Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Danger of Religious Speculation

Speculation within religious discussions is fun and intellectually stimulating, but it also can be very dangerous. By "speculation" I simply mean guessing about something (or putting forward one's personal belief) when there is no clear revelation - when the "speculation" is merely an interpretation of something else.

For example, in the past, Brigham Young's and Bruce R. McConkie's conclusions about why the Priesthood should not be conferred upon Black men in the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times was not backed by any explicit revelation stating so. Rather, they were founded on cultural perspectives and scriptural interpretations. Although Elder McConkie repudiated all former justifications of the ban after the revelation (OD2) was received (30 years ago), and even though modern Prophets and apostles have spoken forcefully about perpetuating the former justifications, the result is that some members still hold to that former speculation. That is both frightening and instructive.

The idea that we can become like God is, I believe, a central thread that runs throughout the entire Bible. It isn't addressed much, if at all, in the Book of Mormon, but it is foundational to the Bible. Thus, "As God is, man may become" is not "speculation", in my mind. "As man is, God once was" is based on an interpretation of one biblical verse, however, and is not a concept that is supported by our body of scripture generally - including our modern scriptures. It might or might not be true, but it's not grounded in multiple scriptural passages. In many ways, it's like taking Oliver Cowdery's answer as to how **he** would feel the Holy Ghost (burning and stupor) and extrapolating that to all - essentially telling all members and investigators, for example, that they too can have that same burning and stupor. There simply isn't anything in the body of scripture that justifies that extrapolation - that speculation.

The Church's statement "Approaching Mormon Doctrine" (published in 2007) makes the point that the isolated statements of individual apostles (or even a number of them) should NOT be taken automatically as "official doctrine". I believe that is true retroactively, as well, and applicable even to scripture. If one prophet said it, take it with a grain of salt - and especially be careful of stretching it beyond what actually was said by that prophet - of "speculating" past the initial words. If such a statement is not supported by an extended body of scripture, it might be valid and true - but it also might fit the former jusitifcations for the Priesthood ban. It might be nothing more than the natural inclination to guess or rely on one's own best understanding to make sense of the unknown.


Anonymous said...

I think there´s two kinds of speculation. One is the kind that I engage in, when I suggest how some obscure question could be answered. A totally different kind of speculation is the kind that was used to justify the Priesthood ban.

These are often based on the ¨false traditions of our fathers¨. I have heard several Apostles answer ¨we just don´t know¨ to questions that any high priests´ quorum will answer in a heartbeat.

Last Lemming said...

There simply isn't anything in the body of scripture that justifies that extrapolation - that speculation.

What about 1 Nephi 19:24-"Hear ye the words of the prophet...and liken them unto yourselves.."?

Paul said...

"I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture." Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 95).

Papa D said...

Yeah, velska, I like to speculate as much as many, but "we just don't know" probably is the best answer in a lot of cases - and it's said MUCH more recently than in the past.

I am aware of those types of quotes, Paul - and he was wrong. What else can I say? *grin*

LL, that might work for general conceptual stuff, but the Oliver Cowdery example is a revelation given specifically to one person about HE received revelation. That type of personal revelation gets dicey when it's extrapolated to all - or mutated into a generalization, even.

Last Lemming said...

OK, work with me here a bit. I'm trying to understand where you draw the line. Consider the following two scriptures from early in the D&C:

D&C 4:3 "Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;"

D&C 11:15 "Behold, I command you that you need not suppose that you are called to preach until you are called."

Which of the following statements is true?

1. Both statements are general conceptual stuff.

2. Both statements are specific to the individuals to whom the revelations were directed (Joseph Smith, Sr. and Hyrum Smith respectively).

3. The first is specific to Joseph Smith, Sr., but the second is general conceptual stuff.

4. The first is general conceptual stuff, but the second is specific to Hyrum Smith.

I would dismiss #1 because it would introduce a contradiction.

#2 might be true, but I can't think of a rule that would lead me to that conclusion.

#3 seems the most consistent with the 5th Article of Faith, but in that case I might as well ignore both verses and just go with the 5th Article of Faith, which is the functional equivalent of #2.

#4 seems consistent with an intuitive rule that statements rendered in the second person plural are general and statements rendered in the second person singular are specific. But then there's that darned 5th Article of Faith. And my rule seems rather (ahem) speculative, since it demands a level of precision in grammar that is conspicuously missing from much of latter-day scripture (including the two scriptures in question if you go with #3).

What do you think?

Papa D said...

Great example, LL.

It's quite easy to say that they both are true generally - since the first mentions being called by desire "to the work", while the second is specific to being called "to preach". The first is broad enough to cover any kind of "work" - and those who desire to work can do so through a generic, collective calling.

Of course, the focus of Section 4 is interpreted generally as preaching in the capacity of "missionary work" - but there really isn't anything in the section that would limit it to full-time missions. It's a great example, I think, of what I might call "reverse extrapolation" - or artificial limitation - going from the general to the specific in such a way that excludes too many rather than including too many.

Paul said...

It's certainly no trouble to say Brigham Young was wrong, but if he was wrong, (while speaking forcefully as a prophet and not as a man, as he liked to remind believers), why are you so sure that his successors haven't been wrong? It seems to be a form of presentism--his teachings don't match current social thinking, so we know now that he was wrong then.

Well what will our great-grandchildren say, for example, about the current LDS position on homosexuality? Maybe something like, "He was wrong. What else can I say? *grin*"

We cloak our changes in divine inspiration, but the LDS church changes to match society's thinking. We're slow, to be sure, but it seems irrational to shrug off the erroneous teachings of past leaders while still allowing present leaders such a high degree of influence over the way we think--or more likely, don't think.

Papa D said...

I understand that issue, Paul. I really do. It is a legitimate concern - especially for those leaders (at ALL levels) and members who take the idea of a prophetic mantle and extrapolate that to infallibility. Accepting that people who claim to speak for God can be wrong while still accepting that they can represent God (and even speak for him) can appear like the weirdest of mental gymnastics - but if it's consistent with one's own experience, it really isn't mental gymnatics at all.

My own view of revelation influences my view of prophets, frankly. There have been moments when I truly, deeply believe that God has spoken directly through me - that I have communicated His mind and foreknowledge and will verbally to others. Since I have experienced that, I am open completely to the idea that others can experience that - and that some people can experience it more often than I do and for a wider audience. However, I also have been left generally to do my best to figure things out on my own - so I am open to the idea that even prophets are similar.

The primary issue for me is exactly what you have articulated - those who believe that they or others communicate nothing but the will of God in everything they say. I know regular members who believe that, and I know individual leaders who believe that - at all levels within the Church. All I can say is that such is not MY experience - nor Joseph Smith's, for that matter. I also have heard and read enough of what our current apostles have said and written to understand that it's not their experience either.

Unfortunately, the deeply ingrained human desire to KNOW everything runs deep - but I see that desire as a manifestation of the "natural man" that stands in opposition to faith. I've written about that in other posts here, so I won't make this comment any longer. *grin*

Paul said...

I think that without that strong desire to KNOW there would be no religion. Needing to "know" is more likely as symptom of the faithful than the faithless, in my experience. Not knowing is so uncomfortable for us as humans that we would rather suckle the comforting but erroneous traditions of our ancestors than admit that we don't "know".

Well, I admit that I don't know exactly what I know, but I do know a few things I definitely don't know. You know?

Papa D said...

Paul, I agree - and see it as a good thing overall. There is a song that says:

"We are desperate to discover what is just beyond our grasp. Maybe that's what heaven is for" (to keep us reaching for the unreachabel).

Papa D said...

I was re-reading this thread and realized I wasn't as clear as I should have been in my last two comments. I need to make a distinction:

I believe the tendency to want to claim absolute knowledge is a product of the natural man and not a good thing generally. I believe the desire to try to discover and know everything is a large part of the divine spark that makes humans unique - that it is a manifestation or our connection to the one who really does know everything. The DESIRE is what motivates humility and faith (recognition that there is "the unknown and unknowable" and its attendant effort to know regardless), but the NEED to be right **in all things in the here and now** is what ultimately kills faith.

I hope that clarifies, since I used "desire" too quickly and incorrectly in my second-to-last comment.