In my post on The Case for Christ one of the commenters (David) made a comment that raised concerns from another commenter (SmallAxe). David quoted a number of scriptures that suggest that human wisdom does not compare to God’s wisdom. Then he said:
We should not easily give up our convictions, especially when we have a personal witness that these ideas have God as their source. The “philosophies of men” can’t compare with the wisdom of God. We simply should not allow them to in our minds. If we let our own intellect prevail over what we have come to know by the Spirit, we are letting our natural man becoming an obstacle to our reception of God’s wisdom, which is infinitely greater than our own (or any man’s).
This statement then led to a substantial sub-thread in the comments, mostly between myself and SmallAxe. This is obviously a point SmallAxe has great passion for. I, perhaps, have half a notch less passion for it, but obviously I care about it a great deal as well.
If I might attempt to summarize SmallAxe’s position, as best that I can. (Bear in mind that I am biased and he will ultimately speak for himself.) I think it is as follows:
First, there is no clear distinction between ‘the wisdom of God’ (presumably through revelation) and ‘the philosophies of men.’ He fears that we have created a…
…false dichotomy between “the Spirit” and “the philosophies of men.” You’ve created a situation where those things that are learned by the Spirit are not open for debate, while those things that are learned from the philosophies of men are open for debate
SmallAxe then went on to point out that it’s very difficult, perhaps even impossible (in his opinion) to distinguish between the two:
My point simply is that the kind of statement you’re making requires some rather complex machinery to be supported; and when pushed on it cannot necessarily deliver the clarity you promise.
David then gave a quick, but fairly typical Mormon theological response: you discern through revelation. SmallAxe took exception to this:
Okay… so why don’t you define the terms and present an example? What are the philosophies of men vs. learning from the Spirit?
Later he went on to issue this challenge:
Perhaps you could present an example because I don’t see this distinction. …
In the end, here’s what I hear you saying: “Don’t give up on your beliefs, unless you no longer believe in them.” Shouldn’t you have some theory of how someone comes to believe or disbelieve; and how is this theory not in some way related to some process of rationality? …
I don’t see how these are two distinct categories …
Personally, I don’t use the term philosophies of men because more often then not it’s a social rather than intellectual category. It’s usually a means of excluding someone or something by using a label rather than engaging the specifics of their ideas.
At this point, I jumped in. This is a topic I had enough interest in and wanted to discuss further.
And he had asked for an example, so I gave him one dealing with belief in the resurrection and Sonship of of Jesus vs. arguments that Jesus was not resurrected or not unique in His Sonship to God. My point being that we here have an article of faith (though supported by some impressive, though certainly inconclusive evidence) that we can only know through revelation from God. But because we Mormons believe in the resurrection and Sonship of Jesus via revelation, we should not easily dismiss those beliefs just because there is a counter argument – perhaps even an equally impressive counter argument.
SmallAxe later added another important point:
The problem I have with this is that terms like the PoM are more often than not used as a social rather than an analytical category, by which I mean that they serve as a marker for those who one believes should not be in a particular group; but it’s not analytical because those who use them do not subject them to analysis such that there is a way to apply the terms beyond one’s (or one’s group’s) personal preference. In the example under discussion (about Paul and the resurrection), two people could hold the exact opposite view as to what is revelation and what is the PoM, yet there seem to be no means of adjudicating between the two.
So I guess the first question I have for SmallAxe is, what did I miss in my summary of his position? Please give me a chance to modify it and get it right and to your liking.
Points of Disagreement?
However, these seem to me to be the points of disagreement (or potential disagreement anyhow) so far:
1. I believe that referring to ‘the philosophies of men’ like David did is a correct use of Mormon theology. The phrase in question comes from a source Mormons consider authoritative. So I am not clear on how SmallAxe, as an LDS person, could remove that concept from Mormon theology – or even just merge revelation and the philosophies of men together — and preserve the rest (or even a portion) of Mormon theology. I’m very interested in how he’d go about this because it does not seem possible to me at the moment. I believe this is relevant to the conversation because it’s all too easy to be critical and much harder to come up with alternatives that don’t have equivalent or greater problems. I’m asking for an alternative view that SmallAxe has enough confidence in to actually put it out for criticism like I’m doing.
2. I believe my example (which is what SmallAxe originally asked for) is valid from an LDS view point. The teachings about the philosophies of men is really intended as a warning to not switch your beliefs as ever new wind of scholarship. I do not see how the LDS Church (or any Christian religion, really) could survive if they just decided “well, there is this new evidence against the resurrection and it’s pretty good, so let’s abandon our beliefs on that point. So declaring faith in the resurrection to be a revelation and the alternative view ‘to be the philosophies of men’ seems appropriate here.
3. The question of ‘adjudicating’ between two people that believe opposite things through revelation seems like a fair question, though I would point out that in this case we’re presumably talking about two parties: one that believes in revelation (belief in resurrection and afterlife, say) and one that does not (no life after death). This would seem to remove the teeth from at least this objection to this specific example.
4. I find this question from SmallAxe particularly interesting: “Shouldn’t you have some theory of how someone comes to believe or disbelieve; and how is this theory not in some way related to some process of rationality?” However, there is a pretty standard LDS answer to this question that I’m sure SmallAxe is already aware of. So we may need to first discuss why Moroni 10:4–5 and D&C 9 do not suffice as an answer for him and why those will generally be perceived as appropriate answers to most members of the LDS Church.
5. SmallAxe and I seem to interpret the lesson of Festinger’s work differently. I see it as proof that irrational religions ultimately fail and that groups based on beliefs are not – in the long run – resilient when confronted with counter proofs. I see this as more important to a group (i.e. religion or church) more so than an individual. SmallAxe seems to see it as proof that there is no need for David to encourage us to believe and have faith since human beings do that naturally anyhow even when confronted with counter evidence.
Research indicates that people (perhaps by nature) do not easily give up their convictions when confronted with new material. So I’m not sure this needs encouragement.
I would suggest that the real disagreement between myself and SmallAxe on this point is that I’m taking a group view over the long run and he is only looking at an individual in the short run. In other words, I agree beliefs have a high degree of resiliency for many individuals in the short run, but a statement like David’s is aimed at the whole group (i.e. encouraging any potential member of the Church no matter where their testimony is today) and is also meant for the long run. Therefore, I see David’s statement as warranted and cannot make sense of SmallAxe’s point. To prove my point on this one, all you have to do is think about how ridiculous it would be for religions to stop encouraging their members to believe and have faith on the grounds that faith never wilts. A successful religion would not take SmallAxe’s suggestions in my opinion and I’d love to hear of a counter example of a successful religion that did take that stance.
To the best of my ability, this represents SmallAxe’s concerns and my points of disagreement.