Creating a Market in Correlation

Maybe it is time to turn correlation over to the market. As it happens, materials in support of church curriculum are frequently less than what one might hope for. (This is not necessarily a huge problem, given that the main text is the Scriptures, which are endlessly fascinating and full of enough weird stuff to keep anyone happy.) Generally speaking, this fact gets blamed on a couple of causes. One is that the iron hand of correlation brutally suppresses any and all interesting thought from appearing in Church manuals. The second, somewhat less melodramatic criticism is that materials are trying to be all things to all people, which has a certain dumbing down effect.

The real problem, however, is that we are dealing with a monopoly, and monopolies, over time, have a tendency to produce less than stellar products. So my suggestion is that we simply get rid of the monopoly. Let’s create a competitive market in Sunday School curriculums. “Impossible!” I hear you saying, “The Church must maintain control over what gets taught in its own Sunday Schools.” Fair enough, but there is no reason to suppose that we must accept a binary distinction between having a Church monopoly on the production of Sunday School materials, and having no Church control at all. We could set up an intermediate system that would look like this:

1. The Church could continue its current cycling through the Standard Works as the subject matter of instruction, insisting — as it does now — that the primary text is whatever book of scripture we are studying that year.

2. Private parties would then be free to develop books that could be used as supplemental materials for Sunday School classes.

3. These texts could then be submitted to the Church for review by a correlation committee, which could then sign off on them or reject them as doctrinally erroneous.

4. Individual units would then be charged with purchasing materials out of their budgets. They could choose whatever materials local church authorities — i.e. bishops, Sunday school presidents, and Sunday school teachers — thought would work best for their congregation, but their choices would be limited to materials that had been signed off on by correlation.

This system would create a market in manuals in which authors would be forced to compete to create quality materials, while at the same time allowing the Church to maintain basic doctrinal control. There are some other cool possibilities with such an approach other than the general increase in quality that competition would likely bring. First, we might start getting a bit more regional variation. For example, South American saints could use materials that were authored by fellow South Americans writing with the particular experiences and needs of their fellow South Americans in mind. You could also get a bit more in terms of varying levels of sophistication. Local teachers and leaders have a pretty good sense of where their congregation is at in terms of background knowledge, etc. It doesn’t necessarily make a great deal of sense for a congregation made up mainly of new members or young adults to use precisely the same materials as a congregation made up mainly of life long members and retirees.

There are, of course, problems with this proposal. It would place burdens on the ability of correlation to review all of the documents submitted. I suspect that in part you would get a market response to this. For example, BYU professors could hire themselves out as correlation consultants, spotting potential trouble spots for authors prior to submitting their documents for review. Second, one might try a devolution of the correlation function. There is an analogy here to the Catholic Church, where a local diocese (or perhaps an arch-diocese) has the authority to review work and issue a “nihil obstat,” declaring that the work is without doctrinal or moral error. Hence, one might submit the process of correlation to the stake or regional area. Consistency could still be maintained by allowing rejected works to appeal to some more central correlation committee, and having central authorities conduct periodic audits of materials approved by local authorities to insure consistency.

I suspect that there would also be a worry that Church members would give too much credence to materials that had passed through this process, treating them as in effect official statements by the Church. This could be avoided, I think, by very clearly articulating two standards. First, materials that pass the approval process are not official church doctrine, they are just being declared free of major doctrinal or moral error and are suitable as aids to instruction. Second, one could reemphasize that local leaders have the final obligation to see to it that teaching in their branches, wards, and stakes focuses in on Church doctrine. This is actually the system we have now. Armed with simply the scriptures and a Church produced manual, it is possible for Gospel Doctrine teachers to stray far, far a field, and we count on bishops, etc. to police the ultimate boundaries of acceptable teaching. By and large, I think that they do a fairly good job, and there is no reason to suppose that they wouldn’t continue to do a good job under the new system.

A final problem is the new market might be too successful. Given the opportunity, members might too often elect for elaborate materials that ultimately draw attention away from the scriptures. There are two ways of dealing with this problem. First, the Church could simply refuse to approve materials beyond a certain length. Second, local leaders could police instruction to insure that it remains ultimately focused on the scriptures rather than the manual. Again, this is already a task that we trust local leaders to do, and by and large they do a pretty good job.

Other thoughts, problems, and solutions?

118 comments for “Creating a Market in Correlation

  1. Lawrence
    May 12, 2006 at 1:39 pm

    Nate has some wonderfully progressive ideas, but bucking church correlation would stand little or no chance for the changes Nate suggests. The ability to be broader and more creative in our teaching ultimately rests with the teachers themselves. As high preist instructor for 29 years (off and on, mostly on), I’ve always used the general topic of the lesson, but prepared and presented material that fits my teaching style and thinking.

    I’ve survived more than a dozen high priest group leaders in two wards without one word of caution, reproof or any other indication of dissatisfaction. Could it be that many of our teachers don’t have the energy, interest or creativity to venture away from the the mostly colorless, correlated materials?

  2. Ed Johnson
    May 12, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    Are you serious about this suggestion, Nate? It sounds unworkable to me. I can’t imagine that a correlation committee could have the capacity to review submitted materials in a sensible way. What would they be looking for, anyway? What standards might they apply? You say they would try to insure the materials would be “free of doctrinal error,” but since doctrine is so poorly defined, this is best done by carefully producing manuals like the ones we have today.

  3. Last Lemming
    May 12, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    What standards might they apply?

    Ultimately, the committee would apply their personal standards to the submitted works. They would have no incentive to do otherwise. As the members would be selected in part on the basis of whether their standards conform to those of general authorities, the result would likely be manuals that look a lot like the ones we already have.

    How about a more extreme version? Have committee members vote on each submitted work. For approved works, give members who voted in favor a small percentage of the gross. But if an approved manual draws objections from a certain number of the Twelve, all of those members would forfeit their percentages and be fined.

  4. May 12, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    We’re halfway to this model without even noticing it, I think. You can use any Church-produced materials in your lessons — including everything published in the Friend, New Era, and Ensign, abd the stories and lesson helps in the magazines are largely written by ordinary members, usually to illustrate some Gospel principle or another. Every year they put out a new index listing items in the magazines that are particularly appropriate for the lessons in the YM/YW manuals; I probably use something out of the Friend for every third lesson or so in Primary. The difference is just in the volume; I tend to think that the reason they don’t bother correlating all of those lesson help books I gather we’re not supposed to use is a) the seriously massive increase in time/money you’d have to expend, and b) hints of priestcraft.

    If anything, I think the next step from where we are now would be submission of single complete lessons on a given theme, set of scriptures, whatever, the way you can submit materials for the church music competition now. The quality of individual lessons in the manuals is variable at best (and I’d really like to have a sit-down chat with the person who wanted me to teach this to 7 year olds: “When Potiphar’s wife tried to tempt Joseph to do wrong, how did he keep himself pure? (Genesis 39:8–10, Genesis 39:12.)” The kids in my class don’t, I think, have even the slightest idea of what she wanted Joseph to do, thank goodness.) And it’d be nice to have fewer lessons that repeat a given non-scripture story (the one with the boy — Vaughn J. Featherstone, maybe? — who had to wear the nurse’s shoes to Primary has been repeated many times now; enough that a quick trip to proves that I remembered which General Authority that story was told by.)

  5. May 12, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    Ed: I don’t see why review under my proposal would be any more difficult than the review that happens now. What do you think that correlation committees currently do when they are looking at a Sunday School manual produced by the Church? What you are suggesting is that the concept of Church Doctrine is meaningless. I disagree. However, if it is meaningless, this is equally a problem for the current system.

  6. May 12, 2006 at 2:45 pm

    Sarah: Interestingly, BYU Studies produces indexes of articles keyed to the current church curriculum. I don’t think that Dialogue and Sunstone do the same thing, but it would be interesting if they did!

  7. Jed
    May 12, 2006 at 3:14 pm

    “monopolies, over time, have a tendency to produce less than stellar products.”

    Isn’t the claim mitigated by the fact that church writing committees are not monolithic? They cycle in fresh blood all the time, making the manuals less vanilla than we might suppose.

  8. Ben H
    May 12, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    An interesting idea. Let’s talk about why it won’t work . . . : )
    A couple of worries:

    a) If you don’t like what correlation approves now, why would you like it any better under your system? Do you think the problem is primarily a lack of contributors? I suspect it is more a matter of what the correlation committee considers appropriate.

    b) Suppose your system were implemented. The amount of work for correlation to do would be greatly increased. They would have to get more people involved. I suspect they are already pushing it on the number of people who are really good at this sort of thing. Even if they are not “pushing it”, presumably the people on the committee now are the best people that those in charge think are available. Hence increasing the size of the organization would mean hiring second- and third-choice personnel, most likely diminishing the average quality of work it does. We might be worse off as a result.

    c) if you don’t like what correlation chooses, how much worse would it be if local sunday school presidencies were choosing their materials, even if they were choosing them from among items certified “free of major error”? I worry that really, really bad manuals would be produced (think of some of the lame novels and art that sell on the LDS market) and then used by many local units.

    d) I’m not sure where the supply of great materials would come from. Julie and Jim, for example, don’t seem to be waiting for an invitation to write a sunday school manual. Their materials are available to enterprising teachers. There are others who would do interesting things, but how many, really? Right now, anyway, that is.

    e) Suppose your idea were implemented. My hunch is that the best people to write manuals but who don’t know the people involved under the current regime well enough to, say, get invited to write, would be slow to invest the time to produce something, because of the substantial risk it just wouldn’t be approved anyway. Meantime, people with less discretion would just fire off half-baked stuff (like we do all the time on this blog). Soon, either the correlation folks would change their minds and stop accepting submissions, or some trashy stuff would get approved, or the prevailing impression would be that correlation really doesn’t mean to approve anything anyway. The chances of a good outcome, dodging all these hazards, seems to me very slim.

    Basically, I think markets are great for goods where there is a reasonably well-established sense of what a good X is (car, toaster, loaf of bread). But most people have only a fairly coarse sense of what makes a good lesson manual. Markets are a particularly problematic concept when the good in question is education (spiritual or secular): that is, something which is supposed to be different from what people already want (if they already wanted it, they wouldn’t need to be educated).

    I think if you want to raise the quality of teaching in the church, the first place to start is by educating better teachers. Then if people produce supplementary materials for them to use to enrich their lessons, these teachers can intelligently draw on them to open up the scriptures for their audience.

  9. May 12, 2006 at 4:07 pm

    Fun! Ridiculous, but fun.

    The real problem, however, is that we are dealing with a monopoly, and monopolies, over time, have a tendency to produce less than stellar products.

    Indeed. Perhaps God should relax the monopoly on being the only true and living church on the face of the earth that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoys. Further, perhaps a term limit should be imposed on Jesus as the monopolistic head of the Church, or even as the gatekeeper of salvation.

  10. May 12, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    The real problem is that there would be a huge grey/black market for rejected curriculum. The last think the correlation committee wants is a bunch of plausible alternatives to correlated materials readily available.

  11. Nehringk
    May 12, 2006 at 5:02 pm

    In effect, people who want to teach something beyond what is in the manuals do so anyway. There are interesting supplementary materials to be found on the web (T&S runs Jim Faulconer’s material, Meridian runs some stuff, and there are other sites) and many other sources — books, magazines, etc. Not to mention the oracular pronouncements of graying High Priests within the units themselves…

  12. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 12, 2006 at 5:15 pm
  13. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 12, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    (Takes Christian’s suggestion seriously — )

  14. Ed Johnson
    May 12, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Nate, I can think of several reasons why the review would be much more difficult than what happens now.

    Obviously, the volume of stuff to be reviewed would be higher.

    Also the things coming in would presumably be more diverse and surprising. It’s not that hard to review yet another batch of quotes from the usual authorities, saying pretty much the same thing they did last year, put together by some people from Utah who probably have similar sensibilities to the reviewers. It’s much harder to review a pile of submissions from all over, some of which may take a unique perspective on various things. Is new the perspective right? Is it wrong? Who knows? How will the committee decide?

    The current manuals smooth over differences by either remaining ambiguous on certain topics, or by resorting to a limited language and set of terms (often scriptural in origin), that can be silently interpreted by each person in a different way. (Example: the word “preside.”) But what if someone attempts to define those terms more precisely? Then the committee might be forced to take a position on what those terms really mean.

    Or, say someone name “Geoff” decides to produce a manual where he includes quotes from some 19th century authorities suggesting some crazy ideas about Adam or the premortal existence or something. How can the committe react to that? Do they say it’s false doctrine? (But aren’t those statements authoritative?) Do they say “we don’t want to emphasize that?” Whatever they do, it’s harder than the current system where probably nobody ever even brings anything like that up at all.

  15. May 12, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Christian: The Church functions in a very competitive market. There is absolutely no shortage of religions that compete with it either for adherent or in terms of truth claims. Cute comment, but no score.

  16. May 12, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    I’m with Sarah (#4), I think there’s a lot of market freedom already: we’ve got several publishers (FARMS, Deseret Book, Signature, Sunstone, Dialogue, BYU Studies, etc.), blogs (too many too list), and a wiki (where everyone should contributing once a week or so, instead of frittering away time on blogs when they should be studying the scriptures!) all providing material that can help supplement Mormon lessons (not to mention the vast Christian and Jewish biblical commentary literature).

    If I were prophet, I’d try to keep material provided by bureaucratic church correlation to a bare minimum and let the market provide supplements. Of course this precludes having an official church review process (though publisher’s have their own review processes), but with the primary text being the scriptures (the best commentaries simply help one understand the text of the scriptures better), I think anything beyond what’s currently provided would be ill-advised. This also allows individual teachers and wards to determine what material from this vast market supply is most helpful for their particular needs and tastes.

  17. Carolyn
    May 12, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    Nate, your suggestions are interesting but what about areas of the church where there is rapid growth? And by that I mean, most of the church.

    I think I’ve taught in just about every auxiliary from Sunbeams right up to Relief Society. I also taught gospel doctrine for four years. My greatest challenge was always balancing the needs of long time members for stimulating, faith promoting discussion while making sure the newer members were not completely lost. After wrestling with this issue for some time I realized that the needs of the newer members came first. If the long time members were a little bored well they would get over it. It was more important to strengthen the new members both in terms of testimony and understanding the gospel.

    I remember hearing somewhere that the manuals are written for the one-year convert level. That seems about right to me. I’m going to go out even further on a limb and say that the current manuals are fine just the way they are because they serve the purpose for which they are intended. That purpose is to ground new members in the basics.

    In my ward new members constitute roughly half the congregation. In a terms of the global church it’s way more than that. I believe that’s what the correlation committee is considering when they write the manuals on such a basic level.

    As for those of you who are long time members who live in built up areas of the church who get bored with the repetition, you are free to add to the lessons. That’s where inspired teaching comes in. You also have access to lots of supplementary materials many of which have already been mentioned in this thread.

  18. May 12, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    This post is an interesting twist on the recurring theme of “boring lessons” which keeps popping up in the Bloggernacle. Over the years I have attended classes in dozens of wards and branches in various countries. I did have a problem with boredom in some of them until I basically changed MY attitude to be more positive and pro-active.

    I agree with those who have said that the teacher (not the manual) is what makes the biggest difference in helping the class to be enjoyable for those who attend. IMO, a good teacher who is teaching by the Spirit will definitely make a lesson interesting to almost everyone. Even a mediocre teacher, if doing their best, can be in tune with the Spirit; and thus truth can be taught–at least to those who are listening by the power of the Spirit.

    Some of the most spiritually uplifting church classes I have attended have been given by teachers who used only the Scriptures, the manual (including additional resources suggested therein), their own personal insights or experiences, and the participation they elicited from class members. Some of these lessons were taught by inexperienced, relatively new members in foreign countries, who often exhibited various degrees of awkwardness in their presentation. Others were taught in Wasatch-front wards by long-time members who were outstanding, experienced teachers, and who were adept in involving class members as well as in presenting the material.

    Some of the least spiritual church classes I have attended have been given by experienced teachers who perhaps thought the manual was boring. They treated the class to an array of outside sources, elicited all sorts of responses which often focused on peripheral issues, and left many class members confused, frustrated, and even angry. What may be totally appropriate in blogging, may not be quite as appropriate in our Sunday church classes, right? :)

    IMO, if we believe that we are led by apostles and prophets, it seems logical that whatever lesson materials they approve can result in good lessons. Are some manuals better than others? Of course.

    But in all cases where I have found a lesson particularly uplifting, I believe that experience was due to a powerful synergy between the supportive attitude of the class members, a teacher doing their best with the current manuals, and the resulting presence of the Spirit.

  19. May 12, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    Add me to the Sarah (#4) and Robert (#16) train: the current system works very well. I think the lesson manuals–specifically the Gospel Doctrine manuals, with which I am most familiar–are quite good. I rarely use them, but that is because I have a lot of teaching and lesson preparation experience, so I rely on the many supplemental materials provided by the market (Bloggernacle, Jewish encyclopedia, Blue Letter Bible, etc). For the many, many inexperienced teachers in our wards that are faced with the daunting task of teaching, the manuals provide a couple good and manageable ideas. Before I criticize, I ask myself “What would the Bloggernacle do with my lesson plans?”

    Nate, I agree with all of the problems you proposed in this post. I also wonder, would this “broad correlation” system lead to even more criticism of the correlation committee? I think it would.

  20. May 12, 2006 at 10:43 pm

    Nate, regrettably, my comment was too brief and obnoxious to get my intended point across. I tried to clarify it here.

  21. Kevin Barney
    May 12, 2006 at 11:21 pm

    I *love* the idea of Dialogue and Sunstone doing BYU Studies-style guides identifying articles keyed to specific lessons in the Church curriculum!

  22. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 12, 2006 at 11:30 pm

    I cannot fault your logic, Christian. However, I should warn you that if you persist in such obnoxiously persistent logicalness, you may leave yourself vulnerable to leaving the Church[*]. It’s the “There’s nothing scarier than a true believer”[**] syndrome.

    How’s this for an obscure an obscure post?
    |[*(hint: Which is an enterprise not essentially based upon logic)

    |{**(History records many instances of people thinking that their logic equals some heavenly mandate, with commonly just obnoxious, but very occasionally trangic, results)]|

  23. May 12, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    Where can one find the BYU Studies guides to SS lessons? Are they in normal issues, or is there an index issue? Is it available online?

  24. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 12, 2006 at 11:54 pm

    But, the solution to # 22’s again in my fave scripture, that of Ecclesiastes: And whereas it says there, “All is vanity” — it then instructs to do one’s duty/ follow the commandments anyway! And, by logical extention (oops!: Logic again!), the requirements of one’s superego?

  25. Mark Butler (II)
    May 13, 2006 at 2:03 am

    Market competition, in the manner of appealing to religious tastes can certainly be a dangerous path to trod if it gets out of hand. However, organizations like the Catholic Church have flourished with considerably more diversity in philosophy and theology for hundreds of years, while maintaining a healthy level of control over what is considered genuinely Catholic doctrine, first with the imprimatur system, and secondly with an scholastic establishment second to none.

    Mormonism on the other hand has a very weak secondary “market” because of our relatively recently acquired hyper-fideistic epistemology – so fideistic it puts everyone except perhaps Martin Luther to shame. No theological argument, no matter how solid is given the least bit of credit by ordinary members of the Church unless it is endorsed by the Church itself or by someone with the rank of Apostle or higher.

    That puts the Church in a very awkward position – it cannot formally endorse the non-consensus views of its own Apostles, but on the other hand the theology of secondary questions is dying on the vine because no one will give any rational argument any credit unless the Church endorses it. We are basically at a theological impasse where nearly no one does theology anymore. The only doctrinal advances occur when Church leaders re-emphasize or put a new twist on pretty generic matters like the Proclamation on the Family.

    Unlike the Catholic Church, the LDS Church cannot wait while theological arguments percolate and get refined through a process of decades or even centuries and then get authoritatively endorsed as inspired works of theological reasoning, because like the Protestants, only more so, the Church has abandoned the idea that there is any merit to theology. In the past few decades we have essentially adopted Martin Luther’s view, that “philosophy is the devil’s whore” and applied it to theology as well. That our reasoning ability is fundamentally corrupt and we can come to no reliable conclusion about anything relating to the gospel by that means – instead we must rely largely on voice from the heavens class revelation, of which we have vanishingly decreasing amounts of, now that the dispensation is open.

    So as a consequence, not only do we properly avoid a narrow Protestant style creed, we cannot produce a secondary book larger than “True to the Faith” that contains an enumeration of doctrines the Church is comfortable in endorsing. By contrast, compare the Catechism of the Catholic Church – it is almost as comprehensive as the LDS encyclopedia. If we had an approved book as well laid out as that we would never lack for teaching material in our Gospel Doctrine classes.

    What – you say we have the scriptures? Of course – but on many critical questions the scriptures are notoriously unclear, and so what we end up in Gospel Doctrine class is either competing Greek and Hebrew etymologies, competing appeals to authorities who failed to document their own reasoning process, or just outright speculation from any basis whatsoever.

    A disciplined theology and scholasticism not formally endorsed but given at least the imprimitur (as in not harmful to faith and morals) by the Church would gradually remedy that problem as well as restore the level of average doctrinal literacy in the Church back to what was commonplace in the days of the Restoration.

    The imprimitur could be informal, or if the Church wanted greater control it could sponsor an organization like FARMS to evaluate books for fundamental consistency, charging publishers for the privilege, and letting them include the imprimatur on the inside margins of their books – signifying that the Church does not necessarily approve of the book, but its contents are not about to get the author excommunicated, or perhaps that it contains a perspective worthy of further consideration.

  26. Mark Butler (II)
    May 13, 2006 at 2:06 am

    That should be “Encyclopedia of Mormonism”

  27. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 13, 2006 at 2:23 am

    (Looks at the margin of Butler’s post to see if it boasts the Church’s official imprimatur.)

  28. Mark Butler (II)
    May 13, 2006 at 2:54 am

    Definitely not I am afraid. The Church would hardly concede to being hyper-anything.

  29. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 13, 2006 at 3:00 am

    No theological argument, no matter how solid is given the least bit of credit by ordinary members of the Church unless it is endorsed by the Church itself or by someone with the rank of Apostle or higher.

    What kinds of theological arguments are you looking for? Why do we need “more theology”? I tend to think that the Restoration gave us what we needed to know who we are and why we are here and where we can go and how to get there (what we need to be on the path), and now we are in the stage of history in the latter days of “staying on the path” (enduring to the end). We don’t need any big doctrinal, theological stuff to help us stay on the path. We need warnings and reminders and nudges and guidance and perspective and help to keep Babylon out of our lives (think Elder Stone’s talk from this last Conference). I think we are missing something if we are waiting around for new, big theology or earth-shattering revelation at this stage of the game. The revelation is still coming, it’s just coming to help us stay on the path. We don’t need any extra stuff in our classes — the whole focus is on application (how can I be a better, more Christlike and Christ-following person) rather than on acquisition of theological knowledge per se. Notice how the manuals have become more simple, more application focused. I think we should not underestimate the importance (and I am going to assume the deliberateness) of this approach, nor the universal applicability to new member and long-time member alike. I live in an area where most people are long-time members, and our lessons rarely bring in extra stuff — and I almost always leave Church renewed and refueled — usually from the discussions that take place and rarely from anything fancy the teacher has done. After all, isn’t that what Church is about — meeting together to strengthen each other (to be nourished in the good word of God as Mormoni 6:4 states) — and renewing?

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for learning new and interesting and more-in-depth stuff, and there is a market out there for those who want intellectual exploration of doctrine, theology, etc. But I don’t think that is the particular purpose of going to Church, or of this stage in the Church’s history (in the institution of the Church). Wasn’t Pres. Hinckley’s theme when he had his first press conference as prophet “Stay the course”?

  30. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 13, 2006 at 3:13 am

    methinks m&m’s REALLY gettin’ good in her form!

  31. Mark Butler (II)
    May 13, 2006 at 4:17 am

    M&m, if you study early Church history closely it is obvious that Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and others were extremely well grounded in the theological disputes of the day. It is also obvious (from our perspective) that some of the contemporary denominations, notably the Campbellites and to some degree the Arminians in general, had come to inspired theological conclusions about a host of matters that we share in common – questions that are not quite obvious on a straightforward reading of the Bible or there wouldn’t be such a controversy in the first place.

    Going back and retracing their steps in terms of the reasons why they backed away from the extremisms of their immediate Protestant predecessors is unusually informative – giving a depth of understanding, indeed even a basic vocabulary for understanding a wide range of truly fundamental theological issues – notably those related to salvation, grace, agency, free will, nature, faith, reason, and so on. The Protestants may be wrong, or living on borrowed light, but at least they have their vocabulary down pat – and it is that vocabulary that informed the translation of the King James Version and the religious environment in which the Restoration took place.

    Where by contrast, LDS tend to muddle definitions together so much that it is hard to keep the semantics of a word straight from one commentator to the next – especially in Gospel Doctrine class. There are so many issues of not extraordinarily critical nature that could enrich our understanding as well as our ability to apply gospel principles to real world problems. Ultimately the aim of theology is not the bare minimum requirements for salvation, but to apply gospel principles to all areas of life – not just as some of simple ethics of the sort we share in common with every true religion – but in terms of principles of revealed truth and their logical consequences – consequences that properly should inform our scholarship on *everything*. That was the scholastic dream of the middle ages – it was a dream endorsed in the era of Restoration – it is evidenced in our liturgy – and enthusiastically endorsed and pursued during our first century as a modern Church. That is what theology is good for. Truth – one great whole – revelation in all things not required. Theology is nothing but a form of collective pondering, petition, confirmation, and application. Indeed, it is likely the only way we are likely to get the answers to certain types of questions? After all, how can we be inspired to understand the scriptures if we do not pursue the implications of their most basic precepts?

  32. May 13, 2006 at 5:55 am

    Mark (#27): My sense is the average Mormon has a much better grasp of Mormon theology than the average Catholic, but then perhaps this is more a function of the average Catholic not attending church regularly, let alone some form form of Bible study, compared to the average Mormon.

    I agree that Mormon theology is in its infancy, but I don’t see that this is the fault of Church administration or b/c of an alleged discouragement toward theological/philosophical thinking. If you’re referring to the September Six, I don’t think any of that was a result of theological or philosophical writing. In contrast, my sense is that the church and LDS scripture is very encouraging of studying from the best books and obtaining as much learning as possible. And I don’t think anyone writing for Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology or Mormon philosophy blogs (such as Clark Goble’s) feels discouraged by the Church to engage in philosophical and theological thought. Furthermore, I think Claremont’s new chair in Mormon Studies and the establishment of the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship suggest a trend toward more such thought, not less of it.

  33. May 13, 2006 at 6:01 am

    Also, I think it’s a good thing that Church administration/correlation stays out theo and phil thought, precisely for the market-type reasons expresses in Nate’s post.

  34. Mark Butler (II)
    May 13, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Robert , the only one of the September 6 I was referring to was the case of Brother Gileadi, whose situtation was not self-publicized and who has since been re-baptized into the Church. I understand his Judaically influenced interpretation of Isaiah was popular with the destruction-is-imminent types in the Church, but the idea that someone should be excommunicated simply for refusing to suspend publication of a book that apparently did nothing more than disagree with the non-canonical, non-Church endorsed perspective of a former Apostle (one who was often in much deeper hot water himself) with regard to several Old Testament scriptures, in a way considered more than plausible by several other prominent LDS religious scholars is disturbing to me.

    In particular, I don’t like this mode of theological development by arm twisting. In the Catholicism, at least they formally address what they consider to be heresies and openly publish the resulting analysis, stating what is wrong and why.

    As to the relative level of doctrinal understanding of members of the two churches, one needs to compare apples to apples – in this case Catholic adherents who attend to gospel understanding as many hours a week as active LDS members do.

    In terms of primary, church sponsored theology – take a good look at any recent Catholic encyclical – they are often models of doctrinal analysis of substantive and difficult modern issues – It is isn’t just “trust us – we’re the Church – and we don’t have to give an explanation”, it is “here is a comprehensive and detailed exposition of why these modern trends are hostile to fundamental gospel principles, and where the balance and trade-offs lie”. Much more persuasion, rather than dictation. “Fides et Ratio”, by Pope John Paul II is an excellent example.

    Ultimately, a rational approach to gospel doctrine is much more effective at sustaining belief, than raw assertions. Fideism is much more unstable, when people have their testimony disturbed for whatever reason, the credibility they attach to the whole project (save the most basic principles) is severely weakened, in a way that is not the case when there is a large body of not just apologetic, but constructive rational and persuasive support for various doctrines.

    Why are C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton such persuasive writers? They did not develop their writings in a vacuum – ultimately they are particularly effective because they are building on an Anglican/Catholic theological heritage going back a millennia or more, a heritage that in general we purposely avoid, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

    It is basically the cumulative exposure approach to doctrinal instruction – instead of teaching people the principles of how to interpret the scriptures, weigh evidence, and evaluate doctrinal propositions on their own merit, we tend to focus on eliminating exposure to any idea that is not only not orthodox, but not a formal position of the Church on the subject.

    So gospel doctrine books, as CES manuals, and most of the books written by CES types are largely devoid of theology – meaning any sort of moderately systematic reason-based approach to scriptural interpretation and doctrinal analysis. What we inevitably have instead is a recursive midrash where the only thing that matters is not the coherence or rationality of some proposition, but whether it has been espoused in the past (usually without argument) by some authority figure. That is hyper-fideism.

    Anyone who makes an argument for some position or another that is even moderately controversial is accused of practicing unauthorized revelation for the whole church – basically of being on the road to apostasy. i.e. revelation is the only thing that can make a theological analysis valid – our reasoning capacity is inherently corrupt and no argument no matter how clear or widely supported is at all valid until formally endorsed by the Church or at least an Apostle.

    So doctrinal analysis is reduced to reading the “tea leaves” – the unspoken context that hypothetically motivates the tone and aspect of otherwise very ordinary looking statements in general conference and other authoritative sources.

    Nearly nobody, least of all an Apostle, does scholastic quality theology – as in suitable for publication and reference any more (if they ever did). Of course such analysis occurs privately, but except for a few brave souls no one publishes books on the topic that have any sort of tenative systematic aspect to them at all. It is all just apologetics and minor commentary on trivial issues like the origin of the “eye of the needle” or the Greek semantics of some verse. The danger of retroactively being declared an apostate or practicting prophecy is too great.

    And of course that all makes sense in a world where only revelation to a prophet can establish the merit of any theological proposition. Fideism in the manner of Martin Luther – a mode of interpretation that had rather tragic consequence in his case, because the very fabric of society was built on a foundation of scholastic theology, and he just basically said it was worthless leading to unprecedented disorder and upheaval.

    So in a Zion society, are we to maintain this strict Protestant developed division between the secular and religious spheres, where the the former operates in complete ignorance of the latter, each despising the interference of the other in the areas where they cross over? Or should we pursue an enlightened neo-scholasticism, where religious precepts are implemented and applied to real world problems with serious scholarly scrutiny and implementation, of the type that informed Western civilization during the middle ages, brought forward a few hundred years?

    The other alternative is feudalistic fideism, where the only tolerated epistmology is an appeal to authority, a sort of common law system of doctrine based not on the studied analysis of previous precedents, but whatever proposition seems to quell the unrest of the present situation with little regard to consistency or long term merit – just revise the doctrine as necessary – no planning, no forward looking thought, just doctrine as support for whatever the felt mandate of the time is, or underground adjudication with no record of decision.

  35. May 13, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    Kimball (#22): See here.

  36. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 13, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    Interesting string: thanks, Christian.

  37. May 14, 2006 at 12:40 am

    Mark (#34): You raise some good questions, and you express many frustrations which I (and I’m sure many other readers here) share (I esp. would have hard time defending CES…).

    I think your description of the Protestant vs. Catholic view on this is interesting. I would argue there’s an unintended consequence that the Catholic Chruch’s abuses of power (historically and currently) are related to its scholastic approach to theology. That is, by claiming the responsibility of expounding rational theology, the Catholic Church has been able to concentrate its power—not only will the Church tell you how you should act, but how you should think, and why you should think what you should think….

    In contrast, I would argue the Protestant approach (or at least the Mormon approach) is to say: God has called prophets to cry repentance (that is, tell us what to do not what to think). Part of this might include expounding some basic theological concepts (which require faith to believe, after all faith is one of the basic concepts), and oftentimes it will require declaring policy (which is also to be taken on faith), but these are mainly just means to the end of getting others to repent. And ultimately, I think this is what God seems most interested in. Not that there’s no room for good theology, but I don’t think the depth of our theological understanding (beyond a basic understanding of faith and repentance) is really that important to our salvation.

    And I’m not convinced that this fideistic approach is more risky in terms of institutional loyalty. In fact, I think history suggests the opposite for two reasons: (1) Catholic Church abuses, which I argue above are partly a result of church leaders claiming responsibility to explicate theology, have caused many to lose faith in the Chruch despite scholastic theology, and (2) the scholastic theology approach doesn’t encourage the growth of faith, something that is a key ingredient for belief in a church.

  38. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 1:51 am

    Robert, I really don’t like theological minimalism – where we just learn the bare minimum for some degree of salvation and then just believe whatever else based on some random quasi-secular-cultural osmosis process. A proper theology should lead to increased understanding of true principles – principles that harmonize one’s knowledge, stabilize one’s faith, and increase one’s ability to serve others.

    In addition, this punt all theological questions to the next life seems lazy to me – I think the idea we are going to get a doctrinal download in the Millennium with no particular effort on our part is rather naive. It is like skipping class and then praying for a miracle when the exam comes around. If the sort of knowledge that we are talking about is beneficial to our capacity to do good in this life (i.e. not just trivia) we should seek as much of it as possible.

    I hate to use the phrase, but it seems like traditionally many members have a “magic world view” about what life is like in the millennium – all ease, instant learning, no effort, no tension, no disagreements – just happiness and smiles all around. I would suggest that more than any other field our understanding of the proper application of gospel principles is the type of knowledge and intelligence that will give us an advantage in the world to come – something more signifcant than a few minutes head start (D&C 130:18-19).

    Avoiding work is the slacker’s philosophy – if we can do it, and it will help people, strengthening testimonies in particular, as well as laying a foundation for a proper understanding of the humanities and the social sciences in particular, we should do it. Perhaps the Second Coming is tommorrow, perhaps not – either way the Lord is not going to hand us a Zion society on a silver platter – it is a matter of hard work, including intellectual work.

    We emphasize revelation, but how do we suppose God came to his present state of divine wisdom and creativity? A mystical brain download? I doubt it – it seems much more likely he acquired his abilities the old fashioned way – study, pondering, analysis, experience, collaboration, and hard work. If not him, then certainly us.

  39. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 2:03 am


    Although you pro’bly have to overstate Protestantism-vee-Catholicism to make your point — I like it: its ORTHOPRAXY’S (a word I picked up from outta Cardall’s link there, above) BEING HELD as supreme and in turn being founded on a burning faith in certain premises —

    OK, how does it go again? Faith, Repentence, Baptism, Laying on of hands. Endure to the end. All of which is firmly imprinted within my superego.

    An understanding of which I once wudda not shied from even tryin ta impart to others — well until my own logicalities, relativisms, crises of faith caused me myself to wanna throw even the baby of religion out with the bath water, that is. But the thing is, Robert, by your devaluing, in a sense, logicalness altogether, instead of your tryin ta simply force some necessarily ultimately faulty logic over whatever is my own faulty logic, is — well, liberating. So then the only thing I’m lacking is the basic premises of faith. Along with, of course, that orthopraxy.


  40. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 3:09 am

    Robert, re the Catholics vs the Protestant approach to theology – the cultural and religious context of the Restoration predisposes us to look on the Protestants positively, and the Catholics in a much darker light. However, the world is not as simple as the Protestant caricatures of the Catholic faith would incline one to believe.

    There are numerous aspects of the Reformation that took the Protestants further away from true doctrine – moving them in precisely the wrong direction, often a thousand year rollback to principles (such as Original Sin) that we explicitly disavow, emphasing the incomprehensible mystery of an absolute abstraction of God that determines all things good and ill, and a distinctive hostility to all rational pursuits.

    The scholastic theology of Medieval times that progressive scholars are so fond of despising moved the Catholic Church (the only Church in the West) increasingly in the direction of a sound theological understanding – something (scholasticism that is) that was only discarded by the Protestants due to an intellectual crisis that the scholars of the day were hard pressed to deal with.

    Theology has its limits, but it was an extreme overreaction on the part of Martin Luther to dump scholasticism completely. If it weren’t for matters of political expediency – where the Church had certainly worn out its welcome, the anti-intellectualism of Martin Luther and the sovereign totalitarianism of John Calvin might just be footnotes in history. They were definitely not steps forward – perhaps not in any fundamental sense but preparing the way for religious tolerance two and one half centuries later.

    If we were in their position we would be horrified, as the only living representatives of the greatest religious tradition the world has ever known, to have our unity of the faith split right down the middle, leading to centuries of bloodshed, just so the Lord could reveal a greater knowledge of the truth to a peculiar sect in a land hardly known to us.

    Every effort was made – sometimes crudely perhaps – for over a thousand years to resolve the the type of disputes that threatened to destroy that unity. There were errors, there was occasional villiany, there was corruption in high places, but the Catholic Church survived and blessed the lives of countless generations of people.

    So I think giving a modicum of credit to the faith, ability, and character of those who made that miracle possible – and mining the ecclesiastical and theological history of Christianity for whatever merit we can find is more than justified.

  41. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 14, 2006 at 3:20 am

    Maybe you and Robert are both right. Maybe it’s not really theological minimalism, although it may seem so at the surface. I firmly believe that as we receive seemigly basic information, we also receive information that gives us an opportunity to learn more of the “mysteries.” I’m not talking about wacky-stuff mysteries, but simply the things that can be understood only through the Spirit, and cannot be preached in detail at a public level. (Think Al. 12:9-12.) I think we often underestimate what we ARE given (that might help us understand more) because of what we judge to be simple or repetitive or whatever.I have that sense of faith that you talked about on another thread that, indeed, we can learn much more than we think as we study and ponder the “basic” information we are given. This is why I am completely fine with studying the basics at church and with the “simple” talks we hear at Conference, etc…because I think we are being given more opportunity to learn than we realize. The Spirit can teach us all things. Maybe we just have to be willing to receive what we are being given — even if it seems too simple to be given any added consideration. Remember those who only had to look at the serpent to be healed. Because of the easiness of the way they missed what would save them. How is it with us? Is it possible that we sometimes want things to be more complicated and sophisticated than they need to be — and thus miss the further knowledge we desire?

  42. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 3:56 am

    I do not think theology is any good for “mysteries” – however if one takes a good look at the type of questions Christian theology has historically addressed, there is an enormously broad range of material that has contemporary relevance – a typical example is the theology of a just war. If you take a look at articles in First Things (a Catholic-oriented journal of opinion about the intersection of religion and public life) on the subject, it is amazing to see the level and applicability of analysis Christian scholars brought to bear on the question umpteen centuries ago.

    For example they clearly distinguished “ad bellum” questions – when is engaging in war justified from “in bello” questions – what type of warfare is morally supportable, once war has been engaged. A just war was required to be conducted by a competent authority, for a just cause, and as a last resort.

    See George Weigel, “Moral Clarity in a Time of War”, First Things, January 2003

    That tradition gave considerably more substance to the Catholic discussion of the morality of the War in Iraq than what was typical among many LDS members at the time. The canon alone is rather ambiguous on the question, unfortunately.

  43. El Jefe
    May 14, 2006 at 7:22 am

    I would not favor the original suggestion. To begin with, I don’t believe most members are agonizing over the theological arguments that many of us in the bloggernacle enjoy. The vast majority of members of the Church are preoccupied with faith, repentance, baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost. They struggle, but fervently want to live up to the covenants they made in the temple; they do not wish to spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the mysteries of the universe. They might not even care how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.

    Further, I believe that a religious O’Sullivan’s Law would apply here.

    (O’Sullivan stated that in the political realm, any organizations not explicitly conservative would tend to become liberal over time–as witness the Mainstream Media and organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation).

    I believe that most of the Mormon blogs, unless they fight tooth and nail to remain what one could call “Mormon Orthodox”, will gradually be coopted by those with an anti-LDS agenda. Why? Because too many of those who are attracted to philosophical and theological discussion prize the intellect above the Spirit. And if you created a market for them to spread their intellectual views, there would be a gradual drift toward a contrarian position to where the Apostles and Prophets stand.

    That is not to say that there aren’t wonderful intellectual members who are as faithful as can be to the Spirit. But they view it as a discussion, and have no agenda but truth; and their opponents have an agenda, and view it as war. Sometimes, in Yeats’ words: “the best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

  44. May 14, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Mark (#38): In contrast to the responses by m&m and El Jefe, I think there is a very important role for public discourse on theology in the Church, I just don’t think that Church leadership and administration should necessarily be involved (though they should and do encourage such study and learning, though the encouragement for learning is admittedly more about higher education these days rather than theological thinking…). And although I worry that such non-involvement may implicitly discourage such discourse, but I don’t think it’s been explicitly discouraged (I’ve heard a few anecdotes of the type of arm-twisting you mention, and I agree that CES instructors tend to have a negative view of scholarship, but my sense of many of the new religion profs at BYU, writers at FARMS etc. suggest an upsurge in the quality and quantity of scholarly theological writing…).

    [More later, hopefully….]

  45. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 1:08 pm


    Absolutamente el veridad!

  46. May 14, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    My wife and I would be all for it. Much from FARMS and FAIR and other LDS Scholars would add to the depth of our current shallow classes.

    One Bishop chastised my wife (teaching gospel doctrine class) for quoting McConkie because the quote wasn’t in the manual!

  47. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 14, 2006 at 3:14 pm

    Robert, I was speaking explicitly about Church meetings. I never said there should be no scholarship in the Church..

    That said, I think a quote from an article in yesterday’s Deseret News might be interesting in light of this discussio. It was in an article about the book written by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Andrew C. Skinner and Thomas A. Wayment re: the DaVinci Code. Brother Skinner said, “In recent years, we have, in fact, been counseled by current prophets and apostles … that where the scriptures are silent, we should pass over them with reverence and focus on those doctrines that are revealed with clarity.”
    Not that this quelches any pursuit of theological understanding, but it might give some appropriate boundaries to such scholarship.

  48. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    El Jefe, I agree with regard to O’Sullivan’s law. The Catholic Church, however – with some diversion following Vatican II that is now in the process of being remedied – is definitely not a liberal institution. There is very little evidence to suggest that the thousand year plus history of theological scholarship has had destructive, faith dissolving tendencies. On the contrary, historically speaking it is inevitably Protestant sects that reap the consequences of having a hostility to careful theology – they indeed wither under secular criticism and liberalize or die.

    So the two basic alternatives are to maintain faith by social immersion and repetition with an extremist black and white view of all substantive questions – the precise strategy adopted by Luther and Calvin when faced with the same challenges five hundred years ago – or to build a supporting theological superstructure – that does not merely apologize for, but actually sustain the faith and its applicability to the questions of modern life.

    The Catholics have chosen the latter strategy, and they are still flourishing – the Protestants likewise realize their weakness have have been moving in the direction of their roots for nearly a century, and are now facing anew the intellectual and theological challenges of their particular brand of orthodoxy.

    Now some have suggested the recent LDS trend towards “neo-orthodoxy” has been motivated from similar historical factors – notably the dissolution of liberal Protestantism in the twentieth century – that fearing the same consequence LDS scholars not only went back to their relatively liberal (especially by Protestant standards) roots, but beyond, adopting Protestant fundamentalist attitudes by osmosis. Returning to the scriptures is great, of course, discarding the “liberal” theological heritage of Smith, the brothers Pratt, Young, and so on is not. It is too much like despising one’s birthright.

    Classical Mormonism is not “liberal” by today’s standards, but it is a far sight more liberal than the certainties of total depravity and original sin espoused by conservative Protestantism. It is also much more pro-rational, pro-common sense and counter-fideist than the Protestants, as the similar attitude we seem to have adopted in the past few decades. The Protestant attitudes on all these subjects were regularly ridiculed by Joseph Smith and his LDS contemporaries. An incomprehensible God? Hardly. Classical Mormonism took the position that the fundamentals of theology were not only comprehensible, they were a matter of common sense. The richness of Mormon thought – the richness many so much despise today – is due to public, intellectual exploration of the logical consequences of basic Gospel principles. Now some of that was definitely on the excessively speculative side, but we cannot fault them for trying.

    Today we have much better logical and analytical tools for keeping theological discourse in line – many of them developed by Catholic scholars over the process of centuries, many of them the result of modern investigations in logic, language, and metaphysics.

    In general, history has shown that in general, that reason from a foundation of doubt is truly a destructive force, while reason from a foundation of faith sustains and maintains it. One cannot, of course, transfer the results of the first manner of scholarship uncritically into the second. Atheist academia has very little to say about the merits of most theological propositions. There needs to be a scholastic pursuit of such questions from a foundation of faith to stem the secularist tide over all things religious. Otherwise religion risks further marginalization to an increasingly ridiculed and obscure corner of contemporary civilization.

  49. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 3:59 pm


    Can’t speak much to specifically The Church of Jesus Christ scripts, e./g. not having given the BoM it an uh involved-ly intellectual or even a skeptical glance since my frosh year of high school seminary; BUT verses of the bible, upon closest examination, can serve as INCARNATIONAL — to use Faulconer’s term — holy writ to open doors to the most mystical of understandings. Parsing Heidegger, whoever that is, Faulconer says

    “…The specialized [woldview] required of science…is only a problem if scientists – OR MORE OFTEN THOSE WHO IDOLIZE SCIENCE BECAUSE THEY KNOW TOO LITTLE OF IT – forget that such a specialized [worldview] is not the only…the best…the final one”

    — And the fact is that those who read popularizations of the deepest speculations in physics and cosmology — Laughs — find that actually the seemingly staid ground as folks who ignorantly merely idolize science stand on to be convulsed by the most seismic of waves! And I’d intuit a parallel to the phenomenon of there being those wishing to deliver McConkie-esque “last word” exegeses of scripture; where such formulations are more based upon an idolization of the fact of their being modern Revelation than upon the aggregate realities of the Incarnations of truth —

  50. May 14, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    It’s interesting to me how often members of the church seem to equate “theology” with “abstract speculation.” I’ve been doing graduate work in academic theology for five years now, and in my experience it’s not about calculating the miles to Kolob (so to speak); it’s about making sense of faith in the context of the world in which we live. Reading the works of great theologians of other traditions has been tremendously enriching to my own faith, and I’ve often wished that we had more of that kind of thing in the LDS church.

  51. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    Kimball, Science does not have a monopoly on rationality – indeed in general it is the only field that works moderately well from a foundation of doubt (with a few basic assumptions thrown in).

    Classical Mormonism takes a rather skeptical view of mysticism. Joseph Smith said that the motions of the spirit divorced from intellect were of no value – and ridiculed the Shakers in that regard.

    Think about it. What is the Spirit good for? For mind blowing experiences like some sort of drug induced high? Simply to instill a sense of reverence and piety? On the contrary – the primary purpose of the Spirit is to testify of *all* truth – not just the truths mysteriously made aware to ones ecclesiastical superior – but the truth regarding all things – including the true principles of the “secular” world as well as the theological bridge thereto.

    Joseph Smith said that “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas”

    Now realistically, how often does one feel “pure intelligence” or “sudden strokes of ideas” without studying things out in ones mind first? Is one supposed to understand the scriptures without pondering them? A mind without reason is a barren vessel to the Spirit – one where spiritual impressions are little more than fuzzy feelings of evanescent ambiguity.

  52. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 14, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    On the contrary – the primary purpose of the Spirit is to testify of *all* truth

    Mark, this is what I have been driving at.

  53. May 14, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    m&m (#44): Sorry for misinterpreting your post, seems we agree that scholarly theological thinking has merit, but probably not much place at church.

    I think the Skinner (he’s a BYU prof., right?) suggests that we shouldn’t philosophize about anything beyond what the scriptures make clear. But I think theological thinking requires this (which another reason I don’t think it’s appropriate at church).

    Like Lynnette and others, I hope to see lots of good Mormon theological thinking develoop, I just expect it to come through organizations like SMPT that are independent of Church leadership and administration, and I think this independence is a good thing and allows ideas to compete in more of a free market, competitive way than if the Church were more directly involved. But now I’m just repeating myself….

  54. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    I agree with Robert – my point is simply that we need to expunge ourselves of a proto-Lutheran hostility to all things intellectual for the work of organizations like SMPT to flourish. We should quit thinking merely in terms of the way things are and more in terms of the way they should be.

  55. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Ah, to the contrary, Mark! As — while at Nauvoo, Joseph & company were mystics extraordinaire!

  56. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    (refering, non linearly, back to his post 51)

  57. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    Mystics, yes – but extremely rational ones – more like the Illuminati than the adherents of Hermes Trismegistus. We know of course that early Mormons echoed certain aspects of the “magic world view” – but to a much greater degree than the Masons the esoteric elements were reduced to a position of support for a comphrensive vision of the eternities. How much is or ever was truly mysterious in Mormonism? Spiritual yes, hermetic no.

    The dominant trend in Mormonisms first century was always the common sense rationalization of gospel principles that the Protestants had mystified – the idea of God as a mystery was ridiculed – even in sacred liturgy. Classical Mormonism is spiritualistic yes – but it is one of the least obscurantist theologies ever developed – in marked contrast to the Eastern mysticisms and many of the Western. The role of Spirit itself was defined in rationalist and realist terms – a testifier of truth, a promoter of pure intelligence. Much less of the now dominant fuzzy feely perspective.

  58. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Perhaps the nearest rationalist mysticism was that of Emmanuel Swedenborg and his followers. However if one compares the teachings of Swedenborg with even the most mystical elements of Mormonism – the latter are rooted to a much greater degree in a rational realist interpretation of the scriptures. Symbolic mystification after the manner of the Kabbalah or the Swedenborgians or the Rosicrucians had a relatively minor influence on Mormon theology and practice – it is more like Joseph Smith adapted some of their symbols to serve in-the-world practical ends of establishing a Zion society, a heaven here on earth – the precise opposite of most mystics for whom in-the-world pragmatism is antithema.

  59. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 7:16 pm

    Mark this is all fine & good however my generic MYSTIC simply means metaphysical! Turns palms up, raises eyebrows, smiles

  60. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 7:55 pm

    Joseph and the Nauvoo metaphyscians — as I add for merely rhetorical effect — LIVED IN A ROBUST time.

    Where a community of loyal followers sometimes shealded one from certain legal excesses:

    . . . A cap explodes outside some parlor’s widow and a ball plunges, although not fatally, somewhere or another into the body of governor Boggs! Then, later, the charismatic, illiterate O. P. Rockwell, accused of the crime, reputedly turns himself in to the appropriate magistrate yet, in a presumption of his innocence, is freed due lack of evidence. Though mister Rockwell allows his fellow partisans to infer otherwise.

    (Oh well — anyway — enough of this scene . . . [I vaguely recall an old, old 1950s maybe historically set movie which included a scene where some apparently poorly armed and drilled Illinois Mormons are shot out of trees. Forget the name of it though.] . . . which no matter how I draw it will always remain somewhat a caricature.) Anyway my point is — And well as Ellen DeGeneres would say, I do have one lol — that, if Fawn pitched to the execs a storyline of Elmer Gantry meets Mark Hoffman, the one I’d pitch would be C. Casten~eda meets E. Swedenborg.

  61. Mark Butler (II)
    May 14, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    Mysticism is one of those words that has no solid denotation, unfortunately. Some people (usually reductionist rationalists) use it as a synonym for “spiritual” – because they believe the idea of a “ghost in the machine” to be absurd. Others use it largely as a synonym for “occult” or “hidden”. Since it invariably carries a negative connotation these days, even in most religious contexts, I try to avoid it.

    As Joseph Smith said the Spirit is a revealer of truth, not of confusion. Far too many mystics cannot elaborate their own beliefs, and yet act as if some sort of wisdom is being made manifest. I think irrational wisdom is about as sensical as immaterial matter. Beyond the sense of comfort and love; or reverence and piety the role of the Spirit is to manifest the truth according to our understanding – not just to give us a “rush” or blow our minds away with utter contradiction.

    The occult is such dangerous ground to trod because reason is out the door – more than anywhere else (except perhaps “post-modern” literary theory) anything goes. Umberto Eco said that semantics consisted of all the means available to lie. If logical consistency is out the window, contradiction is exalted and the distinction between light and darkness, good and evil, and beauty and horror evaporates. Mysticism in the modern world truly is the devil’s playground.

  62. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    |[(OK, Mark: . . . . Mysticism is art, and an expression of sensation, affect, experience, belief, that one person relates to or resonates with leaves another cold. Which — if ya kin parse it — is merely my way of accomodating both my sincere belief in the value of religion and generic mysticism with your finding examples of it not to your liking. But I’m not even wanting to argue that point: It’s not that important to me. But what I do want to emphasize is that the bible is a window to thought, since it’s an ancient library of extremely intelligent people’s most sincerest and deepest ideas about the cosmos and about man and ideas and everything else under the sun. In other words, people who debunk religion, saying, “Bah! humbug!” close their minds and eyes to vistas seen by the countess generations of their intelligent and perceptive cultural forebears. Yo? lol. – klh)]|

  63. May 14, 2006 at 8:38 pm

    Mark (#61): What’s your take on the criticisms that modern (Continental) philosophy has made about the limits of rational philosophy? Do you disagree with these criticisms, or are your criticisms just directed toward less philosophical thinking?

    Also, I quite like reading, for example, the Tao Te Ching, b/c it suggests truths in a way that is counter-intuitive to typical rational thinking. But I think it makes me think harder and more carefully about such issues, not just embrace an irrational/mystical view….

  64. May 14, 2006 at 9:24 pm

    ed: Or, say someone name “Geoff� decides to produce a manual where he includes quotes from some 19th century authorities suggesting some crazy ideas about Adam or the premortal existence or something.

    Nyuk, nyuk nyuk!

    Lay off of Brother Biddulph, Ed.

  65. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Mark: Of course I self-identify as U/U. So I’m gonna point out that generally
    someone’s OWN mysticisms .=. good
    & all OTHERS’ .=. bad.

    Tho I need to restudy it, isn’t the Tao some communities’ collection of aphorisms which then came to serve as a sort of canonical counter weight to the those formulated within the school of Confucius?

    E./g. the altruistic Virtue of generosity (/avoiding the averice of greed) in the Tao (-Te) is, in part, reflected in aphorisms which would shade merchandizing of goods as something darkly nefarious — a common enough thing in early, traditional literatures (much as we sometimes look askance at the excesses of bond traders/ speculators today). But look at Korea (whose flag is blazoned with Taoist symbols) — Which has gone from being a peasant culture (which, according to the most literalist reading of the Tao, is something “bad”?) to one patterned after modern Western mercantilism.

    Still, as I sit here in my furnished attic within my friends’ most beautiful house exaggeratedly but a stone’s throw away from the might Hudson, I can vibe on being satisfied in my status of nouveau peasantry ( . . . combined as it is, of course, with my life of relative leisure!), and feel “good”/ virtous ‘caus I’m somehow vaguely in tune with the Tao. Right? Sure, such a feeling or sense is irrational. But it chimes in with a lot of universals, with a lot of important archetypes in the psychology of the individual as (s)he senses h(er)is relationship to the society (s)he lives in!

  66. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 14, 2006 at 9:42 pm

    (Oops! I mean traditrional Taoists would say: peasant culture = “good”!)

  67. el_godofredo
    May 14, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    Sarah (re #4) Actually, I remember that when I was a kid, I understood that Potiphar’s wife was asking him to do something bad with her. How could I tell? Because she was asking him to “lie” with her. I thought she was telling him to say something that wasn’t true. Obviously the Hebrew has the very overt sexual connotation, but I think that that scripture has an interesting double entendre in English, that actually helps understand the meaning of the scripture even better. She was asking him to “lie”, to be untrue.

  68. Mark Butler (II)
    May 15, 2006 at 2:54 am

    Robert (#63), Many of the continental philosophers, notably Derrida are very clever – and there is much we can learn from them. However, language isn’t nearly as ambiguous as Saussure or Derrida would have one believe. If it were, learning a new language would be impossible – the meaning of a text is not arbitrary, to an audience it is statistically distributed to be sure, and subject to reader projection, and often purposefully vague, but not arbitrary. My perception is that Derrida has set up classical Aristotelian logic as a straw man and then proceeded to tear it doown by showing its limitations. Now even if such logic is the lingua franca of Western Civilization, the form Aristotle espoused is now hundreds of years out of date. Scientists, among others have more than amply sophisticated modes of analytical thinking, language, and logic that are not subject to the easy criticisms of conventional Greek thought.

    To give a very modern example, it is known that a two valued bivalent logic is unstable, e.g. if one assumes a contradiction by mistake, one can proceed to prove anything. As it turns out there are ways to fix that using three valued or continuously valued logical systems.

    Another very common problem is the Greek inherited tendency to assume that all concepts are unitary or simple – an assumption that leads to serious errors because the semantics of actual concepts are as sophisticated as the sum total of the structure of all of both their real and potential referents. But since common language trades in relations between concepts of enormously rich semantics, any sort of rigorous analysis requires extraordinary care to be taken. And that point of course, is the primary motivation for analytical philosophy.

    There is a lot of continental philosophy that has great merit on its own terms – but if you want to debunk scientific rationality, it is requisite to do it analytically rather than clever sniping from the sidelines. There are interesting questions of scientific philosophy of course, and indeed some approaches that are equally silly – not because the questions they address are not profound, but the typical absurdity that results whenever one starts from a premise of universal doubt and isn’t willing to posit the most minimal of assumptions.

  69. Mark Butler (II)
    May 15, 2006 at 3:39 am

    Kimball, It is well known that Korea historically has taken Confucianism more seriously than China itself. Confucianism is primarily an ethical system based on inter-personal obligation and duty – the philosophy promulgated and taught by the civil service of China and Korea. It has some mystical and religious elements – notably a form of ancestor worship and a touch of geomancy. Its ethics are in many ways much like Christianity, which no doubt contributed to Korea’s enthusiastic reception of mostly Protestant Christian missionaries. However, Confucianist philosophy is generally (for obvious reasons) heavily pragmatic and rational, a marked contrast to Buddhism and Taoism.

    Now Taoism is unusual, because unlike Buddhism or Confucianism it doesn’t really teach any fundamental moral precepts or commandments – instead it is kind of a fatalist, relativist, go-with-the-flow quasi-animist mysticism – definitely the sort of mysticism that has no problem with logical contradictions indeed feels that they are best left unsolved. The Tao – which ironically seems much unlike Korea despite its presence on the flag has two opposite principles fading into each other – the “male”/positive/good side and the “female”/negative/evil side – generally used to promote a resignation to life – bend with the wind, but don’t break – good years will be followed by bad years and then good again – No need to bend over backwards or stick out ones neck – not exactly a very moralistic philosophy at all – almost the contrary, at least at first.

    If one considers the life of a peasant in an era of shifting alliances and endless warfare, that sort of resignation makes a lot of sense, but it is hardly a serious critique of language and rationality. It is worth noting that later Taoist scholars were sensitive to some of these criticisms and developed a stronger moral element.

    Fritjof Capra wrote a well known book called the Tao of Physics that drew analogies between quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy – this preference for flow, wind, and spirit in Eastern philosophy is interesting. If I had a *lot* of spare time on my hands I would learn Chinese and pursue the question further.

    However it is worth noting that quantum mechanics can be expressed perfectly well using analytical mathematics, even if it doesn’t map to a simple Aristotelian view of the world. The anti-realist philosophical spin that some physicists like to associate with quantum mechanics has been shown to be avoidable.

  70. Adam Greenwood
    May 15, 2006 at 8:09 am

    “BYU professors could hire themselves out as correlation consultants, spotting potential trouble spots for authors prior to submitting their documents for review. Second, one might try a devolution of the correlation function. There is an analogy here to the Catholic Church, where a local diocese (or perhaps an arch-diocese) has the authority to review work and issue a “nihil obstat,â€? declaring that the work is without doctrinal or moral error”

    Your idea is intriguing, but this particular part of it could be dangerous. The nihil obstat has been bad for the Catholic Church, as best as I can tell, because it tends to suggest that anything that’s been approved anywhere is generally acceptable. But this would be far preferable to giving BYU professors an increased role in setting the doctrinal and theological tone of the church. Ugh.

  71. May 15, 2006 at 11:09 am

    “Reading the works of great theologians of other traditions has been tremendously enriching to my own faith, and I’ve often wished that we had more of that kind of thing in the LDS church.”

    Then write it. How many intellectuals get to be in on the ground floor for a major new religion. As near as I can tell, Ibn Sina and Al-Farabbi were the last scholars who had this kind of an opprotunity.

  72. May 15, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    Kimball (#65): The origins of the Tao Te Ching are unclear—I think some scholars still claim that it was mostly written by Lao Tsu, though I think more scholars argue it is more a compilation of aphorisms.

    I think aphorisms are interesting and relevant to this threadjack (even threadjacks have rules of protocol…). Aphorisms seem to capture truths that are widely accepted and understood, but not necessarily easy to formalize into a rational, systematic theology. So although I think there is value in thinking about rational, systematic theology, I’m not convinced by Mark’s arguments that this is the most fruitful approach toward understanding religous truth. After all, I think Christ’s teachings are better characterized as profound aphorisms than systematic theological discourses. Futhermore, I the case can be made that as philosophy and theology have become more specialized and scholastic, they have also become less directly relevant to the average person.

    The other fundamental reservation I have with rational theology is that I don’t see how it adequately captures concepts like love, patience, hope, etc. I don’t think these concepts are naturally understood in rational systematic theological terms, and I think there’s a fundamental danger in trying to interpret these concepts in that way.

    But I’m just blowing smoke at this point, I really haven’t studied theology or philosophy enough to back up these claims or even cite those who’ve thought about these issues much more carefully. But I am fascinated by these issues and would love some hints on where a novice like me could best get a foothold into this area of study.

  73. Mark Butler
    May 15, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Robert (#72), The approaches of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the brothers Pratt, and the Fielding Smiths are more than systematic enough. Practically any form of positive theology rather than a primarily negative theology.

    Now of course, theology always carries the danger of being improperly totalizing or systematic – it is like Joseph Smith said – if you start out wrong, it is very hard to get right. Augustinian theology has fundamental assumptions (notably original sin) which we reject. So does much of scholastic theology – the classic example of a totalizing systematic theology is that of John Calvin.

    A totalizing negative theology can be just as dangerous though, and when evaluating the merits of normal (i.e. positive) theology we should consider the consequences of not doing it at all, or doing it poorly – ecclesiastical history, including LDS history, is full of examples.

    The worst thing that can happen to a theology is to be creed-ified before its time. Some of these things take hundreds of years to for their implications to become fully apparent. They often have great pragmatic (e.g. faith strengthening) value in the meantime, at least if not taken in black and white terms.

    Everyday members hunger for answers to a variety of not obviously deep / mysterious gospel questions, and in the absence of well balanced, peer reviewed, adequately diverse theology – we end up “doctrinalizing” the often speculative opinions of mostly past authority figures. Even very good theology should be considered tentative, and not some sort of finalizing revelation, no matter who it is done by, unless there is an overwhelming consensus that it merits inclusion in the canon.

    In other words, someone who disagrees with the *logic* or non-canonical assumptions of a past authority (say BRM or JFS) should not be accused of faithlessness.

    We speak of continuing revelation, but in the ordinary semantics of the terms the mutability of Church doctrine, like the doctrine of any church, indicates that on very many questions what we have is continuing inspiration. If there is a good, faithful, persuasive argument that some non-canonical doctrine or policy of the past has serious problems, that should be able to be addressed in open discourse, in the manner of other denominations, without the suggestion that one thinks the doctrine or policy formation process lacks inspiration or due consideration.

    Some say that we do not want BYU or CES to have an undue influence on the doctrines and policies of the Church. I believe the effect would be the opposite to, due to increased transparency of the process. In recent decades, it appears that CES does have a strong influence on the doctrine of the Church, but that this influence is largely through internal channels, not through the books or papers that anyone actually publishes. I believe that such channelization has a great tendency to perpetuate the theological mistakes of the past, rather than to resolve them, especially due to the way we judge theology (reasoning about the gospel) rather more based on authority than merit.

    No author should pretend to revelation for the whole Church – but reason properly applied is the great leveller – there is no reason why the rank or position of an author should have anything to do with the merit of careful theological scholarship established from a foundation of faith.

    The wonderful thing about right reason is precisely that it is required to be logically consistent – that means that the Holy Ghost can inspire and confirm the work of rational scholarship without upsetting the apple cart – revelation of baseline fundamentals to an ordinary scholar is contrary to the economy of heaven, because the authority of revelation can only be established by faith – multiple revelatory authorities on the same topic (especially in the same domain) is a prescription for disorder and confusion.

    But theology is necessarily tentative, and can be objectively evaluated on its own merits – the reason why it can be objectively evaluated are the laws of logical consistency themselves. If you dispense with consistency or dispose of the law of non contradiction, theology is worthless – it becomes a matter of mysticism, more suited to spreading darkness than light.

    If you dispose of the principles of logical derivation in favor of raw assertion, one moves into the category of things that require revelation, not inspiration to confirm. So to a great degree, the idea of “irrational theology” is an oxymoron – to be taken on a basis other than faith, theology must necessarily be rational. The domain of faith is revelation, not logic.

    So a proper balance has fundamental revelation, e.g. the canon or the Proclamation, or key decisions of ecclesiastical administration, established and promulgated as matters of faith. Then we have authoritative commentary, such as general conference talks and the official publications of the Church, established with a balance of faith and reason. And finally we have the work of non-authoritative scholars, or authority figures writing under their own auspicies, whose work should be judged based on largely rational merit alone – when clear and convincing, we can assume inspiration, but not the other way around.

  74. Mark Butler
    May 15, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    By the way, the problem with the Tao Te Ching is it is more a negative philosophy, rather than a positive philosohy – i.e. it does not have much of overarching moral, scholarly, or metaphysical theme about truth, goodness, or beauty. It’s theme is much more in the manner of urbane cynicism and skepticism about everything – what is not true, what is not reliable, the general pointlessness of dedication – something like Ecclesiastes minus the monotheism. Proverbs is a systematic theology by contrast. The Tao Te Ching is overwhelmingly non-rational and non-moralistic – pre-scholastic, arguably even pre-religious.

  75. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 15, 2006 at 11:52 pm

    I just turned fifty and, as I remember, just the way the Prophet David O. LOOKED was inspiring: a man of extraordinary ability, extraordinary perception who would have commanded respect in just about any walk of life he found himself. But how McKay spoke was in a learned, oratorical style of discourse that was completely incomprehensible to a child like myself. But there was one little snippet McKay had mentioned that got repeated a thousand times by my family and at church.

    No success can compensate for failure in the home.

    I was on my mission, and therefore less impressionable, when the prophet Spencer W. Kimball was running things. But one thing I recall his having said was something along the lines of

    We must lengthen our stride.

    So, people discussing gospel principles might come to say, “Well, brother, remember that no success compensates for failure in the home.”

    And the person he is talking with, sometime later in the conversation says some other authoritative aphorism whose rejoinder (after it’s setup of “Blah blah . . . ,” is “We must lengthen our stride.”

    Now lets posit that this scenario is occuring within a time when writing is possessed by only a few. So a book gets compiled entitled “Choose the Right.” And its first two verses are 1 No sucess blah blah 2 Blah blah , we must lengthen our stride.
    Fact is, Tao Te means “THE practice of virtue” and the words of this (primarily important) Text were thought to be Incarnational and its author Lao was thought to materially embody this Virtue and Incarnation.

  76. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 12:31 am

    So (Mark) what I’m saying is that a reading of the Tao Te’s tenor as to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” is anomalous.

    And (Robert) I’m definately on your page.

  77. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 12:38 am

    (Well, I take that back, since I suppose that adopting a truly comprehensive regimen of Virtue would entail engaging in life in a way that could be termed as, yes, “dropping out” of its rat race.)

  78. Mark Butler
    May 16, 2006 at 1:01 am

    Kimball, Tao means “the way”, the same Chinese character is used for “road” or “path”. The translation as “virtue” is anomalous – “doctrine” would be a more accurate translation.

    My point is Taoism, as originally documented by Lao Tzu does not have much of a moral program – no analysis of duty or benevolence, no set of cardinal commandments, not even a set of principles. It advocated virtue in abstract, but gave no means for determining what virtue was except mysticism. Almost the exact opposite of Confucianism. When I say a “negative” program, I do not mean an advocacy of evil, but rather a hostility to positive statements and logical arguments in favor of some sort of mind meld with the universe approach to epistemology. Of course the ideal of pure dumbfoundedness is hard to propagate, so some sort of moral discourse and proverbial wisdom fills the cracks, even if there are no guiding principles, in the same manner that a modern anti-realist, anti-logicist, anti-foundationalist actually manages to write a book that other people can read.

  79. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 1:44 am

    “(De`) has the approximate English equivalent of “virtue” or “righteousness” [ . . . ] in the sense of a moral virtue [ . . . ] .” — WIKIPEDIA

    Scholars speculatively note that the rites performed by the cultural strain which ended up producing the Tao Te seem to be from the reagon of the FORMER ruling dynasty, while Confucius was fully associated with the rites of the CURRENT dynasty. So then, while Confu was confidently & optimistically operating in the budding strain of culture in building his doctrine, his deuteronomy , Lao on the other hand was producing his ecclesiastes through his sophisticatedly examining contradictions/ resolving paradoxes in a counter-strain of culture whose had already been mostly picked.

  80. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 1:47 am


  81. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 1:50 am

    Mark: It’s actuall Ching that means teaching/ doctrine.

  82. Mark Butler
    May 16, 2006 at 2:08 am

    Kimball, You consider Wikipedia an authoritative source? I used the Martin-Lee-Chang Korean English dictionary as a backup to my knowledge of Korean – using the Korean semantics is not ideal, but the Chinese characters are the same, the word is the same, the pronunciation is similar, and the semantics are virtually identical. In Korean “Tao” is pronounced like “dough”, except a little bit harder on the “d”. “Te” is prounounced “T’ae”, as in “great”. So the “Tao Te” is the “Great Way” or “Great Doctrine”. (Why it was not named “Te Tao”, with the modifier in front lile most other Chinese compound nouns is a question I would like an answer to).

    The verb for proselyte in Korean is Chon-Do ha da. “Chon” uses the Chinese character for propagate or promulgate, and “Do” (prounounced “dough”) is the same as “Tao”, or “the Way”. So “Chon-do ha da” means “to spread the Way”. or “propagate the the doctrine”.

  83. Mark Butler
    May 16, 2006 at 2:33 am

    Kimball, the original title of the book did not have “ching” in it. The character for “ching” means “classic” or “canon” – it was officially added to recognize it as part of the canon of the Tang dynasty, several centuries later.

    It is worth noting that the Korean pronunciation of the same character is “kyong” as in “kyong jon”, the word for scripture.

  84. Mark Butler
    May 16, 2006 at 3:10 am

    I made a mistake on the chinese character for “Te” – it is not the one that means “great” it is one that does mean virtue or righteousness. So not the “Great Way”, but the “Way of Righteousness”.

    The Korean pronunciation of this second character is “dok”, as in “dok su rop da” (virtuous or respectable). “Tao Te” is the same as “Do dok”, the Korean world for morality.

    That translation is a little ironic from a Western perspective, for reasons I have mentioned above. The word “morality” is generally use to describe a bivalent, dialectical and prescriptive ethics in a Western context, where Taoism promotes a mystical detachment and a minimization of action.

  85. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 3:20 am

    It’s obvious you’re absolutely brilliant, Mark. But also just a tad stubborn too? (laughs. Then takes a deep breath, then suddenly jerks aside the head): Howehvah I first read circa 1973 how /te/ means virtue — and /tao/, of course, THE avenue thereunto. And now at, it says
    – – –
    de` –> [etymology|*|: an ideogram meaning] Moral [with a phonetic meaning] steps. [Synonyms] virtue, righteousness
    |[*( uses the traditional Chinese-characters etymologies, which of course may or may not be those favored by current research.)]|

  86. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 3:36 am

    Mark, to a Mormon such as yourself, theologically ba`al means Lucifer whereas to a Unitarian Universalist such as me, ba`al means god. Yet to someone who might wish to make a scholarly study of Mesopotamian religion — and in order, of course, ultimately to inform their own The Church of Jesus Christ convictions — will allow themselves to CONDITIONALLY be able to look at Ba`al as MEANING in a sense “god” if not actually in all senses BEING God.

  87. Mark Butler
    May 16, 2006 at 3:37 am

    Thanks for the compliment, Kimball. I agree with you here – Wikipedia was right, you were right, and I made a mistake. I generally only know Korean pronunciations for Chinese characters, so I make improperly hasty translations sometimes. Looking up character by radical or some other non-phonetic means is rather time consuming, once you find the original Chinese to begin with. I usually try to make an identification by other methods, and then confirm it.

  88. Mark Butler
    May 16, 2006 at 3:59 am

    Yes. However in Hebrew the second part of “Baal” or “el” means “god”, as in “elohim” – gods, or “El Elyon” The most high God.

    “Ba al” literally means “lord” or “possessor”. So etymologically speaking it is not such a bad name, it was just the name given to a secondary Semitic deity of the time.

    The word translated as Lucifer appears only one place in the Old Testament – Isaiah 14:12. The Hebrew original is “helel” which means “morning star” (Venus), or “to shine brightly” or “give praise” – as in “Hallelujah”.

  89. queuno
    May 16, 2006 at 11:42 am

    It’s called “outsourcing” or (in the case of Latin America or Europe) “offshoring”. Phrase it in those terms and you’ll have no trouble convincing the Brethren to get rid of the Curriculum Department.

  90. MDKI
    May 16, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    (#69) Now Taoism is unusual, because unlike Buddhism or Confucianism it doesn’t really teach any fundamental moral precepts or commandments – instead it is kind of a fatalist, relativist, go-with-the-flow quasi-animist mysticism – definitely the sort of mysticism that has no problem with logical contradictions indeed feels that they are best left unsolved. The Tao – which ironically seems much unlike Korea despite its presence on the flag has two opposite principles fading into each other – the “maleâ€?/positive/good side and the “femaleâ€?/negative/evil side – generally used to promote a resignation to life – bend with the wind, but don’t break – good years will be followed by bad years and then good again – No need to bend over backwards or stick out ones neck – not exactly a very moralistic philosophy at all – almost the contrary, at least at first.

    IMO, this is a lopsided reading of Daoism in general and the Dao De Jing in particular (as that seems to be the text based on the other posts chosen as the primary representation of “Daoism�). The fatalist/nihilist/any thing goes interpretation seems to be common place where Western categories are asserted on an Eastern context. The notion of Chinese religious thought as “resignation to life� stem from Weberian interpretations of Chinese religion as “adjustment to the world�, and Weber’s explanation as to why the “protestant ethic� was non-existent in China’s “tensionless� world. Most scholars have abandoned this in light of Asia’s economic growth the past 30 years.

    The symbols of Yin and Yang, along with the Bagua which appear on the Korean flag stem from a text called the Yi Jing (the Book of Change), which is actually one of the five “Confucian� classics. “Daoists� of course utilize the text as well, but the fact that both religions employ it in much the same way sheds light on the larger issue of Western assumptions between division and membership in “religions�. The line between Confucian and Daoist is actually much harder to draw. You find Confucius having a major role in the Daoist text “Zhuangzi�, stories of Confucius and Laozi visiting each other, the recent Guodian find showing a Dao De Jing less antagonistic to “Confucian� values etc.

    Anyway, point being, to label Confucianism as “rational� and Daoism as “irrational�, Confucianism as “moralistic� and Daoism as “non-moral� is a brash oversimplification of the Chinese tradition. The attack of the Dao De Jing is not on rationality and morality per se, but is against a certain type of rationality and morality. The thrust of the text is to move toward a spontaneity (zi ran) that has been corrupted by artifice and effort in the wrong direction. Most of the logical contradictions can be read as attempts to deconstruct what the author sees as artificial and detrimental to the flourishing of humanity. All of this is rooted in a moral cosmos where right and wrong exist, thus the notion of spontaneity is not is not necessarily relativistic.

    To make a long story short, I think Daoism and the Dao De Jing in particular has more “legs� than you give it credit for. Its style of “negative theology� could positively impact members of the church and do more than simply “blow our minds away with utter contradiction.�

  91. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 16, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Buddhism quarrelled with Taoism, the latter having said the former were upstarts, were mixers with things not of heaven, not of china. When Buddhism got the upper hand, just like the feds would have done with Woodruff, many taoist monasteries were disenfranchised, property confiscated, turned into buddhist ones.

    Which is really too bad ‘caus the toaist teachings developed among officiators of a rites of the going all the way back to the son of heaven/ emperor of the famous Zhou dynasty.

    After the Zhou was the warring states times, when tao te ching, the anelects of confucius, mo tzu, and han fe tzu were all written.

    Han Fe is all about this new phenomenon of real codifications of law. And he must critique Confucian moral absolutes in the service of pragmatism, but must do so in a way as to find moral favor with people.

    So who does he quote? Why, minister Han Fe quotes a certain, philosophically mature collector of aphorisms having to do with sophisticated and nuanced applications of right and virtue in kingship; namely, Han Fe Tzu quotes Lao Tzu!

    And this is the entry point for Lao Tzu into the canon. So we Westerners look at this cannon and, like — Mark does (and not untruthfully) see it to contain these authoritatively expressed Truths — ahem —
    Teacher Lao says, “A good king rules like the sound of one hand clapping”! lol (well, actually, just as correctly something characterized as proverbs-plus-ecclesiastes).
    The crystalization of what teacher Confu says is thus: “The fruits of whether a king enjoys the heavenly mandate is whether his subjects engage in righteousness.”
    Teacher “Mo” (snicker. Sorry. auto-joke) says, “A virtuous king will always act unselfishly and meekly.” (As Mo taught a paradigm built upon pure Love.)
    & teacher Han Fe says: “By very definition, whatever an effectively powerful king will do and however he will rule will be virtuous, since he enjoys the heavenly mandate as lawgiver.
    – – –
    “. . . And” (Han Fe says) “as the scriptural authority for my position, I relate that ‘the old, wise teacher’ [Note: Which is what Lao Tzu means.] says . . . .” [Insert here appropriate, mystical, nuanced aphorism here telling how sometimes a stupid application of false virue isn’t virtue at all.]

  92. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 12:02 am

    Oh the epilogue is that the Han ended up setting up a new dynasty built upon the rational legalisms and realpolitik of (Han) Fe Tzu. But later Han “PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATIONS” were partisans of the other side of the isle, the Confucianists.

    (By analogy — original U.S. founding fathers: free-thinking Deists; but current presidents must ButNow presidents exemplify morality through a revival of more traditional strains of American religion.)

  93. Mark Butler
    May 17, 2006 at 1:23 am

    I am well aware that eventually Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were synthesized into the same tradition, and that there was no doubt a lot of cross polination before that.

    However, in my limited experience in Asian Studies I have never run across a Taoist document that would pass the Popper test – i.e. be falsifiable (or more properly speaking, since this is supposed to be a moral theory, be decidable). Karl Popper made the same criticism of Freudianism.

    Or more accurately speaking where is an early Taoist text that lays out any sort of decidable theory of right and wrong? What kind of things does it proscribe? What does is it recommend? What kind of act is definitely contrary to Taoism and why?

    All this New Age propaganda about how Eastern mysticism is not subjectable to the categories of Western thought is outright ridiculous.

    Western language has some negative tendencies, but it has been more than adequate to address some of the most subtle problems ever known. If a moral theory cannot provide an analysis of right and wrong it is worthless except as a cultural artifact – following traditions that one not only does not know the meaning of, but that never had a definite meaning in the first place. The Cargo Cult school of theology.

    Now Taoism is not that simple in practice, especially in terms of how it evolved over succeeding centuries, but philosophical Taoism is very much as I have described, in terms of its leading precepts of avoiding rationality, especially of the legalist variety, minimizing action, withdrawal from the world, meditation without thinking, gentle accomodationism, and so on.

    China in the sixth century B.C. was hardly unfamilar with logic and rationality by the way. How could Lao go out of his way to preach against something that did not have a real presence in Chinese culture? A century later Mozi wrote very respectable works on logic and inference.

  94. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 2:50 am

    I concede that Taoism didn’t get to have the Axial Age teacher Confucius to synthesize it’s scriptures. But the Taoist’s I’m sure eventually picked up the same through osmosis, anyway. Meanwhile, the philosophical aphorisms produced by the urbane Taoists is still very valuable (URBANE since philosophical Taoism being the product of of officiators of rites scholars see as having once were on the “ins” of governance, in the Zhou dynasty). And I suppose Canaan likewise didn’t get to have the Axial Age prophet Moses to synthesize HER religious precepts, either! Still, eventually the canaanite city of Jerusalem became the City of David and all that means. So: Is there anything instructive from developmental parallels? OK: let’s see.

    (A) Iron-age (um or is it bronze?), Canaanite culture rules over the Holy Land, enjoying centuries of urban sophistication.
    (B)Yet this culture is piece-by-pieces taken over by a newly emerging (stone aged?), pastoralist Israel — one led by the pragmatic David — who’d even acted as the general of Phillistine troops against king Saul.
    (C) Later prophets reform Israel’s religious practice to be more scripture-based. The Axial Age prophet Moses’ book is given mystical primacy and all of the later Deuteronomist prophets’ writings are produced.
    (D)Then in its final stage of expansion of Israel proper, the kingdom enfolds Canaanite Jerusalem into it’s rule under David. And under king Solomon, son of a Canaanite woman of great beauty and cunning, the “secular philosophy” -tinged books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, et cetera enter the canon. With, however, there having been fragments from these books to be found in ancient sources from other fertile-crescent cultures.

    (A’) Zhou dynasty practices rites. During warring states period, the offiators of such rites compile this tradition’s proverbs and philosophical examinations of wisdom.
    (B’) However, China is, piece by piece, eventually pulled togehter taken over by the Han, who’ve simultaneously have developed the pragmatic legalism of Han Fe.
    (C’) Yet despite the Han’s pragmatism, their religious culture has been becoming more and more scriptures based, with the Axial Age teacher Confucius’s work given supremacy.
    (D’) With philosophical Taoist quotes being quoted by famous secular-style philosopher/minister Han Fe, the book of these ancient Taoist philosophical aphorisms are introduced into China’s canon.

  95. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 2:56 am

    Although I guess the both the above C’s and D’s are better reversed?

  96. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 2:59 am

    Mark, you’d really value any run of the mill Chinese logician over the wonder and feeling of Chuang Tzu? Shakes head, smiling.

  97. Mark Butler
    May 17, 2006 at 3:36 am

    That is a hard question. Logic books are pretty barren – it is largely in application that analytical questions become interesting, at least to me. I majored in physics, but would never be able to stomach graduate study in pure mathematics.

    I imagine that I would enjoy Chuang Tzu’s writings if I made a serious study of them, at least as literature, probably more than any book on logic.

    However, I would no doubt enjoy a serious study of the classics of Confucian (moral) philosophy a great degree more. I believe Confucius should be given primary credit for the greatness of Chinese civilization – and Lao Tzu and Buddha for the color.

  98. MDKI
    May 17, 2006 at 8:59 am

    (#93) “Or more accurately speaking where is an early Taoist text that lays out any sort of decidable theory of right and wrong? What kind of things does it proscribe? What does is it recommend? What kind of act is definitely contrary to Taoism and why?

    All this New Age propaganda about how Eastern mysticism is not subjectable to the categories of Western thought is outright ridiculous.

    Western language has some negative tendencies, but it has been more than adequate to address some of the most subtle problems ever known. If a moral theory cannot provide an analysis of right and wrong it is worthless except as a cultural artifact – following traditions that one not only does not know the meaning of, but that never had a definite meaning in the first place. The Cargo Cult school of theology.”

    My problem is not so much with the ability of Western language to address the situation of the East as much as it is with the universal assumptions that many of those speaking in Western languages assert on the East. The critiques of Said (“Orientalism�), Asad (“Geneologies of Religion�), and Obeyesekere (“The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific�) are hardly “New Age propaganda�. In terms of Chinese religion, Lionel Jensen’s “Manufacturing Confucianism� raises the issue of “Confucianism� altogether being a Western construct. Scholars such as Michael Nylan refrain from even using the term. Personally the universalizability of Western categories, especially ‘religion’, is a serious issue. It comes to the forefront in discussions such as these where interpretations of what the “East� is, comes from sources constructed out of Western assumptions, such as those pointed out in the last post—since Max Weber has been so influential. It furthermore manifests it self where western universals are asserted as the criteria for usefulness. If it does not meet the criteria it’s “worthless except as a cultural artifact�.

    Nonetheless, the questions you raise are relevant to the situation since I do believe that early Daoist texts assert a decidable right and wrong. Take for instance, the example of Cook Ding in the third chapter of Zhuangzi. His skill is in following the natural pattern (tianli) of the cow in slicing the beef. He admits that at first he did not know how to do this. It took him three years to begin to see it, but now while the average butcher has to sharpen his knife once a month, he’s gone 19 years with his knife as sharp as ever. The reason is his ability to accord with the natural pattern of the beef. The argument is one of movement toward a naturalness, which in Cook Ding’s case took years to accomplish. Now, the point is, there is a clear right and wrong—it’s right to follow the natural pattern of things, and wrong to cut against the grain (so to speak). In this example there had to be concerted effort put forth to get to the point of realizing the natural pattern, so “non-action� is not necessarily complete passivity. Of course you could also argue that the realization of these natural patterns is a “mystic� experience, but in the case of Cook Ding there is a gradual realization through a certain kind of effort in which these patterns are understood. I believe this satisfies the call for decidability, but you could of course also push the question further by asking how one knows the natural pattern of a given thing (i.e. how does this escape the subjective interpretation of what is natural?), but my response here would be that Confucianism also faces the same epistemological critique, and so the issue is resolved in much the same way. Thus you should either share the affinity you have for “Confucianism�, or subject Confucianism to the same status as Daoism as the “color� and not the “greatness� of Chinese culture.

  99. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    I just got in, Mark, and I haven’t read your post above — or ESPECIALLY MDKl’s, either — tho I very much look forward to it! But on my drive home today I was sitting there regretting that I’d given up on my defense of Lao Tzu’s “revivalist” mission too readily?

    ‘Caus, sure, Lao Tzu does seem to say (without naming names and reading between the lines) that people have come along who’ve perverted the real Way through some merely surface virtue that’s dead at its core; but the genuine Path is but to instictively follow divine order of things. And I dare say that just ‘caus Confucius does names names, and gives pithy, real-life examples (and, as scholars have speculated, gives off the feel that the rites he’s associated with are at present more in the ascendency) doesn’t mean that Confucius was all by his lonesome self in the biz of the revival of true Virtues. And in fact, Christ’s SERMON ON THE MOUNT also mentions those who’ve overemphasized surface matters, neglecting the true inner spirit of Law and such paradoxes as that it’s the meek of this world who shall ultimately inherit it et cetera, yet it’s still as easy as pie for people to find seeming contradictions in Christ’s metaphysical & mystical admonishments to true righteousness too! (and if it wasn’t, all even lay Christian’s would have given all they had to the poor already, et “cee”!)

  100. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    Wow, MDLI — !

    A natural order of things is — (Ponders — ) Jim Faulconer in a thread nearby says he salts the water he simmers his veggies in. Is such cultural practices/wisdom natural?

    Or is what’s natural that which can be learned from nature itself, experientially, as your cited example from Chuang Tzu teaches.

    Yet aren’t the cultural practices and tricks as have been bequeathed to us from countless, past generations something that is culturally natural to us, too, in a sense? Hmm — Yet, how bout if somebody insists we must use the latest, expensive vegetable-cooking gadget? Couldn’t it also be sort of natural for us to feel ta wanna be the first on the block to get one, too?

    Or should we rest comfort in whatever ancient wisdom there is to simmer our veggies over a few sticks of kindling in our cast-iron wok?

    You know, I’ve sort of sensed there to be maybe something fishy about “Confucianism” being thought a docrinal sect rather than a body of literature. As, well, sure there were and still are temples and rites — ancestor worship and divination and necromancy on this one hand and then on the other a sort of devotional, I dunno, revivalist, explanatory, nebulous kind of Movement and its literature. Is Calvinism per se a religion? (Shudders, thinking you might not like trying to draw West-to-East parallels.)

  101. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    Re paralleling Canaan-versus-Irael to the warring states period in China:
    Note that this period of cultural ferment in China occured between the Zhou dynasty’s onset of “prehistoric,” early-written artifacts and the Han dynasty of actual history.

    Now over in the Holy Land, note that that the Torah was first written in the first-temple Hebrew script, and that at this time Hebrew was virtually identical in both its written and spoken forms to Canaanite/Phoenecian. Then note that the second-temple or “Square Hebrew” script — that is, the Aramaic/Babylonian script was only adopted to write classical Hebrew during the Captivity. So what the beginnings of biblical written-era history records is about how pastoralist Hebrews took over their urbane, Canaanite, cultural brethren and how thereafter a written, literature based/ strongly Scripturally-based religious paradigm is by degrees instituted. And in the Hebrew canon, note the urbane quality to its literature from its Solomonic wisdom on, in contrast to the more revivalist fare of the various prophets. ( — With the New Testament also mostly a prophetic literature — with its having been criticized by the sophisticated folks of its day due this fact, at least in part.) . . .

  102. Mark Butler
    May 17, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    Kimball, I don’t think Taoism is a bad thing – as a religion no doubt it is much better than nothing – There are quite a few good things you can pull out of it – pondering before action, for example.

    My point is simply a hostilty to decidable moral principles, in favor of a pre-post-modern skepticism, an anti-rational mysticism, and mediative withdrawal is not the kind of religion or philosophy of which great civilizations are made. The aesthetic sense in the manner of art, poetry, and music are usually the efflorescence of great civilizations founded on much more normative principles – law and order, architecture and engineering, commerce and trade, and most importantly a religion that prescribes moral duty and proper behavior.

    For those reasons, I look on Taoism as the aesthetic side dish and not the “meat” (rice actually) of Chinese civilization. Confucianism is the main dish. Of course Confucius does not deserve sole credit, he was just the leader.

  103. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 17, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks, nicely expressed sentiments, Mark. I shouldn’t write when I’m (right now) so tired! But, Mark — I suppose healthy skepticism can never really be the main dish, since, by definition, such skepticism is formulated in reaction to culture in a way more than being itself the cultural underpinnings.

    But then I think what we think of as Taoism is just some philosophical writings anyway — and is otherwise nothing culturally “monolithic” (as they say). And aside from so called Taoist philosophy, the existent Taoist religion or “rites” are perhaps no more exceptional than similar types of cultural things indiginous(?spelling) to scores of locations aroung the globe. (Blah blah I’m tired! lol)

    Anyway I just love your phrase “Pre-post modern skepticism.” Ah — and, in a way, that’s the rub huh! As some of us just love it!, while others of ya out there dislike the conclusions/ license those of us who love it take/draw from it?

  104. Mark Butler
    May 17, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    I don’t believe they should properly be called Taoist, indeed in Korea I knew them as Confucian, but I think Chinese ancestor “worship” which apparently predates both is a pretty healthy thing – one that has parallels in Christianity and most especially in Mormonism re the doctrine of sealing and the patriarchal order. Child-parent respect is transitive you see.

  105. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 18, 2006 at 12:18 am

    Well, Mark, I’ve read that there are indeed some pockets of specifically Taoist religionists of rites similar to those that are apparently labeled Confucianist — but I’m too tired to go the Adherents site to cite the estimate there of their number.

  106. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 18, 2006 at 12:56 am

    Couldn’t resist: references a source saying that although many Buddhist monasteries in KOREA were once long ago Taoist, there are essentially no specifically Taoists clergy in Korea (South) today. As for clergy at Confucianist organizations through, there are about 11,000 in South Korea (whenever this census data was collected).

    Meanwhile, oddly enough CHINA fairly recently has said it only has 3,000 Confucian clergy (so associated with China’s Emperors) — yet has 25,000 Taoist clergy and 200,000 Buddhist clergy.

  107. Mark Butler
    May 18, 2006 at 1:43 am

    Kimball, I am referring to Taoism in the post-Lao Tzu sense. Ancestor worship in China predates Lao Tzu at least a thousand years. It is also often identified with Confucianism rather than Taoism for obvious reasons.

    Now in Korea, traditions that pre-date Confucianism or Buddhism are generally known as Shamanism, not Taoism. The latter rarely merits a mention – even though Shamanism (“Mu”) and pre-philosophical Taoism are essentially identical.

    I do not doubt that many of Korea’s Buddhist temples were Taoist at some point – I think the two religions basically merged. The few Confucian “temples” (such as they are), are quite distinct – typically located near the seats of government, not off in some remote valley where Buddhist temples are often found.

    Confucian adopted rites of ancestor worship usually occur near mound shaped gravesites or in front of ceremonial tablets with the deceased names on them. The Confucian temple in Seoul has tablets for a pantheon of notable Confucian and neo-Confucian scholars.

    I am not sure that there are any full time Confucian “clergy” – Confucianism has alway been administered largely by the scholarly civil service class, and the visibility of Confucian beliefs has certainly diminished with the rise of Christianity and secularism in Korea. One old fellow I talked to said all the bright young people were converting to Christianity and that Buddhism and other similar Korean traditions were dying because of that.

  108. Mark Butler
    May 18, 2006 at 1:49 am

    By the way, despite Confucianism not being the sort of religion that builds lots of temples, conducts regular worship services, or sponsors seasonal festivals, there is absolutely no question that the influence of Confucianism on Korean culture outweighs the influence of Buddhism by a factor of ten to one or so. It is not the type of thing that Christians or secularists have to give up. Much closer to the Korean national philosophy – apparently more so in Korea than in China or Japan, oddly enough.

  109. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 18, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    I very much enjoy “talking” with someone who’s likewise to myself so fascinated by religion. And I’m interested in philosophical Toaist in part since I suppose I’m essentially a Shamanist? — or at least HAD been for some years now (as everyone really and truly has a religion, sense of awe, even a form of wishfulness & magical thinking and little rituals that we do and so forth.

    But — I’m rambling — ! Anyways — thanks!

  110. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 18, 2006 at 5:06 pm

    ps: Well, yes, & according the #’s cited, South Korea has 11,000 Confucianist clergy to all of brightly red, “pinko” China’s only 3,000?

  111. Mark Butler
    May 18, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    It has been a pleasure, Kimball.

  112. Mark Butler
    May 18, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    I suspect China’s low numbers are in part due to Communist persecution – Confucianism is a much more serious rival to the philosophy of state Communism in whatever variant than Taoism or Buddhism is, and it was dealt with accordingly.

  113. MDKI
    May 18, 2006 at 9:03 pm

    #112: “I suspect China’s low numbers are in part due to Communist persecution – Confucianism is a much more serious rival to the philosophy of state Communism in whatever variant than Taoism or Buddhism is, and it was dealt with accordingly.”

    Actually the low numbers have to do with the difficulty of defining who a “Confucian� is. A study was done in the early 90s where individuals from various countries in East Asia were surveyed about their religious beliefs and membership. Very few self identified as “Confucian� but when asked to rank the values they view most highly Confucian values won by a landslide. I think this speaks more to the issue of Confucianism as religion vs. culture/way of life/etc. and the discussion of categorization that I raised earlier. Those that identified as “ru� (the term from which Confucianism is usually translated) in the past were scholar/bureaucrats and not the mass population.

    This isn’t to say that contemporary has been particularly friendly to Confucianism. The 20th century practically saw the elimination of Confucianism under the critique of the May 4th generation et al. Much of the problem they saw with Confucianism was not that it rivaled the state (although you could probably argue that was an implicit motive), but that it was responsible for what they perceived as China’s weakness in the face of Western power. Confucianism, for them, was a symbol of China’s feudal past and was responsible for stifling the type of creative spirit that could have led to science etc. Joseph Levinson in the 60s claimed that Confucius (and hence Confucianism) had been relegated to the museum—to be looked at with fondness, but never to be a creative part of the culture again. Since the mid 80s however there’s been quite a renaissance, and many Chinese universities have philosophy departments that study Confucianism. There continue to be debates however as to the “religious� nature of Confucianism. Some scholars have tried talking about a “popular Confucianism�, Malaysia and Indonesia actually have Confucianism as a recognized religious organization, but other than that there continue to be few people that self-identify as such.

  114. MDKI
    May 18, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    #100: “Or is what’s natural that which can be learned from nature itself, experientially, as your cited example from Chuang Tzu teaches.

    You know, I’ve sort of sensed there to be maybe something fishy about “Confucianism� being thought a docrinal sect rather than a body of literature…. Is Calvinism per se a religion? (Shudders, thinking you might not like trying to draw West-to-East parallels.)�

    The question of what tianli (the pattern of nature/the heavens) is, is a difficult question. It seems to be both that which is found “out there� in nature (but not necessarily ‘nature’ in the transcendental sense) as well as that which is in human beings. The Doctrine of the Mean, which is usually viewed as a Confucian text, but sometimes argued as a Daoist text opens with the line, “that which tian (nature) bestows is [human] nature�; so there is a direct link between the moral cosmos and an inherent morality in the human being. The same text culminates with a discourse on the co-participatory role of the human in the creative process of heaven and earth. Anyways, to make a long story short, there seems to be a reciprocal process where morality is both discovered within the subjective self and the objective cosmos.

    As for East/West parallels, I really don’t mind them, as long as there are done with a sort of sensitivity that leaves room for some of the complexities of the comparative venture. I’m not exactly sure about Calvinism, but personally I’m not very interested in the question “what is religion?� I can’t really say why that is, but I tend to side with scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith who see religion more as a category created by scholars for the own intellectual purposes and therefore theirs to define, rather than as a universal category.

  115. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 19, 2006 at 7:25 pm


    Great posts!

    Yes, ethics involves accomodation of outside society with inside psychology, which is best done experientially rather than imposing/ projecting preconceived notions & expectations. And Chuang Tzu’s parables really carry a whollop: such as your butcher’s learning from experience how best to sever meat from bone and render joints asunder by his paying careful attention to the process of how the meat interacts with his cleaver. Also your mention of some, quote, /co-paticipatory role of the human in the creative process of heaven and earth/, end quote, surely intrigues, too!!!

  116. Mark Butler
    May 19, 2006 at 7:46 pm

    Calvinism is very much a system of religious belief and practice – it is a religion in roughly the same sense that Protestantism is a religion. Not quite as narrow as a denomination (though rather close), but not as wide as a first order faith tradition either.

    The Reformed churches, the Presbyterians, and the Baptists all preach a doctrinal understanding very closely related to what Calvin taught nearly five hundred years ago.

    I wouldn’t normally classify Confucianism as a religion, more like a comprehensive ethical philosophy with some religious traits, like scriptures, schools, temples, and of course ancestor worship of a sort. Confucian temples are rather plain, ordinary looking buildings (by traditional standards) however – no images, statues, etc, just a few tablets at most, otherwise largely functional, more like schools than shrines.

    I agree by the way that the semantics of a term like “religion” are more a matter of convention, hardly giving sharp boundaries to some sort of transcendent category.

  117. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 20, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    Actually it’s good that Judeo-Christian/Muslims see highly ethical constructs arising from non-monotheistic religious culture’s as not being a part and parcel of these underlying religions, if this helps them to approach them with a mind open to appreciating their beauty and merit.

    (In this way, although Buddhism makes mention of gods — Read: natural forces/ perhaps “angels”? — some religious Judeo-Christians can regard it as a philosophy possessing some value; and even much of philosophical Hinduism is seen by many as its being essentially monotheistic?)

  118. Mark Butler
    May 20, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    Mormonism has a significant history of sympathy for the value to be found in rather unconventional religious traditions, and there are a lot of reasons for that, from minority sympathy, to the belief in the unity of truth, to a theology that does not see multiple divine beings as a contradiction in terms – a tradition that has no problem distinguishing godliness from God himself (cf. Alma 42).

    The First Presidency released a statement in 1978 that includes the following:

    “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God´s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals…. Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal Welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father”

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