Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Nielsen and Kierkegaard

The Nielsen saga has been interesting to me, but I haven't known exactly what to think of it all. He was at BYU in the philosophy department (which already endears him to me... I've spent some time there myself) and was fired for taking a public stand against the church on the gay marriage issue. Considering my own very conflicted feelings on the subject, I have to sympathize. We teach children to stand up for what's right, even when it means you might be unpopular (at least my mom did). And here's a guy who thought that's exactly what he's doing, and it's the LDS church that takes him down. Not that that's surprising or even inappropriate--it's pretty much a clear expectation of employment at BYU that you don't call your employer's owner immoral and publicly criticize them (at least, I think it is).

The latest piece in the paper from him has a curious effect on me. I agree with everything he says from a secular perspective, but I can't swallow it as one who believes the church is led by God. Never does he acknowledge that the leaders of the church are considered prophets--those who speak for God--in his comments. He compares the LDS church to "any organization" and cautions against considering the leaders infallible. That's all nice, Nielsen, but you seem to be a pretty bright guy for having missed such a central premise of the church.

"Unexamined belief is not faith, but superstition, and we must clear away superstition to make way for genuine faith," says Nielsen. Was it superstition, then, that led Abraham to submit to God's completely unacceptable commandment to murder his own son--a son He gave Abraham fair and square? How exactly did he rationalize that away? He examined it and, yup, it's still ridiculous. What was it about his obedience that was so significant then?

Back in my days studying philosophy at the BYU (hee hee-the BYU... I'm so old), I read some of Kierkegaard's thoughts on Abraham. I didn't really get it. But whatever the hell Kierkegaard really thinks, it ultimately left me with the impression that there's a paradox to faith. My take home point was that you can examine certain things rationally till the cows come home and they'll come up unexplainable, and that there's a particular power in accepting God's curious position anyway.

The real question is whether we are justified in viewing leaders of any organization, even those of the LDS Church, as infallible when they make a doctrinal or policy pronouncement.... If they want to be considered infallible, then they have every reason to worry about members like me who will always refuse to surrender those most precious divine gifts, namely mind and moral agency, to another human being....

Is the church led by human beings then or ultimately by God? You can believe either way, but Nielsen sure seems to want the latitude to take his pick for whatever issue du jour comes along. I've always been taught that being obedient gives us more moral agency, and that there's merit to obeying every word of command with exactness. To the extent a leader misleads, he is responsible and not me. Yes, I see the many problems with this oversimplification of the issue, but it seems a good rule considering the complexity (and ultimate failure) of the other ways people see to reconcile mistakes from priesthood leaders. Rules can have exceptions, but if I wrote them out trying to anticipate them, they would be part of the rule.

I can imagine the Israelites, "Hey Moses, do you honestly think going in and wiping out all the Canaanites is a good idea? I mean, they've got children in there. Aren't the children innocent?"

Moses: "What the hell do I know? God just said to do it."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I just don't think I can sacrifice my most precious gifts to you--my mind and my moral agency. Killing children is wrong."

"Umm... okay. I guess you've got to do what you've got to do. The whole walking across the Red Sea as if it were dry land didn't persuade you that God is captain here and not just me?"

"Well, you've got a point there, certainly. I'll think about it. But I think I've got to ultimately be true to myself and I was taught not to kill. It's one of the commandments."

"Yeah, I'm familiar with those."

Nielsen later lectures the leaders of the church on the Golden Rule. Does he think the comparison to polygamy has escaped them? Does he honestly think their belief on this issue is "unexamined"? Do I? Am I willing to stand up and criticize an unjust church, the very same one that taught me how important it is to stand for the truth! I suppose I would, if I thought the church really was unjust... if I thought it wasn't God's church. But I think it is. I don't get everything that's going on with gay marriage, but I'm working from limited information and God's not.

14 comments:

Master Fob said...

One of the important tenets of the LDS faith is that each member can find out for him or herself whether a specific pronouncement comes from God or from man. The problem comes when you pray and ponder and come to the conclusion that this particular pronouncement does not come from God. In theory I don't think it's contrary to LDS doctrine to believe that the prophet can make mistakes--even over the pulpit--and that each member is responsible for acting according to his or her own personal revelation, not on the prophet's, but the majority of practicing LDSaints seem to disagree with me on this.

I also think it's a fallacy--if I recall correctly, there is a specific logical fallacy with a name I can't quite remember at the moment--to say that because a man usually tells us God's will that everything he says is God's will. Moses may very well have been acting as God's representative when he led the children of Israel across the Red Sea, and could just as easily be wrong about killing the Canaanites. I believe it's my responsibility to do what I believe is right, not what Moses believes is right.

I believe that Gordon B. Hinckley is right about a lot of things, but I also believe he's wrong about gay marriage. I come to this conclusion not based only on rational thought, but also on prayer and faith in a God who values agency and freedom. My right to vote is a powerful thing (though admittedly not so much in Utah), so when it came time to vote on the amendment to ban gay marriage here, I voted according to my conscience, not according to any other man's. If I'm wrong, I'll take responsibility for myself. If Gordon B. Hinckley is wrong, then I'm one less person who expects him to take responsibility for my choice.

-L- said...

I wrote this post well before your "shocking truth" post, and it really seemed inadequate to fully address so many different issues this morning, but I went ahead and posted it anyway. I thought I'd wait and let everyone bring up their objections and then see what I thought, but I'm not always so good at waiting.

There's the old testament sense in which you don't think, you just obey, and then there's the later sense in the scriptures that how you think about something is even more important than what you actually do. But even that is an over-simplification. I don't think doing what's right always feels right. And that's a scary place to be, hence the mention of Kierkegaard. I think this has particular significance in the gospel that often gets ignored. I kind of see it as spirituality calculus. It's sacrificing Isaac, polygamous wives, and slaying Canaanite children--the stuff people are asked to do and that feels ABSOLUTELY wrong no matter how you slice it.

I mean, would you have killed the children, MF? I think if I believed your very compelling position whole-heartedly I would have abstained... and I think that would have been a mistake.

I have a lot of ambivalence about gay marriage and the vagaries of "good governance". But, ultimately, I think I'm willing to give up my reluctance in favor of aligning myself with what I believe the brethren believe to be God's position on the topic, however unsettling such a position is to me or to the many gays I sympathize with.

To conclude that the prophet can make mistakes is reasonable in many instances, but in the case of officially conveyed church positions like the one Nielsen opposed, I think Woodruff's pronouncement that no leader of the church would ever lead it astray applies.

Unusual Dude said...

I can definitely appreciate your views, MF. For example, it seems that President Kimball was mistaken when he talked about homosexuality in "The Miracle of Forgiveness" because church leaders are now making a distinction between attractions and behaviors. Knowing that prophets may make mistakes doesn't weaken my testimony of their roles as spokesmen for God, but it certainly is an important thing to acknowledge.

However, it also seems to me that President Kimball's book was really his own viewpoint - an important one, considering he was the prophet, but nevertheless simply his viewpoint. At least, I don't recall him ever claiming it to be the Lord's will revealed to him, and that he simply wrote it down. I don't have any problem with a prophet erring as far as his own personal viewpoints go.

However, the "Proclamation on the Family" does seem to be more of a this-is-the-Lord's-will-and-we're-relaying-it-to-you type of thing. I don't have any proof of that, it's just how I see it. Personally, I don't think there's anything in there that isn't in line with God's will - so I'm siding more with -L- on this one.

Thanks to both of you for some very thought-provoking comments.

santorio said...

church leaders make mistakes all the time, big ones, small ones. that doesn't mean they are not inspired. i am a middle manager--i write memos and annual reviews; i change shedules; i exhort and encourage some 12 people who know that i have no power over their salaries or employment status. hardly a day goes by when i don't get annoyed, angry or just feel terribly unappreciated. now multiply my troubles by a million and i get just a brief glimps what it must take to lead the church. so i support church leaders just like i wish members of my department would support me: showing up for meetings on time, completing assignments, being nice to each other, once in a while taking the initiative [gasp], and giving me the benefit of the doubt. but i need honest feedback; when they think my latest proposal stinks, i want to know that; i need to know that. church leaders need feedback to. the trick is providing feedback without undermining leadership. to me that's the debate about nielsen; not whether his opinions are right or wrong but whether he chose the most effective forum.

Unusual Dude said...

I actually wrote my thoughts before seeing -L-'s response, then published and it was already there. I hate it when people beat me, and then it looks like I copied them. Oh well, I guess -L- has a right to comment on his own blog whenever he wants to.

And I have a right to be bitter. *wink*

Chris (hurricane) said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tolkien Boy said...

When I went with Eleka to hear Neilsen speak, the thing I most wanted to understand was where God fit into his philosophies, as he definitely makes his case surrounding the sanctioned autonomy of man. I was curious to know whether God filled any function beyond the avuncular.

Controversy, of course, ensued when I made my curiosity known, which is why I don't share my ponderings often.

Chris (hurricane) said...

I know I said that I was going to leave y'all alone for awhile, but I can't resist making a couple of comments.

As I read L's take on Nielsen, I remembered once reading that Catholics claim to believe in papal infallibility, but don't really, while Mormons claim to believe in prophetic fallibility, but really don't. That certainly seems to be the case here. L, the position you are staking out is, essentially, that the Church's leadership can never really be wrong. I think history shows otherwise.

I don't know how you think revelation works at the highest levels of church leadership, but from what I know of it, it is not all that dissimiliar to how it works at the local level and for your average church member. And that means that there is a lot of room for subjectivity and outside influence. Even at my most faithful, I always believed that prophets see through a glass darkly, just like the rest of us. Again, I think history--and even many statements from church leaders--backs this up.

L, I also have to say that I'm disappointed to see you do here what I think you would decry in other contexts: you are basically calling into question Nielsen's faith, commitment and loyalty because if he was faithful, committed and loyal he wouldn't come to such a conclusion--and he certainly wouldn't be public about it. You haven't addressed any of the substance of his stance other than to dismiss it by saying it doesn't square with your understanding of LDS doctrine and the role that prophets play.

Finally, you mention Abraham and Moses. I think it is misguided at best and dangerous at worst to read the stories you referenced literally.

Scot said...

How very menacing, and disturbingly impossible to counter.

Seems at some point you’d have to start wondering if God is indeed testing you, all of you, not simply your obedience, but you don’t. Would you draw any line, L?

“…that there's a particular power in accepting God's curious position anyway.”

Kierkegaard, in your link, calls this power “the strength of the absurd.” It is very strong. There’s no way for me to counter your position, and no way for you to counter a Muslim with this faith, and so on and on. You’ve all got God’s position, and it can even be internally paradoxical. You could do anything told to you by officially conveyed church positions, and it’s right.

Only the slow march of generations seems to change such things.

Think of all the many centuries of people (ironically even Jews) in the same shoes of those Canaanite parents, begging for their children’s lives. Their best hope was force, but, typically being the minority, it rarely saved them. Reason and compassion cannot, by such faith’s design, affect their tormentor. Instead, the Golden Rule is upheld and you can treat others in a way you’d not want to be treated; your children are dashed to the rocks and it’s moral; you can make your neighbor’s family a legal second class to yours because of their anatomy, take their tax dollars and you’re a just man.

Is it really Nielsen who wants “the latitude to take his pick for whatever issue du jour comes along”? It seems he is sticking with a pretty absolute, long-standing idea of morality, and it’s this sort of faith in the paradoxical that's used to pick and choose exceptions to the rules.

-L- said...

Chris, pardon me while I enjoy noting your absence didn't last very long. I knew when I posted this that there was no way in hell you would be silent if you actually did read it.

I guess I just have to restate my thoughts because they haven't been clear to you. I do think Nielsen's standing up for what he believes (and MFOB's, for that matter) is a commendable thing. I found his article compelling; I just think he has a weak-sauce idea of how exactly God interacts with His church (as do/did you). I don't think the church is merely "another" organization. I do agree with santorio above and I do think there are many aspects of the church that aren't micro-managed by God himself. Gay marriage and the Proclamation to the Family (thank you U Dude) seem to be pretty clearly outside that category.

I think it's all debatable and I'm interested in all the feedback here. I'm a little surprised at some of the points made (and some I expected that have not been made). If you don't think this topic has me quite conflicted and curious, then I haven't been writing very well (I find being glib to be amusing, but then I see MFob's picture looking sternly at me... or sincerely... or SOMEHOW reprovingly and think I should be more grave and diplomatic... and then I remember that that's boring). But I think I may find different parts of the issue puzzling than you think I should.

And just as I was ready to post this, up turns Scot's comment with the sort of objections I thought would have turned up long ago. Thanks, Scot. I thought I would have to debate myself.

Yes, this is the sort of issue that has opponents of Mormonism frothing at the mouth and screaming "cult!" and the paradoxical nature of faith in something like this is recognized by Kierkegaard (and me) to be absurd and baffling.

What can I say? We understand each other and I can only say that God can and does make what appears to be exceptions to moral law based on His perfect knowledge. That people perform atrocities in the name of God is horrible, indeed, but doesn't change the philosophical basis for the times when He appears to be atrocious but is not. For me, it largely comes down to confidence in God's prophets as actually speaking for God... and the Martin Harris response of never believing that to be the case unless it agrees with our own prejudices.

Scot said...

I do try to be on cue. :-)

Radio West recently did a piece on how the LDS church has finally escaped cult status in the US culture. I’d agree, and haven’t heard them referred to as such for a long time (note where I live :-)). Anyway, such faith in the paradoxical is a characteristic of most major religions I can think of, not merely cults; it can also be found in the secular world.

“What can I say?”

That’s just it. There’s nothing to be done about it (but that won’t stop the keyboards ;-)). It just is. By definition, there’s no proof to be worked out; I can’t argue around it; I can’t conduct an experiment and publish the procedure to be replicated.

I could try to undermine the emotional reasons for keeping such a belief with example after example of how this is hurting people, more people than gays and their children, but the LDS political efforts are not even near the already justified practice of impaling children on swords. I can’t compete. I just have to take it and hope things don’t get worse.

I’m actually more hopeful than pessimistic, though, from personal experiences in my neighborhood and so on. There’s a man about 10 minutes from here in a penthouse apartment across from a big granite building that could… Eh, maybe in the next generation. :-)

Scot said...

One more thing; I’ve met Professor Nielsen and found him to be a very friendly unassuming guy on first impressions. If you want to understand his position better than an editorial could convey (darn word count limit!), I bet you could track down his email address. If not, I know people in correspondence with him and could likely get it. Seems he responds to correspondence in detail, at least he was a couple weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

One think I've not seen discussed is the reference Nielsen made to polygamy and how the church's stance has changed over the years. While they still practice polygamy in the temple through sealing widowers to multiple women their recent comments claim marriage is only between one man and one woman. It seems his point is that things change with the times, even in the eternal church.

I'm not a scholar on the LDS church but I have never found exactly where Joseph Smith declared that anyone with black heritage could not participate fully in the chruch. So where/when exactly did this take place?

One further thought on the idea that prophet can make mistakes in their personal beliefs but that does not transfer to their leading of the church. The problem with believing this is that comments made and written by McConkie (if that is how you spell it) regarding the church's stance on black men holding the preisthood were taken as God's revealed truth. Kimball's beliefs about gay men were reflected in his leadership and sadly many of us would have had to suffer in complete silence and would have risked everything going to our priesthood leaders for help even if we had not actually done anything immoral.

Yeah, that is a little disjointed but you get the idea.

JD said...

To those who haven't listed to it already, I would recommend the interview Nielsen did with RadioWest. I think it provides a more nuanced view of Nielsen's beliefs than either his article in the Tribune or L's subsequent critique. You just might come away thinking that he hasn't necessarily "missed such a central premise of the Church." Or you might not. Either way it's good listening.

You can find it here.