A Fun Discussion

December 11, 2003 | 16 comments
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There has been an interesting discussion over at the Metaphysical Elders on the perennial “Iron Rod v. Leahona” debate. In runs from this post to this post. Also, they seem to have added comments, although you have to go to the main page to see them, i.e. you can’t comment on archived posts.

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16 Responses to A Fun Discussion

  1. dp on December 11, 2003 at 5:38 pm

    For a better explanation of the disctinction between Iron Rodders and Liahonas, see Richard Poll’s talk “What the Church Means to People Like Me.” If you can excuse the obvious lack of proof reading, a copy is available at http://www.zionsbest.com/people.html

    I see myself as a definite Iron Rodder, and have to wonder if I am the only reader here who would classify themselves as such.

  2. Adam Greenwood on January 16, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    Chastened iron rodder over here, too.

  3. Logan on January 16, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Not me — I’m definitely a Liahona man. But I still want to be friends.

  4. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    Here’s a vote for thinking the liahona – iron rod taxonomy is horrible. For one they are symbolic of the same thing and the symbols function in a very similar fashion. For an other I don’t think that it describes the social structures in a helpful fashion. Lastly I find that those using the taxonomy often use it to create a hierarchy. (i.e. I’m one of the *good* liahonahs as opposed to those weaker “iron rodders.”)

    Of course not everyone abuses them in that fashion. But I’ve seen it quite regularly, even by those who don’t realize they are doing it.

    The biggest problem is that people don’t fit into the categories neatly. People some label as “iron rodders” turn out to not function that way when you get to know them. It tends to confuse a particular way of reading texts with ways of knowing.

    I could go on. But it’s been a pet peeve of mine ever since I first encountered the labeling back at BYU. I’d also note that it is often a way of justification. i.e. a way of denying arguments. “I don’t care what the prophet said because that way of listening to him is what an iron rodder would understand but I’m a liahonah.” Of course put much more persuasively to the self…

  5. Logan on January 16, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    To the extent that the analogy creates a “righteousness hierarchy,” Iron Rod vs. Liahona could well be a harmful thing to perpetuate. I think the distinction that it attempts to describe is largely real, though. And although I consider myself, as I said, a “Liahona-man,” I know many people on both sides of the analogy whom I respect for their righteousness.

    But I’m curious as to whether other people think it’s a demeaning analogy. If so, I’ll stay away from it — the last thing I want to do is carelessly make someone feel *inferior* for their testimony, when I decidedly do not consider them so.

  6. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    The taxonomy attempts to distinguish how we view counsel, whether from leaders or the scriptures. Some take them fairly literally and think we ought to obey even when perhaps the consequences aren’t that big. (i.e. R-rated movies) Others think that you have to look at the principle behind the comments and then allow a lot of exceptions.

    The problem is that the symbol used (the liahonah or the iron rod) aren’t really good for that phenomena. Worse I find that they distort the way we read the Book of Mormon. (Connotation and all that…)

    The other problem is that even if we view the issue in terms of how we view texts there are all sorts of issues. Supposed iron rodders recognize that even prophetic statements have limits. Further they go by the spirit as much as righteous liahonahs. Same with vice versa. Indeed I’ve noticed that often those who speak like “iron rods” in public think through like the stereotyped “liahonah” in private. I also find the opposite.

    The danger is that I see the categories as so open for abuse. Beyond the heirarchal issues (which were common in the early 90′s) there is the issue of self justification. “Iron rod” allows someone to become pharasetical and justify it. “Liahonah” allows someone to say they are going by the spirit when they clearly aren’t and are simply justifying not following the brethren.

  7. Brent on January 16, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    “”Liahonah” allows someone to say they are going by the spirit when they clearly aren’t and are simply justifying not following the brethren”

    Case in point, a good friend of mine is convinced (and I have no doubt of his sincerity even though I believe he is deluded) that the “Spirit” has told him that the brethren and the Church are wrong in opposing same-sex marriage and for taking such a strong anti-homosexuality position. He feels completely justified in his borderline apostate position (based on certain public activities) because he has sought and received “his own answers” to these questions. (I also could give pharisaical examples as well).

  8. clarkgoble on January 16, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    That’s not really what I mean. To me that is outright justification. I mean more something like, “well _Kill Bill_ is R-rated but it’s not that bad and the brethren meant not to watch movies that hurt you. But it doesn’t affect me.” (I can say that since I loved _Kill Bill_ but have no illusions about justifying it)

  9. Logan on January 16, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    Clark: Certainly the analogy is simplistic. True, few people are strictly one or the other, but that happens with every classification. Can it potentially enable people to justify unrighteousness? Probably. Clearly, the liahona/iron rod notion is imperfect.

    But I can live with those imperfections, because it is a convenient shorthand for the phenomenon you ably described: “Some take them [leaders and scriptures] fairly literally and think we ought to obey even when perhaps the consequences aren’t that big. (i.e. R-rated movies) Others think that you have to look at the principle behind the comments and then allow a lot of exceptions.”

    I see the terms as “tendencies”, rather than “labels,” and having a term to describe each just helps me think in an organized way about why they’re there and what I can learn from them in myself and other people. In that way I find it a useful analogy. If you’ve got a better one, I’m happy to hear it.

    The real concern I had was the first one you raised, that it could establish a righteousness hierarchy and a way to make other people feel inferior. If people feel demeaned by it, then I don’t want to use it. Otherwise, it will probably stick with me, warts and all.

  10. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    That use I’m probably fine with. My pet peeve is more how the symbols in the Book of Mormon get twisted by it. The way it is used tries to make the Liahonah and Iron Rod function different symbolically than I think they do – often tied to faith. But the fact is that in both cases they told you explicitly where to go and if you didn’t follow you got lost. So my quibble is more linguistic/semiotic. But I’m probably alone in that so I’ll drop it. (grin)

  11. Kristine on January 16, 2004 at 5:01 pm

    Clark,
    I think Poll makes exactly that point, that both told you where to go. In one case it was a general directional pointer, in the other, a precise line with every step determined. Poll’s original essay is, I think, much more subtle than the uses to which it has been put. (Most people use the symbols as stand-ins for a cruder liberal-conservative dichotomy than Poll suggested.)

    The problem of mistaking a way of interpreting texts for a general way of knowing is a real problem with Poll’s essay, though.

  12. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    That’s more or less my point Kristine. A compass as described did direct every step. Even modern use is like this. When using maps and a compass you travel straight lines. This is *extremely* important, for instance on glacier travel in a whiteout. When you start varying too far from that straightline then your calculations are off and the compass doesn’t work that well. If you are using a compass without already knowing with a map where you are, then following it *exactly* is crucial.

    As Alma says, they “did not travel a *direct* course.” (Alma 37:38)

  13. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    Just to add to that, it doesn’t take adopting Freud to recognize the relationship of the liahonah and wandering in the wilderness with Lehi’s vision of the iron rod and wandering in the wilderness and the midsts of darkness.

  14. Kristine on January 16, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Um, wouldn’t it be harder to travel in a straight line without a map? If you just had a compass you’d be eyeballing it and doing your best guess of a straight line, not sighting to landmarks like with a map. Even with a map, every step is not determined the way it is if you’re holding onto a rod and can’t vary more than an arm’s length.

    And, by the way, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? :)

  15. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    If you are using a compass then traveling in a straight line isn’t that hard. The map typically isn’t that helpful in cases where the compass is very important. (Unless you have some landmarks on your route that are preknown to sync up with) The places where compass travel are most important are in places like whiteout during ski touring. Traveling in the mountains with a map typically offers enough landmarks that you don’t need a compass.

    We did orienteering as a kid in our school district. That was basically a scavenger hunt with maps and compasses. They had 8 sites you had to find (and get your map stamped) in a certain time frame. One time out I decided to ignore the compass and just use the map. Trust me – I didn’t do well. When using the compass you travel as straight as possible between laypoints. If you don’t think you can then you use more laypoints to ensure you are going the right place.

    In places like wide open prarie, whiteout, or deep forest, that really does make a huge difference. For Lehi travelling in a desert looking for water holes it would hae been crucial!

  16. clark goble on January 16, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    And yeah, it probably is a bit like arguing over the number of angels on a pin. But if you’ve been to my blog you know that I get a lot out of those kinds of discussions. But I realize many others don’t. So I try not to go down there too far. (BTW – the debate about the angels makes more sense if you realize it was about whether a finite or infinite number could fit — it related to the nature of angelic bodies and manifestations)

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