[The Millennial Star is pleased to welcome Jeff G. as a guest blogger with a fantastic post that should be shared and read widely.]
“When the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions…
“Those professors were all corrupt… “they draw near to [God] with their lips, but their hearts are far from [Him], they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
As many of you in the bloggernacle might remember, about 8 years ago I left the church for intellectual reasons. While the exact arguments for my departure are not terribly important to this particular essay what is important is that I had gradually built up and reinforced several intellectual principles and values to a point where intellectual arguments could undermine my faith. I felt, at the time, that I was doing the right thing in following the arguments where they clearly (or so they seemed to me) led, all the while being upfront, honest and clear about my reasons for leaving. I have since realized, however, that my decision was a mistake which I will unfortunately never be able to take back. Furthermore, I can now see with the relative clarity of hindsight many of the ways in which I subconsciously allowed intellectual values to infect, transform and eventually undermine my faith. My deconversion was similar to a chess match wherein earlier, seemingly innocuous moves are later seen to be crucial stage-setting for a masterful killing stroke. In this essay I wish to expose some of these seemingly innocuous, stage-setting moves – these intellectual Trojan Horses, as I will call them – for what they are.
Before continuing, I want to acknowledge up front that just like my former self, the intellectuals of which I speak are not bad people or even bad members of the church. They really do mean well and are doing the very best that they can to negotiate a kind of coexistence within themselves between a culture of critical discourse – which I will equate with intellectualism – and their faith in Mormonism – a faith which I will not call into question. Indeed, these intellectuals honestly see themselves as consecrating their mental gifts toward the building up of Zion, a perspective that not only tolerates, but actively encourages intellectualism within the church. To this, I respond as did the Trojan priest to the original wooden horse: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” To repeat, my purpose here is not to condemn intellectuals within the church so much as articulate some of the troubling tendencies which they will surely recognize in their close peers if not in themselves.
Let me be a little clearer about my definition of an intellectual which I will equate with someone who is imbued with the culture of critical discourse (CCD). I hope the definition below makes it clear that most all of us in the bloggernacle have been indoctrinated with CCD to some degree and that, as a consequence, these criticisms will likely apply to all of us bloggers to that same degree:
“[CCD] insists that any assertion – about anything, by anyone – is open to criticism and that, if challenged, no assertion can be defended by invoking someone’s authority. It forbids a reference to a speaker’s position in society (or reliance upon his personal character) in order to justify or refute his claims… Under the scrutiny of the culture of critical discourse, all claims to truth are in principle now equal, and traditional authorities are now stripped of their special right to define social reality… The CCD … demands the right to sit in judgment over all claims, regardless of who makes them…
“CCD requires that all speakers must be treated as sociologically equal in evaluating their speech. Considerations of race, class, sex, creed, wealth, or power in society may not be taken into account in judging a speaker’s contentions and a special effort is made to guard against their intrusion on critical judgment. The CCD, then, suspects that all traditional social differentiations may be subversive of reason and critical judgment and thus facilitate a critical examination of establishment claims. It distances intellectuals from them and prevents elite views from becoming an unchallenged, conventional wisdom.” (Against Fragmentation: The Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals, 30-31)
The first thing to notice about this depiction of intellectualism is that it focuses on the vetting process by which speech acts are either legitimized or weeded out – a process which we might loosely equate with “critique” or “peer review”. The second thing to notice about this depiction is that it is broad enough to accommodate a wide range of professions, hobbies and interests including physicists, biologists, sociologists, journalists, lawyers, bloggers, protesters, etc. My definition of intellectualism, then, is a very mixed bag indeed, to the point that there is nothing in it that is flagrantly hostile to a belief in or access to a supernatural realm – phenomena which I will lump under the label “prophecy”.
From the perspective of a Mormon intellectual, then, I would suggest that prophecy is not much of a scandal except that it makes many claims practically difficult to vet. From the perspective of an intellectual within the church, prophecy is no different from the many other unique but unambiguously natural events which CCD is able to tolerate or accept within their worldview. So long as there is nothing which in principle prevents prophecy from being vetted or constrained by some kind of peer review process, no matter how informal, the intellectual Mormon can rather easily accommodate it within their faith. Indeed, this thought process is especially seducing within certain strands of Mormonism which see is no ontological distinction between the natural and supernatural, maintaining that all perceived miracles can ultimately be cached out in terms of the practical difficulties in the vetting process. Prophecy is thus not the primary source of tension between intellectualism and Mormonism that it is often taken to be.
The primary source for the tension between intellectualism and Mormonism lies not in prophecy but in priesthood. Whereas the tension between intellectualism and prophecy can be dissolved within the practical difficulties of vetting speech acts, the deeper tension which exists between intellectualism and priesthood lies in the fact that these are two very different and incompatible ways of vetting or legitimizing speech acts. While the former tension can be dissolved, in principle, by somehow overcoming various practical constraints, the latter tension cannot be resolved by any amount of practical effort. This is due to the fact that while the former is a question of how we are to practically go about vetting statements according to agreed upon rules, the latter is a question about which rules are to be those according to which we are, in principle, to vet such statements. One is a question about how to practically apply accepted standards, while the other is about which standards we are to accept.
I hope it is clear that whatever culture the quoted definition above might be describing, it clearly isn’t one governed by the priesthood. Communities which embrace or strive to approach the ideals of the CCD would be the salons of the Enlightenment, reading groups, letters to the editor, blogging communities, and – to a limited degree – academia. Communities which clearly do not embrace or strive to approach the ideals of CCD would include the military, court rooms, most work environments and traditional church organizations. Whereas the whole point of CCD within the former egalitarian groups is that debate and argument are in principle to be kept open at any time by any person for any reason, all of these latter organizations embrace some form of authority which is in principle meant to distinguish those who are allowed to have the last word from those who are not – the leaders from the followers.
It is this principled distinction, this setting apart of certain individuals from their peers that is deeply hostile to CCD. Whereas intellectuals embrace criticism as a tool which is to be applied by everyone to everyone about everything, the priesthood, by contrast, is a tool which is specifically aimed at stifling criticism by certain people against certain people about certain things. It is the priesthood, then, and not prophecy which most scandalizes the intellectual, for it is at the very core of their culture to resist anything and everything which says that certain questions, answers and other speech acts belong exclusively to uniquely authorized individuals which have been set apart from their peers. It is the authority of priesthood, then, and not the supernaturalism of prophecy that intellectuals within the church will find themselves compelled to ignore, reinterpret or otherwise repress.
This deep-seated tension within the faithful intellectuals of the church produces strong motives (be they conscious or not) to do two things: first, to ignore, reinterpret or otherwise repress sacerdotal social distinctions within the church in order to maintain their ties with CCD and second, to ignore, reinterpret or otherwise repress the first desire in order to maintain their ties with the church. The combination of these two motives creates a situation wherein faithful intellectuals undermine priesthood authority in a way which is disguised, even from themselves. From their perspective, they are faithfully pursuing a peaceful coexistence between the two cultures, but unfortunately many of these pursuits only create the misleading appearance of reconciliation, an illusion which usually masks a subtle transfer of legitimacy from priesthood leaders to intellectuals. This is exactly what happened to me as I publicly strove to reconcile these two cultures on my former blogs: Issues in Mormon Doctrine and Mormons and Evolution.
Some of the strategies by which reconciliation is ostensibly sought, the intellectual Trojan Horses which serve to mask rather than resolve the tensions between Mormonism and intellectualism include, but are not limited to:
- Overemphasizing the importance of personal revelation.
- Overemphasizing the importance of “thus saith the Lord”.
- Overemphasizing the importance of church history.
- Overemphasizing the fallibility of prophets.
It will be noted that all of these things which are overemphasized or reinterpreted by the intellectuals are in and of themselves supported by church leaders. This is exactly what makes them such effective Trojan Horses which provide shelter for intellectual values within the church. The mistake of the Mormon intellectual will thus lie not in his values per se, but in the way he interprets and prioritizes them.
Overemphasizing the importance of personal revelation
As noted above, the intellectual is able to accommodate prophecy within the mind frame of CCD by stressing the practical difficulties which serve as an obstacle to peer review and mutual criticism. Without these latter constraints, the intellectual fears that the church will thus become a theocracy in the worst sense of the term wherein the members all blindly trust and obey those who claim private access to the prophecy in question. Accordingly, the intellectual within the church emphasizes how we are all able to overcome the practical difficulties of vetting prophecy by democratizing it in the form of personal revelation. Furthermore, since we all have access to the same “celestial data” – in principle if not in practice – we are still able to tentatively hold the prophecy of priesthood leaders at a safe and critical distance through the peer review process of personal revelation.
While personal revelation clearly is a mechanism which can serve as a check and balance against autocratic rule within the church, the overemphasis on personal revelation by the intellectual also serves other less savory purposes. In particular, an overemphatic focus on personal revelation tacitly encourages members to question and (dis)confirm the decisions made by their priesthood leaders, forgetting that it is supposed to be the antidote to rather than the inspiration for questions and doubt. Personal revelation can thus serve to erode rather than strengthen solidarity within the church. For example we’ve all come across bloggers who use personal revelation as a way of shoring up their own position – one which is contrary to that of priesthood leaders – in order to continue articulating and defending that position in various public forums. Their reasons for doing this are not difficult to surmise: since the blogger has access to the same celestial data set as the priesthood leader, there is no longer any reason why the latter should have the final word on the subject. In this way, authoritative revelation from priesthood leaders comes to be seen as just one more kind of personal revelation thereby making room for the intellectual virtues of critique and peer review. By thus leveling the authoritative playing field, personal revelation is used to further rather than terminate debate within the church, thereby undermining the prerogative of those who are uniquely authorized to end such debates.
The intellectuals’ view of personal revelation, then, marginalizes – indeed makes no reference whatsoever to priesthood authority within the church, having subtly replaced it with a prophetic form of peer review. Yes, the intellectual is correct in believing that personal revelation is a very poor mechanism for publicly resolving debates – as the intellectual well knows – but this is not the task for which it was intended. Personal revelation is meant to be taken as counsel, not evidence and as such was intended to undermine public debate by privatizing the issue at hand in a way which does not interfere with priesthood authority rather than facilitating public debate by becoming a data point from which to publicly engage and debate others. Indeed, rather than being construed as public access to an objective data set in the celestial realm, personal revelation was meant to be construed as subjective access to personal guidance in our individual lives – something which has little if any bearing on public debate. In short, personal revelation was meant to be a compliment to rather than a substitute for priesthood authority. It is in this sense, then, that once our priesthood leaders have spoken, the debate is over: not because these leaders are necessarily right on the issue, but because the (previously public) debate has officially been privatized. Ironically enough, then, while the priesthood leader agrees with the intellectual in wanting to publicly discuss and support the process of personal revelation, he differs from the intellectual in refusing to publicly discuss and support the content of personal revelation.
Overemphasizing the importance of “thus saith the Lord”
The second of the intellectual Trojan Horses involves fetishizing “thus saith the Lord” statements within scripture and church history or – as this fetish manifested itself in my own deconversion – obsessing over the perceived differences between inspiration and revelation. This Trojan Horse invites the intellectual to construe those prophetic statements which claim “thus saith the Lord” as a kind of citation within peer reviewed literature to the Most Competent of Scholars. It is in this way that we can know whether the received content comes (or is claimed to come) from the Lord’s or merely from a mortal, and therefore limited perspective. The intellectual thus sees prophetic authority as being purely derivative in nature in that the prophet can and ought to be trusted only insofar as he has truly had access to and has correctly interpreted this access to the celestial dataset. In this way, the intellectual attempts to remake God in his own image (although he is hardly unique in doing so), inadvertently construing the prophets as secondary sources which merely cite, quote, comment or build upon the Primary Source above. This, in turn, tacitly invites the general membership, of which the intellectual is a part, to use personal revelation to peer review these citations along with those statements which are supposed to logically follow from them. Under such a view, the prophets are secondary sources in the exact same sense that every person is (supposed to be) a secondary source to that same Primary Source by means of personal revelation.
It is worth noting that treating God as a kind of Super-Scholar that can be treated as the Primary Source to some celestial dataset finds its clearest articulation in the book-of-revelation/book-of-nature metaphor which was originally created by intellectuals within the Catholic Church but was later used by intellectuals to subvert church authority by implying that revelation, like nature is a book which we are all equally authorized to read for ourselves. Similarly, an exaggerated focus on “thus saith the Lord” statements inadvertently serves to marginalize the manner in which priesthood leaders are specifically set apart from their peers, becoming uniquely and exclusively authorized to read certain books of revelation, so to speak. It also serves to deemphasize those priesthood decisions and speech acts which are not prophetically stamped as such, construing them as the mere policies and statements of imperfect and bureaucratic men. This, in turn, opens up a space in which these men and their man-made policies are subjected to the criticism of peer review, a process which unnecessarily highlights the biases and prejudices that the priesthood leader may or may not share with their “peers”. Consequently, the intellectual tacitly stamps all such statements with “thus saith a mere mortal”, thereby setting aside the question of who spoke and proceeding to subject what was spoken to an analysis and critique centered on the intellectual virtues of empirical and logical coherence.
No less dangerous than construing revelation as access to the celestial dataset is the idea of construing “thus saith the Lord” statements as citations of the Primary Source of this dataset. Revelation is not meant to be objective data which fills in our mental maps of world so that we can more efficiently and instrumentally guide ourselves to whatever destination we see fit. Rather, revelation is meant to be subjective guidance which leads us down paths that the Lord sees fit for us. The fact that it is unclear that the Lord is speaking in some instances does not change the fact that it is clear who is speaking: a uniquely authorized priesthood leader. The fact that a priesthood leader does not cite the Lord gives us no reason to think that he is now our peer which we are free to review or criticize in any way. In other words, the fact that a statement does not explicitly claim to be a revelation does not in any way make that statement less authoritative or official. The authority of the speaker comes not from the accuracy of his access to the celestial dataset but from lineage of his priesthood ordination. Indeed, only an intellectual trained in CCD would ever think that the priesthood leader is in any sense obligated to cite his sources when he speaks for or to the church. If we are ever unsure about what our priesthood leaders say, we are not to ask for supporting data in the form of celestial citations, but are instead invited to privately take the issue to the Lord.
Overemphasizing the importance of church history.
The third Trojan Horse by which intellectuals are able to infiltrate and undermine priesthood authority is through an overemphasis on the extra-canonical history and teachings of the church and its leaders. Since all truth is one, it is argued, the distinctions between official and unofficial or private and public sources of truth lose their relevance, giving way to a warts-and-all genealogy of the church and its doctrines. As such, all aspects of the prophets’ social milieu, including their biases and prejudices, are brought to bear on the systematic study of church history. All such sources are thus construed as value-free data points which instrumentally serve to paint a clearer map of the world around us by which we can now guide ourselves to whatever destination we see fit.
There are a number of dangers that this exaggerated focus on church history brings with it. First, it serves to subvert priesthood statements – a system of rules and information over which the intellectual has no control – to a system of interpretive rules which he can control. This process in which the historical context is filled in according to the rules of CCD thus allows the intellectuals to tacitly present themselves as the secular mouthpieces through which what the Lord’s spokesmen (or worse, the Lord Himself) really meant ought to be heard. This in turn allows them to act as an alternative source of prophetic information without ever claiming or requiring prophetic responsibility or priesthood authority. The distinction between official and unofficial sources of church history and doctrine becomes blurred and marginalized.
On the other hand, at the center of the priesthood authority to speak on certain issues is the distinction which is drawn between official and unofficial statements, those speech acts that are backed by the priesthood holder’s position and authority to end public debate and those that are not. This distinction gives us no reason to assume that a personal letter privately written by one priesthood leader to his son should be imbued with any kind of special authority to any who happen upon it. This mistaken mentality naturally follows from the tendency to view the Source of the prophet’s information rather than the Source of his calling as authoritatively binding. By construing both official and unofficial statements regarding church history and doctrine as data points, the intellectual treats the priesthood leaders as being merely epistemologically useful in practice rather than authoritatively binding in principle. This, however, is the exact purpose for which priesthood leaders are set apart from their peers: while church historians, etc. are epistemologically useful in practice the priesthood leaders have been ordained and set apart to be authoritatively binding in principle. Yes, church members are told that it is good to have information vetted by intellectual historians, but only so long as this does not conflict in any way with the guiding truths which have been vetted by priesthood leaders. In a deep affront to CCD, Mormonism requires that its faithful members allow their priesthood leaders to vet the intellectuals and not the other way around.
Overemphasizing the fallibility of prophets
The final Trojan Horse by which intellectuals inadvertently compromise the legitimacy of the priesthood to the benefit of their own culture is by overemphasizing the fallibility of prophets. That the intellectual is prone to bring up the fallibility of priesthood leaders should come as no surprise to us: the fallibility of all men and women carries a great deal of importance in CCD since it is this fallibility which encourages criticism and debate while blocking appeals to authority. This particular strategy for reconciling intellectualism and Mormonism thus serves to level the playing field, so to speak, by making our priesthood leaders fallible “peers” which we can, or even ought to “review”. Once again, the fallibility of priesthood leaders is thus used by intellectuals as a means to keeping open disputes and arguments which priesthood authority was specifically intended to close down.
This disproportionate focus on the fallibility of priesthood leaders distracts us from the question of who is uniquely authorized to speak (the prophets) and who is not (the intellectuals) in a rather straightforward way. First, CCD does acknowledge a certain kind of authority within some limited field which is based in qualifications such as competence, familiarity, frequency of citations, and other measures of having passed peer review. In other words, any person’s authority (even God’s?) is exclusively derived from their familiarity and competence with the relevant data, qualifications which can be called into question at any time, by anyone and are thus fully compatible with CCD. This construal of authority as competence serves to connect the question of infallibility with the question of authority in a way which is utterly foreign to the restored church. The intellectuals’ focus on fallibility serves to draw attention away from the calling and ordination of the priesthood leader – things which are not at all compatible with CCD – and refocus them instead on the priesthood leader’s familiarity and competence with the relevant information. It is this view of authority as familiarity and competence, then, that is a major source of malcontent regarding who can and cannot hold the priesthood in the church.
Whether we like it or not – and CCD most definitely does not like it – priesthood authority is not based in the competence or familiarity of the ordained and the fact that our priesthood leaders are fallible does not change the fact that it is their job to speak on certain issues and it is church members’ job to trust and support them. Yes, the prophets are fallible, but their supposed infallibility was never the reason we were supposed to listen to them in the first place. The reasons why we are to follow rather than lead the prophets are the exact things that CCD is designed to dissolve: namely that their social position which they have been set apart to allows them and no others to speak on certain issues regardless of their perceived familiarity or competence on the subject. It is for this reason that while the fallibility of those who carry social standing is of the utmost importance in CCD, the fallibility of priesthood leaders is of marginal importance within a Mormon tradition that does not see competent familiarity with the relevant information as a source of authority. Within a tradition in which people are not authorized to publicly vet prophetic statements regardless of the competence or qualifications of either party, fallibility simply isn’t that pressing of an issue and therefore is rarely mentioned.
In review, it is worth repeating that Mormonism clearly does not deny the importance of personal revelation, the distinction between when God and man speak, the importance of church history or the fallibility of prophets. All these things are certainly taught within the Mormon tradition. They are, however, interpreted and prioritized very differently within the Mormon tradition of prophecy/priesthood than they are within the intellectual tradition of CCD. Within the publications and speeches given from the podium within each tradition we clearly find a far greater reference to and reliance upon these things in the intellectual than we do in the Mormon tradition. This difference in the frequency with which these themes are mentioned reflects the very different and incompatible meanings which they carry within the two traditions.
In their attempts to reconcile Mormonism (a culture which appeals strongly to social standing) with the culture of critical discourse (a culture which forbids any such appeal to social standing), intellectuals find themselves compelled to systematically downplay or reconstrue priesthood authority in many ways. They will keep revelation but they will make it a democratized and personal kind of revelation. They will keep prophetic statements but only as a secondary source to the celestial dataset which we all have access to. They will keep the canonical scriptures but will insist that the books be interpreted in light of their own historical findings. They will keep their priesthood leaders as long as they are fallible, just like everybody else. All of these things serve to shift attention away from the social standing of who is speaking and toward the content of what is spoken in order to keep debates and arguments open rather than close them down. Additionally, just as intellectuals within the church find themselves compelled to systematically downplay or reconstrue priesthood authority, they also find themselves compelled to systematically downplay or reconstrue their efforts at doing so.
In stark contrast to the well-meaning but ultimately misguided intellectuals such as I was 8 years ago, let us remember that the whole point of the restoration was to restore the holy priesthood of God by way of ordination and to disown the impotent and illegitimate reformations that claimed no higher authority that their familiarity and competence with celestial information. No amount of celestial information to any man – not even Joseph Smith – was ever sufficient to restore or lead the Lord’s church. The lesson which the boy Joseph took from the First Vision was not that all other churches happened to be working with incorrect information and for this reason could not end any of their debates, but that none of the churches had the proper authority to end such debates. The problem was not that the churches were practically unable to implement the principles by which they might reach consensus, but that they sought consensus by the wrong principles. Neither the first vision, nor the gold plates – the ultimate experiences as far as personal revelation goes – were sufficient to authoritatively end any debate, even in principle. What was needed was priesthood leaders who were uniquely set apart from their peers by way of ordination.