of Mormon only to have the SP say he didn’t really believe it either – that’s completely inappropriate in my book)

  24. Peter (3),

    I sincerely hope that the Church will change its positions on some issues in order to conform more fully with the principles of love and tolerance, just as they did with polygamy and in 1978 with blacks. The great thing is we have such a rich body of traditions and teachings in the LDS Church that we can emphasize aspects we are currently not emphasizing. For intellectuals, we could focus on statements that “Mormonism encompasses all truth”. For women, we could bring back the institution of blessings and the independence of the Relief Society. For homosexuals, we could stand by honoring and upholding the law and not penalize those who are legally and lawfully married (not that we would need to perform gay marriages in the temple, for example). For those who lose their faith or leave the Church, we could focus on the need for love, the importance of relationships. Most “liberal Mormons” that I know are interested in issues of social justice. These are the ways we hope the Church will change.

    I agree with you that these changes can be enacted in ways that don’t constitute “a rejection of faith”. The idea of continuing revelation and inspired leaders gives us plenty of room to make beneficial changes.

  25. BHodges (4),

    Important point about criticism. I strongly agree that we should attempt to effect change as productively as possible and that criticism must be wielded like a surgeon’s scalpel and plenty of love and perspective to maximize benefits. Of course, those who are hurt deserve to share their feelings, but this too can be done tactfully and in the proper settings.

    Here we go—I think that each party has a different role regarding criticism:

    1) The troubled should criticize carefully and responsibly (which includes choosing which situations allow for “letting it all out”)

    2) The criticized should humbly and introspectively determine what validity the criticisms have.

    3) Outsiders should validate the feelings of those hurt and, as the relationship and skills allow, help the person work through it productively. But validation is the first step.

    I agree with your points. In the forums I participate in I fight for the acceptance of different views. With you I find the avoidance of an “echo chamber” to be critical and delight in the benefits that come from sharing of varied perspectives. I think we are all better for it. I still hold, however, that in some areas the critics are in the right and the Church is the poison, though I am fully sympathetic to all the good it does. I keep my eyes open to these issues in the hope that we can improve the situation for the health of both members and Church.

    As far as being open to both benefits and disadvantages, I am not in this mode all the time. Constantly contemplating both the nobility and atrocity of humans would be exhausting and destructive, for example. I don’t want to dwell on the evils we do to each other, BUT I think it is important to be *aware* of them. So I try to be *aware* of the reasons to be sympathetic and critical of the Church, and once that is in the place my focus is positive…. Both appreciating all the good and with the negative, focus on solutions instead of being mired in the problems. Does that make more sense?

    Thanks for the alternate voices link. I agree that I would put myself on the same “team” as you, Chris, England, Nibley, etc. in that we both love and are concerned about aspects of the Church.

    Ok, I framed that sentence about being “true to ourselves” in a way that opened myself to your caricature of individualism. I didn’t mean that we all are islands or anything. Part of “ourselves” to which we need to be true is the manner in which we engage with other people and institutions, our relationships. This was a way of saying I am not trying to impose my views on anyone. That was a way of saying that each of our journeys is individual and we need to figure out what works best. We could say that we really are alone, that we only experience ourselves and then our perceptions of others and the way that others interact with us…. It is all about us. But what I like to call “enlightened self-centeredness” of course involves how we are part of a larger group, how we can engage with others in a loving and responsible way. I take THAT as self-evident. 😉

    My views of literalism are also complex. I don’t believe in most of the LDS world view, however. I take very seriously the idea that we cannot know anything beyond our own perceptions (and what we learn about the world through science, the experience of others, etc… which is still filtered through our perceptions and expectations). My approach is that I work out the maximum that I can believe (for example, that the Book of Mormon does not represent what was on the gold plates but that it does have a historical core) and then remain open to the maximum down to atheism. It works for me 🙂 My beliefs then adjust in the light of new knowledge and experiences.

    I agree with your last points. Thanks for your thoughts.

  26. SilverRain (8),

    I am appreciating this back and forth, and especially that both of us are careful that our points are properly understood. Good model of effective communication. 🙂

    You are saying I view the gospel as an adopted family? I am having a hard time connecting with your analogy. For one thing, what adopted child doesn’t love her or his family!!! Love would be the norm; basically imperceptible from blood relationships from what I have heard. Do you mean that my relationship with the Church is now by choice rather than some bond equivalent to a family? Still don’t quite connect, as I was raised in the Church and acknowledge that is where much of my loyalty and love comes from. “Would you join the Church were you not born into it” is a interesting thought exercise.

    I don’t feel you understand what my mean by the meaning of symbols. In my day to day life I pray and find meaning and value in my religion. I appreciate the time during sacrament to reflect on what I can do better in the coming week. As far as “at best”, I am *open* to many things in Mormonism being literally true. Based on my studies I just would be pleasantly surprised were that the case. 😉 I think “meaning” is one of the most important purposes of religion and one of the points of that post is that “meaning” is present independent of factual accuracy.

    You touch on what benefit I gain vs. those I talk with later as well… right now I will focus on the benefits of the listener. First, people in my ward and people I talk to individually very often express appreciation for what I share. So they are perceiving benefit. As far as my approach goes when made transparent, I have been in the place of a literal believer, and they have not been where I am. I am therefore in a position to meet them were they are, or the best approximation I can attain. 🙂 Having met them where they are I can then provide resources for them based on the desires they express. When you go to a librarian for help, do you want him or her to show you ALL the books or the ones you are interested in?

    I understood what you meant by your story and it seems you understood what I meant when I flipped it around. You have to admit that too often religion is about talking, not doing. In my view it has value primarily as it produces demonstrable benefit. This is the most important “truth” to me as far as stories go.

    I understand that the idea of the Atonement not being real is uncomfortable for a believer. As far as the reality of the Atonement goes, however, I would emphasize two points. As I said above, if you acknowledge the realty of spiritual experiences in traditions beyond your own, don’t you need to concede the point that symbols can lead to genuine spiritual experiences without literal reality? Do you believe that Mary visits Catholics? Does Vishnu really have avatars that serve humanity? My second point is that *there is no way of knowing* whether the Atonement is literally true. Therefore the “truth” that really matters is perceptional. If you feel it is true, then that is real for you. I respect your reality as much as mine.

    As far as Jesus dying, people die all the time. Historically, he was executed as a potential troublemaker when the Sadduccees tipped Pilate off that Jesus claimed privately to be the Messiah.

  27. ECS (9),

    I actually recognize how close I am to the “not all that is true is useful” and appreciate the irony. The way I would word it and stand behind is “not all that is true is *equally* useful”. This is simply a fact of life—we constantly filter out data, deciding every second what is pertinent and useful to us and what can be safely ignored.

    I am acutely sensitive to the betrayal issue you bring up. I propose a threefold approach that

    1) provides the most important elements of narrative (the “simple story”) while allowing for suggestions that the reality is more complicated (a good example would be having Joseph’s hat present at the reconstructed Whitmer house);

    2) Provides people a proper framework regarding agency, revelation, humanity of leaders etc that bridges points 1 and 3, so people can understand BOTH the need for the simple narratives AND be prepared for the more complicated (but sometimes less “useful” 😉 ) reality.

    3) The Church needs to SOMEWHERE provide the more complicated picture. Joseph Smith Papers Project is a great example of this. I think the feelings of betrayal would be less if Church leaders could say, “Oh, you want to know more about that topic? Great. We are careful because it can be troubling to many, but here are resources the Church puts out for those with questions.”

    ECS I strongly agree that we should evaluate what is focused on. I think the Church is off on quite a few topics, the role of women being one of the most important. I sympathize with the difficulty of running a global church, I really do. But I think this particular example has more to do with patriarchy and outdated worldviews (including vestigial fear of feminism) than it does about time or space management in teaching.

  28. BHodges (11), I didn’t get that vibe from ECS. I assume you aren’t claiming ECS claims the label “TBM”. I think you overstate the points made in that comment. I think the Church *should* address the disconnect between standard narrative and the more complex information freely available, as I described above.

  29. Andrew (18),

    What a provocative question! I do not intend to “start my own religion”. Too much work and I don’t think it would be productive. 🙂

    What I will admit to advocating is a different *approach* to religion. I literally have a book I want to write about this, but the short of it is that I think we need to soften/move past exclusivist models of religiosity and appreciate the faith/world view of our heritage (like a “mother tongue”) but also learn to appreciate and value the faiths of others. So rather than converting people to “my religion” I want to encourage them to remain connected to the very best of theirs. Pretty standard humanistic tolerance, love, ethics etc. but I hope to frame it in a way that is of value across a wide spectrum of perspectives.

  30. Bruce (20),

    I am very sensitive to the different between believing something literally to be true and accepting it on a symbolic level. Your resurrection example is apt. But once again the issue is that we simply *cannot know* whether we are really resurrected. It is the truly fortunate person who has an experience conversing with a resurrected being, but there would be psychological responses for even that.

    I am trying to work out a useful approach to religious principles that work no matter what the unknowable reality happens to be. In my life that translates to hope rather than firm faith or knowledge. I hope there is a continuation of existence after death. I hope there is a loving, personal God. I live my life, choose my symbolic framework in the way that I feel maximizes benefit. I think that approach would please God. I do feel, however, that living your entire life based solely on a particular view of the afterlife is a poor bet. I would hope that each of us could live with peace knowing that even if this life is all there is, we are happy with how we have used our time and resources. As Steve Epstein said in Good Without God, Humanists believe in “Life *before* death”. I think the religious could learn much from that view. The best religions, in my view, bring rewards in this life as well as promises for the next. I think Mormonism at its best very much does so.

    What I am saying is that *in this life*, here and now, there is no functional difference between belief in resurrection that will happen and belief in resurrection that won’t happen. That is what faith is for right? But I would also balance this by saying that any lifestyle that *depends* on there being a resurrection is unwise in my opinion.

    I think my approach represents a win-win situation. Otherwise I wouldn’t live it. 🙂 If I gained sure knowledge that the resurrection were real it would not “rock my world” at all. I would be delighted to have the beliefs of my heritage, and such a positive one, affirmed. I am open to both possibilities while hoping resurrection is real, of course. But I don’t depend on it.

    I am with those who would not be surprised if science found away around death in the next century. Isn’t that worth pursuing, *whether or not* resurrection is a reality? And how tragic would it be if religious belief prevented such research. I say pursue BOTH priesthood blessings and stem cell research. Win win, works either way.

    Is that clearer Bruce? I am NOT assuming anything is false.

    “the only basis for making such a statement is by starting with the assumption the resurrection is not true *and* that there is no truth out there superior to that untruth.”

    I feel that sentence is a misstatement of my intended message. As I said in an earlier comment, I am open to everything from the maximum amount of belief I feel I can responsibly maintain given my research/experiences to atheism. And with that openness, I hope. Again, my point is that this approach works WHETHER OR NOT any particular proposition has accuracy, taking into account both 1) that we can’t know for sure and 2) that many people nevertheless have personal experiences that confirm subjectively the truth of these ideas.

  31. @Howard (21), What sources are you using for that? The only account I know of the *resurrection itself* is the Gospel of Peter which is pretty far out there.

  32. @David (24), I agree different people find different issues important… that is why we need lots of people exploring lots of different issues. Then we make the case for why our priorities should also be considered by others. 🙂

  33. SilverRain (25), I sincerely appreciate your engagement.

    I deeply respect your belief in the literal Atonement. I would not want to compromise that. One way I differ from other intellectuals is that I sincerely value “subjective” reality. I also, and please understand this, do not think my path is better than yours or any one else’s. It simply has different strengths and weaknesses, different advantages and disadvantages. An example I often use is that living religion is like driving a car or eating a satisfying meal. Yes, it is nice to understand the mechanics of how an engine works or the biochemistry behind nutrition, but IT DOESN’T MATTER. Or rather, it doesn’t matter MOST. This gets to one of your points below, why I manage information the way I do. Me constantly telling everyone all the information I feel is applicable would be like your mechanic dismantling your car and telling you to understand it before you can go to work in the morning. I don’t want to dismantle anyone’s religion so they can’t “drive” it any more.

    I appreciate how carefully you speak about my motives, because it truly is a difficult thing to guess at other’s motivations and intentions (even our own sometimes!). I will address that in a moment.

    I don’t see, however, what planting gunpowder has to do with symbolic meaning. Something like planting gunpowder vs. corn can be verified as to whether it is effective. In the religious sphere, that is not the case. Do you agree with my point that there is literally *no way to tell* the difference between the perception of God and the reality of God?

    Let’s switch examples for a moment and talk about D&C 121 when God comforts Joseph using the example of Job. I happen to believe that Job was most likely a fictional character. That does not diminish, however, the power of D&C 121. I think it is one of the more sublime passages of scripture. Job was not real, but Joseph believed he was, and *Joseph’s* ensuing courage was real. Would Joseph have been let down if he later read a commentary on Job and learned he wasn’t historical? Perhaps. Perhaps he would have dismissed scholarship because of that experience. Perhaps he would have said “Oh. Job isn’t real, but that story sure got me through a tough time.”

    I happen to have had some pretty dramatic spiritual experiences. Earlier in my faith journey I would think, “I could reduce these to psychological experiences, but I don’t see the need to”. And I still strongly feel that meaning transcends explanation. The point I am trying to make with my comments about perception is that personal experience IS real.

    That is what I mean when I say “it doesn’t matter” whether Jesus really is the Savior. I try to take all available evidence into account when I decide what I believe. So we need to account for both historical details relating to the development of Christian theology, as well as the profound, live changing experiences people have had relating to Jesus.

    Do you believe that Mohammad was a prophet, or that the Hindu gods are real? People have sincere and powerful spiritual experiences relating to these symbols. What about the Virgin Mary? Mary has been at the center of countless other spiritual experiences. I think it is an effective model to say that God works through our cultural expectations, but then couldn’t he be doing the same for Jesus?

    I don’t have a desire to dismantle belief in Jesus. I am simply trying to explain that because 1) we have no way to objectively (or “intersubjectively”) determine the reality of the atonement other than 2) all the subjective experiences of love, forgiveness, etc.; it WORKS EITHER WAY.

    Remember that my model allows for the literal reality of these symbols. I am open to Jesus really being the Savior, though I have reasons to question it. I try to work out how that would work, and some conceptions of the Atonement are meaningful to me. If I die and meet Jesus, I will embrace and worship him with love and gratitude. And I think he would be pleased with how I have served him during my life.

    Let me restate that I judge religious experience based on the value it adds to life. So I only defend them if they seem to work. I think circumcision, for example, is damaging despite the religious meaning Jews ascribe to it. I think it should be done away with. I also think the doctrine that homosexuality is a sin worthy of the death penalty (Leviticus 20:13) should not be enforced.

    Let’s say this culture planted gunpowder not in the hopes that it would yield more gunpowder, but as part of a religious ritual that taught them about the role of war and violence, life and death, and enabled them to commune with their gods. What if it were the basis of many spiritual experiences? In this case I would defend its value rather than scoff because I “know” that planting gunpowder doesn’t “do anything real”.

    In the Book of Mormon the burying of weapons by the people of Ammon was deeply meaningful, even though that action didn’t grow more weapons. 🙂

    Once again, we can turn to language, music, or art. It would be easy to say that these symbols don’t “really correspond” to external reality. You could argue that art, literature, and others forms of expression so key to human experience don’t “really do anything”. But they do. They can move us deeply and improve our lives. That is real value and its own truth.

    This is an important point, so please feel free to follow up on it.

    Ok, now we get back to “my motivations”. Again I am glad you word this so carefully since assuming you know that people intend something other than what they are saying is a grave undertaking. 🙂

    I am delighted when I get a chance to share my full beliefs, as I do in this post. Would I be sad if I disclosed fully and it had consequences for my membership? Of course. But I *agree* that it would be unwise for me to do so. My bishop knows quite well where I stand, for what it is worth. See SilverRain, when I communicate things carefully, I *am* “utilizing my beliefs” and values. Values such as the fact that I think the most effective communication meets people where they are and then moves forward. My belief as I have stated repeatedly that I hold the positions of others as sacred as my own so I will not challenge that without good reason.

    I would be ok if I had to leave the Mormon community, though I would be sad. I don’t think I am protecting myself for my own sake. I work hard to stay because I feel that I can be of value to others, that I can provide something particular given my background and experiences. Believe my sincerity or not, I guess.

    SilverRain, I don’t think any one close to me gets the wrong idea about what I believe or stand for. The families I home teach, for example, know that my beliefs are kind of non-standard and that I bring up lots of interesting points. It isn’t that I am trying to come across as something I am not; I just scale what and how I share based on what I feel, in my best estimation, will be beneficial. I submit we do this in our relationships all the time. Or at least, we should.

    I have had some really good talks with my mom about my beliefs. She read my post “Blessings of an Unknown God” and really appreciated it. But the timing had to be right, and I would not inflict my complicated views on anyone without them seeking for it. Or if they read this blog. 😉

  34. @Clark (26), I really appreciate the welcoming attitude you have with regards to the Church. As far as leaders go, I think we need different kinds for different situations. That Stake President you describe serve some that others could not reach. I would be glad to discuss the “doesn’t matter” issue more if you want to get into it.

  35. Whew! Ok, that is enough for today :D. I really appreciate all the comments and this great conversation.

  36. “Chris, that was an invitation to define more specifically those who deserve in your opinion to be “shed” and those who deserve to stay despite heterodoxy and criticism. What are the boundaries between these groups?”

    Oops. Let me work on that. Also, no fair…driving up your comment count with 12 straight comments of your own. 🙂

  37. Chris, I debated posting as one comment or distinct comments. But gimme a break bro, if I posted that as one comment it would have been a NOVELLA. 😉

  38. I haven’t read through all of Enoch’s responses but wanted to make a quick comment. It seems to me that Enoch is not trying to convince anyone to be agnostic or deconstruct things the way he has. What he is trying to do is help those who are already agnostic find a way to be faithful.

  39. re 32,


    I guess you don’t quite get the inside joke yet. I will say this though:

    Other people have protested exactly the same, that they aren’t trying to create their own religion, that it would be too much work, etc., Even that they are trying to “encourage them to remain connected to the very pest of their religions.”

    But the issue is that you are taking theological stances (e.g., “I think we need to soften/move past exclusivist models of religiosity and appreciate the faith/world view of our heritage (like a “mother tongue”) but also learn to appreciate and value the faiths of others.”…or the strong agnostic approach you take [e.g., we *can’t* know for sure whether the Atonement literally happened? That’s a strong position there]) that oppose other religious stances.

    You say that you want to move past exclusivist models of religiosity…but isn’t it possible that in making this very call you ARE creating a new religion?

    I think that when SilverRain (and Bruce in particular) challenge your points, it’s telling how you respond. SilverRain and Bruce are saying something to the extent that there are exclusive claims of Mormonism (e.g., claims about the objective reality of the Atonement, Resurrection, etc., for example), and you reply by saying, “Well, you can’t really know these things literally happened.”

  40. Enoch, I had a response half written and accidentally deleted it. So here’s the short revised version because I’m too lazy to rewrite the full thing.

    The short answer is why think those symbol’s subjective (i.e. purely psychological) sense is all that matters rather than the objective one. For instance if I am building a bridge the objective sense of gravity clearly matters because my choices are ultimately determined by the objective world and not the subjective world. By saying the subjective world is what matters most in religion it seems like you are simultaneously saying that only the ethical and social in this life matters. Of course to a believer though what happens after the short terms is the ultimate concern.

    To return to my analogy in practice one could say that the subjective elements of physics are all that matter when the architech is engaged in the social aspects of building. Once the building happens and the consequences aren’t purely social but physical then that changes.

    The only way you can make that argument is the presuppose the answer to the objective question. (i.e. meaning of atonement, meaning of Christ, etc.) But if that is a necessary presupposition you can’t say that the objective question doesn’t matter or that it isn’t even the most important. Rather it’s the most important since it is that which allows the subjective to be so significant.

  41. @kba, thanks for understanding. I really am trying to verbalize and model an approach that works for BOTH believers and agnostic, that works across a large spectrum.

    @Andrew, I love that you wrote “the pest of of their religions” : )

    I am making a basic epistemological statement in my responses. It is equally important to add that I state that that personal belief is just as valid as if there were some sort of certainty (or more accurately, that because we can’t know, the personal certainty is as good as it gets).

    Note what I said to the believer at the end of my post: If these things are real, then my appreciation for them as symbols will be validated. If they aren’t real, I will have gained benefit from them anyway. Works either way, win win.

    more on religion making later.

  42. Enoch (27) I sincerely hope that the Church will change its positions on some issues in order to conform more fully with the principles of love and tolerance, just as they did with polygamy and in 1978 with blacks

    But of course tolerance isn’t the only principle and love is general enough so as to need to be unpacked with regards to applying it.

    Consider an analogy in perhaps a less controversial area. I can be tolerant towards people espousing silly pseudo-science theories. However I simply can’t be tolerant to the ideas because those ideas have real implications that go beyond the subjective. If people stop vaccinating their children, for instance, and then there are whooping cough outbreaks that’s a real implication that goes beyond tolerance for all ideas. What is the role of love and tolerance in that situation? Yet if those with knowledge do act (as I think one must) I suspect there will almost always be a cry about love and tolerance.

  43. Enoch (45) I am making a basic epistemological statement in my responses. It is equally important to add that I state that that personal belief is just as valid as if there were some sort of certainty (or more accurately, that because we can’t know, the personal certainty is as good as it gets).

    I’m having trouble parsing this – perhaps because I’m reading too much into the more technical terms “epistemology” and “valid.” Are you using those loosely?

    It sounds like you are pushing a variation of William James’ view of belief but without some of the important caveats he added.

  44. “Do you agree with my point that there is literally *no way to tell* the difference between the perception of God and the reality of God?”
    No, I don’t, unless you push the meaning of “know” to the point where you can’t really know anything. And to me, pushing it to that point has no purpose. If I can know that eating will fill me up, I can know that God is real.

    I think it does matter whether or not Jesus is the Savior in the same way that it matters whether or not the grain you’re planting is a seed or a grain of gunpowder. Maybe in a way you’re saying it doesn’t matter which it is, because you’re going to plant both. I think in this case, the two seeds are inimical, and one will eventually choke out the other.

    I suppose it is possible that God could be using Jesus as a symbol to bring us to Him, but I don’t see how that could be when the “symbol” of Jesus is as God the Son. He’s not representing Himself as a symbol, and if that is all He is, than He is a liar, which diminishes His ability to be an effective symbol for Truth. (And I realize that it’s not Christ’s death that matters, it is that He died when He didn’t have to, and that He lives again under His own power.)

    I don’t believe that symbols motivate us. I believe it is the reality behind the symbols that motivate. If there is no reality, there is no power.

    There is something that bothers me about what you’re saying, and it’s not your questioning the literalness of the Savior. Truly, I doubt you could “compromise [my] belief” or “dismantle [my] religion” at this point. I know that God is real in the same way I know the sun is real. I’ve never looked directly at the sun, either, yet I don’t need to in order to feel it.

    I don’t know that this: “If [the symbols] aren’t real, I will have gained benefit from them anyway,” is true. In fact, I rather think it isn’t. I doubt that going through the motions in this case is enough. It is possible that it might work for you (this is not something that I KNOW 😉 ), but I predict that at some point you’ll have to jump off the fence to one side or the other. I do think I understand your position better, and am glad you’re being honest with those around you (and thus more honest with yourself). That was my main concern with your theology as I originally understood it.

  45. What I appreciate about this faith model is that even though you don’t hold everything within Mormonism to be true, you still see how others can and you see value in doing so. With this model of faith you avoid the tendency to see your views as better than those with a literal belief. You are not saying they are wrong and you are right. It would be nice if more people who no longer literally believe, could still hold value in the belief and avoid seeing their beliefs (or lack thereof) as somehow more right or superior to those who maintain literal beliefs.

  46. I’d like to address what Enoch is saying about the subjectivity of knowledge. I see things in a very similar way.

    I see human cognition as intimately tied to language. In my head, thought occurs in language, and whenever I share thoughts, they are, of course, in language.

    Language, in turn, consists of a system of metaphors. Every word is a metaphor. Taking the first sentence of this paragraph as an example (bear with me, I have a point, as painfully pedantic as it is):

    “Language” goes back to the Latin word for the Jabba the Hutt like thing in our mouths, though neither English nor Arabic is actually a pinkish organ in our mouth. We use the idea of this organ to represent a much more abstract collection of sounds and meanings.

    “consists” is another Latin metaphor meaning “standing together”; again, a more concrete picture is used as a metaphor for a more abstract idea.

    “of” goes back to an Indo-European word denoting the relationship of an object coming off of or away from another object.

    “a” goes back to an Indo-European root indicating one finger (from which we also get “one”)

    “system” is another Latin metaphor borrowed from Greek that actually paints the exact same picture as “consists”: standing together.

    “metaphors” is an image from Greek meaning “carrying over/across.”

    At their root, all words go back to a simpler hunter/gatherer world of visuality and brute, physical reality. Thousands and thousands of years of playing with these literal pictures has produced the complex linguistic systems of expression, capable even of total abstraction, we now enjoy.

    Words like “Savior,” “atonement,” “God,” “sacrifice,” “heaven” all have similar histories taking them back to visual descriptions of physical objects. Over time they have, through metaphorical abstractions, become what they are. Add to this that these specific metaphors all developed in English and were chosen to represent completely different metaphors with different developmental histories in languages in which ancient scriptures were written.

    Going even further, when we use the word “sacrifice,” many don’t think of “changing [the status of something] from profane to holy” nor of all of the spatial, temporal and ritual metaphors that it even takes to arrive at that picture. (In fact we usually erroneously think of “giving something up”).

    Even if we do think of priests that have been “made holy” through specific rituals in a precinct that has been “made holy” by specific rituals killing animals to use their blood as a metaphysical detergent to remove human stink from sacred space and furniture (“making [it] holy”), we are still only thinking in images. Don’t the robes, structures, instruments, etc. all still represent something beyond themselves?

    Now to say that “Jesus” (a name with a long history predating Herod the Great) “sacrificed” himself is to avail ourselves of this eternally regressing chain of metaphorical reference. One can stop at what they assume to be the surface level to imagine a rather simple and straightforward meaning, but this requires an arbitrary process to create that simple image.

    This simple, arbitrary image is also subjective, being the product of the choices of an individual (I just think “He sacrificed himself” means “He died for me!”). To assume that this “simple” picture ignoring all etymological and cultic history and development is somehow the correct way to think of sacrifice is a bit solipsistic. At the same time, a concept of “sacrifice” based on all of that history has no better claim to being the “correct” one. It can be called more “complex” and perhaps “better informed,” but it is still provisional and subjective.

    Given Enoch’s deep, deep engagement with the foundational literature (containing all of the foundational metaphors) of Christianity, we should have understanding for his inability to continue to share simple, surface-level understandings of many of the metaphors others cherish in a less historical way. It is simply a fact that if you really engage with these texts and with the subsequent development of their metaphors following the NT period, it becomes very, very difficult to take things literally as easily as it is before this rigorous engagement. (If I understand the community here at this blog correctly, that is a point hardly worth making, and I appreciate you indulging me.)

    Given that all we have is language – a system of pictures approximating things beyond those pictures – I think Enoch is choosing a reasonable course in not throwing symbols out when traditional, surface-level interpretations of them are problematized by a historical perspective.

    I also don’t think it is just charity, and certainly not condescension, to want others to hold on to the symbols that bring them all of the best things in their lives and to hold on to the interpretations that allow for those benefits. That’s all that Enoch is doing. His symbols/metaphors may be more problematized, but they are also all that he has to work with.

    Symbols/metaphors are all that any of us have to work with. And I personally think that the gap between a metaphor and the transcendent reality to which it corresponds (or not) is what requires faith. I don’t take “strong” language of certitude as a sign of “faith.”

    To say that a literal resurrection is harder to believe in after doing all of the work Enoch has is only being honest, from his perspective. To say that he hopes for resurrection is also honest. To say that if a more literal belief in resurrection makes life better for others, then he doesn’t want to change that, is just as honest.

    And this gets to the critical point. Enoch can’t take certain symbols literally as he once did BECAUSE of his perspective. He’s being honest, and he is just as bound by his perspective as anyone else is. I don’t think he somehow believes he has peeked behind the curtain to see that the meanings others give to symbols are wrong. He’s just being honest with everything that he sees on this side of that veil. He has every right to assume that he has a superior knowledge over many of the NT and related texts in historical/linguistic ways. He wouldn’t be right in saying he knows absolute reality and is simply condescending to all of the fools who can’t read Greek and Aramaic – and I’m quite sure he’s not doing this. Historically informed intimacy with a textual tradition offers no more or a peek behind the current than a determined commitment to single-layered meanings.

    Enoch calls himself agnostic, not atheist. An atheist is making a strong, absolute claim – that they know what is on the other side of the curtain (nothing). An agnostic is just honest about the fact that they aren’t certain. They aren’t certain about what they know or about what others know in relation to the transcendent. They are only certain about the pictures of the world with which they are currently working based on what they have learned. Enoch’s agnosticism gives him a lot of sympathy and space to allow for others to live in their own limited worlds of knowledge (none of us has any alternative – the incompleteness and need for knowledge is just part of the task God has given us here).

    He’s not saying (at least I think not) that symbols/metaphors have no meaning. He’s saying that what you have for sure is the symbol and the effect it has on your life. We all have to wait for the great, cosmic flash card to flip to fully know the meaning. And I think he wants spaces where we give each other permission to work within the subjectivity of our relationships to our religious symbols – including when one’s subjective relationship is structured in such a way as to not believe that it is subjective or that other relationships could be equally [in]correct.

  47. Enoch calls himself agnostic, not atheist. An atheist is making a strong, absolute claim – that they know what is on the other side of the curtain (nothing). An agnostic is just honest about the fact that they aren’t certain. They aren’t certain about what they know or about what others know in relation to the transcendent. They are only certain about the pictures of the world with which they are currently working based on what they have learned. Enoch’s agnosticism gives him a lot of sympathy and space to allow for others to live in their own limited worlds of knowledge (none of us has any alternative – the incompleteness and need for knowledge is just part of the task God has given us here).

    I probably shouldn’t start semantic fights *again*, but one thing I would say is that there is nothing inherent in the definition of atheism that implies certainty, in the same way there is nothing inherent in the definition of theism that implies certainty. One can believe one way or another (or lack belief either way) without claiming certainty. That’s why there’s a difference between the statements “I believe” and “I know.”

    Enoch’s strong agnosticism, however, is making a strong, absolute claim as well. For example, he isn’t just saying, “I don’t know.” He has said several times, “We *can’t* know.” This is a strong, absolute claim and it colors the rest of his position. SilverRain insists that she can know that God is real the same way she knows eating fills a person up. Enoch has a strong position the other way — one cannot know for sure any such thing.

    So I mean, i’m sure that he has a lot of sympathy and space to allow for others to live in…but he’s definitely taking some pretty strong positions that — dare me to be the skeptic — I am unsure how he claims to have such knowledge. 😉

  48. Given Enoch’s deep, deep engagement with the foundational literature (containing all of the foundational metaphors) of Christianity, we should have understanding for his inability to continue to share simple, surface-level understandings of many of the metaphors others cherish in a less historical way. It is simply a fact that if you really engage with these texts and with the subsequent development of their metaphors following the NT period, it becomes very, very difficult to take things literally as easily as it is before this rigorous engagement. (If I understand the community here at this blog correctly, that is a point hardly worth making, and I appreciate you indulging me.)

    However this confuses accuracy of texts (which I don’t particularly see as terribly accurate on purely theological grounds from the Book of Mormon) with issues about what actually happened. Effectively Enoch is portraying himself as saying it doesn’t matter whereas his actual position is that it does matter and there isn’t anything there therefore we should try to salvage something from the symbols. I don’t mind if that’s his position but his whole post rests on that not being his position.

    Symbols/metaphors are all that any of us have to work with. And I personally think that the gap between a metaphor and the transcendent reality to which it corresponds (or not) is what requires faith. I don’t take “strong” language of certitude as a sign of “faith.”

    Honestly though it really doesn’t take a lot of faith to see that most of the important notions we have correspond to reality. For all the number of “brains in a vat” thought experiments philosophers come up with the fact is almost no one really believes them. They are more about developing certain kinds of arguments than really illustrating we need something akin to faith to make our language work.

  49. Enoch,

    I don’t have time right now to try to respond to everything and I’m going to have to drop out of the conversation for now. I may have to think through how to explain myself more clearly and then do a post at some future date. (If I had a dime for every ‘future post’ I’ve promised…)

    Let me just say that you and I are closer than perhaps it first appears. In fact, I recognize your thought process as the very one I went through. I ultimately drew a different conclusion that you.

    That being said, I think AndrewS expressed my real point well. The fact is that you are not “work[ing] out a useful approach to religious principles that work no matter what the unknowable reality happens to be” because that would be impossible. The end result is that you end up with a set of religious truth claims all your own and they have real life consequences here and now regardless of what the afterlife is or isn’t like. This very post is an attempt to deal with and justify those consequences. So you have not acheived your goal and, truth be told, you won’t because it’s impossible.

    For example, your post gives your reasons why, given your point of view, it’s okay to say things to other members of the Church that intentionally misleads them. i.e. Because “it’s real for them…” You feel that for these reason that your misleading language is still ‘honest.’

    I can detect other truth claims as well. AndrewS pointed out one that is ultimately incompatible with the LDS Church and would require taking the whole narrative of the restoration and undoing it. (i.e. “I think we need to soften/move past exclusivist models of religiosity.”) It’s har to see how the LDS Church could ‘survive’ without the restoration narrative. What else *is* the LDS Church but the restoration narrative? It’s like trying to imagine an egg that has all the qualities of an apple.

    Bear in mind that I’ve already agreed with you that the truth would be a hurtful thing, so I am not criticizing you for your choice and I actually agree with you that given your world view (i.e. your personal truth claims) you are doing what I’d do in your shoes.

    But the fact is that if you really had come up with a set of beliefs where an “approach to religious principles that work no matter what” then you’d have no need to justify what in other circumstance you’d call deception.

    So your personal truth claims have forced you to arrived at a rational paradox. You must simultaneously misrepresent your beliefs to others and also come up with a reason for why this is not only morally justified, but in fact “True and Honest” in some sense. I am in doubt that this could ever be worked out rationally, though I think you’ve given excellent emotive reasons for your point of view.

    But my point is that you haven’t escaped the very problems that you are trying to solve. You’ve just moved it to a place you are more emotively comfortable with. Yet you must bear the consequences of your chosen truth claims just like everyone does.

  50. Enoch,

    Thanks for teeing up and tackling (like hopolios, I love mixed metaphors)this topic.

    A question borne of curiosity: do you think there can be such a thing as an aperspectival understanding? A transpersonal one?

  51. I accidentally posted before I was finished. (Mea culpa – I seem to do that a lot)

    My point is really that metaphors or symbols aren’t all we have to work with. We exist within a world and that implies a lot. Even the people who push the “it’s metaphors all the way down” view of language (say Ricouer or Derrida) are actually arguing for something quite a bit different from relativism. As Derrida is at odds to note his primary concern is with the Other to language and how that disrupts what we might call our language games.

    He’s saying that what you have for sure is the symbol and the effect it has on your life.

    This is why I raised the whole issue of William James as a lot Enoch takes here seems like a common way some read texts like “The Will to Believe.” However James’ view is that reality acts on us. (He largely lifts his pragmatism from C. S. Peirce) Over time this means what works only works because we are constantly interacting with reality. Therefore we have to inquire. So quite the contrary of symbols and their effects on our life being all there is he is saying that symbols grow and that in the long run we’ll understand reality. James goal in writing things like “The Will to Believe” is ultimately to naturalize rationality but understanding via psychology how it is we are rational and what that means. Our goal is genuine truth so we’re willing to risk being wrong in order to eventually be right.

    Of course almost everyone accepts fallibilism as a practical matter. But I think people push the consequences of being fallible far too much. Indeed that is arguably the whole drive behind the foundationalism that goes back to Descartes. (Find what we can’t doubt and build a foundation of absolute knowledge from that) James (once again following Peirce) rejects this and notes that doubt and belief just don’t work that way.

    Now I don’t know if Enoch is actually following James. I just raised that as it sounds very similar to what I’d call misreadings of James. The fact is we always have far more to go on than our symbols. We exist within a world that acts upon us and we can test our symbols against that world to attempt to discern their meaning.

  52. Enoch, one more point:

    “I am NOT assuming anything is false.”

    I think you misunderstood me here.

    Consider these quotes from you:

    “I think we need to soften/move past exclusivist models of religiosity”

    This statement assumes that the restoration narrative as the LDS Church understands it (or probably any restoration narrative) is false.

    “I don’t want to shatter their productive worldviews with my doubts”

    This assumes that it wouldn’t be better to convert them to your point of view. (Unless what you really meant was that it *would* be better, but maybe they are not ready for it. A truth claim all it’s own.)

    “Do I wish that I could just believe in things literally again? Sometimes, kind of. But not really. Because this approach allows me to consciously choose the very best of religious tradition and put it together into the way I want to conceptualize myself and the universe, kind of like a form of metaphysical home decorating”

    This assumes that it is better to know the real truth. Thus it’s even possibly a contradiction to the above.

    My point was not that you are definitely deciding the truth claims of the LDS Church are false. My point was only that one can’t live their life without deciding what they really believe and acting on it. You have done this as much as anyone and it has consequences in this life.

    Even your statements about whether or not you will stay LDS and the amount of work you have to do to stay prove this.

    Again, I am not sure we are saying such different things. I get it that you are generally quite honest about your beliefs (And I agree that not saying something isn’t dishonest.) And I get it that you are not definitely ruling out any possiblity. But that doesn’t change the fact that you must ultimately “jump off the fence to one side or the other” as SilverRain says. In fact, you already have multiple times. I suspect you’d agree with this.

    But that does undermine the idea that it’s possible to come up with a set of beliefs where by it makes no difference. The differences might be small, but they are there. And the farther with time that you depart from the core narrative of the LDS Church, it is only natural that the difference will grow.

  53. Wow. I am so impressed by these thoughtful and challenging comments. Thank you for engaging so honestly and powerfully everyone.

    I am going to do something novel and be PRODUCTIVE today but I look forward to engaging when I get the chance. I think I will be better for having done so.

  54. Enoch – you are possibly the hardest writin’ guy in blog business. 🙂 I am super impressed with your thoughtful comments and responses. Good questions all around.

  55. Clark, you make some excellent comments that really reign my comment in (in ways I didn’t myself). Though I would say that the gaps in language and the subjective uniqueness of the way each of us understands our metaphors does leave us in a situation where our understanding of even the most everyday phenomena can shift and develop a bit, I should make clear that I think that language “works” (if I may) almost all of the time. I don’t think I am too mystified by what is under my fingers (this keyboard) nor what I’m staring at (a screen), and I don’t think there is much of them to be revealed to me at some future point.

    Where I think we really start to walk metaphorical tightropes is with religion. I have had some intense experiences that I label “spiritual” because I understand them within a network of stories and concepts with which I’ve been raised. These experiences keep me tied to a narrative involving concepts far less apparent than my keyboard.

    Yes, language doesn’t create a great epistemological gulf between me and my keyboard (unless we do go all the way to a Cartesian starting point like the brain in a vat, which I also only see as useful to begin certain kinds of classroom discussions). But when we are talking about our version of the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes – a celestial kingdom with 12 bejeweled gates, streets paved with gold and the ground like a Urim and Thummim, a patriarchal King on a throne producing a mighty river, his noble Son (a Lamb, actually) sitting at his right hand, and concourses of resurrected beings (at the highest of 3 levels living in monogamous or polygamous connubial bliss depending on the century), trees with 12 kinds of fruit, no sun, etc. – I DO think it is worthwhile to point out the massive role that metaphor plays in this picture and how hard it is to pick the stopping point at which we take one of our images literally and believe in it in the same concrete way my fingertips, ears and eyes keep telling me to believe in this keyboard.

    Planning the recreational activities for an Elders Quorum party is much, much easier than describing how the atonement works. In the latter case, the linguistic metaphors float much, much further from everyday experience.

  56. Andrew S, you hit me right where I live. Your point that my argument – language’s role in our approach to the transcendent leaves us all in the dark – is as absolute a paradigm to enforce on everyone else as any other is undeniable.

    Even the relativist is just another -ist. And this -ist takes his hat off to you sir.

  57. greenfrog, until Enoch responds to your question, here as a response to it from Nietzsche:

    Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject”; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” “knowledge in itself”: these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.

  58. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

    The gospel is taught as a series of metaphorical paradigm stair steps some fact some fiction but nothing material is important to the afterlife the gospel is preparing us for. So what is “real” in this scripture? what is objective? subjective? does it matter if physics and gravity apply to the mansions? do we expect to be with Him in a physical structure? Does it matter if Jesus actually lived? if the BoM is fact or fiction? If so how? Doesn’t a metaphor work just as well?

  59. Holipos, certainly some things are described by way of incomplete metaphors. And a lot of things we don’t understand terribly well. But that’s not really what Enoch is getting at, is it?

    In other words we can talk about the hermeneutics of engaging with particular texts and drawing out their implications. But surely for many issues that’s just not really the problem.

    Howard, surely all of us would agree that’s a metaphoric text. Are you saying all texts are like that?

    As for what is objective or subjective what do you mean by that? Does it matter if Jesus actually lived? Surely it does as that has implications for what will happen to us in the future. So it matters the same way it matters to say an FBI agent whether a bomb is or isn’t in a particular city. Do you think that works just as well as a metaphor? And if not why?

    It seems to me you are conflating the rhetorical style of a text with its meaning. That is you are confusing content with style.

  60. Hopolios, isn’t the issue not whether all we have is perspectives but what structures the perpsepctives we have?

  61. Clark Jesus was either fact or fiction and His teachings are either true of false if they are true it doesn’t matter if Jesus was fact or fiction but if His teachings are false it changes everything. It seems to me you are conflating Jesus with His teachings.

  62. re 67:


    Jesus either was God the Son incarnated who died for our sins, or not. How does the factuality or fictitiousness of Jesus as a person (and of the description of that person) not matter?

  63. Howard, if there was no Jesus there was no atonement which has very real practical effects in the future (if true). Are you really being serious with that question?

    How could Jesus’ teachings be true if Jesus isn’t real if some of Jesus’ teachings are about himself? There’s some basic logic issues here I think for you. I’m not conflating Jesus with his teachings since some of his teachings aren’t so referential. But some are.

  64. Andrew S. the important part of the story is Jesus was part man part god but the atonement makes it possible for even us non-gods to follow His example. Much more can be taught from fiction than non-fiction which is simply a set of facts that’s what parables are about. What are the eternal implications to us of a fictional Jesus if His teachings are true? There aren’t any are there?

    Similarly each of the standard works are largely non-fiction or largely fiction or a mix and their teachings are either true, false or a mix to the extent the teachings are true it matters not if they are non-fiction or fiction. Accepting this also opens the door to reconciling the differences between science and religion.

  65. if there was no Jesus there was no atonement Why does this matter if the teaching of the atonement is true? Jesus’ teachings could well be true even if He was a fiction because God could have revealed them to those who wrote scripture. What difference does it make that His teachings refer to Him?

  66. Howard, really? Come on. This is basic logic 101. It’s a variation of the liar’s paradox. Jesus said, “Jesus is God.” Jesus doesn’t exist so it is false “Jesus is God” Jesus’ teachings are true so “Jesus is God” is true. Logical contradiction.

  67. Ha ha that’s a good one Clark so you think I’m that concrete? Take a look at 70 where I speak of the standard works as being largely non-fiction or largely fiction do you really take me for a literalist?

  68. Let me throw out three narratives to see what you all think.


    A God who is an anatomically correct, incarnate male Homo sapiens (but with some fluid other than blood in his veins) has a plan to send his literal kids to a planet to become incarnate. He originally makes them immortal, just as he makes lions capable of surviving off of a diet of grass. Unfortunately, these kids listen to a talking snake that tells them to eat some fruit. When they bite into that fruit, a metaphysical ripple shoots through the universe making these humans and all future posterity mortal and making them incapable of being in God’s presence – it also makes lions require a diet of dead other animals.

    A little history passes including a man who houses and feeds his family and every animal and insect species on earth (yep, even the tens of thousands of spider species) on a boat for a while to preserve earth’s biodiversity, a strong man who loses his superpower when his hair is cut, another man able to tell God to stop the sun of a temporarily geocentric universe in the sky, and one family that is selected as those worthy of God’s attention for centuries. Then God has some kind of sexual interaction with a woman named Mary and she has God’s Son as a baby. This baby grows up, claims to be the Davidic King who will restore the kingdom to Israel and is executed as a criminal.

    BUT at his execution, a metaphysical ripple shoots through the universe reversing the ripple set off by the fruit-eater who listened to the snake. OR maybe that already began when this divine Son was praying in a garden and ruptured so much of his vascular system that blood came out of every single one of his pores. Its hard to say exactly when and how, as this is quite a great mystery. At any rate, at some temporal point between this prayer and his dying, he metaphysically reversed all of the bad effects of the fruit-eaters.


    There is a God who may or may not be anatomically correct, male or even anthropomorphic, but is at least some kind of benevolent centralized consciousness. This God gives an ethnic group stories about talking snakes, big boats and bad hair cuts that may or may not be historically accurate but inspire that people to murder each other less.

    Then, when a Galilean of unsure parentage is executed, God inspires the man’s followers to interpret his death as a pivotal moment that unlocks the gates to a happy afterlife, love between humans and contact between humans and God. God always intended to provide this afterlife, love and contact, and, in fact, already had always done so, but thought this moment in history and the way these followers were interpreting it to be a very powerful way to turn humans towards these always available gifts, so God makes the most of it.


    Some kind of powerful benevolence watches as people take ancient legends and interpretations of historical events (especially the execution of Jesus) of their own making to come to focus on loving each other and seeking communion with the powerful benevolence. The powerful benevolence vibrates joyfully in tune with these developments.


    There is nothing out there and when we die, lights out.

    Now, within all of these narratives a different level of literalness is required in believing the symbols/metaphors of our religion, but within the first three humanity is pointed towards loving each other and seeking harmony with a power controlling the universe. In all of those first three, Jesus matters as a powerful and beneficial symbol of that love and union, but how literal the narrative of his death reversing a fall is varies greatly.

  69. Clark (65), I’m interested in your question about what structures our perspectives. Are you talking about something like Kantian categories, textual traditions or something else?

    I’m intrigued.

  70. Kant is one obvious example although he’s still very much caught up in the Cartesian tradition. One way of reading Heidegger is to see him as rethinking through Kant only with hermeneutics instead of the Kantian ideas. Derrida very much can be seen as taking up something like the Kantian Idea but revised in a much different way. (What survives deconstruction, terms like Justice, end up being a quasi-Universal akin to a Kantian Idea albeit with very different ontology) Outside of the Continental tradition I think you can explicitly see this in the pragmatic tradition as well. However even the analytic tradition while there isn’t much systematic you end up have transcendental arguments quite frequently that explicate our language or intuitions. And one might say that much of the place of analysis of language and intuitions in analytic philosophy is very much looking for the structures of our perspectives so that philosophical questions can be understood.

    Now that’s not really the way they’ll talk about it typically. But my point is that the fact we have perspectives really doesn’t get us terribly far. Indeed there’s a significant strain of Nietzsche interpretation who reads him and his perspectivism as something much closer to the positivists and their view of naturalism. (See Brian Leiter for one famous example of this school) The problem is that not all perspectives are equal and it’s fairly trivial to show that.

    As to your three examples, I confess I don’t see the significance. I think our knowledge is quite vague at best. Once again I think we’re conflating hermeneutic issues with content issues. Style vs. meaning. Admittedly they can at times be intertwinned, but I think in this conversation it’d be useful to break them out.

  71. Howard, the issue isn’t literalism. (Honestly I can’t figure out why people keep emphasizing literary style so much when it seems pretty irrelevant to the questions at hand)

    Rather the issue is your argument. That’s all I’m addressing.

    Now I rather guessed you simply discounted much scriptural narrative as wrong independent of literary style. Having discounted it you decided to see how much could be saved ore perhaps created back into the text. That’s fine if that is what you are doing. I just think the whole refrain “it doesn’t matter” is rather misleading at best and deceitful at worse. Since the position depends upon it mattering quite a bit so that one can thereby say that worry about those other meanings doesn’t matter. (Much like I can say it doesn’t matter to worry about ghosts attacking me because I already know ghosts aren’t going to attack me)

    My point I originally made to Enoch applies equally to you.

    Once again I honestly don’t mind if people reject a lot of parts of the scripture. As I said I think formal LDS theology demands a hermeneutics of suspicion especially towards the Bible. And while we will almost certainly disagree over what theologically is true that’s really not my problem. My problem is simply the pretending things don’t matter when they actually do to both sides.

  72. The literal is always more difficult to believe in – hence the prevalence of higher-powerism. The fact that the literal truth is difficult to discover doesn’t mean it is impossible to discover. Different people will have varying levels of comfort with use of the word ‘knowledge.’ Do I know that I am conversing with real people here, engaged in a process similar to mine? Maybe not, in an absolute sense. But things as they are, I would be comfortable saying that I know this. I once had an experience in the temple, of an exceptional nature, and when I came out I thought, well, now I know. Did I know everything? No. But I knew a couple things I did not know before.

    The Holy Spirit remains an agent of knowledge. Failure to grant that a God can communicate in a way that imparts knowledge is a failure of imagination. Not setting oneself in a way that leads to that knowledge is a choice, if one has actually been presented with that path. Few members of the church have been presented with the path: partly because we want to simplify difficult things, partly because we don’t want to discourage people going in, mostly because we do not want to discourage ourselves.

    It seems to me Enoch has staked out a position that can be held in good faith. But not permanently.

    Most people have no knowledge of divine things. It doesn’t follow that no one does. Why Simmias say, in the Phaedo, that arguments from probability are ‘pretentious” — Lets say we take on a quest to find people who have possession of a book and have read it. But we are not told that only one man in ten thousand has the book and has read it, or perhaps one man in one hundred thousand, make that number as high as needed. We begin our quest, but in our first hundred inquiries find only people who haven’t got the book, or having it haven’t read it, or who claim to have read it but haven’t got it, or have got it but their claims to have read it are false. Perhaps this is all we find in first thousand inquiries. It happens that we will become discouraged and claim that no one has the book and has read it. But, of course, all we can really say is that we haven’t encountered the thing itself, yet.

    The mist of darkness isn’t to keep people from being Mormons. It seems to me the mist is to disguise the nature of the path. The nature of the path is a constant unfolding of knowledge. The difficulties are as difficult as can be.


  73. Clark I understand you don’t like what I am saying and that it does not fit your frame of reference but I am not misleading or being deceitful as you claim rather I am provoking thought. The scriptures could have told a story about a fictional Jesus referring to himself as god this would not be a logical fault it would simply be fiction given what I have said to insist otherwise is straw man.

  74. It’s the ‘free thinkers’ that carve out a haven within the doctrine that are simultaneously the most dangerous to the organization and everyone outside of it. Interjecting rational and logical conclusions to some problems while ignoring others because simply they want to believe, is the biggest danger to truth there is.

    It’s a well written post, but from having traveled those thoughts before, and having seen them now from the other side – they are nothing but a stumbling block to truth. They teach you to simply be satisfied with the world you want, rather than the world that is.

  75. I don’t believe that symbols motivate us. I believe it is the reality behind the symbols that motivate. If there is no reality, there is no power.

    Come now, this is demonstrably false. Either it is or it is not the will of the Almighty that terrorists commit horrible acts. Either there are or there are not 72 virgins/[insert other divine reward here] waiting for them after they go boom. I assume that the literal truth of these beliefs and the beliefs that you, SR, accept literally are mutually exclusive. (If not, then your theology is a dizzying space to navigate.)

    But here’s the rub: if symbols didn’t motivate, if such power were only derived from reality, then we would either have LDS missionaries or terrorists. We have both. Mormon folk still pay their tithing and go home teaching (occasionally); those who subscribe to the most radical stripes of Islam still blow themselves (and others) up.

    If only one group can be motivated by “the reality behind” their religious symbols/theologies, then what is driving the other? Something else.

  76. You could have put this much more simply. You don’t believe in the literal truth of the restoration, but the church works for you and your family and that’s good enough.

  77. Aaron Foushee (#81):

    But how is your characterization of the approach of what you call “free thinkers” different from what anyone does?

  78. BKP (83),

    Glad to hear you endorse my approach; I am sure others will be as gratified as well. Yes, I could have worded it that way, but thusly wording it would have been much less useful, like a parent saying “I told you so” rather than explaining why certain behavior is important and desirable. Putting the issue in another context, it is like the difference between saying “I don’t know the answer to your question, but I know the Church is true” vs. bearing testimony and ALSO answering questions. Specifics lie at the foundation of any argument or appeal.

    I have a few goals with this post. One is to verbalize my approach clearly as possible so that others can make use of it if they find it helpful. Another reason is so that literal believers, non-literal believers, and non-believers can have common ground to discuss the value and cost of religion in a productive and less-threatening way.

    I think these comments demonstrate the post created space for productive discussion!

  79. I love it when someone succeeds in articulating exactly how I feel in a way that I never could. I am curious to know what the author’s approach to the Book of Mormon is.

  80. I don’t believe that symbols motivate us. I believe it is the reality behind the symbols that motivate. If there is no reality, there is no power. Okay I would restate this to say; I don’t believe that symbols motivate us. I believe it is the emotion invoked by scene depicting the symbols that motivates. If there is no emotion, there is little power.

  81. Thanks for the comment Noah.

    I take a polyvalent approach to the Book of Mormon (and other aspects of spirituality). I work out the maximum position I feel I can hold responsibly based on my studies and logic and then remain open a spectrum of possibilities while focusing on what I feel to be most important.

    I love the Book of Mormon while remaining aware of its problematic aspects. The Book of Mormon has changed many lives for the better. It is inspiring and I believe inspired.

    At the same time, even if there were gold plates, the Book of Mormon as we have it clearly does not match up with what would have been on them. The maximum I could accept is that the Book of Mormon contains a historical core with people who really lived and then that account was filtered/translated into Joseph Smith’s 19th century world view and expectations. I am also open to it being inspired fiction with some very appealing theology. I admit I hope there is historical truth to it; I love the characters in the Book of Mormon. I really resonate with Grant Hardy’s approach that whether or not it is historical, the Book of Mormon deserves to be taken seriously.

    Let me know if you have follow up questions.

  82. Enoch, thank-you. I get it and it is helpful to me. To everyone else, thank-you as well. I am struggling with my own agnosticism and all of your well expressed insights give me more to consider. And finally, thanks to John who introduced me to this site through Mormon Stories. I am so grateful.

  83. I’m thinking about starting a blog on the Book of Mormon, and I wanted to know what a fellow Mormon-agnostic thought on the matter, so thanks. If you’re willing, here’s my take, which I believe shares a likeness to yours:

    I don’t know whether the Book of Mormon is factual or inspired fiction either, but if I had to guess, I’d say it falls somewhere in between. Seemingly as an expression of faith, many Mormons tend to read the Book of Mormon very literally. However, I know of no religious text that should be taken literally. The Mahabharata, Ramayana, Illiad, Odyssey, Old Testament–you name it–these accounts are only loosely based on history. The priests and scribes who authored them probably knew it and perhaps even made no secret about it. Why should anyone, including Church leaders, hold LDS scripture to such a high standard? Pick up your Book of Mormon and read Helaman chapter 5. It has some very powerful imagery. The symbolism is both inspired and inspirational, really quite perfect in a way, but perfect in a way that life never is…

    I do think Joseph translated an ancient record. I don’t “know” it, but it’s equally difficult to account for it as a mere work of fiction, so I think a middle approach is reasonable. The blatant plagiarism (so blatant that it should effectively eliminate the controversy) and numerous anachronisms were partially Joseph’s own contribution. However, apparently unlike you, I also think the plates themselves contained non-historical, ie, fictional aspects.

  84. David B (84)

    It’s not, most people find their comfort level and decide that that’s enough. But good education doesn’t tell us how much we know, rather it shows us how little we know. Which is why I put free-thinkers in quotes because it’s not really breaking down any walls not taking religion literally, it’s only adding complicated mental jumping-jacks to connect the dots between what you want to be true, and what is actually known.

    For people who write and think like this blog, you could remove Mormonism/religion from the equation and they would lose nothing in their quest to find truth and happiness. But instead, they keep the myth alive by annexing contradictory scientific truths into the interpretation of scripture/modern prophet-speak.

    Plato’s Cave is an adept metaphor here, but you’re not moving into the next cave by not taking it’s walls literally. I’m going to mix some Plato and Stephen King here: What did Red say about Brooks in Shawshank? Institutionalized. On the inside (of the cave/prison), Brooks was an important man, who knew how to survive, on the outside, he lived in fear, and killed himself. We see what happened to Brooks, and wish we were Andy, but are really Red, the one with a choice. You either get busy living, or get busy dying.

  85. it’s not really breaking down any walls not taking religion literally Maybe not but examining the myth with others by firelight beats interpreting shadows on the wall by yourself.

  86. I agree, and in all honesty I sometimes wish I would have found people who think like this much earlier in my life. It would have made my early and mid-twenties a lot more bearable. On the other side though, maybe I wouldn’t have broken free of the church and found true peace of mind.

    I truly respect and love people who challenge the church in taking it literally. I’m here reading this blog post because I still find the entire thing fascinating. My only problem with them is that they wittingly or unwittingly defend the True Believers insanity. So I can understand how my words might sound somewhat contradictory, criticizing those who would work to break free of the figurative walls by discussing them. My only aim is to widen the scope, and maybe shed some more light for some.

  87. People who leave the church look at people like you, who cease to believe in the literal truth but still stay in the institution, and say “how could he stay?”. For most, the unraveling of the all-encompassing Mormon worldview feels like a huge betrayal. Just like it would be tough to stay with a spouse who had been lying to you for years, it is tough to stay with an institution that has.

    It seems that you do some cost-benefit analysis and come out saying “well, it isn’t true, but it works for me and fam.”

    The church has a history rife with racism, misogyny and fraud. Top it off with the fact that it isn’t true?

    You might as well grab any faith tradition and say the exact same thing about it that you have said about Mormonism.

    “I like being a Jew because I like the community and the support structure it forms for me and my family. I don’t care if Sheol exists or not, I don’t always agree with the Rabbi, but I like celebrating Passover and going to temple.”

    To me it appears a calculated and disingenuous intellectual balancing act. You have to write 12 paragraphs to get through the cognitive dissonance it causes you. What does that say?

  88. @Aaron It teaches you to be satisfied with what works, not necessarily the same thing as what you want, while allowing you to approach the reason of how and why it works with rigor and humility.

    Also, in a very real sense what you “want” can and does effect the “the way the world actually is” — a little trip down the rabbit hole of the quantum physics supports this idea.

    But as Enoch points out everyone needs to be true to themselves, so if this doesn’t resonate with you the beautiful thing is that those that do participate in the Mormon faith this way will simply wish you well and happiness where you find it.

  89. I am responding to all comments now but thought I would jump in and reply to Carey.

    I really resonated with and appreciated your comments. It is important to look at “how and why [approaches to spirituality] work with rigor and humility”. Well said. And yes, our desires and perspectives can influence reality!

    You have really understood what I am trying to get at…. people of varying beliefs can look at this approach, take from it what they find useful and leave the rest. I just want to verbalize it for those who are on a similar journey, and carve out a space for discussion for as many who want to participate.

  90. I truly respect and love people who challenge the church in taking it literally…My only problem with them is that they wittingly or unwittingly defend the True Believers insanity. What is the alternative? What are you asserting here the gospel isn’t true? or TBs insanity comes from being literal? or what?

  91. I’ll concede those points about perspective, independently they add up to the same sum (finding happiness with what works), but in the larger context of evidence, it’s imbalanced. But maybe that’s splitting hairs.

    And that does resonate with me. But as for the Mormon’s who wish those well and happiness without the church… while that’s a very nice attitude of very few Mormon’s occasionally, it’s usually an exasperated final statement to end the conversation. At worse stated with the same cadence of “Well I hope you enjoy burning in hell for all eternity”, and at best “No, no, no, maybe for you majoring in Philosophy is a good choice”.

    Either way, It’s an attitude that should be nurtured by the church for the literal-thinkers, rather than wielded as a rhetorical weapon by them (I blame moderates, myself included, with arming them with this kind of rhetorical power).

    At the end of the day literal thinkers cannot distinguish the differences between these two statements: “I love you, please walk this way” and “Walk this way and I will love you”. Without the philosophic contradictions of the bible and BoM, these two statements would be really easy to distinguish and teach for the literalists, imo. But then the religion is actually just a humanity workshop, and where humanity is taught, coffee drinkers and socialists are sure to congregate and bore everyone. And then they’re hanging up guitar lesson flyers, and anti-government newspapers… and soon enough the constitution is hanging by a thread (for reals this time!)… honestly, tough call.

  92. @boyd k. Packer

    You said it better than I did.

    @Thomas Parkin

    I get wordy sometimes, but try comprehending it, totally worth it.

  93. I’m not a philosopher Aaron but having left the church and spending many years outside of it I get your point later I returned because of a witness from the Spirit so now I work toward greater enlightenment and a larger tent.

  94. Aaron,

    The point is that’s all you’ve got. You think that by leaving the church you’ve left the cave – this only means you grossly underestimate the cave. Like Howard, I left the church, too.

    Good luck to you. ~

  95. @Aaron

    While I totally agree with your observations that the average literal-thinking TBM does think you’ll be burning hell if you don’t attend church, which is why I said the people who approach the Mormon faith this way truly can accept your world view and really wish you nothing but happiness and success.

    I decided to delete my other comments in order to emphasis this one point – after all we are brother’s in real life and irrespective of our individual beliefs and practices I wanted to make sure that you know I sincerely meant that.

  96. @Carey

    Of course, and I don’t mean to belittle anything you may personally believe either, as I can’t really judge you for having fallen away and then finding reasons to go back for your own personal happiness. Also you are much smarter and more experienced than I am, so I always give you the benefit of the doubt in any misunderstand I may have about your any of your points.

    @Thomas Parkin, et al

    Not knowing your personal stories, all I can say is it’s a fallacy to say because you returned to the church after you left it gives the church any more validity. I do know my brother Carey’s (who’s points are well written from someone with this perspective) story, and what we both can concede is that you should always move forward, fearlessly, with the truth that you find. And I know him well enough that he’d leave the church again if he felt it wasn’t for him, even after rejoining it. And his perspective has given me the perspective that I may take steps (in what I may see now as a regression) back into the church, though however unlikely.

    I wrote a bunch of stuff, then deleted it realizing that all I’m really saying is keep the pendulum swinging, which is what everyone else is saying too. So we’re all in violent agreement 🙂

  97. If I can know that eating will fill me up, I can know that God is real.

    This is a good example of not really listening (reading) what others are saying (unless it’s a case of my OCD acting up). For one, if we talk about knowledge, we always have varying degrees of knowledge. While you know whether eating will fill you up because you’ve experienced it, I know vitamins do good to me, although I have no personal experience that would confirm it. I haven’t personally performed any lab tests for double-blind test/control groups. But that knowledge about vitamins is a knowledge that is transferable to others, and independently demonstrable.

    Really, there are only two kinds of knowledge: Subjective, e.g. “I’m full” (you’re the only one who knows whether you are), or Transferable, i.e. transferable to others. So we don’t have to break it down that far…

    I have had some very strong spiritual experiences that are very real for me. There is no way I can test if my current understanding that I have drawn from them of some ideas ideas corresponds with a reality that is independent of the framework I am in, and where I got them in–i.e. my “subjective experience/reality” (that would be the new cave, and only dead people have gone there, AFAIK).

    Such knowledge as I have, though, is real for me, but I cannot demonstrate/transfer it to others, except maybe by working constructively within the framework of the Church.

    I have not witnessed any earthly event that would “objectively” (a too often misused word) demonstrate the historicity of the BofM, but I still have strong faith in at least some kind of historical context to it.

    I have no access to a test of God’s existence that would be independent of my subjective experiences. Does that make God inexistent? IMHO, no, it doesn’t.

    As somebody that some people here would describe as a TBM, I truly appreciate Enoch’s effort here, and the discussion that has followed. Actually, I’m not a literal thinker, and am quite open to a lot of scriptural accounts being allegoric or symbolic; as was the case of Job in D&C 121, it didn’t matter to Joseph whether Job was rooted in independently (i.e. secularly) documented historical person, or a story. That’s where I fully agree with Enoch’s “it doesn’t matter” sense.

    I have often said, that I am subject to human foibles, and thus, my “knowledge” of afterlife cannot be 100% validated in our circumstances. If I’m wrong after all and there is no afterlife, how am I poorer for having been happy in the here and now, living in the moment? I consider myself well read, and well educated. Also having spent the last 10 years in forced retirement for health reasons, I’ve been an avid student of any academic journal I have access to, to learn more of, well, anything.

    If the Bible is at least inspired by God–and it is inspiring to me and many others–it means that the God, of whom we have a subjective experience, wants me to learn by reading Job. And by Jove, I do! (Sorry for a lame pun… can’t resist myself sometimes.)

    And I didn’t mean to write an epistle. If you did get through, I hope it has given something good.

    My final shot: I agree with Brother Brigham, that “all truth is Mormonism” (although not necessarily vice versa; there is truth to be found elsewhere, and also folly inside Mormonism), i.e. I sincerely believe I can accept any truth, regardless of source. And I don’t care that much about “usefulness”, being pretty useless myself! 😀

  98. If I can know that eating will fill me up, I can know that God is real…I have had some very strong spiritual experiences that are very real for me. The Greeks believed in a knowledge called gnosis which describes the direct, personal experience of divine presence. I do to.

  99. ::rolls up sleeves:: Ok, time to jump back into the discussion. I have been really impressed by the quality of comments thus far.

    One comment before I respond to the points that have been made. I want to make it very clear that I am not recommending everyone become a Mormon. I will also acknowledge that if the Church remained exactly as it is now, I may not want to stay. But religions are dynamic and they do change. And the bottom line, literally, is that I do not think our generation will continue financing the Church unless it changes—this is a challenge facing all religious institutions.

    What I want is to do my small part to maximize the good that can be found within Mormonism, to dig for the parts that resonate with me and to encourage others to do the same. I want it to be as good as it can be, so that those who want to remain a part of it find it easier to do, and it is more worth belonging to.

    Taken from a believing standpoint, I hope that God’s inspired leaders would listen to the experiences of members so that they can take issues to God to know how he would have them resolved. Works either way.

    Also, the question of whether Mormonism deserves its members, what benefits and harm the Church brings, the ideal manifestation of the religion… all these are separate issues. This post is trying in part to build a foundation for such discussions.

  100. Enoch states “And the bottom line, literally, is that I do not think our generation will continue financing the Church unless it changes—this is a challenge facing all religious institutions.”

    This really is the bottom line of this whole long discussion. As the church continues to lose members, suffer low retention of new converts-less than 20%, baptisms stagnate and primary are coming from the financially poor 3rd world, tithing revenues decrease, things will change. The next two decades will be the greatest challenge the church has ever faced. How will she respond?

  101. The line below the “bottom line” is whether or not it is true. Is it a Church, or is it a business? If it is true, than change which compromises that truth will kill it. If it is not, then change would be a good business decision.

    #51—I don’t think in language. Language in my thoughts is like pieces of stew that bubble up to the surface every once in awhile. In fact, I have a hard time putting my thoughts into language much of the time. I often find myself understanding things for which I can’t phrase any differently than I did before, yet the meaning for me has changed significantly. (That is part of why I’ve been mocked for using “big words” since I was very young. I’ve always been in search of words that express more closely what I mean.) So to me, metaphors and symbols only have meaning insofar as they resonate with this wordless understanding.

    For what it’s worth, I think that this is how the Spirit teaches, and is why spiritual things cannot be taught except by the Spirit. The Spirit engages your intellect, true, but unless a communicative bridge is formed beyond words, the meaning cannot be fully conveyed.

    Jesus’ reality or not only doesn’t matter if you reduce His teachings to “Make love, not war.” Granted, most people do that nowadays. But that’s not really what He was about. He was all about literally breaking the bands of temporal and spiritual death. No amount of fiction could do that.

    #82 LdG—Your comment makes no sense to me. Of course there is reality behind both those sets of symbols and acts. Lehi’s discourse on opposition in all things touches on that. Just because there has to be reality, doesn’t mean it sits around in nice, even skeins. Eating a 3D model of a carrot isn’t going to give you any Vitamin A, no matter how realistic it is.

    105 Velska—I think that all spiritual knowledge is subjective. That is why I don’t judge others for their perceptions. I don’t say, “he/she didn’t feel that,” but I do say, “what he/she felt isn’t what I feel.” The only way I think such subjective knowledge can be transferred is by subjective means: aka. the Spirit. I’m not sure what you think I didn’t read or understand from what others are saying, since my point of that sentence you quoted was to disagree with Enoch’s “you can’t know” statement. I am saying that you can know, but maybe not in the way you demand to know.

    And back to the “bottom line,” I expect that the Church shall lose membership. John’s Revelations predict that very thing. If exaltation was easy, everyone would do it.

  102. limelight (#108):

    I’m not sure i see the same financial crisis coming as you do. First of all because i tend not to believe the claims about the church’s finances that come from folks on either side of the whole debate about the church (when dealing with an institution with tightly closed books, there’s really no way to know what’s really going on), but secondly and more importantly because the one financial thing i think everyone can agree on is that the church has built itself a decent-sized endowment. As an endowed institution, the church simply isn’t subject to the sorts of financial pressures you’re assuming in your post, or at the very least it isn’t subject to them to nearly the same degree you’re assuming.

  103. Prepare your RSS feeds, going to respond:

    @Andrew S (43),

    To which “inside joke” are you referring?

    I would accept the title of “reformer”, in intent at least, as difficult as that is to do in an authoritarian institution. I really believe that what I am endorsing is not so much a matter of scrapping LDS beliefs as adjusting the proportions of emphasis. There are so many different views, perspectives, and approaches in Mormonism. Must we be locked into the current model of the current leaders? Can we not use our heritage to challenge the status quo? I am living Mormonism in a way that is satisfying to me now and I am trying to share an approach that has the greatest likelihood to work in the future, as best I can tell.

    Again, I think there is a very important distinction between “creating a new religion” and championing an *approach* to religion. For example, if I write a book that helps Muslims see the value of Islam and Hindus see the value of Hinduism, Jews see the value of Judaism and so on, as well as simultaneously appreciating the beliefs of others, how is that “creating a new religion”? (I aim to write that book by the way).

    Everyone spins and mixes theology into personal religion, whether we admit it or not. We focus on some things more than others. Some ideas we cherish and others we ignore.

    I think it is possible to describe Mormonism in a way that 1) fits within past and current doctrine, 2) maximizes the benefits of the tradition and therefore 3) increases the happiness of members and eventually the health of the institution. Is working out these issues personally disrespectful to current Church leaders? I don’t think so. But either way, welcome to the internet.

    Let’s take exclusivity. Yes, there is the “only true Church on the face of the earth” doctrine, and we need to take the idea of priesthood authority into account. But we also teach that God speaks to all people (take Alma 29:8 for example, as well as the first presidency message about truth in other religions).

    This quote by Joseph Smith typifies the type of Mormonism I believe in: “Mormonism is truth. . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we
    have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.

    Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world, and you will come out a pure Mormon.” (Dean Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 420-421)

    I think the LDS Church as the “most true Church” best meets all these criteria. So how that would work theologically is that God would give truth to all people as much as they accept, and Mormonism has more than all the others… at least potentially (meaning if it lived up to its potential). I want to write a separate post on this so will leave it there for now.

    The above is theology; my points about the relationship between perception and reality fall into psychology and philosophy.

    I want to say a few words about my statement about “moving past exclusivist models of religiosity”. There are plenty of ways to live religion without exclusive truth claims. I think exclusivity suffers from flaws on multiple levels and the information and interconnection of the 21st century highlights those flaws.

    “Mine is the only true Church” fails theologically because any God who would give all the truth to a tiny percentage of the human population millions of years into the game is a pretty lame god.

    Exclusivity fails on social levels because it is offensive and neglects the fact that billions who believe differently live productive and happy lives without those exclusive beliefs.

  104. @ Clark (44, 47, 48)

    First, I don’t think that analogizing religion and physics is helpful. The principles of physics work the same way no matter what you know or believe. Religious experience, as best we can tell, is determined by what you believe. Muslims don’t often have visions of the Virgin Mary. Now, I think this can work theologically just fine, but philosophically I don’t think it works to compare the two. I would put Religion in a humanities/arts context.

    Could you explain what you mean when you say I can only make my argument by presupposing the answer to the “objective question”? We need to explain the fact that though hundreds of millions of people describe specific and often dramatic spiritual experiences they have, these experiences always come the way they conceive metaphysical reality. So are we to assume that ALL are true? Krishna and Ahura Mazda and Yahweh and Isis and Zeus and Amaterasu and Jesus all objectively exist? By stating that believers’ subjective experiences with these divinities are real, am I saying that they are either true or false? Can’t play favorites across religions. Once again I would state that all these subjective experiences are important even though we cannot say with surety which are objectively true.

    Our points align very well—I agree that religion has serious non-subjective consequences in our lives and therefore those actions must be ethically justifiable independent of the argument “I think God told me to do that.”

    Yes, with “epistemology” and “valid” I could have spoken more precisely. My main point is that personal belief and experiences with the transcendent are worth of respect independent of our ability to confirm or deny them. Of course, I would add that ideally belief should incorporate available knowledge and that actions should conform to ethical standards beyond those beliefs. But that said, for argument’s sake let’s say if someone’s belief in Smurfs enabled them to be financially and socially successful, I would not necessarily want to point out the fact they don’t exist. 😉

    Let’s see if this is too messy a way to phrase it: Most believers think their religious world view is true in all ways. An anthropologist would say that those these beliefs may have meaning symbolically, mythically, ritually, and so forth, they are not true historically or literally. But I am arguing that these beliefs give real benefit to believers, and therefore I would not want to challenge unproductively the literal truth if it caused them to lose the benefits they gain from their spirituality.

  105. SilverRain (49),

    I agree with you that a Matrix-level questioning of reality is unproductive beyond as a thought exercise—making the assumption that we are all a dream or computer simulation, for example. It is productive, however, to question the meaning of our emotions. I do believe that intuition for example might tap into wisdom greater than that of our conscious mind, but when we get into perceptions of reality, I don’t know how we can transcend our own situatedness.

    I am not talking about “planting both”. Wouldn’t that be more like worshipping both Jesus and Egyptian Gods and following science just to cover your bases?

    I do want to say that I very much respect the strength of your belief and your articulate defense of it. I won’t get into the complex history of perception of Jesus. “He died when he didn’t have to” is a theological claim, conforming well to the Gospel of John. Historically Jesus died executed as a threat to the Roman empire, as I mentioned before.

    Did you read my Job example above? I think the power of people and principles in fiction is a good parallel to the power of myth. My little boy is playing Superman right now. Superman is not real, but if the myth of Superman inspires people to be better, then that intersection of myth and reaction is real. My model of the usefulness of symbols also precludes belief that causes you to jump off buildings of course (or kill yourself to get to catch a UFO).

    You are probably talking about situations were you felt saved, or forgiven, or close to God or Jesus. I accept all of those experiences as valid evidence for the reality of transcendent principles. But again, we need to factor in the diversity of religious experience. You feel the reality of Jesus. Others feel the reality of the Virgin Mary, or Vishnu. Do only *your* subjective experiences correspond to reality?

    I am not “going through the motions”. I am finding what I consider to be real value in religion and spirituality. Concerning Jesus specifically, there are some aspects of Christology that appeal to me greatly, and others that bother me. I don’t know what “jump[ing] off the fence to one side or the other” would look like. I worship God; I live as best I can with the knowledge I have. I am certainly open to receiving confirming spiritual experiences!

    One problem I have with the model “I feel things are true therefore they must have objective reality” is that you privilege your perception of truth above all others. So if Jesus is really our Savior, then everyone who does not believe in him is wrong, correct? So all other religions are false? This is one big step from the Christian problem of “Everyone who does not accept Jesus is damned, even those who never heard of him”. Fortunately Mormonism doesn’t have that problem (2 Ne. 9:25). I would prefer to remain open to others’ truth so that I can learn.

    Again, I sincerely respect your beliefs. I would challenge you to do the same for others, inasmuch as those beliefs do good in their lives.

  106. @Marcie (50), I am glad you understood what I am trying to accomplish.

    Hopolios, thanks for those great illustrations. 🙂 I would challenge you on one point, as Andrew alludes below… I agree with those who divide gnostic/agnostic from theist/atheist. The latter describes whether you believe in a god, and the former how sure you are about it. So as you know, I describe myself as an “agnostic theist”.

  107. @Andrew (52),

    Nice spin on the certainty of unknowing. If there is a way to gain knowledge of spiritual concepts beyond our own perceptions, please let me know. There could be a lot of money in that for you. 😉 For me, the diversity of sincerely held religious belief combined with the lack of scientific “evidence” for that belief leads me to the conclusion that we cannot know. But as I argue, I think the personal beliefs still have value. We just cannot absolutize it…. That causes problems as history has shown.

    I was actually trying to think of a better word than “agnostic.” Though I am agnostic, I also combine openness to varied possibilities. I am open to anything being true, scaled to the evidence that I can perceive for that true. But I do start with a methodological openness that includes the reality of spiritual experiences. I also value the experience of stepping into alternate “states of being” where we live as if propositions were true; I think that is part of what is happening with religion. I think my openness is an important balance to my “strong” philosophical agnosticism regarding religious truth claims.

  108. @Clark (53),

    I don’t know how you became such an expert in my views, but it isn’t adding up for me. I am glad for the opportunity to clarify. You say my “actual position is that it does matter and there isn’t anything there.” Wow. I am amazed at how you can say my “actual position” is precisely the opposite of what I intend to say. 🙂 I explicitly say how my position works if the standard Mormon position is true at the end of the original post.

    “Most of the important notions we have correspond to reality.” What do you mean? How would you develop the little faith it takes to demonstrate the existence of God or the afterlife, for example?

    The irony of your points pushing me to dismantle faith is that I intend my approach to be affirming and productive. For believers, I want to affirm their faith but encourage them to remain open to views other than their own. I think that all religions and world views have aspects of truth and that differing sources of information can enrich our lives greatly. For unbelievers, I want them to respect the value and benefits of belief and appreciate it on some level even if they can’t “convert”.

  109. Bruce (54),

    I accept the consequences of my truth claims; I am trying to work out as responsible an approach to knowledge and experience as I can. I think the “real life consequences here and now regardless of what the afterlife is or isn’t like” is exactly the issue.

    I do justify deception with very important caveats. I will send you a paper I wrote on it if I get your email.

    Greenfrog (55),

    Man, I wish these comment worked like Disqus so that the responses aligned with the comments instead of being 50 comments down. 🙂

    A word I use that describes what I think you mean is “intersubjective”. As hopolios described so well, I don’t think any of us ever understand one another 100%. I believe it to be impossible to understand completely what it is to be someone else.

    I do not think that there is an “aperspectival” understanding. We can expand our perspectives by learning about the perspectives and experiences of others, through scientific study, but we are still looking at the world through our own eyes. I think that we can explore ideas in a way that others can agree with and that as we all compare our subjective views we can approach a transubjective truth. I find this process to be inspiring.

  110. Clark (56),

    I am very impressed by the detail and learning evident in this comment. I like your last sentence but am not sure how much I agree: “We exist within a world that acts upon us and we can test our symbols against that world to attempt to discern their meaning”.

    I would tease apart “accuracy” and “meaning”. Is there a way to test the “accuracy” of language for example? And isn’t the *good* that a symbol does a better measure of meaning than whether a belief is logically plausible?

    Let’s take the idea of an embodied God for example. It breaks down pretty fast. Does God have an appendix? Why? Is God’s body carbon based? Can it survive in the vacuum of space? Does God’s body look like ours? Does that mean that whatever planet God was on the environment paralleled ours so that the evolution took place the same way? Then why does that form transfer over to a perfected body?

    I think belief in God is reasonable, but belief in an embodied God has problems. But belief in an embodied God is tremendously meaningful for many. Do the logical details really matter? Is it worth pushing people on the logical fallacies when the meaningfulness in their lives doesn’t actually depend on those details?

    I don’t need to remind you that I am speaking specifically of religious experience and that parallels such as language are imperfect. Though I do stand by the idea there is no “real” correlation between words and the reality they describe!

    But we can’t test some symbols. Is God or Dieu or Allah or Gott more “valid”? We need to test the usefulness of religion based on the good it does, but I don’t know how we can test the degree to which beliefs conform to objective reality. I suppose we could use arguments to say that God is not really an old bearded guy on a gold throne living in the stratosphere. 🙂

  111. @Bruce (57)

    Your comment “the restoration narrative as the LDS Church understands it” is false is tricky, since we have contradictory elements of that restoration narrative. Yes, I do think that the standard dispensationalist/restoration narrative of the Church is not historically accurate, but that does not mean it lacks theological value.

    Sometimes it would be better for people to have my point of view, and often it would not. I am very sensitive to providing “answers” were problems are not perceived (except for social issues that people are “asleep” to).

    Perhaps you are not taking seriously my view that I really *don’t* think my positions are best for the majority. This is why I have explicitly stated that my approach is polyvalent and people can adapt it to their situations and beliefs as needed. My goal is to verbalize a model that has value for everyone from literal believer to atheist. Returning again to my car and food analogies:

    Yes, it is “good” to understand biochemistry and car mechanics. But that value has little to do with the need and value of eating and driving. My view of religion is resilient (my response to the Stake Presidency Counselor to the question “how is your faith” was, “It has been stripped down to its bedrock elements and rebuilt”), but also bears a cost. I want to continue to have spiritual experiences as I did when I was a more literal believer, but I am not sure how they will come. I think any responsible approach to plurality in faith needs to allow for the straightforward tack for those whom it fits.

    You are also not giving adequate weight the personal nature of faith journeys that I stressed above. I am describing why my world view works *for me*, and that has been shaped by my personal experiences and training. I do not claim it would work for others. I do not want to export my approach, but rather provide a model that motivates others to shape their own.

    I think “choosing to believe” or “choosing to live as if ‘x’ is true” (paraphrasing Bushman’s approach) is more valid than “deciding what [we] really believe”. This post describes what I really believe, but I am realistic about the limitations of my knowledge so I am always open to new knowledge. This is not fence sitting; it is productive realism in my view. I don’t think I am “on the fence”. I think I have a model that allows me to wander from yard to yard, appreciating all the different flowers, incorporating elements of landscaping that appeal to me, and helping people with yard work as they request.

  112. Mrs. Britt Daniel (59),

    Not sure what “hardest writin’” means, but thanks. 🙂

    Hopolios (60-62), thanks for teasing out the difference in religious and linguistic metaphor. And for your graciousness and bringing Nietzche to bear. 😉

    Useful questions Howard (63). Some are much more easily answered than others!

    Clark (65), I like your ppoint about “what structures the perspectives we have”.

    Howard (67), don’t you think that Jesus’ teachings are diverse, even contradictory, and then we need to separate out which were Jesus’ teachings and which were beliefs by later Christians? I am having a hard time engaging with this example because Christianity was so powerfully shaped by the efforts of Jesus’ followers to make sense of his unexpected execution. I agree with Andrew’s point (68) that you can’t have the teachings about Jesus without Jesus! And the nature of eternity certainly depends on whether Jesus is Savior.

    That is talking about the nature of reality however. As far as how it influences our own personal lives I agree with your underlying point.

  113. Clark (72) I don’t think Jesus ever taught he was God….. Is your statement an allusion to C. S. Lewis’ trilemma?

    Nice points as always hopolios (74). It makes me think of the diverse understandings of Jesus significance in early Christianity…

    Wow, impressed by the philosophical name dropping Clark (76). Hmm, not sure we are connecting with the point “it does not matter”. I think the positive “it works either way” is more productive. Again, my emphasis is on the benefits and consequences of belief in the here and now, and since that is its own reality, we can bracket the question of correspondence to reality to some degree. And even if beliefs are proved factually false that does not negate the benefits those beliefs actualized in personal lives.

  114. Thomas (78),

    I believe that God can grant us knowledge greater than our own, I just think that knowledge will be filtered through our world views to a degree we cannot make claims about external reality based on those spiritual impressions. Similarly, we have knowledge of divine things, but because of our situatedness we cannot generalize that knowledge to statements about what is true and false. Not absolutely anyway. I think that a discussion among those with different spiritual experiences would lead to a closer approximation of reality; thus the term “intersubjective” again.

    What aspects of my position can’t be held permanently? I allow for new knowledge; that is one advantage of my ideal of openness. And I would submit my openness to being wrong increases the chance of coming to more correct beliefs.

    Ethesis (80), I agree that criticism is more effective when the source of that criticism demonstrates loyalty and love for the group.

    Aaron (81), I would argue the opposite, that a respectful openness to multiple perspectives increases the chance I will learn things as they are and NOT simply as I want them to be, because I allow for all evidence rather than that which agrees with positions I already hold.

    Latter-day Guy (82), Good example of the point that any model of religion and spirituality needs to take into account ALL religious perspectives and not just one’s own.

    Howard (87), That is what I meant by the intersection of myth and perception.. it is the *feelings* about religious ideas that motivate to action and therefore create their own reality.

    Melody (89), So glad it helped.

  115. Noah (90) I would be interested in seeing your Book of Mormon blog. In my maximum position I would of course acknowledge that the plates would have fictional elements—exaggerations, myths, etc.

    So once we assume the reality of the plates, Jaredites, and Lehites, we could go there. I haven’t studied enough to have even a firm working model of the Book of Mormon, besides the elements that are clearly 19th century. But I do resonate with your feeling there is “more to it” than just fiction. As I said before, I really like Grant Hardy’s “it works either way” approach.

    My gut is that the Book of Mormon is inspired, has inspiring theology, the power to change lives (as well as problematic and false elements)… it is harder to say whether there is a historical stratum. I hope it has one. 🙂 I cautiously learn toward no however, since that would best correspond to Josephs work with the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith Translation, Kinderhook plates, and other framing of scripture. So I guess I can say I would be pleased to be proven wrong.

  116. Aaron (91, 93),

    I think that for most the healthiest approach to religion is one that both respects and transcends denominational perspectives. I don’t feel that I lose anything by remaining Mormon, because I can gather all that is good from without Mormonism (of course, I personally think that Mormonism already has that Article of Faith 13 ideal of claiming everything good and true).

    You are correct that I could be happy inside or outside. But why not serve the Mormon community? I wrote at the end of my post why I remain Mormon. Why not be an example of the type of Mormonism I wish more could be (I am speaking more of love, understanding and tolerance than my epistemology)? I want to be the change I hope for.

    Howard (92), Yes, it is easy to bag on institutional religion, and some communities succeed better than others, but I agree that institutional religion has its place.

    Packer, how progressive you are becoming (not surprised that gmail wasn’t already claimed…).

    “You might as well grab any faith tradition and say the exact same thing about it that you have said about Mormonism.”

    Sure, why not? I invite all to apply this approach to their faith traditions. I said that Mormonism is my heritage and it is the best religion of which I am aware. I don’t want to belong to any other. I would also challenge the way you are using “true”. I fully agree with you however that the Church needs to take action so that members do not feel deceived when they discover unfamiliar and challenging information.

    Theologically, as I said I think that God *would* give true principles to people of all religions, making this approach valid.

    Aaron (99),

    Very important comments about tolerance for those outside the faith. I suggest using LDS theology to temper this, as well as the critical Christian (and general religious/humanistic/ethical) message of love. I wrote up some thoughts on this here: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2010/12/conversion-cultural-conditioning-and-the-absence-of-compulsory-means/

    So the literal thinkers can allow the power of their doctrine to help them to accept their “faithless” loved ones while not needing to admit their religion is false (not saying it is; but that is the threat of spending times with those who believe differently).

    I appreciate the openness and nuance of your #104.

    Howard (101) “greater enlightenment and a larger tent”


    Velska (105),

    Your point about subjective vs. transferable knowledge is helpful. LOVED your well-articulated comments. Thank you.

    Howard (106), I also believe in the power of personal experience relating to divinity. To use Velska’s terminology, I just don’t think we can transfer that knowledge to others. For one thing, it makes people judgmental toward those who believe differently…

  117. SilverRain (109),

    I think I mentioned this before, but how do you now which elements in the Church are “true” and which are cultural? I think the emphasis on personal revelation is important here.

    Let’s take a few examples:

    Blacks and the priesthood: This was not doctrinal but only cultural. There were efforts to change it and some very mundane influences that prompted what I feel was a genuine spiritual experience in 1978.

    Women and the priesthood: We have doctrine and precedent that *supports* women blessing, anointing, etc. The temple indicates men and women are equal with respect to the priesthood.

    Gays and marriage: LDS doctrine on family is quite clear, but we also have positions on supporting our governments, as well as love and tolerance.

    So when is change moving away from the truth, and when is change moving towards it? I do not believe the Church as it is now is how God wishes it to be in all respects. This is what I meant with my “poison vs. antidote” comment in the OP.

    I certainly relate to your quest for precise words. Love it 🙂

    I think Jesus was more about embodying the coming kingdom of God, but that includes your points about sin and death…

    I am not concerned about the Church losing membership as I am when it loses membership in ways that grieve God…

    It has been a great back and forth; I appreciate your thoughtful engagement.

    Limelight (108) and David (111),

    It will be interesting to see how this goes down. Even if the Church can survive fine without tithing (hmm… perhaps then we don’t need to pay it lol, just give 10% to other worthy organizations), I would hope the Church would try to figure out what is going on as members stop paying it. I get the sense they already are.

  118. re 112,


    At this time, I’m having more fun not revealing 😉

    Again, I think there is a very important distinction between “creating a new religion” and championing an *approach* to religion.

    When you’re championing an approach to religion that is 1) not what the leaders of that religion would espouse, 2) not what actual believing members of that religion would espouse, and 3) counter or theologically incompatible to what those members and leaders, then your approach becomes something more like a schism.

    I’m not saying that you don’t have a nice vision of things. I’m not saying that you don’t have a reasonable approach.

    I’m just saying that this approach and vision makes definite claims, has a definite logic to it, and both the claims an logic are clearly different from the Mormon religion as is practiced today.

    re 116,

    If there is a way to gain knowledge of spiritual concepts beyond our own perceptions, please let me know. There could be a lot of money in that for you.

    Notice how when I reply, “If there is, I don’t know it,” then I am not saying, “we can’t know it”?

    For me, the diversity of sincerely held religious belief combined with the lack of scientific “evidence” for that belief leads me to the conclusion that we cannot know.

    For me, none of these things establish a bona fide epistemological limitation. I’m just saying…”can’t” is a pretty strong word.

    I am open to anything being true,

    but not so open, for example, to the statement “we can know God is real” is true. 😉

  119. #82 LdG—Your comment makes no sense to me.

    Evidently. I’ll try to explain more clearly.

    You said that symbols do not motivate. Only the reality behind them motivates. By this logic, symbols/stories/theologies that are not true should not motivate, as they do not represent reality––they don’t refer to a valid antecedent. For example, if Jesus didn’t really die for our sins, the story of Jesus dying for our sins wouldn’t be sufficient to get people to change their lives, repent, etc.

    This is, of course, utter rubbish. People are motivated in all kinds of ways by differing, mutually exclusive models of reality. This means that some people are driven to act by symbols/stories/theologies that do not in fact represent reality.

  120. Andrew (127),

    “We can know God is real”.

    I agree with this, but you probably know what is coming….

    depends on what you mean by “is” I mean, “real”. 😀

    I feel I have articulated what I feel “real” means and does not mean regarding personal experience with the divine.

  121. re 129:


    well, you disagree in an important way: in the way that would matter for believers like SilverRain or Bruce N.

    I’m just doing this to point out that there is clearly a difference. You have your own claims about what counts and what doesn’t and there clearly is a difference.

  122. I don’t think you are being fair to my position, Andrew. I fully acknowledge the personal reality of SilverRain and others’ view of God. I do not diminish that.

    I just don’t think that those personal feelings, however fervent, can be used to establish objective truth about the nature of God.

    As has been said, the position that your feelings about God reflect actual reality should require you to allow the same for others with differing beliefs. We can’t all be right.

    And I have also said I am sympathetic and open to such believing views being the objective truth, or an approximation thereof, though I would be surprised given the logical problems and the fact that all people conceptualize God in culturally pertinent terms.

  123. Enoch,

    I don’t think I’m being unfair to your position…I mean, I don’t even think that I am personally that far from it. But I’m saying thst to hold people’s experiences at the subjective level is precisely what does damage to them. Since these people believe precisely that their personal feelings point to objective truths about God.This disagreement will always be a place where your positionm no matter how measured, excludes and alienates.

  124. @Andrew,

    Trying to follow along, but not sure I understand your point, and I’ve read enough of your stuff in the past to know you got a lot of interesting stuff to say.

    Are you saying that by only accepting someone’s point of view as being “true” for them, that your somehow causing them harm by not allowing them to extrapolate their own personal experience as a universal objective truth?

  125. Andrew,

    Now I think you are being unfair the believers. 🙂

    Yes, some believers can’t handle anyone thinking differently but we don’t need to discuss how unhealthy and destructive that is. I would hope that most believers are more respectful and mature than that. On the other hand I would hope that most non-believers could handle being prayed for, etc by believers concerned for their souls. You are gracious to point out how this view “excludes and alienates” when exclusivist literal view does so far more.

    Several commenters have described themselves as literal believers and also accepted the points I make in the post. I would hope that the respect I try to model in this post goes both ways. As I wrote in my post, the response I would hope for to my approach by a believer is “Oh good; I am so glad that he accepts Jesus as much as he can and is a good, loving person. Jesus will be pleased with that acceptance and bless him.” I would be surprised if a literal believer would prefer someone reject religion entirely than appreciate it on a symbolic and practical level.

    I also think answering the questions “What if there isn’t a God? What if there isn’t an afterlife? How would I live differently?” are productive but I would not expect most believers to go that far. I think that living in a way that *relies* on a certain conception of the afterlife is a bad idea but that is just my view.

  126. re 133,


    Basically, yes.

    I mean, consider this.

    For a believer, (insert religion here) isn’t just true for them. Even if the reason they believe in their religion is because of subjective (and personal) experiences, such experiences lead them to believe in their religion as something that is objectively true.

    So, to say, “OK, I sympathize and appreciate your spiritual experiences and am glad that you’ve found something that’s true for you,” (or something to that extent), even though it SOUNDS sympathetic and reasonable, is still missing the point. They don’t want you to recognize their experience as something true “for them.”

    This is especially the case if one goes about saying after or before that the objective truth doesn’t matter, or that the symbol is more important, etc., 😉

    re 134,


    It’s not about not being able to handle other people thinking differently. It’s rather about having strength of one’s convictions, and respecting that others have the strength of convictions. So, I think believers are respectful and mature enough to defend their convictions passionately — because they believe they really matter and they will really matter for others. So, even though evangelizing sometimes gets annoying and people can sometimes be real jerks about it, I have to recognize that they do it because they take their beliefs and their religion seriously. They reach out not because they disrespect others, but because they respect others and care for others enough to want to share with them what they believe to be truth.

    But you’re not doing anything different, is what I’m saying. It’s just that the content of your truth claims are a bit different. It’s an anti-exclusivist, exclusivist claim. You want to have your position be “above the fray.” So, you say,

    You are gracious to point out how this view “excludes and alienates” when exclusivist literal view does so far more.

    But I’d counter in two ways. 1) Even though you’re pretty polite about it, you’re not really above the fray. and 2) you wouldn’t want to be above the fray, because being above the fray means you don’t care. To the extent that you want to say that truth doesn’t matter and that symbols do, you are approaching this mark. But to the extent that that very statement *is* an exclusive claim, you miss the mark.

    I would be surprised if a literal believer would prefer someone reject religion entirely than appreciate it on a symbolic and practical level.

    Maybe I go on more toxic boards than you do (scratch that, I definitely do 😉 ), but I’ve heard many believers say basically that. These people are keen to bring up the bit about people who are neither hot nor cold but are lukewarm…

    Or how about the scriptural reference of having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof..?

    I’m not saying I agree. BUT, when I take a similar stance (sometimes), I at least recognize that I’m making what will seem like an intolerable compromise or unconscionable concession for serious believers.

  127. Well Mr. S,

    I would carefully say that such people need to work on being better Christians. 🙂 (And Mormons as that applies)

    Once again I am impressed by how well you articulate a position that you do not espouse, but I think that fervent believers of all stripes need to internalize the humanistic principle that it is unethical to inflict our views on others. Hopefully we all can take a page from D&C 121 and win people over through persuasion, long suffering, and love unfeigned. I acknowledge the strength of your admission that the relativist position seems “like an intolerable compromise or unconscionable concession for serious believers.”

    Again, I would challenge those believers to balance out the fervency of their belief with the importance of love, even of those different from them.

    For my part I will acknowledge that happy successful thoughtful people of differing beliefs are very dangerous for one’s world view. 🙂

    Yes, I am “in the fray”, but I would counter your point and say that my position is explicitly inclusive. As inclusive and nuanced as I can make it. I have rhetorically constructed space for everyone from literal believer to atheist. I don’t know what more I can do than create that space and invite others for discussion.

    I would remind you I am NOT saying “truth does not matter”. I am saying some truth matters more than others, and that if you must choose between levels of truth, pick the one that is most useful and productive (knowing which food is nutritious vs. knowing why, for example).

    My positions are explicitly and consciously not exclusive. In fact, I think exclusivity and relativity are mutually well, exclusive. 🙂

  128. re 136,


    I would carefully say that such people need to work on being better Christians. (And Mormons as that applies)

    But that very much is the point at contention here. Who counts as a good Christian? Who counts as a good Mormon? That you have a clear picture of these things is telling.

    I think that fervent believers of all stripes need to internalize the humanistic principle that it is unethical to inflict our views on others.

    Would you like to inflict this view on others? Or do you just “think” that believers should just (spontaneously?) “internalize” such a principle?

    Hopefully we all can take a page from D&C 121 and win people over through persuasion, long suffering, and love unfeigned.

    So, these don’t count as inflicting views upon others? Well, here’s the thing…I think most people would say they do try to win people over through these things. I guess one person’s persuasion is another person’s infliction?

    Again, I would challenge those believers to balance out the fervency of their belief with the importance of love, even of those different from them.

    And again, I’d counter that they manifest the importance of love (especially of those different from them) BY their fervency of their belief. For someone who truly believes in exaltation and salvation — not simply as a symbol but as something that really exists — the way to show love is to help others secure these things.

    Anything less is asking them not to take their beliefs so seriously or not to care about others as much. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept lol.

    As inclusive and nuanced as I can make it. I have rhetorically constructed space for everyone from literal believer to atheist. I don’t know what more I can do than create that space and invite others for discussion.

    But seeing as you construct such a space by holding everyone at arms, I don’t think you’re including *anyone*. You don’t know what *more* you can do because this direction already is a non-starter.

    I would remind you I am NOT saying “truth does not matter”. I am saying some truth matters more than others, and that if you must choose between levels of truth, pick the one that is most useful and productive (knowing which food is nutritious vs. knowing why, for example).

    You’re wrapping things up in a tiny bow, but when you say “some truth matters more than others” (and then your other points highlights which truths you think matter more), the critical point is that the truth that matters to believers clearly lacks importance to you. Because it’s so contradictory and people cannot know and people disagree and this and that and the other that we might as well be friends and not let it get between us.

    …by deemphasizing those truths, that’s how you exclude everyone else.

  129. Andrew,

    I feel like we are talking past each other, as enjoyable as it is to fence rhetorically back and forth.

    You misread me, Andrew. Look again. The “truth that matters to believers” is actually the truth I am *privileging*. When I say driving trump mechanics, eating trumps understanding nutrition… I am saying that the truth of believers is more important than the philosophical or historical details (which I am equating with mechanics and biochemistry).

    You will also notice that to argue my points for tolerance I use the believers’ framework, as I did in this post: http://bit.ly/lvC5OY

    I am not holding people at arms. I am trying to meet them where they are.

    You acknowledge “inflict” is the wrong word. Do we fall short in our efforts to persuade, to be patient, to love? Undoubtedly. But if we at least have these principles in sight we will be more likely to reach them. Do I desire to persuade others of these principles I value? Of course. On my children, my students, and anyone I can reach.

  130. Yes, once I “privilege” the believers’ views I also put them into philosophical and theological perspective. But that is because I sincerely believe both sides of that balance are important.

  131. It seems it is difficult for you to believe or you are having so much fun with the debate that you are not acknowledging that I sincerely want people to adapt my approach only if it is useful for them. My approach works for me because of a very specific combination of factors.

    I honestly think a lack of love, tolerance, understanding and all those other good principles are flaws that should be overcome, but I do not have a problem with belief per se. As you have seen, I defend it. In some ways it is superior to my position. Straightforward belief and my nuanced open agnosticism simply have different costs and benefits.

    Imperfect analogy, but my approach is kind of like chemotherapy (and I would add the same for approaches that move people from stage 3 to stage 5 of Fowler’s stages of faith). I would never want to give people that painful cure if they don’t have the cancer. Yes, I am putting myself in the position of doctor. That is my chosen career path.

    I sincerely think religion is useful and important.

    I also think there are more beneficial and harmful ways of being religious, therefore I will advocate the beneficial and strive to minimize the harmful.

    I do not pretend to be beyond reproach, but I am sincere and trying to meet my goals as carefully and thoughtfully as I can. I am also open to being wrong, which is why these discussions are so fun and I hope useful. 🙂

  132. Andrew,

    I would also respectfully call you out a bit and note that your personal beliefs are hardly to be found in your comments. You argue and push and prod at my baring of my inner self, but meet me with rhetoric rather than with your own views.

    Who is holding people “at arms length”?

    I am not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing it out. And I very much admire your ability to look at and defend positions from multiple sides; that is a trait I value as well.

  133. I haven’t had time to comment since Friday. Lots said since then. A few comments.

    Howard (#79). My qualm honestly isn’t with your beliefs. Just the argument you are providing for it. Honestly I much more prefer discussing ideas with atheists as they are typically (except for the New Atheists) less dogmatic and more open to seeing the arguments from evidence. Indeed my own blog (which I’ve not had time to do much with of late) primarily has atheists as the people commenting surprisingly. My point is simply a logical one about your position. It has nothing to do with like or dislike. Honestly. (From reading the further comments I think Enoch has qualified h is presentation to avoid the logical issue I noted)

    Aaron (#81). I honestly don’t think the Church need fear rational and logical conclusions. The problem is that often people aren’t quite open about what is or isn’t rational. My experience is that often critics are just as dogmatic as some within the Church are and have their own sacred cows they don’t want to open to rational investigation. Epistemology is a tricky thing with more positions within it that I think some want to admit.

    Howard (#87). I agree emotions have power. I find it odd that you think only “scenes” can provide an emotional response and not symbols. After all what is a scene but a collection of symbols? Unless you mean only concrete actual experiences provide emotional responses but that’s just demonstrably false. The fact is people have emotional responses to symbols all the time. This is just a fact of psychology and cognitive science. You might argue that such symbols are rooted in embodied responses to classes of scenes. But then we get to a debate about classes vs. symbols and how to distinguish the two.

    Noah (#90). I think it’s quite reasonable to think there were actual records on the gold plates, actual Nephites, but that there were flawed editors and writers in the Book of Mormon who wrote biases and inaccurate things about history. It’s also quite reasonably to assume Joseph had a significant effect on the translated text. Blake Ostler’s expansion theory is one obvious example although there are others. This is actually a pretty mainstream position.

    Aaron (#91). The problem with appeals to Plato’s cave is that we all disagree over what is or isn’t a shadow. (Not to mention that the cave is a rather bad metaphor for an atheist or physicalist who typically reject what it is Plato’s pointing out with the myth)

    Carey (#95). I really hate the “be true to yourself” statement. Not the least because I think it goes back to Polonius in Hamlet and people miss the irony of the statement in context. We shouldn’t be true to ourselves. We should be true to reality. Typically what we should do is overcome ourselves and be more – the opposite of being true to ourselves. (And that’s something even an atheist often will agree with)

    Aaron (#99). You know, there are faithful Mormons who majored in philosophy. (I was one – although my primary major was physics) BTW – can I say how much I dislike the phrase “literal thinker” which has ravaged the comments? I don’t think it’s terribly helpful (since I don’t think those so designated are typically terribly literal in their thinking). I find it much more just a way of disparaging those one disagrees with in a way so one need not engage with their ideas or reasonings. That’s a deep irony in thinking a “literal thinking TBM…thinks you burn in hell if you don’t attend Church.” Somehow that irony has gone right over the heads of those saying it (or things like it).

    Velska (#105) “For one, if we talk about knowledge, we always have varying degrees of knowledge.” I understand what you are getting at but it might be better to say that we have different strengths of belief and different levels of justification. It’s worthwhile separating those out usually. I think these two issues are getting conflated a lot in the discussion. Typically you either know or you don’t although as I said parts of what constitute that knowledge can differ. I’m not sure I’d agree with your two kinds of knowledge either. I don’t think we can transfer knowledge merely provide evidence that may lead others to have an experience. I do agree that not all evidence can be pointed to on demand though. This is true in general of course. It is very hard to point at what I saw yesterday to someone. An element of trust and plausibility is usually all that one has to go on. This is independent of religious issues.

    Limelight (#108) Unfortunately low retention has always been an feature of Mormonism. If anything it was more true long ago. The formal growth rate of the Church has slowed from an average of 3 – 4% per year but that has as much to do with different emphasis and a much higher willingness to take people off the role due to incentives the current funding of wards provides. I don’t see the social issue you raise. That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting social issues. However to me the biggest one is the slow de-Americification of the Church and how the Church responds to that.

    Enoch (#112) I agree “only true Church” can’t entail “all the truth” since formal LDS theology entails there are many things left to reveal. (AoF 9) I tend to see it as purely a claim about priesthood authority – as you note.

    Enoch (#113) Clearly there is a difference in repeatability between religious experience and physics. However the point is that there are stabilities in experience and those reflect truth. My point though is that what ought be most important are those stabilities and not the subjective elements whereas you’ve reversed that. My bringing up physics is precisely because it illustrates what we should take as most important: truth. I fully admit religious truth can be harder to find but that doesn’t mean we can simply allegorize everything away. It is simply not an implication of the “mushiness” of religious experience that somehow truth doesn’t matter.

    If your point is simply religious experience is “worth respect independent to confirm or deny them” then I guess I just disagree. I think we need to be respectful to people. I don’t think I need respect all views equally. The problem with “religious experience” as a category is that it is so broad and encompasses so much variety as you note that it ends up being rather useless as a category. Effectively you are saying that’s it’s value and I’m saying that’s why it’s not valuable. (Note I’m not saying there aren’t particular experiences some might call religious that aren’t important – rather I’m talking about the category itself as used in these sorts of analysis)

    Most believers think their religious world view is true in all ways. An anthropologist would say that those these beliefs may have meaning symbolically, mythically, ritually, and so forth, they are not true historically or literally. But I am arguing that these beliefs give real benefit to believers, and therefore I would not want to challenge unproductively the literal truth if it caused them to lose the benefits they gain from their spirituality

    Interesting how I, the believer, reject this view the most. I think it is inherently worthwhile to challenge falsehood. I’ll respect them as people such that I won’t boorishly attack their beliefs. But if, for instance, someone thinks the earth was made 7000 years ago I’ll challenge that regardless of it perhaps having some short term psychological benefit for them. I think society overall and thereby individuals in the long term, benefit from rooting out false belief and false traditions.

    I’m a Mormon precisely because I do that to my own beliefs and most remain. If others don’t, that’s fine. I have confident that in the long term if people continue to inquire that the truth will impact them. The problem is that it’s easy to be skeptical but people forget that skepticism doesn’t mean one is correct. Only continued rigorous inquiry can do that.

    (More later)

  134. Enoch,

    re 138,

    I would challenge your driving-trumps-mechanics statement by asserting that our goal is to more fully understand the mechanics so we can develop more efficient, effective, safe forms of transportations. We can imagine that not too long ago, someone might have said, “I have a horse and wagon…who cares what else?” But someone had an idea and developed automobile mechanics, and since then, people haven’t been resting around…technological advance in an inherently iterative process and the mechanics *do* matter.

    re 140,

    No doubt you wish that people would only adopt the approach so far as it is useful to them. But notwithstanding the fact you say the approach only works for you because of a “very specific combination of factors,” I think you implicitly believe that your approach has wide-spread utility. And so you use universal terms like “love” and “tolerance” and “understanding” as if they apply to your approach and don’t apply to an exclusivist approach.

    re 141,

    maybe rhetoric is part of my own views?

    I guess the difference is that most of the time, I’m not afraid to say I’m holding people at arm’s length. I’m not afraid to say that objective truth doesn’t really intrigue me. So why defend against something that I don’t find to be an attack?

  135. (A few more – sorry for the length)

    Enoch (#117) Sorry if I came off as an expert on your views. Honestly it’s me trying to understand your views (which presupposes I don’t know them). I tried to put lots of “ifs” in that comment you are responding to. I’m just trying to work out the argument your are putting forth. It does seem that structurally though your position just entails that you can discount things as not important because you’ve already discovered them to be false. I don’t see where you address your position working if those ideas were true at the end of your post. (I just reread it to be sure) Could you expand upon this?

    I certainly don’t mean to have you dismantle faith. I think we can be respectful to those we disagree with. Outside of the occasional blog or email discussion I honestly never really engage much with peoples ideas. I might promote things like good science education (which frankly entails teaching people that many of their beliefs are false). But that’s about it. I’ll occasionally raise my hand in Sunday School when a particularly egregious error is made. But that’s about it.

    I do think we can be respectful without embracing accepting falsehood due to short term pragmatic utility. I might tell someone a falsehood to get them to do something “good.” (Say go to the dentist) I think the utility of that disappears fairly quickly though.

    That said there might be pedagogical utility to having people find their own way. Indeed I don’t worry too much if an earnest seeker of truth temporarily leaves the Church. Ditto those who might have emotional reasons for leaving. Eventually, I’m confident, that if they are truly seeking they will find their way back either in this life or the next. I think we’d be helping people if we put less pressure on them to stay in the Church when they are so obviously struggling. I think that’s a social aspect of some in the Church that might be counterproductive. Although it’s tricky. Especially when someone is taking up an obvious risky lifestyle and won’t confront its problems. (Say a drug and party lifestyle) Now that I have kids I certainly understand how hard this is to grapple with on a practical level.

    So I agree that in some ways our positions aren’t so far away. I just disagree over the nature of utility. I also disagree that these other matters can be so discounted as “not mattering.” I just don’t think you’ve made that case at all.

  136. Andrew,

    You make fair points. Just one comment for now, responding to this:

    I think you implicitly believe that your approach has wide-spread utility. And so you use universal terms like “love” and “tolerance” and “understanding” as if they apply to your approach and don’t apply to an exclusivist approach.

    Of course I believe that my approach has wide spread utility. I want to teach and write on these issues, which I would not do if I did not think I had something to say.

    But an important part of that utility is its flexibility and adaptability, the way that building blocks are useful. I have put them in a particular configuration but I think there is room to take my approach apart and adapt it. I am trying to bridge differing positions.

    I think that exclusivist claims do come with inherent problems that need to be addressed. Yes, you make a point that the believer is acting out of love when he or she tries to help others share those beliefs. I do think however that expression of love needs to be tempered and balanced by other forms of love. And actions such as disowning someone for not believing as you do is indefensible.

  137. @Clark

    My argument about the dangers of rational thinkers within the church was from a perspective that they simply prolong the life of pseudo-science. While the religion might be more than pseudo-science to a lot of people, until church leaders decide to take the purely philosophical high road and abandon a lot of doctrine, it will always be wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    You’re right about Plato’s Cave, after I had posted it I realized I had never examined it after becoming an atheist. But it did help me with my exodus, so, there’s something to be said for that.

    Maybe ‘literal-thinker’ has become pejorative, I don’t think it’s unearned. And my hyperbole about those who wish others to burn in hell? Well, maybe we’re both just cherry picking, but I do have an anecdote about literal-thinkers: I asked a relative one time if they’d be okay with murdering one of the toddlers in our family if God told him to, and he responded sagely and confidently: Yes. (It wasn’t Carey heh) I don’t feel like anyone has reduced ideas/people into an over-simplification, if anything this thread has been engaging and respectful, even from a born-again atheist like myself.

  138. Enoch,

    Of course I believe that my approach has wide spread utility. I want to teach and write on these issues, which I would not do if I did not think I had something to say.

    But in this case, saying something like, “I want people to adapt my approach only if it is useful to them” is less meaningful than it sounds.

    “Use if it it’s useful…but I’m pretty sure it’ll be useful ;)”

  139. Clark The fact is people have emotional responses to symbols all the time. Please provide an example of an emotional response to a symbol and not to the symbol’s meaning.

  140. How do you distinguish the two Howard? (I’m not being flippant, I’m being honest – if the interpretation is done unconsciously it seems like a difference without a difference)

  141. Aaron (146), but I suspect we simply disagree over what is or isn’t true doctrine. I’ve no doubt there are things I presently believe which will turn out to be false and I’m sure that’s true of everyone including GAs. When you get to the particulars though…

    “Literalist” is a pet peeve of mine because it simply obscures what is going on. It has nothing to do with it being pejorative. It has everything to do with the how the word is applied in terms of what it denotes.

    Enoch (140) Aargh. Fowler’s 5 Stages. Noooooooooo. That explains what I saw. I think most of my criticisms apply to that whole taxonomy as well.

    Enoch (138) But Enoch when you say you are privileging the believer’s truth” you really aren’t since what matters to them is the external reality and that you are effectively rejecting. You are attempting to salvage their belief while denying a big chunk of the content of their belief. When you say the truth of the believers is more important than the philosophical or historic details that presupposes that the details aren’t part of their belief. All you are privileging is a significantly reduced set of their beliefs.

    Enoch (136) Can one really be a good Christian if there isn’t a Christ? I think one can be ethical, but I don’t think being nice or ethical is enough to make one a good Christian. And maybe I’ve just listened to too many Johnny Cash songs but I tend to think one might struggle with ethics yet still be a justified Christian. (Christ did come to save the sinners after all) I’m not pushing cheap grace with that comment. Just that the meaning of Christian for most people is more than to be nice and ethical. (i.e. it has to be more than Fowler’s purported higher levels)

    (I’ll get to your 119 later)

  142. Clark the interpretation may be done consciously or unconsciously the difference is enlightenment in the form of self knowledge and knowledge of the psychological issues at play to call the symbol and the meaning of the symbol the same is by definition to conflate the two.

  143. Howard (153) I can’t quite parse what you are saying. As I see it the issue is whether a symbol leads to a conscious memory that then generates the emotion or if it directly generates an emotion via some unconscious process. Now if you want to talk about how the brain actually interprets an abstract symbol and say that some meaning is generated that then engenders an emotional response rather than directly generating an emotional response I’m open to that. The problem I have with that view is our response to smells which tends to get interpreted by the more “primitive” parts of the brain and can create a highly emotional response and apparently without any generation of some meaning.

  144. I want to engage with this literal/figurative, conscious/unconscious acceptance of symbols that Howard and Clark are talking about.

    Here is my proposition, and one reason I defend mainstream belief and respect it as much as my position (which some commenters here seem to have a hard time accepting that I feel thus sincerely):

    Many religious people live within a literal, mainstream framework their entire lives. This approach WORKS for them. It gives meaning to their lives, inspires goodness, prepares the way for even miracles, and gives them hope. I would not want to challenge that unproductively.

    What is necessary for an agnostic or nuanced believer to experience the same benefits? I submit it takes a lot more work. Sure it may also be worthwhile, but this is why I do not privilege my approach over that of the literal believer…. as I have said, each just has different strengths and weaknesses. And google can often act as kryptonite to literal belief, among other issues. So whereas the approach I espouse works well for me and can withstand any new knowledge, some spiritual power and immediacy may be lost.

    Growing up and through college, I had spiritual experiences linked to the literal reality of the Mormon world view. In particular I felt personal and meaningful connections with specific characters such as Moroni and above all with one character in the Book of Moses that should be obvious :).

    My most powerful spiritual experience was when I literally heard/felt the voice of God. It was when I was going through a divorce and that experience was pivotal for me.

    The point I am making is now that I have a more nuanced world view, I will be very interested in how my spiritual experiences manifest themselves.

  145. @Aaron – That’s why its best not to label yourself, in doing so you are prone to try and make everything fit that label.

    The allegory of the cave seems very fitting for this discussion. I think Enoch has been advocating that since we all have different perceptions of reality, and this is supported by the latest science (see Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness which explains how the brain literally projects the past, present and future), and we all are capable of having those confirmed by spiritual experiences, so we shouldn’t be so consumed by our own interpretations of the symbols/reality that we end up excluding others from participating.

  146. Clark the neurological pathway is unimportant. One may be consciously aware or unconscious of the symbol triggered emotion depending on one’s awareness of their own thinking. Show embroidered garment symbols without introduction to a non-member what emotions does this trigger? Would this experience be the same for a temple recommend holder? Of course not the emotion is triggered by the meaning of the symbol not the symbol itself.

  147. Howard (157) aren’t you confusing what might cause an initial emotional response with what causes the emotional response on future appearances of the sign? All you are basically saying is that signs need to acquire significance. To which I fully agree (we’ll ignore instinct since it doesn’t apply here). But if I have a habitual response then that sign can create the response independent of an intermediate step of remembering the original experience. This happens all the time. When I use a word I don’t have to remember the experience when I first learned the meaning of the word, for instance. It may be that first experience contributes to the meaning but it need not contribute to the interpretation at any given moment.

    Carey, (156), if we all have different perceptions and we’re able to have those confirmed by empirical experience, why should we be consumed by scientific interpretations of science/reality and instead shouldn’t we allow creationists to teach science and not exclude them from participating?

    (For the record, of course, I don’t advocate excluding anyone from Church unless there’s some very good practical reason – I wish everyone who’s lost faith would come and attend meetings with me. It’s more the logic of your statement that seemed problematic.)

    Enoch (155) I guess my problem is with the claim that the atheist/agnostic can experience the same benefits. I fully agree there are some benefits both can experience. And I’m sure too the atheist they could delude themselves to experience the same benefits (although I think most atheists I know would thing they could experience much better benefits independent of false belief). The question is whether the atheist could experience the same benefits the same way and I just don’t think they could. Which isn’t a knock on a atheist seeking after religious truth. I just think that the way they’d experience the same benefits is by learning the truths of religion that go beyond what an atheist would allow. (i.e. they’d cease to be atheist)

  148. Clark there is a difference between the first and subsequent exposures it is called habituation which is a decrease in response to a stimulus. I am saying signs need to acquire significance and it is the significance not the sign that triggers emotion. But if I have a habitual response then that sign can create the response independent of an intermediate step of remembering the original experience. but not independent of the sign’s meaning remembering is not the issue you are talking about pared association here which is the psychological equivalent of conflating the sign with it’s meaning.

  149. Thanks for the link TT I’ve been using emotion in place of power which works well for a psychological perspective.

  150. @Clark (158)

    While I understand what I said shouldn’t necessarily apply to everything I was referring to the un-proveable things like whether there were in fact actual gold plates, did Nephi really exist, anamorphic God, etc… We can have spiritual witnesses about those things, but all we can really testify us is of our spiritual experience and the understanding that we gain from that. dealing with others.

  151. Howard, I think we have a fundamental difference of opinion on the nature of semiotics. I just think your conception of signs is wrong. As I see it signs are intrinsically and irreducibly triadic. So you never can separate the significance from the sign-vehicle.

    What I think you’re trying to say is simply that a mark has no meaning. Which is fine and I fully agree. But the object isn’t a sign until it signifies. Once it becomes a signifier then as a sign it becomes irreducibly a sign. Certainly we can analysis it both as a sign and as an object. And those are different. A ring as an object independent of significance has no effect. Once it’s a sign then it has effects.

  152. Irreducibly = impossible to make less. Triadic = a group of three. To me irreducibly triadic is an oxymoron the Godhead is made up of the Father, Son and Spirit and perhaps synergy. Irreducibly triadic simply means you do not understand how to reduce it. Can you provide a common example of something that is irreducibly triadic?

  153. @Howard (#164): Wouldn’t something that’s triadic but can’t be resolved into something that’s dyadic or unified be, by definition, irreducibly triadic?

    (That question assumes you’re dealing with discrete items rather than scalar ones, of course, which may well not be the case in this discussion—i’m just not seeing how irreducibly triadic is in any way oxymoronic.)

  154. David B Wouldn’t something that’s triadic but can’t be resolved into something that’s dyadic or unified be, by definition, irreducibly triadic? I am challenging the assumption “can’t be” can you offer an example?

    Triadic is group of THREE…three what? three something so how can it actually be irreducible or at least conceptually irreducible?

  155. Clark so these books will help me see that your triadic is irreducible? From your first link: The sign is the molehill, and the object of this sign is the mole. The mole determines the sign, in as much as, if the molehill is to succeed as a sign for the mole it must show the physical presence of the mole. If it fails to do this, it fails to be a sign of that object. So we have a pair not a triadic what’s irreducible about it? It reduces to a sign the molehill, an object the mole. If you didn’t know what a mole was it wouldn’t bother you much seeing one but once it’s made a molehill in your yard it evokes negative emotions in you such that the presence of a mole OR a molehill near or in your yard sets them off.

  156. As I said Howard, I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole. This is generally considered basic semiotics.

  157. I’m sad that I’m coming so late to this discussion, but I wanted to turn SilverRain’s comment (#8) on its head a little. She talks earlier about how the atonement has no value or efficacy if it’s not understood literally in the traditional absolutist way. I actually think that it’s the exact opposite. If the atonement is only understood in the traditional way, I believe that it fails to achieve its full salvific power. My understanding of the atonement is that its ultimate purpose is to help us become like God and to establish heaven on earth, to “celestialize” and exalt the world.

    I look at beliefs based on the types of practical outcomes they foster. I believe that a metaphorical conception of the atonement as a process that Christ invites us to participate in is much more powerful than a conception that attributes all the saving action to a single separate and distinct being in the universe.

    We are called to take the name of Christ upon us and to become a part of his body. The Jesus of the gospels uses many metaphors to describe this mystical relationship. “I am the vine; ye are the branches,” etc. These and other scriptures invite us to become like him and do the things he would do if he were in our place. What is his primary mission? To reconcile humanity to god. Therefore, if we are to be like him, we must participate in this process of reconciliation or atonement.

    In Colossians we read that Paul is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Could there possibly be anything lacking in Christ’s afflictions? A traditionalist would say no, but this participatory conception of the atonement points out that until Christ’s body is perfected, the atonement is not complete. The author goes further to say that “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints” is “Christ in you.” I see strong scriptural justification for this more inclusive and comprehensive conception of atonement, and I think it is greater in its saving power than the literalist view.

  158. To summarize: I think that this participatory conception of the atonement is better at bringing about what I think are the ultimate goals of the atonement than the traditional conception, because it emphasizes the necessity of our participation for the salvation of humanity. And how could it possibly be otherwise? Without our voluntary involvement in this reconciliation process, God will not force us to it.

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