Discussion: Revelation vs. The Philosophies of Men

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.

22 thoughts on “Discussion: Revelation vs. The Philosophies of Men

  1. Spiritual evidence is just not the same as scientific evidence. In science, we use physical tools and ideas to disprove a theory. You cannot prove a theory, but just show supportive evidence to the point that it is highly probable. Evolution from primeval sludge cannot be proved, but the evidence is rather strong for it. Einstein’s theories cannot be proven, but the evidence makes them look pretty good.

    Spiritual evidence does not use a microscope or telescope. It uses tools that not everyone is able to use appropriately. While bias from a scientist may work against a theory, evidence can eventually overcome that bias. I cannot force another to look into a telescope, but whoever does can see the astronomical evidence I propose.

    Receiving spiritual evidence means a person must use spiritual tools. It isn’t as easy as just looking through an eye piece of a microscope to see a virus. One must personally prepare mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to receive evidence. It isn’t always easy to spend the time praying, studying, repenting, and emotionally preparing oneself, so some do not receive a witness simply because they have not prepared enough.

    That I cannot take a photograph of a spiritual witness, as one can do through a telescope or microscope means I cannot directly share that evidence with another.

    Still, for the individual, spiritual evidence and revelation is a real phenomena. And it can be as powerful of evidence as anything provided by science. So, for the individual, it becomes a foundational belief based on evidence.

    Philosophies of men, OTOH, are not based on science. Philosophy is not a science. And there are as many philosophical concepts as there are philosophers. One can argue over philosophies, but there never really is any proof or evidence in most cases. One exception may be economic philosophy, where there is statistical evidence that can support an idea. However, that never stopped Paul Krugman from making his stupid philosophical pronouncements on the economy.

    Having said that, it is for the individual or group to determine spiritual evidence vs philosophical concept. And it becomes an internal foundation that would not apply in the outer world, as they have not experienced the spiritual evidences, but only the philosophical exercises.

  2. I’m not saying it doesn’t apply, but I’ve never looked at dismissal of the philosophies of men. Not saying it can’t be labeled such… but when you talk about philosophies mingled with scripture it seems you’re talking about in the best case, the “benign whateverism” that Elder Christofferson mentioned in his great talk:

    That’s to me the best case… usually I see the philosophies of men as simply looking to the prevailing theories of the world rather than those preached by the prophets and in the scriptures.

  3. “theories of the world” = “theories of the world about how to govern and live our lives”

  4. Bruce,

    Thank you for taking our previous conversation so seriously, and for your willingness to engage the issue further. I think, for the most part, you’ve adequately represented my position, although I should perhaps clarify one thing.

    I am not saying that one cannot claim that two categories exist with a clear distinction between them–one right and one wrong, or one a means of learning through method A and another through method B. What I am saying is that if someone wants to make such an argument they have the responsibility to clarify the categories and the distinction. Notice that the parts of my comments you haven’t responded to are my requests for you (or David) to define the terms PoM and revelation. You’ve written an entire post about the subject but haven’t even defined the terms.

    Now, let me address your numbered concerns.

    1) Surely Mormonism existed previous to the term “philosophies of men.” If we stop using it I fail to see how this threatens the entirety of Mormon Theology.

    2) I’m not saying that we shouldn’t defend or clarify our beliefs. I’m saying that if someone wants to defend our beliefs by saying that “you shouldn’t believe ‘x’ because it’s the PoM” then they should clarify what they mean by PoM. Because of it’s social baggage (as I explained in our previous conversation) my sense is that it’s better not to use the terms altogether and simply explain why someone shouldn’t believe ‘x’.

    3) Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t distinguish between what we believe and what we don’t believe. But let’s say that two people–Mormon A and Mormon B–both claim to have received revelation about the afterlife. Mormon A claims that it exists, and Mormon B claims that it doesn’t exist. Mormon B may very well leave the Church, but claims to have received this revelation by means very similar to Mormon A. How do we adjudicate between these two views?

    4) Let’s take D&C 8 as well, if you don’t mind. I think D&C 8 and 9 actually support my point. Both of these passages suggest that revelation and some faculty of rationality are intimately related.

    5) I’m not sure this relates to this thread, and since we have many other things to discuss my suggestion is to just drop it.

  5. I think there is a powerful question that can be asked: To what purpose are we trying to “adjucate” between the two beliefs? Are we trying to create an empirical opinion? Because that’s doomed to failure. Or are we trying to create an opinion within ourselves? Because the bottom answer to that is that the only way you can tell is by what you, yourself feel. Worrying about the validity of what others feel is a pointless exercise.

    I think too many people think that their opinions have to be empirical. It’s the curse of the Age of Science. We keep trying to apply the tool of science to things that it was never meant to be used for.

    On the topic of revelation, I just made a comment on another blog that ties into this, so I’m going to rework it a bit. It was kind of an epiphany for me, as something I’ve felt for a long time was put into words for me.

    I am a believing member of the Church. Among other beliefs, this means that I subscribe to the stewardship model of revelation. In other words, I believe that world-wide revelation comes through the First Presidency and General Auxiliaries, as those given the general keys and authority of administration of the church. If I receive personal revelation, it applies personally.

    IF I’m lead by the Spirit to share what has been revealed to me, I am honest about how I share it. I don’t claim that it is revelation given to the Church general, nor that the leadership should have received that revelation too because I’m obviously more in tune than they are to what the Church needs and to what is True.

    It also means that I recognize that the Prophet is mortal and imperfect, and therefore some common modes of Church thought might be imperfect. But, being imperfect myself, I’m okay with that. I trust Christ (who is the actual head of the Church) to atone for whatever mistakes are made in the leadership’s honest desire to do the right things. (And I don’t think the gender of the Holy Ghost is something to get my knickers in a twist about, nor to waste my time pondering. Maybe once I get faith and charity down, I’ll spend some time on that.)

    Since I don’t sit in their seat, I don’t presume to know how to drive their bus. Even if they get in an accident while I’m a passenger.

  6. I prefer Jim Faulconer’s approach to the idea of philosophies of men mingled with scripture. He seems such mingling as inevitable, and the warning is taken as the need to be aware of such mingling, not a directive to completely overcome such mingling. Here’s an excerpt from a review I wrote of his new book, which I recommend to all:

    Perhaps above all, Faulconer sees in philosophy the opportunity to question our “common sense,” to discuss unexamined ideas and concepts which lead us to hold unacknowledged and conflicting beliefs. The “natural and understandable reversion to common sense is my understanding of the phrase that speaks of mingling the philosophies of men—in other words, their common sense—with scripture” (27, see also 144-6). In the final essay Faulconer declares he is about to “mingle scripture with the philosophies of men—not because I am unaware of the danger, but precisely because I am aware.” Such mingling, Faulconer observes, is inevitable if we try to speak reflectively of scripture but the “problem is our ignorance of that mingling, our assumption that we are not mingling scripture with philosophy when, in fact, we are. Much of what we say about the gospel is simply late nineteenth-century philosophies of men rather than contemporary philosophies of men” (225). Faulconer promotes negotiating our mingling while reading scripture and learning theology.


  7. I think D&C 8 and 9 actually support my point. Both of these passages suggest that revelation and some faculty of rationality are intimately related.


  8. Blair,

    Great point you bring up from Jim Faulconer. Yes, we all are mingling scripture with philosophies of men. We’re doing it in this blog thread, in fact.

    I like the idea that we need to be at least aware that we are doing it, so we can try and avoid the problems that come from it. Scripture read into modern politics is one issue that jumps out regarding this.

  9. Just a quick thought–it might be important to consider the original context of this phrase. Without speaking too candidly about the temple, we should point out that earlier iterations of the endowment session emphasized a strong distinction between God’s church and other Christian (read: Protestant) doctrines, and I think it would be helpful to see the phrase in that light. Thus, “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” is more about corrupted doctrines than secular scholarship. It seems that it is about moving from apostasy to restoration, and not necessarily giving guidelines about integrating faith and scholarship (which is the real issue here). So I think SmallAxe is right that we should hesitate to call academic scholarship that challenges tradition “the philosophy of men,” because that’s certainly not how it was originally intended. Ultimately, we’re just using it as another term for “false ideas,” and saying we should avoid false ideas goes without saying.

  10. Excellent comment, DL. (One nit-pick. I might say we should avoid promulgating or reinforcing “false ideas” as opposed to avoiding them altogether. I’ve learned from mistakes. I reckon you’d agree with this nit-pick)

  11. “So I think SmallAxe is right that we should hesitate to call academic scholarship that challenges tradition “the philosophy of men,” because that’s certainly not how it was originally intended.”

    DLewis, I’d agree with you if it weren’t for the fact that the context was a challenge to the resurrection and sonship of Jesus. I’m sorry, but in that context, I can’t buy your argument at all.

  12. “Because the bottom answer to that is that the only way you can tell is by what you, yourself feel. Worrying about the validity of what others feel is a pointless exercise.”

    Spot on, Silver.

  13. SmallAxe,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    This post was too long already, just trying to summarize. So forgive me for not putting more effort into your request to define things better. However, I would like to point out that you asked for an example and I gave you one. That is usually – and in this case I think is – better than a definition. But I promise more thoughts on your request for a definition later.


    1. “Surely Mormonism existed previous to the term “philosophies of men.” If we stop using it I fail to see how this threatens the entirety of Mormon Theology.”

    If all we are talking about is use of a certain phrase, then I have misunderstood you from the beginning. I thought, all this time, we were talking about the underlying concept that the phrase refers to. And this, I can’t see us doing away with.

    2. Okay, I agree with your statement here, more or less. But again, I feel like you are skipping the actual context. The discussion was about the resurrection and Sonship of Jesus. Just what exact reason was possible to defend these concepts besides a call to faith? PoM *is* a call to faith. Therefore, I naturally assumed that you were attacking the concept of a call to faith.

    3. “How do we adjudicate between these two views?”

    Okay, that seems like a question with an obvious answer to me. The answer is that if you are a believing Mormon, you know that Mormon B is claiming a revelation at odds with the Prophets and Apostles, therefore there is no need to consider Mormon B’s point of view any further.

    Now if what you are getting at is how to make such a determination without the assumption of one’s own religion being true, then obviously there is no way to adjudicate between them except by the very method Mormons teach in Moroni 10:4-5 and D&C 9.

    4. I agree rationality plays a role in D&C 9. I do not see your point within the context of the discussion so far. David using the phrase “philosophies of men” to defend against various arguments against the resurrection and sonship of God in no way implies that we should have dropped our rationality at the door.

    5. Too bad. You dropped the point I think we actually agree on, though we seem loathe to admit it. 😉

  14. Bruce, why would you think I should confine my beliefs and understanding to things you list from the Ensign? It’s truth I’m after, not circumscribing creeds, my friend. 🙂

  15. Link is fixed.

    BHodges. Very funny. 😛

    In all seriousness, I hope you can see the actual relevance of the link. If not, I’ll explain it. Hint: you are not getting the context of the original statement right.

  16. The problem with this dichotomy is that some of the “philosophies of men” are divinely inspired. So the warning boils down to a “don’t be deceived by bad philosophy” thing, which is true in any circumstance.

  17. Bruce,

    I think we agree on more points here than we’re in disagreement about. My complaint has always been about ill-defined terminology and the “black and white” distinction that supposedly exists between them, all of which is supposedly central to Mormon identity. This is why I’ve called the PoM a social rather than analytical category.


    2) This conversation is now divorced from its original context (which we couldn’t agree about in the first place).

    4) I agree rationality plays a role in D&C 9. I do not see your point within the context of the discussion so far.

    Because the only thing close to a definition offered for the PoM is this from David’s comment in #73: The “philosophies of men” is obviously just a simplistic appellation for a very broad category. What I mean by it is simply the rational (and/or irrational) arguments and theories invented by human beings as opposed to information given by revelation from God.

    3) The answer is that if you are a believing Mormon, you know that Mormon B is claiming a revelation at odds with the Prophets and Apostles, therefore there is no need to consider Mormon B’s point of view any further.

    Yes, but my point is that defining what counts as true revelation involves some kind of rationality. And this is contra to the issue I respond to in 4, which excludes rationality from the revelatory process.

  18. Hi SmallAxe,

    I was knocked off line for a while then finally got back up (and made a few comments a few days ago) but didn’t get back to these old posts (or even remember them) until now.

    “Yes, but my point is that defining what counts as true revelation involves some kind of rationality. And this is contra to the issue I respond to in 4, which excludes rationality from the revelatory process.”

    I’m afraid I didn’t really understand what you mean here.

    I was not assuming anyone was calling for a revelation vs. rationality position. So your sudden leap to that seemed out of place to me. Perhaps I’m just missing your point. I apologize if I am.

    I do not see how the fact that D&C 9 calls for some degree of what you are calling ‘rationality’ (i.e. studying things out in this case, before seeking revelation) is contra to the idea that there is such a thing as ‘the philosophies of men’ vs. actual truths from God through revelation. Nor do I see how any of this clarifies the (to me) considerable issues of what it would mean for the LDS Church (and probably all religions) if we were to discover that there is actually no difference between the two and it was *solely* a cultural/social distinction. (I do not know if you are claiming “solely” or just “often.” Perhaps clarify.)

    Also, I feel like we’re ignoring the elephant in the room. The fact is that the LDS Church as a pretty well defined way to ‘vet’ revelations vs. the individual philosophies of men. I do not believe it’s understood to be perfect, but it is, at a minmimum, a very well defined authority and wholly relevant to the conversation. Would you care to address that question? Because it’s hard for me to have this discussion when I can’t even fathom how you’d be able to address the elephant other than the obvious — to deny the authority of the prophets, seers, and revelators of the LDS Church. I’m not trying to force that position on you at all. You’ve already said that you accept the possiblity of revelation, so perhaps you are very open to the idea that God has specifically called the apostles and prophets of the LDS Church as unique authorities to the world in terms of approaching the revelations of God. But I haven’t been able to divine it as of yet, so you’re going to have to tell me what you are actually are getting at.

Comments are closed.