Dear Jane

Dear Jane,

I don’t know you—at least I don’t think I do—but I have been struck by your willingness to speak openly and honestly about your situation. My Sikh friends speak of “seekers.” You are genuinely a seeker and, so, a person deserving of respect, including the respect of response. However, I haven’t had anything to say in response until now when you ask, “Does the gospel make sense (comment 23)?” The answer depends on what you mean by “sense.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives a very long list of meanings, from “the faculty of perception” (definition 1) to “that which distinguishes a pair of entities which differ only in that each is the reverse of the other” (definition 29b) as well as some 1997 addenda from DNA research. Obviously, however, the sense you had in mind is more like “discourse that has a satisfactory and intelligible meaning” (27) or “what is wise or reasonable” (28).

If a person insists on a certain, rationalist and Enlightenment understanding of intelligibility and reasonableness, then the gospel doesn’t make sense. No religion can be reduced to a rational system with neither remainder nor absence and without contradiction. But, as Gödel proved, neither can arithmetic, so that inability on the part of religion isn’t much of a strike against it. Indeed, on that model of reasonableness, not very much is ultimately reasonable. So much the worse for that model. There are other ways of understanding reason and intelligibility that don’t reduce to irrationality but also don’t narrow rationality so much that almost nothing remains rational.

I think that the answer to the question you ask requires us to think about reasonableness differently, to think of the rationalist model of reason as an abstract—emaciated rather than full-blooded—though often useful version of intelligibility. Intelligibility should be understood differently than we often do. To make that argument (though, in spite of the length of this post, not fully), let me quote at length from something I’ve already written on the subject, though I’ve edited it in places for this occasion, and I’ve omitted the footnotes. (For the original, see “Room to Talk: Reason’s Need for Faith.” Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman Madsen. Ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002. 85-120.)

I will suggest that faith and reason are commensurable by arguing that reason always requires something outside the chain of reasons. In addition, as mentioned, I will sketch what I think may be an argument that the relation of reason to what is outside itself is a matter of faith. If that is the case, then at least one way in which faith and reason are commensurable is that the latter requires the former.

Before I make my case, however, let me briefly take up another way in which faith and reason are commensurable: not only does reason need faith, but faith needs reason. If, as it is often defined, faith is understood to be belief or even knowledge in the absence of compelling reasons, then it is obviously true by definition that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. When we are asked to talk about faith, if we are not careful, we almost always slip into our semi-philosophical or theological mode and, when we do, we are likely to say something like that. Though this response is common, I think it is seriously mistaken. Alvin Plantinga has argued, brilliantly I believe, that we should reject that definition: compelling experience may be sufficient, even in the absence of compelling beliefs. Faith is best thought of, not as belief in the absence of reasons, but as fidelity to something that one has been given, such as an experience or covenant, or trust in someone, such as God. That is how it seems most often to be used in scripture. It is a mistake to define faith as belief without reasons.

Indeed, Paul is explicit about faith being a matter of evidence: “Now faith is the substance (hypostasis; “reality� or “realization�) of things hoped for, the evidence (elenchos: “proof� or “argument for�) of things not seen� (Hebrews 11:1). Nephi and Lehi, the son of Helaman, convert hundreds to faith by offering them “great evidence� (Helaman 5:50). Later Nephi, the son of Helaman, tells the people that their unbelief is unreasonable, a rejection of convincing evidence (Helaman 8:24). Faith has reasons and requires them; at least part of what is wrong in the supposed confrontation between faith and reason is that a poor definition of faith is used. However, since I will assume that most of those reading this post are practicing, faithful Latter-day Saints, this argument needs little development. They already know, at least in their hearts, that there is more to faith than belief without reason, that faith is essentially trust and fidelity rather than belief, though beliefs will result from trust and fidelity and that when they do, they will have their reasonable ground. Thus, my primary focus will be on the nature of reason and its relation to faith.

Aristotle says that to be human is to be rational. With most people, I’m willing to accept that assumption without further proof, but the assumption cannot mean that to be human is to offer and listen to arguments. Aristotle’s claim is not that human beings are all philosophical in the conventional sense of “philosophical”. At best, Aristotle is making the weaker claim, that all human beings are capable of using reason. But what does that mean?

In its essence, the problem of reason is simple: does reason have a reason, and if it does, how do we think that reason? How do we establish certain knowledge when reason reaches its end? Rene Descartes is one of the most important fathers of modernism, and we owe him much of our contemporary, ordinary understanding of reason (our “common sense�). According to Descartes, there are self-certifying, rational foundations to reason. He assumes that reason has no reason. It begins from principles that are intuitively known to be true without reference to anything else, and proceeds logically from step to step, establishing knowledge as certain when it reaches its end. But few, if any, believed that before Descartes, and few, if any, believe it today. There are too many arguments against that understanding of reason.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that without something outside of the chain of explanations, there can be no actual explanation. I think that is an argument whose power is often overlooked. Aristotle calls this something the archae, the origin. It is tempting to think that the archae is either the first in the series of efficient or other causes or to think of it as the first instance in a chain of rational explanations. That is almost always how we talk about it. However, to understand it in either of these ways is a mistake, for these two ways of understanding the archae are of a piece. Each reduces the archae to something with the same philosophical and perhaps ontological status as any other moment in the chain of explanation or account, the only difference being that, mysteriously, it is the first of those moments. Understood that way, Aristotle’s argument makes no sense.

However, as we see in Thomas Aquinas’s use of Aristotle’s argument in the proofs for God’s existence, there is a better way of understanding Aristotle. As I think Aquinas’s use shows, Aristotle’s point is that there must be something outside of or beyond or prior to any chain of reasons to ground the chain in question or there will be no real reasonings. There must be what the recently deceased French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, calls “the supplement,� though the name itself indicates that one speaks from within a chain of reasons rather than from any external point of view. One speaks of what is beyond reason from within reason because there is no alternative.

Expanded, Aristotle’s point is this: potentially every chain of reasons, every reasoning or explanation, is infinitely long. No matter where I stop, in principle someone could ask, “And what explains that?� Nevertheless, our chains of reasoning do not go on to infinity. Something stops them; something makes any particular stopping point of an adequate chain of reasoning the appropriate place to stop. That which constitutes the adequate stopping point of a chain of reasons, however, is itself not part of that chain. The reason for the explanation is outside the chain. (It could be, and often is, something as straightforward as a state of affairs, “the way things are.�) Thus, the real origin or first cause of any chain of reasons, is not the point at which we stop saying “A because of B because of C,� but something that is not itself part of the chain, something that we do not account for in our chain of reasons or causal account. It is the ground or origin, the archae, within which chain has meaning. That within which a chain of reasons has meaning is not something that can itself be explained by that chain; it is an “uncaused cause� to use the traditional terminology and cannot be included in the chain of reasons.

Of course, we remove place the ground or origin of a chain of reasons into the chain as its first element. However, if we do, then it ceases to be the origin of the chain and becomes one of the things in the chain, namely, its first element. But that means that something new has taken its place as the origin of the chain of reasons, as the supplement, in other words, as the ground of explanations and reasons that is not part of the chain of reasons. Thus, if we take the Cartesian understanding of reason seriously, if we assume that the origin of explanation is not supplemental to explanation, that there is nothing outside the process of reason because reason is self-grounding, then we will have no way to stop giving reasons in any particular case. Without a supplemental ground within which the chain stops, every chain of reasons will go on to infinity and, so, will not do as a chain of reasons. An explanation that cannot come to an end is no explanation at all. If explanation requires a last word rather than a supplement, then the desire for the last word is implicitly the desire for garrulousness, not understanding.

This observation that the use of reason depends on something external to that use is a matter of common-sense. As always, philosophers argue for what ordinary people know without having to argue it. (From the reports one sees in the news, not always to be trusted, one suspects that those in charge of deciding what kinds of social science research projects to fund with government money are all philosophers.) In addition, many more philosophers have known this than have not. Medieval Christians certainly knew that explanations require something beyond them and their processes. The various sorts of empiricists also knew it, as did the Romantics. Marxism knows that reason has a “supplement� and, like Christianity, it reminds us that ignoring that fact is seldom innocent. Plantinga gives us perhaps the best explanation in analytic philosophy of this truth that we all already know. Deconstruction begins with the assumption of this need for something more and then tries to show places in texts and philosophies at which that dependance on what is beyond reason shines through the text. Feminism allies itself with marxism, though sometimes only implicitly, in recognizing both that reason is not self-grounding and that the claim that it is is not innocent. Ordinary members of the Church know that something more than reason is needed. But in spite of the fact that “everyone� knows at least implicitly that reason requires a supplement, I think it is also true that few people recognize that fact when they think about reason or faith and fewer still recognize its implications or the questions it raises.

Having argued that reason requires a supplement, let me now turn to that supplement: what can we say about its character, if anything? and what is its relation to reason? For our purposes, these are the same as the question of how we can reasonably talk about what falls outside reason, so I will treat them as one question. On the face of it, we seem to be faced with a dilemma:

In order to speak reasonably about something, it seems that it must be within reason.
The supplement of reason is outside reason.
So, we cannot speak reasonably about it.

That conclusion at least raises doubts as to the tenability of the second premise, the premise for which I have argued. The argument seems self-contradictory.

To deal with this problem, begin by considering ways in which I think we cannot talk about the supplement of reason. When we hear people talk about faith and reason in Church talks or classes or serious conversations about serious matters, they often use a bastardized version of the language of Romanticism: there are things to be known and things to be felt; things to be explained rationally and things that defy rational explanation but are known by means of some other faculty. We sometimes use the word that the Romantics gave us for that other faculty, intuition; sometimes, instead, we speak of feeling; sometimes we associate the promptings of the Holy Ghost with the felt, intuitive faculty for knowing. Such an approach sees the problem and tries to solve it by supplementing reason’s realm with another realm, that of feeling, a realm that purportedly goes beyond our ability to conceive and that gives unity to the whole of experience.

The first problem with this approach is that it looks for a source of meaning in feeling rather than in God and the world he organized. In addition, this approach responds to the problem of reason with more problems: because it assumes there are two realms of knowledge, this approach doubles the difficulties. The problem was how to know in the realm of reason. If we add an additional realm of feeling, we now need to know how to know in the realm of reason and in the realm of feeling. It is not clear how creating an additional realm of knowledge solves the problems of the first, the realm of reason. If we reduce knowledge to two separate realms, reason and feeling, we are hopelessly and essentially schizophrenic: I cannot know the truth about the most important things rationally, and I cannot know what the other way of knowing them is unless I’ve already experienced it. In addition, without intending to, I think that this way of understanding makes any talk of knowing the objects of religion metaphorical, at best. By doing so it robs important parts of our lives, such as religious and aesthetic experience, of their ability to give us genuine knowledge.

Whatever the relation between reason and its supplement, that relation must be understood from within reason or it will fall into the abyss of irrationalism or, at best, the whim of subjective sentiment. Whatever the relation of reason and its ground, we must understand reason in a way that will allow us to do so without dropping beauty, art, religion, love, feeling, the good, and so on into the abyss of the irrational or nonrational.

It will perhaps be surprising that I think Kierkegaard understood that point quite well. On my reading of his work, because he understood that we can only understand the relation of reason to its supplement from within reason, he used pseudonyms and irony in his philosophical texts (at the same time that he was writing quite straightforward religious sermons). He wanted to pay appropriate due to reason without falling into the trap of making it independent of faith. As I understand Kierkegaard’s best known treatise on faith, Fear and Trembling, Abraham is faced with a paradox when he is asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He must obey God who commands him to kill his son, but he knows that it is unholy to kill another person. Revelation contradicts ethical obligation. It is not uncommon to understand this paradox as a contradiction between reason and revelation: revelation and reason are incommensurable and revelation trumps reason.

However, instead, I think that the paradox of Abraham is not that revelation must contradict or trump reason, but that Abraham cannot make himself understood to foundationalist philosophers, those of Kierkegaard’s countrymen who think they have, with Hegel, gone beyond Descartes’ methodological doubt to rational certainty. Abraham cannot speak, says Johannes de Silentio, and yet he does speak. What Abraham says however is “absurdâ€?—meaning that it cannot be heard by the foundationalist philosopher, not that it has no meaning. I take it that Kierkegaard is relying on the root meaning of the word “absurd”: “what cannot be said, what is voiceless,â€? so also, “what cannot be heard.â€?

The ab-surdity to which the story of Abraham points is the voicelessness of what lies outside the strict economy of Cartesian doubt and certainty. As a result, the ab-surdity that Silentio discovers is only meaningless or irrational if we insist that meaning and rationality are products only of “the system,� only of Cartesian rationality. To be sure, what is outside the system is paradoxical—in other words, strange and marvelous, rather than self-contradictory (again, I take Kierkegaard to be relying on the root meaning of the word paradox: what is other than our expectations)—but it is not unreasonable or contrary to reason, except from the point of view of a reason that has been artificially and narrowly defined. As I understand Kierkegaard, Abraham cannot be understood if, and only if, one rejects the origin of his knowledge, which modern philosophers (in other words, philosophers from Descartes through at least Hegel) and those who accept their views reject.

To use Aristotle’s word again, what is outside reason is, in fact, the archae of reason, its origin. However, it is an archae that we can hear only from within reason (since we take account of things always from within reason). Thus, we tend to hear it as if it were also within reason. It is as if we are listening to someone calling from outside the house but we assume that they are inside, or perhaps more accurately, it is like hearing someone quietly whisper something to us and believing that we are hearing ourselves think.

Within reason, its archae can be said and, in fact, is always said. Reason can and does give an account of itself. However, the account is always ironic, in a way that I will try to explain. There is no straightforward, non-question-begging, rational account of reason. One can be deaf to reason’s supplemental archae. One can refuse it recognition. One can refuse to hear what is said by means of rather than merely within reason. For the origin of reason does not show itself unambiguously—clearly and distinctly, in other words theoretically. It cannot give itself clearly and distinctly or it would be one more of the thingswithin the realm of reason, rather than its supplement. But that something cannot be said clearly and distinctly does not mean that it cannot be said well or that it cannot be heard or that it cannot be understood without difficulty.

The profundity of the origin of reason is not necessarily the profundity of complexity and obscurity. Martin Heidegger (who himself sometimes, but not always, confused profundity with complexity) writes in The Principle of Reason of “the second tonality� of the principle of sufficient reason, a tonality that does not deny that everything has an explanation but alerts us to the fact of the archae, of what can always be heard from beyond reason as well as always ignored. Kierkegaard helps us see the necessity of such an archae by showing the impossibility of giving a merely theoretical explanation of Abraham—along with the impossibility of simply writing Abraham off as a madman, as one who acts without, outside of, reason. Narratives and deconstructions of texts can help us catch a glimpse of the archae, the unavoidable, but always indirectly seen “supplement� of reason. So can carefully listening to the “tones� of propositions in otherwise logical discourse, hearing what those propositions also say. But nothing can guarantee that we will hear what comes to us from the archae, from what reason must call its supplement but is really its origin. One must learn to read and hear with Kierkegaardian irony, which is not to say one thing and to mean another, but to know that one always says more than one says on the surface and to take account of that “more than,� to always also say something about one’s extra-rational foundations, but often and, finally, only implicitly.

Since we must assume that we speak ironically whenever we speak reasonably, we must also be suspicious of taking up irony as a posture. In the first place, if Kierkegaard, Heidegger, the Medievals, and important other thinkers—such as Nephi—are right, then ordinary language, even the “clear and distinct� and often not-so-ordinary language of rational philosophy is already ironic. I need not add anything to it for it to be ironic. In the second place, only the character of the speaker can give a guarantee that what he or she says is said with the proper irony, and no speaker can guarantee his or her own character except by being of good character.

Thus, the answer to the question of how we are to understand the archae of reason from within reason is that we understand the origin of reason as we see the sun, not by looking at it directly with philosophical and theoretical eyes, but by the light it sheds on the things in the world, by the fact that we can see at all—by the fact that reason is possible. We see reasonably, in other words, we see by the light of the origin of reason, without ever seeing that origin directly. Nevertheless, the archae, like the sun, is never far from us; it is everywhere to be seen and never to be pointed out directly even though when we point at anything we point by means of it.

But why is that archae to be thought in terms of faith rather than, as for marxists, in terms of material history or, as for feminists, in terms of the history of oppression? That question is the hardest one I brook, but I think I can say something about it. I can at least make what I think is a reasonable suggestion.

The first, quick answer is deceptively simple: for something to be the ground for a knowledge claim, I must trust it and be faithful to it. Truth requires that I be true and faithful to that of which I speak or give an account. But, as I said, the simplicity of this answer is deceptive. Hidden in it are a host of questions and philosophical problems, such as what it means to be faithful to an experience.

With an eye toward beginning to say something about the profundity of that simplicity, let me explore one way of talking about the relation of reason to its supplemental, archaic origin. It takes very little to notice that reason and explanation often involve our obligation to others. One can, of course, point out that not all reason begins with obligation. It is not difficult to think of cases of reasoning that have not been initiated by an obligation. That response, however, can perhaps be overcome by arguing that other uses of reason are parasitic on reason as a response to obligation. Or it may be overcome by arguing that the word “obligation” must be understood more broadly. In any case, for now, grant the Levinasian thesis that reason begins in obligation to another. Why reason except to explain? Why explain if there is no one to whom we owe an explanation? In a solipsistic universe, reason and explanation make no sense (at least because language makes no sense). The solipsist who argues for his solipsism contradicts that solipsism in making his argument. If this is true, then what is outside of reason, making it possible, is essentially not a thing or principle, but another person. The principle of non-contradiction is necessary to all reasoning, but its necessity comes not from itself but from the demand that I give an acceptable explanation to another. In Levinas’s terms, the principles of reason have their origin in the apologetic character of reason, which is the very basis for my existence as a unique individual. He says, “[The singularity of my existence] is at the very level of its reason; it is apology, that is, personal discourse, from me to the others.â€? With an argument that I can only allude to here, Levinas argues that the other person is, ultimately, God.

Marlene Zarader does not deal directly with Levinas, but she helps us understand his recourse to God by pointing out that in the Jewish tradition (she points explicitly to the medieval commentator, Nachmanides), language, and therefore reason, is essentially a response to God. The Bible understands language to be a matter of experience, the experience of hearing a call and responding. When God speaks, he does not reveal himself in the hurricane or the fire, but in a voice that addresses us. (Recall 1 Kings 19:11-13.) Zarader takes prophetic speech to be paradigmatic of all speech and says: “The prophet speaks to the people and can be understood by them because his speaking remains ordained by a call that preceded it.�

To Levinas’s argument that obligation to God and fidelity to him is the archae of reason, I would add at least one thing, also at least partly a matter of faith. However, adding this additional point will return at least some of what I suggested could be taken away when I suggested that non-obligational reason may be parasitic on obligational reason. In addition, what I say will question whether God is the only origin or supplement of reason.

I am professionally interested in what has sometimes been called Heidegger’s paganism, a description used to denote the fact that Heidegger does not consider the world simply as something created ex nihilo, but as something that has its own existence and, therefore, its own power to appear to us and to demand our attention, a power that cannot be completely attributed to God’s creative act. For Heidegger the power of the world to reveal itself not only cannot be reduced to Divine fiat, it also cannot be reduced either to our subjective wills or to the objects of rational research. The world itself has the power to ground our conclusions.

Levinas’s understanding of matters is more in line with traditional theology and its supposition of the creation of the world from nothing. The consequence of such an understanding is that the world itself and things in the world do not have their own existence, so they do not have their own power to show themselves to us, to reveal something. If the world is created ex nihilo, then revelation comes from God in toto and, ultimately, he is the only supplement of reason. However, Latter-day Saint belief rejects the notion of ex nihilo creation and, so, implicitly includes the idea that the things of the world have power of their own to reveal themselves. Though all things are dependent on God for their existence in this world and, so, all things point to his existence (Alma 30:44), each thing also has an aspect of independent existence and, so, the power to show itself. The appearing of the world is not reducible to will, neither to that of the Divine nor to that of human beings. Heidegger’s so-called pagan understanding of the world as existing, in some sense, in itself, is more useful to Latter-day Saint thinkers than is Levinas’s, though the latter does much to help us understand reason as response.

Using Heidegger’s thought as a corrective to Levinas’s, I am willing to say that not only are other persons—ultimately the divine Person—the archae or supplement that makes reason possible, but so is the appearing of the world. Contrary to the philosophical as well as the theological tradition, the archae is not singular. The unity of the archae is in us, in our lives, acts and everyday understanding, rather than in our wills and theoretical speculations, for the latter are but a representation, manifestation, or expression of the former. That is why, on a daily basis as well as ultimately, practice must take precedence over theology and speculation. The ultimate unity and, therefore, the ultimate rationality of our lives is to be found in our acts (including what we say and think) rather than only in our reflections and theories. The impetus and unity of our lives is practical rather than merely cognitive.

As I mentioned earlier, Heidegger also speaks of our relation to and understanding of the world in terms of two registers or orders of thinking. Though Heidegger uses the word “reason” for only one of those registers, I think that is a mistake; there is no reason not to speak of each as reason. One of the registers of thought is what we usually think of when we think of reason, a thinking determined by logic. That is a register that we cannot do without. If thinking is to be at all useful, it must include logic.

Nevertheless, the logical register of thought requires another, the register of faithfulness, memory, and recognition. In other words, it requires the relation to a supplement that makes it possible and meaningful. Without the relation to a supplement, the first register remains free-floating and, so, pointless. But unlike Levinas, Heidegger believes that it is as possible to be faithful to the things in the world that come to us, to be called by the things we encounter and to hearken to that call, as it is to be called by another person and to hearken to her. For Heidegger, faithfulness to the world is as possible as is faithfulness to another person, and I believe that Heidegger has much for Latter-day Saints to think about in this regard.

Reason in the fundamental sense is the welcoming, remembering, recognizing response to a call from someone or something. Fundamental reason is a response that makes possible reason in the second, narrower, emaciated sense, but that second sense of reason is also a kind of response. Otto Pöggeler points out that for Heidegger the essence of thought is not questioning, though the thinker must question. The essence of thought is not questioning because questioning relies on already finding oneself called by something and submitting oneself to it. One cannot question unless one is already in a world that reveals itself and makes demands. In other words, the essence of thinking—of reason—is response to a call, very like the response of religious faith, even when it is a response to something other than God.

As Zarader explains, the idea that reason is a matter of response is not new. In fact, in discussions of how knowledge is understood in the Bible it is almost a commonplace that Hebrew thought takes knowledge to be a matter of hearing, acquaintance, and obedience, and Greek thought (which gave us philosophy and, so, the primary way in which we think about thinking and reason) takes it to be a matter of sight, possession, and control. Too simply put (but good enough for our purposes here), for the biblical prophet, to know the truth is to be called and to obey that which calls one. For the Greek philosopher, to know the truth is to see something and to grasp what one sees. As David Banon says, for biblical writers, the basic structure of knowledge is not that of “‘possession,’ but that of ‘fidelity.’â€? You ask, “Is the gospel reasonable?” and the prophets answer “It is a call you can sense and to which we must respond” rather than “It is (or is not) something graspable.”

Thus, my understanding of the relation of faith and reason is simple: We find ourselves in the world, surrounded by things and people, both of which lay claim on us, call us, making demands that we respond, that we account for ourselves, that we act. Of course we know from latter-day revelation that we initially found ourselves before God, to whom we responded. He is, after all, our Creator, even if that creation was not ex nihilo. He called us into existence and continues to call us: “Hear Oh Israel.� However, once we were in relation with him, we also found ourselves in the presence of others and of things, both of whom call to us, demanding our response by posing problems and questions, whether explicitly or not. If we take those calls seriously, being sufficiently faithful to those making demands on us, whether God, people, or things, that we make an adequate response to their calls, we act rationally. In its multiplicity, the call is sufficient as an origin of reason. It is basic; it cannot be reduced to one of my beliefs. It stands outside of beliefs as their origin, their supplement, initiating chains of reasons.

Because we exist, we account for ourselves before God, in relation to others, and in the world. We cannot avoid giving those accounts; we cannot avoid reason. Reason begins in an act of faith (trust and fidelity), faithful response to those beings who surround and precede us, whose very existence calls to us, making demands on us that interrupt our being: first God, then persons, then things. But not only does reason require faith, faith requires reason. Though their relation is asymmetrical, with more area covered by faith than reason, either without the other is lame or blind or both. Faith makes space for us to talk, to reason, with each other, with the world, and with God. In making the space for reason, faith makes it possible for us to live responsibly, responsively. Faith creates a space for response and, therefore, for reason.

60 comments for “Dear Jane

  1. Seth Rogers
    January 26, 2006 at 8:26 am

    I don’t get it.

  2. Travis
    January 26, 2006 at 9:41 am

    “compelling experience may be sufficient, even in the absence of compelling beliefs. Faith is best thought of, not as belief in the absence of reasons, but as fidelity to something that one has been given, such as an experience or covenant, or trust in someone, such as God. That is how it seems most often to be used in scripture. It is a mistake to define faith as belief without reasons.�

    I, also, disagree that faith is belief in the absence of reason and I love Jim’s description of faith. This is how faith is most often operative in my life: fidelity to an experience (or series of experiences) I have had which enable me to trust in God (or, more specifically, that He will make good on His promises).

  3. Eric Russell
    January 26, 2006 at 10:02 am

    Jim, this is marvelous. Thank you.

    I just have one question at the moment, if a bit tangential. As I understand it, Levinas’ Other, whom we are called to respond to, includes human beings – a product of creation ex nihlo. Did Levinas see something essential in human beings, despite creation ex nihlo? Or is essentiality not necessarily a requirement for the interruption of another being?

  4. January 26, 2006 at 11:01 am

    This is a superb excerpt of your paper, Jim; I really need to get a hold of that Truman Madsen festschrift sometime.

    “If the world is created ex nihilo, then revelation comes from God in toto and, ultimately, he is the only supplement of reason. However, Latter-day Saint belief rejects the notion of ex nihilo creation and, so, implicitly includes the idea that the things of the world have power of their own to reveal themselves. Though all things are dependent on God for their existence in this world and, so, all things point to his existence (Alma 30:44), each thing also has an aspect of independent existence and, so, the power to show itself. The appearing of the world is not reducible to will, neither to that of the Divine nor to that of human beings.”

    Are there some steps missing in the claim made in this passage? Consider: why assume that the fact that “each thing….has an aspect of independent existence” means that such things exhibit the independent “power to show [themselves]”? You acknowledge that all things are “dependent on God for their existence” and thus point ultimately to Him; why do we assume that there must, therefore, be other, altogether independent pointing going on as well? Perhaps you’re taking it as obvious that anything which has an independent existence must therefore also exist in simultaneous independent obligatory relationships with other similarly independent things, but given that we have no argument describing exactly what the ontological quality of that “independence” exactly is, it seems to me that such an assumption may be unwarranted. The call of the world which supplements and creates space for human reasons might, for example, be possible solely because God is always already willing such a relationship between human beings and other existent things. Of course, I’m not making such an argument here. But I think that the above passage kind of assumes that an opposite argument has been made, when in fact I don’t think one has been.

  5. Daniel
    January 26, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    thanks so much for this. This articulated an internal struggle I have been having and has been reaffirming of my faith. Quite unconsciously, I realized that I was judging my faith by by reason and forgetting the archae. Thanks again.

  6. January 26, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    I’m no Levinas scholar, nor even a philosopher, and I’m not sure this answers your question at all. But Levinas was a Jew, and Judaism (like Mormonism), save those strains of it that were overly influenced by Greek philosophy, also rejects creation ex nihilo. A Judaic view of human beings, which Levinas had, would presumably not see them as a product of creation ex nihilo.

    But that’s just two cents from someone only superficially familiar with Levinas, etc.

  7. January 26, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Just noticed that in Jim’s paragraph on Levinas, he says Levinas did have an ex nihilo view. Whoops. I’ll defer to Jim on this one, as surely he knows more about Levinas than I do. But my superficial familiarity with Levinas included the understanding that he was more Jewish in his thinking than that.

  8. jane doe
    January 26, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    This reminds me of my visit to France back in high school. I had (if I say so myself) a really good French accent for an American teenager with only a couple years of h.s. French under my belt. I had a knack for imitating the vowels sounds, the intonation, and even that scratchy throat r. I also learned this great trick, where a lot of English words, if you say them with a French accent, it turns out they’re real French words, too. So I managed to enter into conversations with French people, and for a few, brief shining moments, they were really impressed with my French. And they’d become animated and excited and friendly and start spewing forth rushing torrents of beautiful French, and I would just sit there basking in the glow of being mistaken for a fluent French speaker – ah, what a heady experience! And then suddenly there’d be a pause, and they’d look at me with this happy, eager, expectant facial expression, and I’d realize they must have just asked me a question and were waiting for a response. And I was so sad to have to confess I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

    But I do really, really appreciate this effort, Jim F., and I will read through it many times and maybe I’ll get at least a little bit of it.

  9. Not my real name this time around
    January 26, 2006 at 4:30 pm

    A very nice discussion of faith and reason, Jim. I’m not sure it’s really a response to Jane’s dilemma, however. Then again, perhaps it’s just not a response to my reading of it. But be that as it may, I think the real issue here is not one that could be resolved by philosophical enquiry or argument (and I say that as someone who is perhaps more philosophically minded than most–so not as a criticism of philosophy). Whether it’s a blog comment or some other trigger, anyone who is inclined to really think about Church teachings, their own spiritual experiences, the behavior of Church members and leaders, Church policies, and everything else that constitutes the whole of one’s LDS religious experience (and maybe any religious experience), eventually begins to identify very troubling inconsistencies and make very troubling discoveries. Any serious attempt to resolve those problems through discussion with others and personal study seems to lead to incoherent claims, dogmatic responses, and plenty of simple “shrugs” and disclosures of complete ignorance among those who ought to know and have the answers. After all, some of those people are the very ones who stand before the Church and promise this and that in God’s name, who wear the mantle of authority in varying degrees, and who testify to all kinds of things concerning God and the Church as if they did know and have the answers. But more often than not (and this is usually what personally disturbs me the most), they seem not only to lack the answers (which I can easily excuse in anyone), but to have never asked the questions (which I can’t easily excuse). In short, the admission that “it doesn’t make sense” refers to the whole of those experiences, not just the internal consistency or inconsistency of philosophical claims. It means, that the whole of what I believe or believed just doesn’t seem to mesh anymore with my growing pool of personal experiences and discoveries.

    For instance, I don’t see how anyone can study even a little about how polygamy was actually practiced in the Church and not be deeply disturbed–not only by those practices themselves, but by our current unwillingness even to admit them, much less discuss them. But it’s not simply a matter of Church doctrine or policy. What does one think when she goes to her bishop for advice, as my wife recently did, receives advice and acts in accordance with it, only to have the bishop come up to her several weeks later and say, “I hope you didn’t make any rash decisions based on what I told you before. After all, I wasn’t speaking by inspiration and we weren’t in my office. So, it was just my personal thoughts on the matter”? Well, of course she HAD acted on that advice, and her actions were very costly. How does one “make sense” of that? Where then is the fruit of the assurance that God will never let his leaders lead us astray?

    How does one make sense of all the tithing and WofW testimonies we hear in local meetings and Church Conferences alike, where others testify to receiving remarkable and immediate blessings–winning athletic contests, receiving financial windfalls, etc., while one plods along, year after year, doubling fast offerings, paying a full tithe, filling Church assignments, only to have medical bills pile up and retirement funds dissipate, while hard-drinking non-member neighbors move to a bigger house and a better school district, and one’s bishop continues to take three exotic scuba-diving vacations with his family every year and publicly admits he’s never really been sick a day in his life. “Well,” we hear in response, “such testimonies aren’t meant to suggest that everyone will receive such dramatic blessings, they’re just indications that someone did.” But those stories never come with the weight-loss disclaimer we often see on TV: “Results not typical.” No, those stories are told to convince us that they are typical, and if we don’t get those results, then we must not have enough faith, must not be obedient enough, or must suffer from some other personal failing.

    That’s the level at which it “doesn’t make sense.” We have good spiritual experiences we can’t deny, but we also have terrible spiritual experiences we also can’t deny. And there seems to be no explanatory model to help us account for why those things happen, whether we’re being good or bad, obedient or not. And all we get are platitudes when we ask others and silence when we ask God.

    What keeps some of us going is the simple fact that we have had “faith-promoting” experiences, some remarkable ones, and don’t wan’t to deny that. Neither do we want to deny a life history of devotion or our hope in God–or lead others into error, expecially our children. But the same honesty that compels us not to deny the “witnesses” we have received, however ambiguous, also compels us to admit that it is deeply disturbing when the men we believe to be God’s very apostles, the most discerning men on earth, can listen to someone like Paul Dunn stretch the truth for years on end and never have a clue. That simply “doesn’t make sense.” So what do we do about it? I surely don’t know. But I read comments like those of Jane Doe and want to put my arms around her all the same. And I still harbor the belief (maybe impossibly naive) that were we able to get candid and unguarded answers from high Church authorities, they’d have at least a few satisfying answers to such dilemmas.

  10. Julie M. Smith
    January 26, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    “Where then is the fruit of the assurance that God will never let his leaders lead us astray?”

    There is absolutely no assurance that God’s leaders will not lead us astray. There is an assurance that THE PROPHET will not lead THE CHURCH astray, and even that statement is open to interpretation.

    It is my experience that overinterpreting is the root of many, many problems that people have with the Church.

  11. Eric Russell
    January 26, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    Not my real name this time around,

    It appears you have a lot of strange expectations about the church. Apostles should be human lie detectors, tithing ought to bring visible material rewards, Bishops ought to be infallible, there should be church lessons dedicated to resolving people’s concerns about polygamy. One thing I think we have to remember about the church, and about God himself as well, is that neither God nor the church always act in the way we think they ought to. Just because the church isn’t doing things the way we think it ought doesn’t mean it’s not true.

  12. January 26, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    You have had a strange experience with the LDS church, Eric Russell, if no one you admired and trusted ever told you point-blank, no disclaimer attached, that apostles (prophets, SPs and bishops) have the spirit of discernment that inspires them to know when they are being lied to, that if one is in need of financial help one ought simply to pay tithing, that bishops have a special mantle that is unavailable to others and ward members should follow their advice in faith even if they can’t rationally see how it could possibly work, and that the church is as honest and forthcoming about its past as it expects its members to be about their pasts.

    I don’t think NMRNTTA came to his “strange expectations” via an irrational or wishful-thinking type process. It sounds like very straightforward conclusions from his experiences and what he was told. And if you encourage him to radically second-guess his most basic perceptions of what is good/right/true vs bad/wrong/false, doesn’t that just stomp on his last remaining fingers of faith?

    If thought process A below is wrong, why should thought process B be right? I think your answer to that (and I trust there is a very good answer out there somewhere…) would be more faith-constructive.

    A: I once heard someone say in testimony meeting that relying on the principle of tithing helped them get out of a financial crisis; there were tangible, material improvements. No one contradicted that testimony. I’m now in a financial crisis. I’d better pay my tithing, and I expect doing so will help me get out of this crisis in tangible, material ways.

    B: I once heard someone say in testimony meeting that relying on the Atonement helped them get out of a spiritual crisis; there were palpable, permanent improvements. No one contradicted that testimony. I’m now in a spiritual crisis. I’d better rely on the Atonement, and I expect doing so will help me get out of this crisis in palpable, permanent ways.

  13. January 26, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    It’s been a while since I last read Levinas, and since Jim’s taught classes on him, I’m more than a little cautious about saying anything. While Levinas is oddly influenced by Christianity in many ways I seem to recall his sense of ex nihilo being different from what you find in most forms of Christianity. It seemed (by my memory) that it was closer to the Nothing out of which the universe was created in Kabbalism. This nothing isn’t total absence but more a kind of not-a-thing. If I recall my Levinas what he’s after is more a rupture or breaking of the causal order. Something akin to differance in Derrida. For Levinas, once again as I vaguely recall, this nothing is freedom. I actually believe that, despite Levinas’ views towards Heidegger, that Heidegger approaches something similar in a few of his works. (I want to say that the end of The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic does, although I’d have to check to make sure)

    Anyway I’m reasonably sure that Levinas moves towards ex nihilo to move from an ontic discussion to an ontological one.

    Moving beyond esoteric philosophy, I should add that ex nihilo was unsettled in Jewish theology. Some accepted it while others didn’t. As I recall Maimonades accepted ex nihilo whereas the more neoPlatonic oriented theologians did not.

    Sorry for putting in so many caveats. I’m at work and am just going by distant memory.

  14. Eric Russell
    January 26, 2006 at 7:19 pm


    The LDS church only asks its members to believe that which the church actually teaches.

  15. garf
    January 26, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    I share many of NMRNTTA’s frustrations. Nevertheless, I take Julie’s point, and I am willing to cut the church some slack on many of those points. However, the things that don’t make sense to me go even deeper.

    The atonement does not make sense to me. It does not make sense to me that Jesus somehow paid the price of sin by suffering and dying. The analogy often made to a third party paying off somebody else’s debt don’t make sense to me. I don’t get it. I don’t know why God cannot simply forgive repentant sinners without sending his Son to die.

    Adam and Eve don’t make sense to me. Mormon intellectuals have tried mightily to reconcile our doctrine and scriptures with what we know about the history of the earth and mankind. I can’t square what we know with our doctrine. Others seem to have gotten comfortable, but I am not there yet.

    The temple does not make sense to me. I just don’t get it. Not even a little bit.

    It does not make sense to me that people who die before the age of 8 get a free pass into the celestial kingdom, but people who die a day after their 8th birthday don’t.

    It does not make sense to me that God would allow his prophets to teach and to allow to be taught racist nonsense about blacks for as long as they did.

    The fact that observance of arbitrary commandments such as the word of wisdom, which seem to have no basis in morality, is a condition of receiving essential saving ordinances, does not make sense to me.

    It does not make sense to me thay my eternal salvation depends not only on my character, but also on my belief in other historical events for which the objective evidence is less than compelling.

    I could overlook all of that if only God would talk to me and tell me that the atonement is real, even though I don’t understand it. Or that all of this other stuff is true and I should put it on the shelf and trust Him. But He does not seem to want to do that. I can accept the argument that I can have knowledge of Him by experiencing Him. But He is hiding. And that does not make sense to me either.

  16. January 26, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    Eric Russell wrote:

    The LDS church only asks its members to believe that which the church actually teaches.

    Eric, you must know that it’s more complicated than this…

    …that not only is it exceedingly difficult in many instances to determine exactly what the church teaches on a topic, but that there are so many levels of overlapping, conflicting degrees of authority as to beat one into a submissive daze.

    I’m not saying that it could or should be any other way…just that it dosn’t take too much thinking about what the church teaches to realize that we have no clue. And so, just like Jane Doe and many others, we are left with one very simple choice: either stop thinking about it, put it on the shelf, and get back to business….or, lose it entirely.

    Personally, I’m losing it. I can’t imagine approaching it any other way and keeping a grasp on reality.

    And John F, I appreciate your effort here…and with as much trouble as you have gone to in this post, I have to say–it’s clearly not as simple as just choosing to believe those few things that the church supposedly asks us to believe.

    There’s no question in my mind that the natural blend of reason and faith (no matter which has primacy) is turned into a twisted mass of String Theory proportion by the thought processes that faithful membership in this church requires.

  17. Gadianton
    January 26, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    “If a person insists on a certain, rationalist and Enlightenment understanding of intelligibility and reasonableness, then the gospel doesn’t make sense. No religion can be reduced to a rational system with neither remainder nor absence and without contradiction. But, as Gödel proved, neither can arithmetic, so that inability on the part of religion isn’t much of a strike against it.”

    Well that lowers the bar to just about nothing. Would Bertrand Russell or anyone else have ever demanded “The gospel” to be axiomatized and proven formally complete before it could be considered “intelligible” or “reasonable?” I would say if there was ever a straw man to represent the enlightenment’s, or heck, any particular figure out of the enlightenment’s idea of rationality, it’s got to be that. I think those who question the gospel’s intelligibility are asking for it to, in their view, high jump over a three foot bar, not pole vault over the Empire State Building.

  18. Dan S.
    January 26, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    Didn’t Joseph Smith have very similar doubts about the religions of his day? I suspect, so did
    Abraham, Mohamed, Martin Luther, Paul, Moses, and all prophets before their conversion.

    What brought them personal conviction? What ever makes sense of non-sense, or brings light to the dark? Only the power of the Holy Spirit. Only God himself.

    Nothing can ever be fully certain to make sense unless it is confirmed by God himself. The greater the confirmation, the greater the conviction.

    So what brings the power of the Holy Ghost or the personal witness of God? Lots and lots of individual effort and asking with lots of faith. When it comes to God, action invokes reaction. Greater action invokes unmistakable reaction. It is a process that cannot fail, that has never failed. Have you ever seen it fail? I haven’t. I have only seen individuals fail the process.

    Am I relying too heavily on revelation for confirmation of gospel principles that don’t make sense? Perhaps. But why mess with a process that works?

  19. Eric Russell
    January 26, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    “we are left with one very simple choice: either stop thinking about it, put it on the shelf, and get back to business….or, lose it entirely.�


    This is an odd place to make such a comment, for if anyone ever made such a comment elsewhere I would point them to the bloggernacle. The ‘nacle itself is a testament to the fact that people can and do continue to think about and struggle with such issues while still holding on to them.

  20. Julie M. Smith
    January 26, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    garf, I wonder why you think everything should make sense to you. The scriptures promise the opposite (see Mosiah 4:9).

    More generally, it amazed me what really high expectations some people have for the Church. It’s a good month if I can get my visiting teaching done (half-heartedly, with three kids in tow, and oh, sorry, was it my turn for the lesson?–I forgot my Ensign) before the 30th, and I’m not sure why I’d expect everything but me to be a well-oiled machine.

  21. January 26, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    Dan S wrote:

    Am I relying too heavily on revelation for confirmation of gospel principles that don’t make sense? Perhaps. But why mess with a process that works?

    I appreciate your expressing doubt on this subject. Sure the process works for some kind of result, but how we interpret that result is still an individual thing and very uncertain.

    Eric Russell wrote:

    The ‘nacle itself is a testament to the fact that people can and do continue to think about and struggle with such issues…

    No doubt. And what a mess it is…But a very friendly and warm-hearted mess I would add. :-)

  22. Jim F.
    January 26, 2006 at 11:59 pm

    Seth (#1), I’m sorry you don’t get it, but I suspect that has more to do with me than it has to do with you.

    Travis (#2), it is always nice to find those who agree with me. Thanks.

    Eric Russell (#3), for Levinas, essence isn’t necessary either to human being or to the interruption of another.

    Russell Fox (#4), excellent question. If to exist is, per Heidegger, to stand out and if all things depend on God for their existence (standing out), then what does it mean to say that things have the power to show themselves, to make themselves stand out? I think you’ve found a contradiction—at least in the way I explained myself there.

    The trouble with getting caught in a contradiction is that I haven’t thought through what I should have said instead. My intuition is that things in the world give themselves to us, that their thisness includes more than their createdness, even though they would not be in relation to each other or to us without that createdness. I’m not sure right not that I can do much more than point to that intuition and hope that others share it.

    Daniel (#5), I’m glad to hear that this was helpful.

    Jason Steed (##6-7), Many Jews subscribe to a belief in creation ex nihilo, so Levinas wasn’t unusual for doing so.

    Jane Doe (#8), part of the problem of my response is that I’m not completely sure what you are dealing with. I am just guessing, and I don’t expect you to change that. Reading the thread Dave’s Mormon Inquiry, I was struck by something you asked, “Does the gospel make sense?” Reading that I thought, “Hmm. I wrote something about that a while back. Perhaps it will be useful or interesting to Jane.” Evidently it wasn’t useful and my guess is that it wasn’t interesting. My apologies.

    Let me see if I can do what I probably should have done in the first place, namely encapsulate this more briefly and in in less philosophical jargon: I find Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling immensely helpful in thinking about faith, but I think that a common interpretation is wrong. The common interpretation is that Abraham’s faith means living in contradiction, irrationality. On that view, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. I think that, instead, Kierkegaard shows that if we have the usual but narrow view of reason, we cannot understand Abraham (faith). We cannot hear any explanation Abraham would give, so he remains silent. What we do not hear is that in which reason is founded (which I believe is, ultimately, personal obligation). We do not hear what exceeds reason if we insist on narrowed reason. But when our ears are attuned we can hear something in rather than contrary to reason. When we do, faith makes sense.

    That is not at all to say that I don’t think you are listening. If your experience is like mine has been, you’re straining your ears to listen. I wrote an abstract description of the possibility of hearing, of faith making sense, not an existential one. Existentially sometimes we do not hear because, for whatever reason, God does not speak or circumstances prevent us from hearing. I didn’t mean what I said to judge you or anyone else. I’ve had enough times in my life when I couldn’t hear God’s call that I see no reason to judge others who do not hear.

    Not my real name (#9), I’m not completely sure what Jane’s dilemma is. Neither am I sure that it is any of my business. Perhaps it is the dilemma you describe, but I don’t know. Did I answer her dilemma? Fairly clearly, based on her response, no.

    Julie M. Smith (#10): I like your final sentence and agree. Over interpreting is often a problem for us.

    Beijing (#12), I don’t know what to reply to you since you were replying to Eric Russell. I’ll let you and Eric fight this one out between yourselves.

    Clark (#13), you’re right about Levinas’s notion of nothingness. It isn’t the absence of all things, but the no-thing-ness of things. And Levinas is more interested in no-thing-ness as it relates to the interruption of the Other than he is in talking about the Creation. As far as I know, he never mentions it in relation to Creation in his philosophical works. I also agree with you that Levinas is much closer to Heidegger than he supposes.

    garf (#15), I assume that the things you mention aren’t just logical problems you have with the LDS Church, that they also don’t make sense in a broader, more existential way. I don’t have any easy answers. I doubt that anyone does. What I do have will almost certainly not be helpful when it comes as a blog post, but what I have is a testimony: I have had the experience of the kinds of things you mention making sense existentially, enough so that I feel comfortable with each and even have answers for a few.

    Matt Mahoun (#16), it’s Jim F, not John F. Perhaps you would say the same about all religion, but my “mass of String Theory” wasn’t dealing with the LDS Church in particular. It was about the problem of faith and reason in general. And, though this was perhaps not the audience for it, I’m afraid you’ll find that a lot of thinking about these and related issues are “a twisted mass of String Theory proportion.” I am sure what I said could have been said better, but it isn’t all that different from what a person might find in other essays on the topic.

    Gadianton (#17), I’m not sure whether you were agreeing with me or criticizing me. In any case, my point was yours: that way of understanding reason doesn’t set the bar very high.

    I am quite sure that neither Russell nor any other philosopher would have demanded that the gospel be axiomatized. However, my experience is that, implicit in many people’s contention that the gospel doesn’t make sense, is an assumption that it ought to have mathematical certainty. Most people aren’t Russell (which is both a good and a bad thing).

    Dan S. (#18), I think you’re right that only the power of the Spirit brings conviction. I’m less sure than you that I can accuse someone of failing the process. I know that I have prayed mightily sometimes and not been answered. I don’t know why. Perhaps you’re right that had I prayed more, I would have been answered. In my experience it is true that if we fast and pray and study, we will usually get an answer. In fact, I would go so far as to say “almost always.” But some people seem occasionally not to receive that answer, at least not in time for their faith not to fail. As with many other things, I will leave it to God to decide why someone didn’t get an answer, to decide whether the fault was theirs.

    Eric Russell (#19), you make a good point about the bloggernacle: much of what goes on here is proof that Mormons do think about issues, question, and argue.

    Julie M. Smith (#20), that reference to Mosiah 4:9 is important, and the longer I live, the more important it becomes to me: one of the requirements for salvation is that we “believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”

  23. January 27, 2006 at 12:35 am


    Please excuse me for the mistake in your name (and btw, I’m Watt, not Matt :-)

    I agree that “a twisted mass of String Theory proportion” could refer to all religion, but in this case, I’m using it to refer to the problem of reconciling faith (of the Mormon type) with reason…casue it’s the only one I know. Also, I didn’t mean to criticize your ideas as expressed, but to suggest that the trouble with expressing such ideas is most likely pandemic.

    I congratulate you on your effort. Now, as hard as you had to work on it…don’t you think it would be exponentially more difficult to do it significantly better?

    Perhaps impossible, I say.

  24. January 27, 2006 at 1:13 am

    Watt, I want to write up a reply to Jim, but I’ve just not had time. Maybe this weekend. But I’m not sure the issue is faith vs. reason than the issue of how to interpret religious statements in the Mormon tradition versus interpreting science. I confess that while there are some problematic statements (i.e. horses in the Book of Mormon) I don’t find there to be a real conflict. There are conflicts with some interpretations. (i.e. those who say that the Grand Canyon and all the mountains were formed from scratch a few thousand years ago) But it seems the obvious thing to do is reject those interpretations rather than see it as a faith/reason conflict.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting questions about faith/reason. Just that I don’t think they end up being terribly practical ones from a Mormon perspective.

  25. Jim F.
    January 27, 2006 at 1:17 am

    Watt–now it is my turn to apologize–I don’t know whether it would be exponentially more difficult to do better. There are a number of people who do better than I, and I assume that the difference is that they have an intelligence or talent that I don’t have as much as they. In addition, I have to be honest and say that I don’t think that what I said is, in principle, any more difficult than is any other philosophical idea. When you get down to basic problems in any discipline, it is rare that they are easy to talk about. This question about faith and reason is a basic problem, comparable to the fundamental questions of physics, which are also not something one can discuss easily in ordinary language. Others may be able to do a better job than I did, but if they do, it still won’t be easy.

  26. January 27, 2006 at 1:21 am

    I respect your willingness to express doubt.

    Clark wrote:

    But it seems the obvious thing to do is reject those interpretations rather than see it as a faith/reason conflict.

    One man’s interpretation is anothers faith/reason conflict…and so it goes.

  27. Jim F.
    January 27, 2006 at 1:25 am

    Clark, I think I pretty ably demonstrated, though not consciously, that the question of faith versus reason is not a practical question. I think that’s why Jane Doe couldn’t see anything in my answer: she asked a practical question to which I gave a philosophical answer.

  28. January 27, 2006 at 1:30 am

    Jim F,

    I find your last comment to quite honest and insightful. Thanks again for putting so much thought into how difficult (if not impossible) it can be to make faith and reason coexist.

    All the Jane and John Doe’s in the world may appreciate such empathy coming from more people.

  29. January 27, 2006 at 4:53 am

    Not sure if this will help anyone. But I’m also not sure I’m here to help.

    I wrote out a few incomplete thoughts ( about ‘permanance’ ‘skepticism’ and ‘faith’.

    While it does not affirmatively (or even apologetically) prove much about Mormon faith in particular, I think my thoughts are slowly approaching Jim’s take on [Kierkegaard take on] Abraham’s faith/reason.

    That is, my best understanding of Reason is with ‘faith’ as an inherent component.
    The very parts of post-Enlightenment ‘Reason’, in any of its forms, seem to require faith.

    It takes a lot of faith to escape solipsism, to accept causation, to get out of bed in the morning, or to even approach any notion of truth or meaning. And I think both Ether and Joseph Smith had such in mind when they were tackling ‘faith’.

  30. January 27, 2006 at 9:11 am

    Beijing — one of the first ever devotionals I attended at BYU had the prophet come speak, and he quoted Brigham Young on the thesis that we should seek our own spiritual confirmations and that if we did not, we would go astray.

    Surely Bishops have help, but they remain only bishops. We all remain only mortals.

    I’m now in a spiritual crisis. I’d better rely on the Atonement, and I expect doing so will help me get out of this crisis in palpable, permanent ways

    Indeed. You should rely on Christ, first and foremost. May he bring you safely home.

  31. Seth Rogers
    January 27, 2006 at 10:55 am

    No Jim,

    It’s me.

    Now, if I had actually read more than the first four paragraphs (sorta skimmed the rest), THEN I might agree with you.

  32. garf
    January 27, 2006 at 12:32 pm

    JimF: Your assessment of my concerns is correct–they are not just logical, but also existential. In fact, the existential component is the most significant issue.

    I have no training in philosophy and so I have some difficulty grasping your entire argument. I actually read the published version of your paper a couple of years ago and I recall wishing I had you there in front of me while I was reading so that I could ask you questions. I am delighted to be able to do so now.

    I think I understand your argument that reason must ultimately be grounded in something outside of itself. I am trying to reduce this to the level that helps me resolve some of the issues that torment me on a daily basis as my reason, limited as it is, screams out to me that my Mormon world view does not explain the world that I experience, and that much of what I have been taught and have taught to others for more than forty years does not withstand whatever scrutiny my feeble brain can bring to bear.

    Are you arguing that faith enlightens or expands my reason, to allow me to see more clearly, so that things that don’t make sense to me do in fact make sense with the light of faith? Or are you arguing that faith allows me to comfortably shelve those issues even though I can’t make sense of them, with the assurance that God knows all, I do not, and it will all work out in the end. I think it is the former, because the latter preserves the faith/reason dichotomy that I think you are trying to reconcile. But I am not sure.

    If it is the former, could you elaborate on this point? Are you saying that reason that is not grounded in faith is illusory or arbitrary and that we have no reason to assume that the conclusions we reach through our purely rational faculties can be trusted? If that is what you are arguing, I am having trouble understanding why that argument itself is not subject to the criticism that it too is a rational argument that is no more reliable than the argument it criticizes. Even if I accept that reason needs to be grounded in something outside itself, why should I accept that it is faith, and religious faith in particular, that it needs, and that with faith the incomprehensible becomes comprehensible? I understand how faith can allow one to accept the apparently unreasonable by accepting that God knows more than we do. Faith simply trumps reason in that case, and there is no existential torment for the believer. However, I think you want to go well beyond that point, by arguing that the faithful can hear things from within reason that the unfaithful cannot hear, and that faith actually enlightens one’s reason and allows one to make sense of what would otherwise not make sense. I am still struggling to understand how faith actually makes sensible that which is nonsensical.

    Let’s take this to a very practical level. Let’s suppose that after much study, I have concluded that the preponderance of the evidence suggests to me that the Book of Mormon is not true. I understand that I might remain faithful, in the sense that I remain committed to living as if it were true. I may even accept that, based on spiritual experiences I have had reading the Book of Mormon, I still believe it even though my rational faculties tell me that it is not true. But this seems like nothing more than the old faith trumps reason argument that I think you are trying to avoid. But I am still struggling to understand what else there is.

  33. garf
    January 27, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Julie: I am very aware of the fact that God knows more than I do. I tell myself that every day. That is what keeps me going. But it doesn’t really help much. Every scientist is well aware of how little we really know about the world. That gives us the humility to keep looking for answers, but it doesn’t answer any of the important questions.

    I think that your point is that I should quit tormenting myself by expecting things to make sense, and just accept that this is fundamentally a spiritual pursuit and not a rational pursuit. Therefore, when the two seem to clash, stick with the spiritual side. But I thought that Jim was arguing that this is not a satisfactory answer.

    DanS.: Yes, in fact, I have seen the process fail. I do know people who have prayed, and pleaded and begged. People who have been faithful, and tried hard. They are good, honest seekers after truth. I have interviewed some of those people. Some of them are close family members. One woman I know was one of our young women’s program leaders. She is good, kind, faithful and devoted. But she told me she could not give a talk on faith, because she has none. She just hangs in there because she is committed to her family. Her repeated prayers over many years for some kind of confirmation that it is all true have gone unanswered. I could give you several other examples. So yes, I believe that the process does indeed fail some people, and their witness of its failure is every bit as believable as the wittness of others for whom it has succeeded.

    January 27, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    Jim (22): I didn’t mean my comments as a criticism of what you wrote, nor as a claim that I necessarily have a better angle on Jane Doe’s dilemma than you do. I did appreciate what you wrote. Perhaps what I should have said was simply that Jane’s comments resonated with me in a different way.

    Many years ago now–while I was serving as a stake missionary and temple worker, and striving harder to be obedient than perhaps I ever have before or since–I had an absolutely horrific experience that resulted from the misbehavior of one bishop, and the attempt by another bishop in his stake (his close friend) and their stake president to conceal that behavior, whatever the cost to myself and the others who were involved. When those actions almost ended the life of someone I care about very deeply and left me impotent to help, I was prescribed anti-depressents and offered varying philosophical explanations from my family and friends, as well as empathetic shrugs from my own bishop. But predictably, none of this really did help very much, partly because what I really needed and wanted was not a logical explanation, but a spiritual understanding, however limited, from God or someone who could speak on his behalf, of why God would not only permit such suffering, but allow his inspired leaders to occasion it–and continue to serve as leaders afterward. At the very least, I desperately wanted some assurance from God that I and the other injured persons mattered to him. But despite prayers that lasted far longer than that of Enos, I never received either. Jane’s comments resonated with me on that level, and that’s why I said what I did. Not to criticize you.

    Julie and Eric: To say that the Church officially offers no assurances either that Church leaders will not lead us astray, only that the prophet will not lead the Church astray, or that Church leaders have the gift of discernment, or that obedience will bring specific blessings, etc., is prevarication in the highest degree. And that isn’t to say that any of us expect infallibility and stimulus-response alacrity in receiving blessings–just good faith, well-meaning actions and inspired counsel from our leaders, and promises of blessings only when those promises really have God’s seal of approval. Church leaders are called through a chain of authority that leads directly back to the prophet, and we are repeatedly and constantly told to follow their instructions–especially those of our bishops–and to rely on their inspiration when they offer us counsel. For you to claim otherwise or to say that such expectations are the result of “overinterpreting” or harboring “strange expectations” is to bear false witness, pure and simple.

    And the implication that my expectations–for example, that “tithing ought to bring visible material rewards” (comment 11)–is not legitimately founded on what the Church actually “teaches” (comment 22), is, again, simply not true. All we need to do to prove otherwise is look at the current Aaronic Priesthood manual–an official Church teaching manual vetted by the First Presidency. On pages 112-113, under the question “How does tithing benefit us?” we read the following story: “John Fetzer . . . was working to earn money for another year at school. He had barely enough. What was he to do? He prayed and studied and finally decided to pay his tithing, even though it left him short of money to see him through that school year. He was studying to become an architect, and one day he was assigned to make a drawing. This drawing won a cash prize. Mr. Fetzer was elated He remembered what the Lord had said about blessing those who paid their tithing. It was a testimony to him.” Now I ask you, how does that not constitute a Church teaching?

    I don’t want to offend anyone or stir up trouble in any sense. I’m certainly not trying to persuade anyone that the Church isn’t true. I am myself a member and believe that it is. I want to help build faith, not tear it down. But I also think that trying actually to understand and “make sense of” the principles and teachings of the Church, alone and with the help of others, is the very paradigm of faith-building, and not an act of unfaithfulness or disloyalty to the Church. In clarifying our understanding of God and the trinity, Joseph Smith himself taught that we can’t exercise faith in a principle we don’t understand. So it seems to me that it is apathy, prevarication, and equivocation in the face of genuine questions about Gospel principles and teachings that is the real mark of unfaithfulness, because such behavior indicates that those principles and teachings are so unimportant to a person that they can “shelve” their desire (or someone else’s) to understand them with no ill-effects to their spiritual progression.

    So when someone like Jane tries to make sense of things, and despairs if she can’t, and when someone like Jim offers an attempt to help make sense of things, on any level, I see those as faithful responses; when someone offers only criticism, dogmatic platitudes, and defensive denials or equivocations, I see those as the responses of someone whose own faith is so shallow, tenuous or disingenuous that it cannot bear scrutiny, and whose concern for the faith and suffering of others is a pretense. And Mosiah 4:9 does NOT promise that things shouldn’t make sense to us (comment 20). That seems to me a very twisted interpretation. It suggests that God’s comprehension, both in substance and degree, is fuller than ours. But it is not a prohibition against trying to make sense of things or expecting that we can (or should) do so. In fact, if JS was right and genuine belief entails genuine understanding, at least to some significant degree, then we cannot believe unless we do understand, and that should always be our aim.

  35. Jim F.
    January 27, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    Garf: I think I understand your argument that reason must ultimately be grounded in something outside of itself. I am trying to reduce this to the level that helps me resolve some of the issues that torment me on a daily basis.

    I wish I had the “magic bullet” answer about your question; I wish I knew easily how to move from my conclusion about the ultimate grounds of reason being in something outside of reason (in obligation, I believe). However, it isn’t easy to make that move. If it were, I would never have any spiritual doubts myself, and though I have what I think is a strong testimony, I also find myself troubled and doubting sometimes. And I find that remembrance, more than reason, gets me through those times.

    However, I suppose that for me the belief that reason has its origin in obligation takes me to my covenants: I have made covenants with God and my family, and it is to those covenants that I must be true, not to a set of beliefs except as those beliefs are entailed by my covenants. From that understanding, faith both “enlightens or expands my reason, to allow me to see more clearly” and “allows me to comfortably shelve those issues even though I can’t make sense of them, with the assurance that God knows all.”

    I think we have been fooled by our engagements with conservative Protestants and others into thinking that belief is fundamental. However, without denying that some beliefs are essential—Mosiah 4 makes that clear—the set of essential beliefs is relatively small. We believe in orthopraxy more than orthodoxy. Action is fundamental because meaningful belief is and entails action. I think that Mosiah 4:12-13—significantly, verses joined by “and”—also makes that clear by showing that all of the actions in the following verses are the expressions of our remission of sins and our growth in the knowledge of God.

    I know God through the ordinances in which I participate and the covenants that I make and keep. I know God by living the life required by Christ, acknowledging him as Savior in bending my will to his and doing what he requires. To the degree that I know God (and in my life that varies), I am able to think reasonably about many questions that otherwise bother me. Sometimes that means that I see more clearly things that I didn’t previously understand. Sometimes that means that I comfortably put things on the shelf. What happens when I know God is that my trust/faith in him generates a way of life, and that way of life includes understanding some things and being comfortable not understanding others.

    garf: Let’s suppose that after much study, I have concluded that the preponderance of the evidence suggests to me that the Book of Mormon is not true. I understand that I might remain faithful, in the sense that I remain committed to living as if it were true. I may even accept that, based on spiritual experiences I have had reading the Book of Mormon, I still believe it even though my rational faculties tell me that it is not true. But this seems like nothing more than the old faith trumps reason argument that I think you are trying to avoid.

    I hope I’m saying something different, though I can understand why you might think that I have only repeated more obscurely, “Faith trumps reason whenever there’s a conflict.”

    I’m trying to say that you are going at this from the wrong direction. If there is something outside of reason that makes it possible and meaningful, then we begin from that in thinking about the world, in thinking about our religious beliefs. We begin from what is given to us in our relations to God, our fellows, and the world. Then we make sense of the various claims in the world from out of that given. At least as I understand what you say, you are presently beginning your thinking from a consideration of beliefs rather than from a way of being in the world given by the relation to God, Christ, and humanity that is revealed in the gospel. I think that is the problem.

    I don’t think that problem is one that can be overcome merely by fiat. We have learned to see the world the other way for so long that it is not easy to change. The more educated we are, the more likely we are to have difficulty dealing with the world in any other way. Nevertheless, I think that it is possible for us to shift the way we perceive things. How? The same old answers: study, faithful prayer, obedience, and endurance to the end.

  36. Dan S.
    January 27, 2006 at 4:54 pm


    You bring up a very touching example. I have seen the same thing happen to many people. I feel for them, and in many ways, I lack understanding regarding their particular situations. However, does it really mean that the process has failed?

    It reminds me of the bar exam. There were many who failed even though they poured tons of time into studying. In fact, the failure rate for those who had already failed went up each time they retook the test, even though they studied even harder each time. Why did they fail even though they seemed to be putting in tons of effort? The answer was simple. They knew the correct law, but they couldn’t apply it to their writing in a way that was clear, direct and specific to the question being asked in the exam. In other words, they were simply dumping their minds with everything they had learned without really crafting an argument. They only followed the first part of a two part process for passing the exam.

    Receiving revelation obviously has different steps than taking an exam, but the same principles apply. If you only apply part of the process, then how can you receive the reward?

    Perhaps the true question to ponder is “What is the process that I should be following to obtain the particular result?� I think we can only ever truly speak to our own failures regarding our efforts, but I do think that others, and God himself, can assist us in figuring out where we are going wrong in our approach, if our true efforts seem to be providing no results.

    There are lots of variables I consider when I’m searching for revelation. This isn’t a checklist, but it helps me:

    1. Have I asked God, or read about what God has said, about the process regarding revelation on a topic in question?
    2. What am I really asking for? Am I asking for a broad confirmation of lots of principles? If so, then it would take a visitation from an angel to sort out everything I’m asking about. Alma is a great example of an individual who was very specific about the things he asked about.
    3. Am I proposing a method of promptings by the Holy Ghost that is inconsistent with the wordings in the scriptures? In other words, am I looking for the more common effects of the Spirit, such as extreme clarity of thought, elation of emotion, spiritual edification, or am I looking for that very rare occurrence of a burning bush or a pillar of light that may never come since it isn’t necessary?
    4. How long am I willing to stay on my knees? (minutes, hours, days – what will it take for what I am asking?)
    5. How long am I willing to fast? (hours, days – what will it take for what I am asking?)
    6. Has there been emotional struggling with God? (have I “cried� at God enough? I believe that “cry� in a scriptural sense means truly showing God your emotions.)
    7. Have I applied the principles I’m asking about? If so, have I analyzed what I learned from the application of the principles before asking for the spiritual confirmation? Was the spiritual confirmation received during the application of the principal? (e.g., repentance of sins in the name of Jesus Christ leads to peace, preaching of the gospel leads to even more peace and general stirrings of the Spirit, struggling for the specific souls of others leads to specific stirrings of the Spirit and, quite commonly, a fire of the spirit).
    8. Am I out there doing the work with all my heart?
    9. Am I opening my mouth and sharing the gospel?
    10. Have I followed the counsel of my leaders or are there favorite sins holding me back?
    11. Am I enlisting the assistance of someone who is also passionate about me receiving a response?
    12. Am I applying for a confirmation on which God has promised a response by the Holy Spirit (e.g., Heavenly father lives, Jesus Christ is Savior, Book of Mormon is word of God), or am I asking about a doctrine that makes no difference to God whether or not I get an answer to (e.g., when will Jesus Christ come again, how does the atonement work, why are horses mentioned in the Book of Mormon), or that he should not back up (e.g., my zone leader said that I should baptize 10 families this month even if that means that they will fall inactive immediately thereafter), or that is really up to me to decide (e.g., should I share the gospel with my best friend), or that is truly against his will (e.g., could you please take away all my troubles)?

  37. January 27, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    #30 Stephen M – thank you for your concern, but my statements A and B in #12 were hypotheticals based on #10 and #11. I am not in crisis.

  38. Julie M. Smith
    January 27, 2006 at 6:20 pm


    I’ve been thinking all day about putting up a post entitled “Once There Was a Strawman.” What I see in your last comment is what I’ve noticed as a frequent pattern among the disaffected: the latching on to some Mormon folk doctrine, warm fuzzinator, faith-promoting rumor, etc., and then using one’s distaste for THAT as an excuse to abandon ship. Think baby and bathwater.

  39. January 27, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    Beijing — appreciate your perspective, though as long as you remain in the foyer, some might think you are.

  40. garf
    January 27, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Dan S. I don’t have the time to address each item on your checklist individually. However, I am quite satisfied that some people plead with God with absolute sincerity for any kind of spiritual witness that God is there, or that Jesus is the Redeemer, or that Joseph Smith was God’s chosen prophet and receive no answer to those prayers. In some cases, people finally leave the Church. In others, they remain active but spiritually empty. I don’t believe that their failure to get answers can be attributable to any failing on their part, especially in light of the many far less sincere or dedicated people I know who seem to get answers quite easily.

    Jim F.: Thank you for your comments. They are helpful and help to illuminate a few ideas that have been going through my own head recently. I am still not sure that you have really gone beyond “faith trumps reason”, and I wonder whether this is just a sophisticated form of begging the question by requiring us to accept a priori that God is there, or that the Gospel is true and to begin our reasoning from that assumption. However, I am taking your points seriously because I know you have thought much more deeply and expertly about these issues than I have. You have given me much to think about. Thank you.

    I suppose one of my problems with your argument arises out of my personal experience. I am one who is committed. I have lived my life as a faithful, believing Mormon. For most of my life, that was the starting point for me, and I reasoned from that foundation. So it is not quite accurate to say that my problem is that I am starting from a consideration of beliefs rather than from a way of being in relation to God and the world in general. (Although I understand why would you think that, since that is how I began this discussion.) But it is precisely that way of being, and that lens through which I have always seen the world that I am questioning right now. They don’t seem to work any more. They don’t enlighten me, or appear to explain the world I see. They don’t even seem to be morally superior to alternative ways of being. So yes, although many of the issues I wonder about are intellectual beliefs, my problem is deeper than that. My whole way of relating to the world is being called into question and my lifetime of commitment now seems empty. God could fix all of that in a second, but he has not chosen to do so. I don’t really expect you to answer for him–I am just blowing off steam.

  41. garf
    January 27, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    Julie: I am absolutely astounded that you could read what NMRNTTA has written and suggest that he/she is latching on to some folk doctrine or warm fuzzinator as an excuse to abandon the ship. What could possibly have given you that idea?

    There a great many disaffected who suffer great pain as a result of their crisis of faith. They did not go looking for lame excuses to justify abandoning the ship. They abandoned the ship only after much searching, studying, praying and usually intense pain. They are not looking for lame excuses to leave.

  42. Jim F.
    January 27, 2006 at 7:01 pm

    garf: I really do hope that something I say will be useful to you, though I don’t presume to think that I can do any more than point at something that might help you in your struggle. In the end, the struggle is yours and you’re the one who has to find your way through it.

    That said, I’m not saying that you should accept a priori the belief that God exists or that the gospel as taught by the LDS Church is true. I’m saying that you should trust the relations and experiences you have and have had and the covenants that have made those relations and experiences both possible and real.

    Notice that you point to beliefs when you talk about what I propose as the origin/fundament of truth and reason: you suspect that I may be asking you to believe a priori that God exists, etc. Perhaps that was only a case of not writing carefully, but it may also suggest that my initial observation was right: perhaps you do think of these things in terms of propositions, beliefs, rather than in terms of something that makes them possible.

  43. Julie M. Smith
    January 27, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    garf, did you read #9?

    There are at least half dozen examples of what I am talking about in that comment alone.

  44. Dan S.
    January 27, 2006 at 7:27 pm


    I’m not denying that people believe they don’t receive answers. However, I am far from being convinced that God is untrue to his promises.

    Could there be a discrepency between what is an actual answer from God and our perceived perception of what that answer should have been? For example, someone prays for hours to God, “please God, let me know if Jesus is the Christ?” He waits for some kind of spiritual manifestation from the heavens, or from within. He doesn’t receive it on his knees. He leaves his house to go the the market and encounters a friend who has been reborn through her belief in Christ and she testifies of that powerful conversion. He can feel that she is so filled with light and happiness and enthusiasm. He laments that God won’t answer his prayer so that he can feel the same way.

    However, couldn’t that friend be an answer to that prayer, or at least a beginning to that answer. Wasn’t that “feeling” of the friends enthusiam, happiness, and light, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit? God gave that person an answer, a feeling, a spiritual manifestation, in public, when that person was only looking for an answer in private, a burning bush from within, and so he goes on lamenting, instead of rejoicing.

    Alma said that the feeling to the word of Christ is the beginning of the process, and so it continues to grow in strength, but only if that person recognizes the feeling and doesn’t shrug it off.

    Do you consider this to be a naive example of receiving answers to prayers? I think it is more common than we like to think.

  45. greenfrog
    January 27, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    Dan S,

    As I think about the sort of answer you describe, I’m left to wonder about the following:

    My son comes to me and asks for gas money. I listen to him, but don’t respond. Eventually, he leaves. On the way to the car, he finds a $20 bill on the ground.

    Should he believe that I granted his request?

    With respect to the information that garf has sought from God, does God lack stationery? Why communicate indirectly?

    Personally, I don’t think God does lack stationery, but my thoughts about God are decidedly unorthodox (though, as Jim F. notes may be true of others, my orthopraxis has kept me in the fold).

  46. garf
    January 27, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    Jim F. You are right–I am guilty of not writing carefully and not thinking carefully, so I take your point. However, how do I know that my reason, as enlightened by or grounded in the kinds of experiences you refer to, is superior to my hitherto unenlightened reason? Although you are not saying I should accept God as an a priori truth, are you arguing that I should trust in those experiences and their ability to enlighten my reason, and that my need to trust cannot be demonstrated to be either reasonable or unreasonable, because it stands outside of reason? Is this nonrational trust in experience something that I must accept a priori, because something has to be accepted a priori in order to ground reason and this is as good as anything? Or am I still not getting it? My apologies if I seem obtuse–it’s because I am.

    And what if my experiences are what leads me to disbelief? In some respects, it is my experiences that have created at least as much room for doubt as for faith. I suspect the answer to that is that I am on my own. One’s experiences are very much one’s own, and therein lies the subjectivity of faith.

    Julie: I should probably just mind my own business and not inject myself into others’ comments. But yes, I did read comment 9, and yes I agree with you that at least some of those issues are not accurate reflections of Church doctrine. However, they are pretty accurate descriptions of very common teachings from a great many leaders. But did you really read comment 34? I sure don’t see the slightest evidence of a person who is looking for excuses to jump ship. I see the opposite–somebody who struggling hard against the combined forces of evil and idiocy to remain on the ship.

    January 27, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    Just for the record, Julie, because I choose to think seriously about the ship I’m on and where it’s going, rather than hide away in steerage and scream at anyone who asks me to come up on deck, does not mean I’ve jumped ship. In fact, judging from the amount of time you spend blogging on this site and others, I can only conclude that I invest many more hours a week in Church service and study than you do.

  48. Dan S.
    January 27, 2006 at 8:17 pm


    That is an interesting scenario, but it does sound like a pretty indirect answer (although he got the $20 dollars didn’t he?)

    I actually don’t think God is that indirect with answers. Considering our methods of interaction with God, wouldn’t your scenario be more like this:

    A son sends the Father an impasioned telegram for $50 for gas money (to fill his car’s tank so that he can go on splits with the missionaries, I presume, and not to visit the local strip-club). The Father does not answer him with a money wire, as the son expects. So the son leaves the Western Union office and sees his sister. His sister offers to pay him to do baby-sitting, for $15. He refuses because he’s expecting that $50 any day now.

  49. January 27, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    Stephen M, I appreciate your concern.

    Julie M. Smith, you are fortunate to see so clearly the distinction between the folk doctrines, warm fuzzinators, faith-promoting rumors, etc. that are to be heavily discounted and the real doctrine which is to be trusted and relied on; to know at a glance what is “baby” and what is “bathwater.” I think those who are unable to see that distinction as clearly as you see it–those to whom it is given to believe on the words of others–deserve passels of compassion.

    How can one’s heart not go out to those who put decades of work into building their spiritual house on what they believe is rock, although they never receive (or according to Dan S., they never recognize) spiritual confirmation one way or another. They sincerely seek confirmation, but when they don’t get it, they readily assume it’s because *they* are sinful or defective or less gifted in spiritual things, and they go on trusting in the words of others, as is their gift. And then one day, when their house comes crashing down, they realize they were building on sand all along. They finally discover, to their great anguish, that what they thought was doctrine was actually folk doctrine.

    Perhaps it’s only because I’ve walked quite a similar road, but my heart goes out to those people. I personally find more fulfillment in trying to comfort them as they mourn their losses, and trying to help them find the faith to rebuild, than in accusing them of putting up strawmen and looking for excuses to abandon ship. NMRNTTA does lash out unfairly at you in #47. I don’t condone or excuse his comments, but I do think his comments demonstrate that he’s in pain beyond what he can currently bear with poise and decorum, and that your comments have added to that pain.

    Maybe a good way to start would be to find a compassionate explanation for why NMRNTTA didn’t recognize the “half dozen examples” for the warm fuzzinators they were, as they were happening to him in his life…some explanation that doesn’t paint him as intellectually dishonest, lazy, insincere, or a failure.

  50. ed
    January 27, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    Julie and others,

    I agree that bishops can be wrong, and I think most everyone on these blogs agrees, and so do most members, and most bishops. And I agree that it seems NMRNTTA was expecting too much (although we should remember that we don’t know the details of the situation). But I don’t think we can be so quick to dismiss (not to mention belittle) those who think this way.

    Maybe we should do an experiment. We’ll go to the “Gospel Library” at, and I’ll make a list of every reference that encourages us to follow our leaders (including local leaders), or assures us that our leaders are inspired, and you make a list of every time we are cautioned that our leaders might sometimes be wrong. My prediction is that my list will be several hundred times longer than your list. (Note that most quotes such as in #30 about needing to seek our own confirmations don’t really count, because the underlying assumption is usually that the counsel is correct and we just need to find that out for ourselves, and until we get a confirmation we should just act on faith anyway…the idea of getting a negative response is seldom considered.)

  51. Jim F.
    January 27, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    garf (#46): I’m sorry if I seemed to be accusing you of poor thinking or writing. That hasn’t been my experience. My point was a smaller one: there was one part of your response that I didn’t understand, and I thought it might be because, since blog posts and responses are hardly formal exercises, you had mis-written something.

    You ask: Are you arguing that I should trust in those experiences and their ability to enlighten my reason, and that my need to trust cannot be demonstrated to be either reasonable or unreasonable, because it stands outside of reason? Is this nonrational trust in experience something that I must accept a priori, because something has to be accepted a priori in order to ground reason and this is as good as anything?

    That’s a good question. I can easily understand why it still looks like I’m begging the question, so let me try again.

    If you are looking for demonstration, then you are looking for something that is founded on procedures of some kind, something like reason. So, if you are looking for a demonstration of the need for trust, you are implicity even if not consciously insisting that reason has to be the ground for all understanding. But you can know the need for trust without it being demonstrated. We know many things by direct experience. Trust (the flip side of obligation) isn’t non-rational except in the strictest sense. It is the ground of reason not something foreign to reason. Thus, it isn’t something you must accept a priori. Trust and obligation are already there in your experience. If the ground of reason weren’t already part of your being-in-the-world, you wouldn’t be using reason at all.

    The problem is that reason can make itself seem to have no foundations, to depend on nothing but itself, and when it does, then things begin to go haywire. As a Latter-day Saint, my experience and understanding of the world proceed from my experience of trust and obligation, an experience most noticeable for me in covenant. What counts as a question proceeds from that experience as does what counts as a reasonable answer.

    The questions and reasonable answers do not exist in an asocial, ahistorical, independent world. They exist as part of our existence in the world. When I am in a state of faith, the questions that arise don’t mean the same as the supposedly “same” questions that arise when I am in a state of doubt. Thus, they also don’t have the same answers. What is reasonable in each case is different.

    So, were I willing to offer you a diagnosis–and, since I do not know you and since I do not have any authority for offering spiritual diagnoses, I will not, only self-diagnosis is allowed here–I might suggest that the problem is not with the questions and the answers but with the being-in-the-world within which those questions and answers (or non-answers) arise. And how does one change one’s being-in-the-world? I’m afraid the only answers I have to that are (1) it isn’t really something you can do for yourself, it has to happen to you–grace, a grace that comes ultimately from Christ; and (2) it requires what we were taught in Sunday School that it requires: trust in God even in trial, prayer, study, Christian service, and finally genuine covenant-keeping.

  52. Frank McIntyre
    January 28, 2006 at 12:50 am


    “In fact, judging from the amount of time you spend blogging on this site and others, I can only conclude that I invest many more hours a week in Church service and study than you do.”

    Should we take this “I can only conclude” as an example of the rigorous logic and “serious thinking” employed by those up on deck. Maybe you could possibly conclude something else if you tried super-duper hard! :)

    I mean really, you don’t have the faintest idea how much time Julie spends on Church callings or gospel study and its some mixture of goofy and insulting to suggest how good you look in comparison with her when you’re speaking anonymously.

    And, in other news, may God grant you the peace you seek and that no one here is going to be able to provide.

  53. Elisabeth Calvert Smith
    January 28, 2006 at 9:06 am

    Hi, Jim –

    I read through this post and the extended version of your essay last night. I’ve only a rudimentary understanding of philosophy, but I think I was able to grasp your main point that faith is extrajudicial, but essential to, a system of reason. If I understand your point correctly, without faith to temper our reason, we build concentration camps, nuclear bombs, and human clones for spare parts. We need faith to unify our actions into a positive trajectory – or else we’re trapped in an endless (negative) feedback loop (if this wasn’t your point, please feel free to correct me).

    Notwithstanding these very interesting ideas, the most important message of your post is that you wrote it in the first place. That you reached out to a reader struggling with very complicated and very personal issues of faith. It’s risky to reach out to others, even from the behind the relative anonymity of your computer, because you risk being misunderstood, or understood perfectly, and then rejected. In my own Church experiences, questions, and questioners, are generally not made to feel welcome. Thank you for taking a risk and for creating room for us to feel welcome and to talk about these issues. Your posts and insights here have been very helpful to me.

  54. Rosalynde Welch
    January 28, 2006 at 11:34 am

    My instinctive response to somebody in the midst of a crisis of faith—someone like Jane or NMRNTTA— feels a lot like my instinctive response to someone in the midst of a deep grief, someone like Adam G. I do feel a deep sympathy for their suffering, but it’s shot through with more than a little panic and defensiveness; above all, I want to make their pain go away. This is in part a healthy, human nurturing response, I think. But it’s also a self-serving prophylactic against any future loss (of child or faith) that I might suffer: if I can make their pain go away, I insure *myself* against that sort of suffering, as well. When relating to bereaved friends, I have to work consciously to suppress the self-serving part of my instinct to minimize pain—because, in my experience, such minimization usually makes things worse. When relating to friends in a crisis of faith (and, frankly, I haven’t done much of this), though, it’s much harder for me to resist the instinct to suggest pain-minimizing answers. Of course, some folks seem to be looking for such answers, in which case it seems perfectly compassionate and appropriate to do one’s best to suggest them. But for others, as for some grieving parents, pain-minimizing answers seem to make things worse.

    In both cases, I usually resort to substituting some kind of beauty for comfort; not sure if that helps the suffering, but it does allow me to offer *something,* which is a great relief to me.

  55. garf
    January 28, 2006 at 11:55 am

    Jim: I took your suggestions (not accusations) of poor thinking and poor writing in precisely the manner you intended. You are asking me to think harder and more carefully. Isn’t that what you get paid to do? And here I am getting the benefit of your years of training and thinking for free. So please, I implore you, tell me every time you time you think I am guilty of muddled thinking or writing. That is what I want to hear! I think I shall now go reread your paper and ponder some more. You have given me much to think about. Thank you.

  56. newbie
    January 28, 2006 at 11:58 am

    I am another interested lurker who has also read your paper Jim. I have enjoyed your comments here which have helped me understand better.

  57. psychdoc
    January 28, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    [Redacted and edited]
    While blogs are a great source of research material, they are very bad places to work out interpersonal or psychological problems, since they are a minefield of human relationships and foibles Which is part of Jane’s problem. She gives equal credence to everyone’s comments and insights and predictably finds herself awash in confusion. Most of dedicated bloggers here and elsewhere . . . spend an inordinate amount of time blogging. Taken at face value, Jane’s comments suggest she does as well–though as a reader. If she spent that time instead involving herself in loving human relationships with the people who are important to her life instead of in cyberspace with people looking for love in all the wrong places, much of her despair would disappear.

  58. January 28, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    Jim: I’m not saying that you should accept a priori the belief that God exists or that the gospel as taught by the LDS Church is true. I’m saying that you should trust the relations and experiences you have and have had and the covenants that have made those relations and experiences both possible and real.

    What if my inability to believe in God and the LDS Church is a direct consequence of the negative “covenantal” relationships (parental, spousal, familial) I’ve experienced in the church? What if I told you that the finest people I know are atheists and the most corrupt are members of the church? Are you saying that I should trust the results of those relationships and experiences and find the courage to leave the church?

  59. queuno
    January 28, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    I think there reaches a point where all you can say to someone who just wants to nitpick and complain and kvetch and find fault is … goodbye, I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for, but you won’t it [on this blog | in this church | among this people].

    I’m not referring to any poster, situation, or post in particular. Just pointing out what one might say to certain people.

  60. January 28, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Anon: Obviously I don’t know your situation, but–like anyone–I know a lot of people, including a variety of atheists and a variety of believers. Based on my experience, I am quite skeptical that the finest people you know are all atheists, including no members of the Church, and the corrupt people you know are all church members, including no atheists. It would be nice if the world were laid out that way because that would make it extremely easy to choose what one should do. But I know corrupt as well as fine people who are atheists and fine people as well as corrupt ones who are church members. I have difficulty believing that you do not also.

    However, you are, I think, misunderstanding my point about covenants. Covenant-relations are relations of obligation, and they originate in the covenant with God. Can there be negative relations with God? No, in spite of what we may sometimes think. Can there be negative relations with people to whom we are covenanted? Of course. In some cases, what is negative is sufficient to have broken the covenant. The book of Hosea shows us God’s reaction to his covenant people when they have broken the relation. It is not a primer for what we should do in every case, but the vision it gives us of God’s fidelity to his covenant is a ground for hope in him as well as for hope in the possibility of making our covenants succeed.

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