Truth, Postmodernism, Neo-Apologists

What is truth? Does utility, goodness, and flourishing equate to truth? What is real? How do we know something? Is there a scale of belief, from orthodox fundamental to ‘nuanced’ but believing that is ‘valuable’ to work out? It has been a little over a year since my spiritual awakening. My views of the Mormon church shifted, and during that shift my ‘self’ (which just might be an illusion, or a subjective experience that is not what it seems) imploded. In the subsequent aftermath, I look around and appreciate the diversity of ideas that orient us to the reality of the world we live in.

This diversity does not necessarily bring clarity, but often can induce infinite confusion. Without proper goalposts and clear definitions you can get lost. For example according to postmodernist philosophy, language is not such a “mirror of nature,” but is semantically self-contained, or self-referential: the meaning of a word is not a static thing in the world or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words. In other words, things you believed meant something, might actually mean something else. Furthermore, the literal words and meaning of scripture and that which is taught by prophets may be contextually altered depending on “the cultural schemes and moral values of the community in which they were used.” (Britannica)

Here are a couple high level examples of how modern Mormon church apologists have used this postmodernist approach in defense the church:

  • The word translate in Joseph Smith’s time does not mean translate as we understand it today
  • The word horse does not really mean horse
  • The following is not necessarily racism as we might understand racism
    • “it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God…they shall be a white and a delightsome people.” (2 Nephi 30:6 1830 edition, white has since been changed to pure)
    • “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness” & “The Lamanites shall be a dark, filthy, and loathsome people” (chapter headings of 2 Nephi 5 and Mormon 5)
    • Folklore can be equated to teaching and enforcing an eternal doctrine that denied full spiritual benefits based on race (Holland June 2018)
  • Seeing with your physical eyes may actually mean seeing with spiritual eyes

Mormonism has long been known as a fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalism indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. It is characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions (Wikipedia). Certainly Mormons have always been a peculiar people, characterized as having unwavering attachment to dogmatic literalism, but also with a firm grip on the idea of continuous divine revelation. However, from my experience, Mormons have been able to dodge the literal vs metaphorical debate in modern church history using a narrative that refocuses attention to the salvation doctrines and references everything else as periphery. unknown or mysterious. They would say something like, “in the end does it matter? Does it matter to believe in the literal story of Noah and the flood, the true age of the earth, or if God literally commanded Saul to kill all the Amalekites (each man, woman, and infant)?”

A mainstream example of this fundamentalism in America is adherence to the doctrine of creationism in many evangelical Christian churches. Creationism simply put is a belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. 42% of americans believe this despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Some objections I have heard against evolution vs creationism is are:

  • No one has physically seen evolution, so it has never been observed, and observation is a critical step in the scientific process
  • Carbon dating, potassium argon, and all the other radioactive dating techniques (that just so happen to give the same answer to the age of objects) are assumed to work the same way today as they did in the past, and we just do not know that
  • The starting position of all geological dating is faith because “I wasn’t there and you weren’t there”
  • It’s in the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God

How does Mormonism embrace the literal dogmatic teachings of the Bible and modern day prophets and still live in a postmodern world? Our culture’s view of knowledge has shifted over the past few centuries. For example, the theory of knowledge has evolved in three distinct periods, namely the premodern (pre-17th century), the modern (17th – 20th centuries) and postmodern (post- 1950s). Knowledge in the premodern world was revealed to authoritative sources like priests, kings, and philosophers. In modernism, knowledge is accessed using the scientific method, reason, and logic. In postmodernism truth is subjective, relative, and inherently skeptic. Using Noah’s ark as an example, the premodernist might say, “the story of Noah’s ark happened exactly how it was described in the Bible.” A modernist might say, “we know the dimensions of the ark, and it is believed to be on Mount Ararat in Turkey, beyond that it is faith in the miracles of God, the Great scientist, that we must trust.” A postmodernist might say, “the story of Noah’s ark is an instructive myth or parable about God’s punishment for man’s wickedness, and should not be believed literally.” These examples illustrate, from my perspective, a rather serious issue with the correlated premodern leaning teachings of the current day Mormon church, which only in the past 10 years has started to pay attention to this problem, if only just a little. This attention has not been proactively initiated by the church but by its members who, according to the church historian Marlin K. Jensen said “are leaving in droves…over these issues.” (Reuters Jan 2012)

Let’s introduce the narratives of apologists and their modern twin neo-apologists. Classic Mormon apologists live in a literal binary world where the doctrinal and historical message was inerrant at its core. These apologists denied that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, that Brigham Young taught that Adam was our God, that killing yourself could atone for committing the unpardonable sin, etc. They defend the Book of Mormon as being a literal historical record, that Native Americans are descendants of the people from the Book of Mormon, and the method in which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Many of these apologists resort to a brass knuckles style defense and ad hominem attacks upon the questioning party.

In recent decades, but mainly in the past 5 years, there has emerged a neo-apologetic Mormon narrative. This narrative coincides with the postmodernist philosophy of subjective, speculative, and relativism as it relates to the historical records and what has been taught by its authorities, the prophets. Take, for example a quote from Terryl Givens, who is a thought leader in this movement:

Whatever sense we make of this world, whatever value we place upon our lives and relationships, whatever meaning we ultimately give to our joys and agonies, must necessarily be a gesture of faith. Whether we consider the whole a product of impersonal cosmic forces, a malevolent deity, or a benevolent god, depends not on the evidence, but on what we choose, deliberately and consciously, to conclude from that evidence. (The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life)

Another neo-apologetic Richard Bushman put in this way in a QA session:

Audience Member: In my experience, the foot soldiers of the church don’t really care about the details (historical narrative). They care about the community, and that’s what really matters, they’re not really worried about how many wives Joseph Smith had. I love the church, I fear that going on that approach (denouncing the historical narrative) might actually damage the community in many ways.

Richard: Well, I think people can hold on to the church however they can hold on to the church. If you got one grip on it…if yours is community and service and brotherly love, great. But you don’t want to disparage doctrine and say, “It really is irrelevant”. What’s important is that we care for one another. For lots of people it is relevant and in general worldviews, what is the reality in the room ends up affecting what happens eventually in that community. And you want to keep your eye on current scholarship in the church because there’s a lot of work being done on the power of ritual, or a power of narrative of the history of the world. And you may regain a new appreciation of it, and you may say, “I can’t believe that’s literally true but I can see its power, and I’m willing to listen to it and talk it even.” (QA Transcribed)

View at Medium.com

Both of these examples portray the postmodernist neo-apologetic Mormon movement. The idea that, “whatever sense we make of this world, …depends not on evidence, but on what we choose, deliberately and consciously, to conclude from that evidence” subverts objective evidence based reasoning (as much as there can be in any religion) based on scripture and the teachings of prophets. The opinion that Bushman pushes forward billows into the Jordan Peterson territory of myth, legend, ritual, archetypes, and the power of narrative. It goes something like this, maybe you do not have to literally believe in the doctrine, as it was previously taught, but base your belief in “the power of ritual, and the power of narrative”, which Bushman says, “may be doctrinal.”

Jordan Peterson (JP) is a very popular phycologist from the University of Toronto that has grown a very devout cult-like following. In an interview he was asked about his Christian apologetic views:

Question: Why do I not discuss religion fundamentalism more in depth. Many people consider you a religion Apologist as a consequence.

Answer:

It’s OK if people consider me a Religious Apologist. I am a Religious Apologist. I am constantly making arguments for a religious orientation towards life. An orientation that’s centered in meaning an orientation that’s centered in desire for all things to thrive insofar as that’s possible. A desire for people to speak the truth and act out the truth and act responsibly. I think there’s something transcendentally necessary about all of that and I think it is the antidote to Hell. So that makes me a religious apologist.

Christianity is an ethical framework above all else. And it’s predicated in a story about how the world is constituted. And the story provides the foundation for that ethic. And the ethic unites the community and gives people direction. This is a big deal. Now if the story is challenged. If the foundational story is challenged. Which is certainly what has happened as a consequence with the rise of empirical science, then the foundation for the ethic starts to shake and tremble. And that threatens the ethic. But the ethic is what holds people together and gives them direction. You can’t just lose the ethic. So the fundamentalist Christians are all short circuited. Because they know there is something to the ethic. And they understand that the foundation has been shaken but they don’t know what to do about it. So they insist the foundation has not been shaken. And I understand that. So, I think the way out of that is to understand that the truths that govern ethics and the truths that govern the description of the world as a material place are not the same. They’re not of the same kind.

Jordan Peterson’s explanation infers the ethic produced by Christianity and the foundational story are two completely different things. As such, we should not worry that the foundation of Mormonism is shaky because it is the ethic that comes from it that is the important part. “Christianity as an ethic is true and powerful and important”, the author of a neo-apologetic blog that references the JP quote says. “The ethic is true. The community [Mormon] is necessary. The belief in the transcendent is critical. The participation in the covenants we make to build up the Kingdom of God–as an antidote to Hell–is meaningful and real. Give up on reconciling the foundational story. It’s a different thing. Not the same. It’s OK to separate.” (churchistrue blog)

I’m unsure how I feel about this. I really do not like the use of the word true here. We are not saying the same thing when I say true and when you say true. Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris sparred over this very issue. If you want to crush your brain with a tooth pulling debate on the definition of truth between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson I invite you to listen here (honestly, it’s incredible). Sam Harris in a follow-up blog puts the truth definition differences this way:

According to him (Peterson), I see “ethics as nested inside scientific realism,” whereas he sees “scientific realism as nested inside Darwinian competition” (which he views in ethical terms). A clearer way of stating this is that he thinks I locate all values within a system of truth claims, whereas he locates all truth claims in a system that selects for a single value: survival. Hence our stalemate.

Just because believing in something may make you a better person does not make it true. You may be more generous, selfless, thoughtful, careful to pass unfair judgement, and find meaning based on this belief system. Culturing these virtues on the back of religion does not necessarily make the religion true in the way that I view truth, but it would be true from the perspective of Peterson. It may be useful and good, but there is not a truth value that should be attributed to it. If we were able to do that, then believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, or any god from any epoch could be considered true if the ethic it taught was good. Do you believe the Mormon hierarchy would say something like, “if your ethic that you get from following the teachings of Zeus, Thor, or Poseidon leads you to be a good person, then good on yay, that is what we call truth! We’ll see you in heaven!”

I think it matters that the church continues to maintain a pre modernist dogma of beliefs that are inerrant. The ethic that Mormonism produced is blind obedience, willful ignorance, and intellectual dishonesty. I do not subscribe to that ethic. I believe that ethic is not true in the darwinian framework of truth as tied to survival (as taught by Peterson). I believe truth exists outside human perceptions to the extent that we can observe it. The sun will rise tomorrow whether we believe in it or not. In this same manner we may ask: Did God and Jesus literally appear to Joseph Smith? Did Joseph literally receive golden plates from angel Moroni and translate reformed Egyptian into 17th century english? Did Peter James and John literally place their angelic hands on his head and confer a literal spiritual priesthood power or authority also held by a literal God? It is either true or it is not true. I do not think to be a nuanced, sophisticated, or an intellectual believer, means to believe these things as merely myth or an instructive parable. And the ethic that is produced from believing a “developed narrative” is true because it provides powerful meaning to people. I believe it to be a self-deceptive practice, that causes someone to create yet another mystical layer between themselves and reason, and their fear of their own mortality.

As I peel off the layers of this post-modernist neo-apologetic onion I see the good outcomes that are derived from following a powerful myth or narrative. Communities are thriving and people are finding real meaning. This is all and good, but then I come to the core. At the core, neo-apologists have to contend with the facts of historical events actually occurring or not occurring and what that means. If it is all myth, can it still be true? From my perspective, neo-apologists are defending the layers of the onion, but leaving the core alone. The core is what counts. And from my experience, the Mormon onion core is horribly rotten.

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