My friend, colleague, and fellow ward-mate Jordan F. recently put up this post on the "Mantle and the Intellect" at the blog he co-hosts with his brother John--A Bird's Eye View. In the post, Jordan defends an oft-criticized talk given by President Boyd K. Packer in 1981 titled "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect." In that talk President Packer, among other things, encouraged LDS church scholars and educators to teach a faith-promoting version of history and to downplay or ignore entirely any facts or evidence from the historical record that could cast the leaders of the church in a negative light. He discouraged the dissemination of information about church leaders that would show their humanity, telling church educators to focus exclusively on information that supports the Mormon truth claim that God is leading and guiding the leaders of the LDS church. I disagree with much of what President Packer says in the talk, and with the way he says it. Jordan has a different view, seeing the talk as "a beacon of light in today’s sea of spiritual darkness that is much of academia."
In his spirited defense of President Packer, Jordan notes that at the heart of Packer's talk is the idea that Mormon history cannot be properly understood without starting with the conclusion, born of the Holy Ghost, that the foundational claims of the LDS church are true. In other words, the only proper approach to Mormon history for consumption by members of the LDS church is from the perspective of a true-believing Mormon who accepts Joseph Smith as the prophet of the restoration, the Utah-based church as the only true and living church on earth, the Book of Mormon as literal history translated by the gift and power of God, and the authority of those who lead the LDS church as absolute. In other words, as Jordan puts it, the facts about Mormon history "cannot be properly understood divorced from a belief that God orchestrated the whole thing through imperfect and misunderstanding human beings." Jordan thinks that, regarding Mormon history, "one MUST look at the foundational events of the Church through a lens of testimony in order to see the evidence of the divine hand in them, and . . . this is also how church history MUST be taught in LDS classrooms."
In Jordan's post, he points to me as a living example of the "problem" Packer was seeking to prevent with his "Mantle and Intellect" talk. Jordan quotes from an earlier post of mine here at Equality Time, in which I discuss my decision to re-assess Mormon truth claims by examining the facts and evidence with my "testimony lenses" off. This re-assessment led me to doubt, then reject, the literal truth of the LDS church's foundational claims. And this gets to the heart of the disagreement between me and Jordan. He thinks that Mormonism's foundational truth claims should be assumed, a priori, and that one's evaluation of church history and doctrine must be filtered to support that beginning assumption. Any examination, exploration, or exposition of Mormon doctrine or history should be informed by and infused with a testimony of the divinity of the work. To quote my friend, we should "view the historical record through the lens of faith and our spiritual impressions." I respectfully disagree.
Stripped down, the issue is an epistemological one: is a person's subjective spiritual experience superior to a rational assessment of evidence in arriving at a knowledge of truth with respect to the extraordinary claims made by Mormonism's founder and subsequent leaders? Jordan and President Packer think that it is. I don't.
At its foundation, the Jordan/Packer argument rests on the notion that a heartfelt conviction, once obtained, need never be tested against empirical evidence--information obtained through rational, non-subjective means-- or measured against reason. One problem I have with this approach is that, objectively speaking, the use of personal spiritual experiences is a notoriously unreliable method for obtaining accurate information about how the world actually operates. In areas where personal spiritual experiences can be tested empirically, history has demonstrated that such experiences are poor guides to a better understanding of the world around us.
Another problem is that while the Jordan/Packer approach has the advantage of completely immunizing a believing Mormon from dissuasion, it has the decided disadvantage of being equally capable of conferring the same benefit on the heartfelt convictions of any believer whose faith is based on personal spiritual experience and contradicted by the great weight of available evidence. Let's take Scientology as an example. Using the Jordan/Packer approach, if we were Scientologists, we would only read "faith-promoting" histories of Scientology--those which paint L. Ron Hubbard in the best possible light and which either do not mention or excuse any criticism of him. When confronting evidence about Scientology, we would give the organization the benefit of the doubt in every case. Where evidence contradicted our understanding of things as taught by Scientology's leaders, we would go with the version espoused by the organization. The quantum of evidence against the claims of Scientology would be irrelevant. Rather than consider such evidence or ever draw a negative inference from that evidence (even where such negative inferences might be more reasonable to draw than positive ones), we would instead simply dismiss any evidence that contradicts what we already know to be true through our personal spiritual experience. Creationists, Branch Davidians--indeed, fundamentalists of every stripe--do the same. They all view information about their respective religions through the "lens of faith and [their] spiritual impressions." And when they do, inevitably, their own faith is confirmed.
Another idea Jordan advances in support of suspending reason in favor of faith is that God is testing us by making the truth difficult to discern with observation and reason. As Jordan says, "it is so easy, and so seemingly logical, to draw negative inferences and conclusions about the motivations and characters of the Lord’s anointed from what we understand of the historical record presently before us." In other words, we cannot trust our reason; we cannot trust the historical record; we cannot trust logic when these conflict with the "truth" established through a personal spiritual experience. Even if things "appear" to contradict Mormon truth claims, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the church because we see things "through a glass darkly" while in mortality, and we will be blessed for believing not only in the absence of affirmative evidence but in the face of contrary information. If it all made sense, I guess the gospel test would just be too easy. Apparently, God has rigged the system in such a way so things that seem true and things that can be proven true are not really true, while things that seem false, for which the only evidence is a subjective personal experience, are those things upon which God would condition our salvation. In this model, the more preposterous a proposition, the more likely it comes from God, since more faith is required to believe it, and faith in non-obvious things is greater than faith in that which is apparent to all. I suppose those with whom God is most pleased are those who believe things for which there is the greatest amount of contradictory evidence. This should make the UFOlogists and conspiracy theorists sanguine.
Probably the biggest problem I have with the Jordan/Packer approach to evaluating Mormon history and truth claims through the "lens of testimony" is that there appears to be no room for ever re-evaluating the basic assumption that the church's foundational claims are true. It is a completely closed system. No amount of evidence, no new information can dissuade the Mormon with a testimony who "chooses" to cling to that testimony no matter what. How realistic is such an approach? What if we applied it in other contexts; for example, the criminal justice system?
Let's suppose you are a prosecutor. You have the responsibility to charge and try someone the police have arrested. Upon listening to the cops tell their story, meeting the alleged perpetrator of the crime, and looking at the evidence gathered from the scene of the crime, you become convinced of the defendant's guilt. As you prepare your arguments for trial, you come upon evidence submitted by the defense that casts doubt on the defendant's guilt. But you choose to ignore such evidence, or explain it in a way that supports the possibility that the defendant is actually guilty. You then come upon more evidence that appears to exonerate the defendant. Again, relying upon your earlier heartfelt conviction that the defendant is guilty, you interpret the new evidence in a light most favorable to your belief in the defendant's guilt. You choose not to draw any inferences from the evidence that might alter the certainty you feel in your heart about the person you are prosecuting. Your intellect, after all, can be fooled. The evidence is imperfect. You see through a glass, darkly. Your subjective personal experience--your heart--tells you he is guilty. And that's far greater than the intellect. So, armed with your superior knowledge (for it is knowledge not gained through a reasoned assessment of evidence but rather from powerful personal experience), you seek to prevent the jury from hearing the evidence that they might think exonerates the defendant. After all, they may incorrectly draw inferences from the evidence different from yours, and come to the conclusion that the defendant is innocent--or at least that there is not sufficient evidence to convict. And you continue to pursue the prosecution with zeal. No amount of evidence, no appeals to logic or reason can dissuade you for "you know what you know." Applying the Jordan/Packer epistemology in this hypothetical, the prosecutor obtained a heartfelt conviction and was willing to exalt that above all evidence and reason to the contrary. Would you want such a person in office? If you think this example far-fetched, there are some lacrosse players at Duke who might have something to say to you.
What does it say about Mormonism that maintaining a testimony of its foundational truth claims requires hiding information, ignoring evidence, drawing positive inferences where negative ones might be more appropriate, and relying on a subjective experience even when such an experience conflicts with objective evidence? As Reformed_Egyptian, a participant at the Further Light and Knowledge forum put it: "What it all boils down to is: why do I have to be lied to (and to lie to myself) in order to maintain my belief in a true church?"