Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hearing, Knowing, and the Sound of Silence

Hearing only what you want to hear
And knowing only what you've heard
You, you're smothered in tragedy
And you're out to save the world
...There's much more to life than what you see

- Metallica, "My Friend of Misery," Metallica (Elektra/Vertigo/Universal, 1991).

A lack of epistemic humility, Nathaniel Givens notes, leads us to "adopt epistemic closure around our irrationally chosen beliefs" and "to “call evil good, and good evil” and to “put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (as Isaiah would say) or to “exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage” (as Roger Waters would say)." The personal uncovering of capital-T "Truth" is usually in some form of intellectual/spiritual enlightenment, leading to a renewed paradigm. However, we must be careful when fully accepting our personal moments of enlightenment, especially when others have similar experiences that lead to opposite conclusions. For example, a 2012 presentation by doctoral candidate Rosemary Avance of the Annenberg School for Communication explored the parallels between Mormon conversion and de-conversion stories. Avance explains that "there is no such thing as “Mormonism” as an empirically homogeneous or monolithic experience," but various Mormonisms. The narratives of orthodox, heterodox, and former Mormons all contain "a moment when they learn an incendiary piece of information that threatens to upend their current worldview." They all "tell next of seeking out more information confirming or denying the initial information. Both groups often describe this as a time of uncharacteristic fervor and focus as they single-mindedly seek the truth and the liberation they are sure it will bring...After both...engage in some kind of socially interactive, intellectual exercise to further their information, phenomenological experience ensues...Both ultimately experience peace and surety that their newfound knowledge is exclusively true or right, and both rely on affective elements to fill in where intellect leaves off."

Hearing only what we want to hear (and knowing only what we've heard) may lead to different conclusions, though the reasoning and justification will be surprisingly similar. Philosopher Denys Turner shared the following anecdote that demonstrates this point:

Some years ago, and in younger, more foolhardy, days, finding myself in a tight spot in a public debate with a philosopher atheist at Bristol University, I made a wager with my audience: I would give anyone present five minutes to explain his or her reasons for atheism and if, after that, I could not guess correctly the Christian denomination in which that person had been brought up, I would buy her a pint of beer. As luck would have it I was not broke at the subsequent revels, though in taking the risk I was backing the mere hunch that most philosophical, principled, not merely casual atheisms are the mirror-images of a theism; that they are recognisable from one another, because atheisms fall roughly into the same categories as the theisms they deny; that they are about as interesting as each other; and that since narrowly Catholic or Methodist or Anglican atheisms are no more absorbing than narrowly Catholic, Methodist or Anglican theisms, they do not exactly amount to an over-rich diet for the theologian.[1]

This is why Terryl and Fiona Givens find that "militant atheism" and "fervent theism" are "both just as likely to serve as a dogmatic point of departure, as they are to be a thoughtful and considered end point in one's journey toward understanding...[N]either the new believer nor the new doubter has necessarily progressed or reached enlightenment."[2] They've just reconstructed the existing and often conflicting evidence. Even though certainty paradoxically exists alongside the concept of eternal progression within Mormon theology,[3] the focus on "knowing" often overtakes the learning process. In the famous King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith taught, 

These ideas are incomprehensible to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Chris Himself did...
This "first principle" seems to inherently reject apophatic (negative) theology: describing God in terms of what He is not, rather than what He is. His attributes are so beyond our full comprehension that our language and concepts eventually break down. Yet, this apophatic approach seems to be upheld by other revelations received by Smith: "Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). It must also be remembered that the revelatory message is then filtered through a human medium. While often used in connection with a metaphysically simple, transcendent deity, Mormons would do well to appropriately apply a perhaps liberal form of apophatic methodology to their own faith. Despite Smith's anthropomorphization of God (or the theomorphization of humans), his various methods of revelation, and priesthood authority, the Restoration still leaves us with surprisingly little knowledge and provokes even more questions. How much do we really "know" about the pre-mortal life?[4] Intelligences?[5] The spirit world? God's body?[6] Perhaps we should approach not merely God, but gospel doctrine altogether in terms of what they are not and/or of what we do not know (let alone the things we don't know we don't know). By hearing only what we want to hear (and knowing only what we've heard), we cut ourselves off from further light and knowledge. If we allow, our language, explanations, and limited knowledge will break down into silence.[7] It is in this state of humility and silence that we will be ready for the revelations of certainty and clarity we seek. This is the sound of silence.

Terryl Givens (once again) wisely observes,

Mormons can be too quick to see all texts written previous to 1830 as potential proof texts, to see Jesus' ministrations to Mary and Martha as foreshadowing the home teaching program, every sunken Mesoamerican hole in the ground as a baptismal font, and so on. We are too quick, in other words, to see these other systems and phenomena as deriving their value in proportion to their capacity to anticipate a Restoration that we treat as full and complete. It's not, as prophets from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to President Kimball have reminded us.

...If the restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us. Not by way of confirming, corroborating, or verifying the truths we already have. But by way of actually adding to the body of revealed doctrine we call precious and true. The Restoration is neither full nor complete...It takes real humility and generosity of spirit to be taught. Our contemporary condescension in this regard was clearly foreign to a prophet who showed the world he could translate gold plates written in Reformed Egyptian, then hired a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him Hebrew.

1. Denys Turner, "Apophaticism, Idolatry and the Claims of Reason," Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation, eds. Oliver Davies, Denys Turner (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14-15.

2. Terryl & Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Ensign Peak, 2012), Kindle edition. Ch. 1 - "His Heart Is Set Upon Us."

3. See Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

4. See Blake T. Ostler, "The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought," Dialogue - A Journal of Mormon Thought 15:1 (1982); Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

5. See James Faulconer, "The Mormon Understanding of Persons...and God," Patheos (Aug. 17, 2011); Faulconer, Martin Pulido, "A History of the Mormon Idea of Intelligence," revised draft in possession of the author.

6. James Faulconer, "Divine Embodiment and Transcendence: Propaedeutic Thoughts and Questions," Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy & Theology 1:1 (2005); Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints," BYU Studies 50:3 (2011); Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

7. Blair Hodges, "The Silent "and..."," By Common Consent (Jan. 5, 2012); Blake T. Ostler, "The Silence That Is Not Silence," Element 1:2 (2005). Karen Armstrong presents an apophatic theology in her book The Case for God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009).

1 comment:

  1. That quote from Denys Turner rings true to the personal experience I've had with a lot of atheists. I like that she can guess which Christian denomination they were reared in through their reasons for atheism. I understand it's not a universal equation for all atheists, but it's interesting none the less. I like your posts man, keep it up. They always challenge me to think, research, and re-evaluate.