Belief and Practice

April 15, 2004 | 40 comments
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I said, “I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself,” and Susan asked, “Are you saying that LDS religion helps you to practice religion better and live better than you would otherwise?” Good question.

Sorry to have made such an off-the-cuff but non-obvious remark. Many think of a religion as a set of beliefs. I don’t. In fact, if I use LDS terminology, I think that assuming belief to be the core of religion is one of the effects of the apostasy. In broad, but more philosophical terms, it is a Hellenistic rather than Semitic idea. I think of religion as a set of practices (both formal and informal) that reveal the world in a particular way. Beliefs are part of those practices and are important as such, but they are neither important nor meaningful in themselves, separated from the practices in which they occur. So, the belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet is important to LDS because holding that belief is a practice, among others, that makes sense of the world in a particular way.

One result of this is that I’m not very interested in a philosophy of religion that tries to understand religious beliefs in themselves, separated from the practical contexts in which they occur. I have described that understanding of the relation of religion to belief as “atheological.” Obviously, I think that LDS belief is fundamentally atheological.

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40 Responses to Belief and Practice

  1. Jeremy on April 15, 2004 at 11:46 pm

    “Many think of a religion as a set of beliefs. I don’t.”

    This rings true to me. In the temple recommend interview questions, for example, there are a few rather broad “do you believe” questions and lots of “do you do” questions. And once you get to the temple, there’s no one to decipher the rich symbolisms and narratives of the ordinances for you; you just listen and think on your own. There may be a “theology” in there, but it’s one that is rarely articulated outside of its ritual manifestation, and thus exists only on an internal or personal level–and what’s more, the ordinances culminate in a series of covenents, all of which are action-oriented rather than belief-oriented.

    Would you say, further, that the “atheological” nature of the LDS church specifically is magnified (more than in other sects) by the absence of professional clergy? Everybody has a day job on the local level, and no seminarians in the upper levels; and it seems to me that the 150 or so ecclesiatical leaders on the church’s payroll, get paid (that is, get modest stipend) primarily to DO things, not to THINK. So, who has _time_ for theology?!

  2. john fowles on April 15, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    We have to be careful with statements like that. They are fine for inner dialogue, since we understand the workings of the LDS faith. But it is a faith that is unique to the extent that only an inner dialogue can adequately digest such an assertion. To the outside it will merely look like a vidication of the position that LDS want to “save themselves” by their works in the old faith v. works polemic.

    Professor Faulconer is, of course, right on this–but also semantically misleading. A closer look at his statement begs the question of whether he should not have stated that belief is not “central” to LDS religion (I believe he shouldn’t have phrased it that way). I think that it is inacurrate, even though the conclusion is correct–that the PURPOSE of belief in LDS religion is to inspire the correct practice of religion. But that does not mean that it is not still central to our system. A mere “desire to believe” is the starting point of our faith. The Book of Mormon is too full of discourse on belief to justify a statement that it is not central to our religion. After all, it was James (i.e. an old world writer rather than a BoM writer) who suggested that faith without works is dead. We subscribe to that proposition whole-heartedly, but (in my opinion) without rejecting the idea that belief still comes first and, when it is a belief in that which is true–coupled with hope–it becomes faith, which LDS view as containing a principle of action. That is, it is my belief, as a Latter-day Saint, that true faith is practiced religion, as devoid of hypocrasy as is possible in this mortal state.

    John

  3. Ben on April 16, 2004 at 12:05 am

    Hey John, I hear you’ve moved to SLC:)

    I read the post as being about doctrines or tenets rather than belief or faith. If I’m reading him right, he’s saying that faith is one of the practices which forms the core of our religion.

    On the other hand, philosophy of the most basic kind seems to go right over my head:)

    Wasn’t there a presentation like this at the Yale Conference, dealing with the Word of Wisdom? I wasn’t there, but I seem to remember hearing something about it…

  4. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 12:15 am

    Jeremy, it would be interesting to explore the connection between the atheological character of our religion and the absence of a professional clergy. Of course my first response is to say that you’re right–but that’s because I’m LDS too, and that seems intuitively correct. Figuring out whether our intuitions are, indeed, correct would be interesting.

    John, I’m not sure how my argument that beliefs are part of practices could be construed as a vindication of the criticism that we think we can save ourselves by our works. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that I don’t understand why you think that.

    Let me expand on my post, since I assume that what you misunderstood someone else also may have misunderstood. Perhaps my explanation will satisfy your concerns (though, of course, it also may not).

    The point of my post is not to pit belief against practice and make us choose one over the other. My argument is that belief is a kind of practice: to desire to believe is to DO something. Believing isn’t merely a mental state, disconnected from the world. The philosophical tradition has usually treated beliefs as things that initiate acts but that are not acts themselves. I think that is a mistake. Thus, I think it is a mistake to think that religion (LDS or otherwise) is a set of beliefs. Instead, as I said, it is a set of practices that reveal the world in a particular way. But those sets of practices usually include beliefs. Does that help make my remark more sensible, or do you still think I’m wrong? If you still think I’m wrong, help me understand how.

  5. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 12:18 am

    Ben, I also heard that someone gave a presentation on a similar topic at the Yale conference.

  6. Jeremy on April 16, 2004 at 12:31 am

    On my mission I always thought it was very interesting that often when someone baited me into a discussion of faith v. works, they still insisted that “believing” still had to be demonstrated–or perhaps was embodied by–an act: uttering a prayer or confession of belief, accepting Jesus in one’s heart, etc.

  7. john fowles on April 16, 2004 at 12:40 am

    Professor Faulkoner,

    I didn’t say you were wrong (did I?–I haven’t reread that last post). I just thought it could have been phrased better. I actually agreed with you but I would not have said that belief is not “central.” I was just nit-picking, trying to avoid studying for this exam.

    I appreciate your explanation, however, and I do feel more comfortable now with the way that you phrased it. You are essentially taking issue with the entire philosophical construct on what a belief is. As you noted, that goes for all other belief sets too; you seem to be saying no other religion holds that belief is divorced from action, or in other words, the “practice” of religion.

    I also find the general “atheological” nature of the LDS faith to indicate an interesting connection to our lack of professional clergy. Is it too politically incorrect to bring the Great Apostasy into the discussion at this point? My general view has long been that much of the artifice of “traditional” Christianity is little more than cloaked Greek philosophy and philosophical drive that filled the vacuum left by prophetic leadership and authority. The many “ologies” that have preoccupied the religious authorities throughout the period of the apostacy testify to this notion (and rightly perplexed Joseph Smith, who took issue with their “creeds,” which were squarely built on these abstractions).

    Ben–we’ve bought a house in SLC but haven’t quite moved there yet. . . !!!

    John

  8. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 12:53 am

    John, if you call me “Professor Faulconer” on this list you’re going to get in trouble. (I may demand that you be excluded!) In class it would not only be fine, I would expect it. But this isn’t class or related to class, so just call me Jim, please. Or, if you can’t do that, at least take it down a notch to “Brother Faulconer.”

  9. john fowles on April 16, 2004 at 12:56 am

    Sorry Jim! No offense intended. Relatively new to the blogosphere (plus I’ve never had one of your classes. . . .)

  10. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 12:58 am

    No offense taken.

  11. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 12:59 am

    No offense taken–I was just kidding about having you excluded.

  12. brayden on April 16, 2004 at 3:25 am

    Jim, your description warms my empiricist heart (in the methodological sense). I like the idea that religion is primarily experienced through practice, and that this serves as the reinforcement and anchor for a set of ideas and beliefs linked to those practices.

    Practice is something that we (as social actors trying to figure out the world around us) can observe and use as an indicator of how truly “religious” someone is. We learn about others’ beliefs through their actions – or at least we think we’ve learned something about their beliefs. It’s no wonder the temple recommend interview asks so many practice-oriented questions.

    An interesting implication of this is that practice is the glue that binds Mormons. Through practice we form communities. We even identify other Mormons through practices (looking for that garment line or CTR ring). It’s not often that we go up to someone in the mall and ask them to explain their position on the First Vision, but we can assume a lot if we see an over-sized family in the mall all wearing BYU sweatshirts.

  13. Ivan Wolfe on April 16, 2004 at 9:43 am

    Brayeden – the temple reccomend interview asks a lot of belief oriented questions as well.

    Rather than saying belief or practive are central to our religion, I see them as so intertwined as any attempt to make distinctions as to which is “more important” tends toward failure. You can’t really seperate them.

  14. Ivan Wolfe on April 16, 2004 at 9:43 am

    Brayeden – the temple reccomend interview asks a lot of belief oriented questions as well.

    Rather than saying belief or practice are central to our religion, I see them as so intertwined as any attempt to make distinctions as to which is “more important” tends toward failure. You can’t really seperate them.

  15. Gary Lee on April 16, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    I would like to believe that beliefs are not central, and perhaps they are not central to the gospel, when properly understood. However, we do insist that members affirm that they hold certain beliefs in order to qualify for baptism and for the temple. It seems that holding these beliefs is indeed central to our religion as it is usually practised and understood. There is no room in the church for somebody to say, “I don’t believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but I do find great meaning in Mormon practices, and I do want to be a member in good standing of the Mormon church.” I wish it was otherwise. I believe that God cares much less about our beliefs than he does about our character and our practices, but I am not so sure that the institutional church does the same.

  16. clarkgoble on April 16, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    Perhaps a different way of putting it isn’t whether religion is primarily in terms of belief, but what we *mean* by belief. I’m a bit uncomfortably removing the place of belief. However I do think the idea that we have a set of propositions we assent to is incorrect. There is, I think, a subtle but important difference there. i.e. the issue isn’t belief but simple propositions.

  17. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    I like Clark’s way of putting this because it puts beliefs back into the realm of practices. Several of those who’ve commented seem to me to continue to insist on distinguishing between the two in a way that I’m trying to avoid. For example, Gary Lee’s point that we insist on people holding certain beliefs in order to qualify for baptism is well-taken. However, it seems to me that someone who says “I don’t believe in the Book of Mormon, but I do find great meaning in Mormon practices” is trying to separate belief from practice. Taken as a whole, part of the practice of baptism is a set of beliefs. As I said in my response to John, beliefs are themselves acts and parts of other acts, not something other than acts. So the act of baptism done without the requisite beliefs is a different act than the act done with those beliefs because it is a compound act and the former act includes different things than does the latter.

  18. Dave on April 16, 2004 at 8:00 pm

    Jim said, “I think of religion as a set of practices (both formal and informal) that reveal the world in a particular way. Beliefs . . . are neither important nor meaningful in themselves, separated from the practices in which they occur.”

    That’s a nice way to summarize the LDS approach to religion. Of course, having rejected high church liturgy, there is very little place for formal practice in LDS services. The temple offers instructive formal practices, but not for public discussion, only private reflection. So apart from baptism and the sacrament, most of these “pedagogical practices” must be informal.

    Candidates: Home evening? Freewheeling Sunday School discussions? General conference? Seminary attendance? Paying tithing? Feeding missionaries? Church basketball? Perhaps it depends how informal one wishes to go, but there is a lot to choose from in terms of informal practices that might be examples of one or another of the virtues we seek after. I suppose that in Jesus’ earthly ministry he was notably inclined toward informality; I rather like the idea of promoting exemplary informal practice as opposed to a defined ecclesiastical liturgy.

  19. Frank McIntyre on April 16, 2004 at 8:00 pm

    Jim’s last comment clears some of this up for me. As best I can tell, Jim is saying that all acts are bundled with the beliefs that motivated them. Thus baptism with belief is a different act different than without. Testimony-bearing with belief is a different act than without belief. No act exists independent from the mindset that went with it and caused it to be done.

    Does pondering the gospel then become an act? In which case, now I don’t understand what it could mean to just believe and not act, since thoghts are also acts.

  20. brayden on April 16, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    I hope I didn’t come across as pooh-poohing belief systems. I think beliefs are, obviously, an important part of our religion. I meant to say that since humans cannot walk around with belief barometers in their pockets, practice serves as a tool to understand and gauge belief, both in ourselves and in our interactions with others.

    Citing myself (I like to do that once in a while), I think that practices “serve as the reinforcement and anchor for a set of ideas and beliefs linked to those practices.”

  21. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 8:30 pm

    Frank, I think I’m finally making myself better understood. However, I want to quibble with your way of putting it. You say “all acts are bundled with the beliefs that motivated them.” I would say instead that every act is what it is in its relation to other acts. A belief is an act that is what it is in its relation to other acts, such as baptism. Thus, to believe that one must be baptized and not to be baptized is to believe something different than if one believes that one must be baptized and is baptized. Each belief is a different act because of its relation to other acts, just as the baptism in each case is different because of its relation to other acts (other acts that we name beliefs).

    What I’m trying to avoid is two sets of things–acts and beliefs–whose relation to one another turns out to be somewhat mysterious philosophically. I think that the usual way in which philosophy deals with these things, i.e., making beliefs the motivating forces behind acts, ends up in a variety of philosophical conundra, conundra created by the postulation that belief is not an act. I think that this distinction between acts and thoughts is an inheritance from Descartes, a misleading and unnecessary inheritance.

  22. Clark Goble on April 16, 2004 at 9:33 pm

    One way to consider this issue might be in terms of Peirce. (Sorry I keep bringing him up folks)

    “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

    Peirce meant by this that our concept hardness *meant* what was entailed in how we’d go about measuring or thinking about hardness. i.e. what practical effects hardness has in our actions.

    If we talk about a belief, then clearly the *meaning* of the belief is what is entailed by the practical effects the belief has in our life. A person who assents to the proposition “Jesus is the Christ” but allows it to do nothing in their life clearly believes something different than a person who assents to the same proposition but has it entail a life change. The beliefs just can’t be considered the same.

  23. Jim F. on April 16, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    Clark no need to apologize for bringing in a careful thinker like Peirce.

  24. greenfrog on April 17, 2004 at 12:08 am

    One can understand the rejection of creeds in the account of the First Vision not as a prelude to introducing a new and improved creed, but rather a different sort of approach to religion altogether, one that accords with Jim’s idea here.

  25. Rick on April 17, 2004 at 1:25 am

    I agree with the original observation that sparked this discussion. This church stresses behaving over believing. It is interesting to note that the questions bishops ask to determine temple worthiness rigorously assess the orthodoxy of one’s religous practice, but only tangentially touch on one’s religious belief. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that since faithful church membership is such a difficult enterprise in a society like ours, no one who didn’t believe would pay the price of membership. Hence, adherence to Gospel mandates are better evidence of belief than someone’s self professed belief. (They draw near to me with their lips . . .) Of course, there are still those Mormons in Utah who behave not because they are committed, but to avoid the stigma of inactivity or apostasy. They’re exceptions to my rule. What about them? And if they walk the walk, is it even a problem if they don’t believe?

  26. Ivan Wolfe on April 17, 2004 at 1:28 am

    Rick:

    I don’t understand.

    It seems to me that the Temple reccomend interview rigorously interrogates your beliefs before it ever gets to practices.

    Do you believe in God, accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and accept the current President of the church as a prophet?

    Seems like belief comes first in those questions.

  27. Rick on April 17, 2004 at 9:59 am

    That’s a fairly superficial assessment of belief, and one which allows people with rather heterodox views to answer in the affirmative without much rationalization. For instance, one would not need to accept such fundamental tenets as the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, it is easy to imagine someone who rejects the BofM narrative, but still “accepts” Joseph Smith as a prophet, has a “testimony” of the Gospel, and hence gets his/her recommend signed. If the temple interview was as cursory at assessing behavior as it is in assessing belief, then bishops would only ask something like, “Is your lifestyle in accordance with the mandates of the church?” In short, one could reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon and enter the temple, but one could never do so while disobeying the Word of Wisdom. But which is a better marker of orthodoxy? I assert that in the current church, behavior trumps belief, because belief is taken for granted among those who behave.

  28. Ivan Wolfe on April 17, 2004 at 2:36 pm

    That makes sense. Thanks for clarifying. I do agree that belief is taken for granted among those who behave – especially since if you think the BoM is ahistorical and Joseph was only a prophet in the most general sense of the the word, most Mormons would wonder why on earth one would even pay tithing and fast offering/obey the WoW/go to the temple/etc.

    I know people who “behave” but don’t have orthodox beliefs, so I know it can be done. At the same time, of the few (very few) people I know who “behaved” without necessarily accepting the BoM as historical/etc. most of them are no longer active in the church, though they remain interested in Mormonism. In that case, their beliefs changed their behavior so that their behavior was no longer “orthodox.”

    Maybe there are more people who “behave” yet hold unorthodox beliefs, yet they keep quiet about it. I don’t know.

  29. Susan on April 18, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    Jim, thanks for clarifying that original statement I asked about. I agree that separating Mormon theology from practice and context does it violence. And I would add that this structure for religious practise goes back to Joseph Smith. Joseph’s theological innovations are almost always generalizations based on narrative innovations in religious texts. The narrative innovations in these texts lay down patterns and plots for the actions/practices expected of the community of faith gathering around Joseph. For example, in 1830 Joseph dictates the story of Enoch for the New Translation, the story of a city of Zion. This narrative provides the backdrop for the mission to the Indians and designation of Missouri as site of New Jerusalem. In 1832 Joseph dictates innovations to the story of Moses in the New Translation, followed by revelations on priesthood, and then the introduction of the High Priesthood into the young church. You get the idea. It is always difficult to disentangle the changes and innovations in the new church without looking at the context and the actions that were built on the words of the sacred texts. The notion of continuing revelations makes it possible for beliefs to change and transform in relation to practise.

  30. Grasshopper on April 18, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    Ivan wrote:

    “It seems to me that the Temple reccomend interview rigorously interrogates your beliefs before it ever gets to practices.”

    Perhaps, in keeping with Jim’s suggestions in here, we should understand our professions of belief in the temple recomment interview in terms of acts in relation to the Church. It seems to me that these questions have much more to do with our relation to the Saints and to the LDS Church than they do with specifics about our beliefs. I think they really establish our connection to the community and our loyalty to the Church:

    – Our sharing of the most basic belief in God
    – The commonality of accepted scripture
    – Our sharing of a religious restoration history
    – Our loyalty to current Church leadership

    I think the questions are worded very generally for a good reason: they are not intended to detail beliefs, but rather to establish a common base of relation between the interviewee and the communion of the Saints so that the highest level of communal acceptance and entrance into the most sacred space can be granted.

  31. Jim F. on April 19, 2004 at 1:15 am

    Grasshopper: I wish I’d said it as well as you have. Thanks.

  32. Grasshopper on April 19, 2004 at 2:31 am

    Thanks for the compliment, Jim. At the risk of ruining it all, I decided to try a little more…

    It seems to me that many of the posts in this thread, in saying something like “the Church values behavior over belief”, perpetuate the distinction between “belief” and “acts” that Jim is trying to have us avoid. Here are some ideas that help me to think about this in Jim’s terms.

    Rather than seeing our answers to the temple recommend interview questions as (merely) statements *about* our beliefs, we can see our act of answering as an act of relating to the Church. In the very moment of answering, we are (re)establishing our commitment to the community of the Church. In this sense, the temple recommend interview is very ritualized. This can seem odd to our modern minds, because we typically expect questions and answers to be more about *content* than about relation. But especially in ritual and scripture, questions and answers have much to do with relation.

    For example: After Adam and Eve have partaken of the fruit, the Lord asks, “Adam, where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9) We can interpret this question in terms of its content (that God asking about Adam’s physical whereabouts), but it becomes more meaningful, I think, to understand it in terms of relation: God is challenging Adam to (re)consider his relation to God.

    Ritual questions and answers also play a major role in the endowment ceremony.

    The temple recommend interview questions invite us, similarly, to (re)consider our relation to the Church. Our answers are themselves acts that bind us to the Church (or not, depending on how we answer). Something similar is at play in the bearing of testimony: the bearing of testimony is an act that relates us to our religious community and to God, and has consequent effects (such as the forgiveness of sin and the sanctification by the Spirit).

    Consider the testimony that “the Church is true”. It is not clear to me (or to anyone else I’ve discussed this with) what the propositional content of such a statement is. But it seems quite clear to me that the utterance of this statement is an act that both acknowledges and effects a binding relation to the Church and to the community of Saints. Implicit in this act are some shared beliefs that make such a binding possible, but the specifics of individual beliefs are not central to the act (it doesn’t matter much that one person’s idea of what “the Church is true” means is different from another’s).

    How we think about things certainly informs our “outward” actions, and can transform them into something that is not immediately obvious. But that thinking is itself an act, as Jesus seems to say in the Sermon on the Mount. And, in my experience, outward acts can similarly inform the way we think about things. I find great value in committed participation in the Church in large part because it tempers my tendency to “intellectualize” things: it encourages integrity.

  33. greenfrog on April 19, 2004 at 11:15 am

    Consider the testimony that “the Church is true”. It is not clear to me (or to anyone else I’ve discussed this with) what the propositional content of such a statement is. But it seems quite clear to me that the utterance of this statement is an act that both acknowledges and effects a binding relation to the Church and to the community of Saints. Implicit in this act are some shared beliefs that make such a binding possible, but the specifics of individual beliefs are not central to the act (it doesn’t matter much that one person’s idea of what “the Church is true” means is different from anothers’)

    Help me understand this better. Are you proposing that certain (or all?) statements of belief are more important as ritual than as conveyors of meaning? Is this a tacit endorsement of esotericism (I mean one thing by the word X, but you think I mean something else; I’m aware of your mistaken meaning, yet I do not correct it; indeed, I depend upon your mistaken understanding to lead you to conclude that we are unified on the substantive point, when, in fact, we are not.)?

  34. clarkgoble on April 19, 2004 at 2:41 pm

    “Are you proposing that certain (or all?) statements of belief are more important as ritual than as conveyors of meaning?”

    How do you separate those two? Surely ritual is a *way* of conveying meaning. Perhaps the emphasis differs only because for ritual, the main target of the ‘change’ is the speaker/actor while for regular communication it is the audience. (Although even that distinction seems hard to hold)

  35. Grasshopper on April 19, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    “Are you proposing that certain (or all?) statements of belief are more important as ritual than as conveyors of meaning?”

    I think Clark’s point is right on: the ritual is itself a conveyor of meaning, though perhaps a different meaning than appears on the surface. And I think this is likely true of all ritual: the outward form is not the meaning that is being conveyed.

    “Is this a tacit endorsement of esotericism?”

    I think it is more an acknowledgment than an endorsement (though I do think that deliberate esotericism is sometimes justified). There is always more to what we mean than we can say. In addition, conventional forms may communicate something different than is apparent on the surface.

    In the particular case of “the Church is true”, I think it is difficult even to determine what the content of the statement is. I have asked many Latter-day Saints what it means when they say “the Church is true”, and have received a wide variety of answers. Does this mean that they are not unified on the substantive point? I don’t think so; I just think that the substantive point is not immediately apparent from the words uttered. In fact, the substantive point may be the utterance itself.

    I think this may also be the case with the “belief”-oriented temple recommend interview questions: the substantive point may not be immediately apparent from the wording of the questions; in fact, the substantive point may be the interaction of the asking and the answering.

  36. greenfrog on April 19, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    “I think this may also be the case with the ‘belief’-oriented temple recommend interview questions: the substantive point may not be immediately apparent from the wording of the questions; in fact, the substantive point may be the interaction of the asking and the answering.”

    I do not disagree that ritual and words can both be signifiers. I disagree quite strongly that they are functionally interchangeable for either usage or precision.

    Consider the following hypothetical, working from Grasshopper’s last sentence, quoted above: Assume if you were to ask me to communicate my personal views of the existence of a higher being of any kind, whether denominated as God, God the Father, or what have you. Then assume that, nonetheless, I wish to be considered a member in full communion of the LDS Church. Finally, assume that, when I am asked in a temple recommend interview about whether I have a testimony of God, I answer in the affirmative. Under Grasshopper’s rationale, could I be justified in so answering, since the ritual of the question and answer has a meaning of its own, disconnnected from the significance of the words actually used?

  37. Jim F. on April 19, 2004 at 6:54 pm

    Greenfrog (one who, presumably, eats grasshoppers): I didn’t take Grasshopper’s claim to be that “the ritual of the question and answer has a meaning of its own, disconnected from the significance of the words actually used.” To say that they are intended more to establish a relation to the community and than to detail beliefs is not to say that the details of the beliefs are irrelevant. “More” does not mean “instead of” or “irrespective of.”

  38. greenfrog on April 19, 2004 at 9:36 pm

    There’s something important going on here that I don’t think I fully understand.

    Perhaps I can articulate my confusion this way: Grasshopper (who intellectually eats greenfrog WAY more frequently than things happen the other way around) suggested that he was uncertain that the word “true” contained any objective element of meaning at all as it is used in testimony meetings. I had understood him to suggest that its use in such settings might be more usefully understood as ritual, rather than as a conveyance of meaning. This makes sense to me.

    Then, I understood Grasshopper to suggest further that temple recommend colloquy could be understood in the same ritualistic fashion. I think Grasshopper may be correct about the use of the word “true” in testimonies. To what extent is the ritualistic use of the word “true” dependent on the word’s relatively objective meaning? If the ritualistic use of the term were truly devoid of “verbal” meaning, then presumably it would be as useful for everyone to be conditioned to use some other adjective, such as “I know the Church is green.” That sounds absurd to my ear, so I presume that something else is intended by use of the word “true,” even if figuring it out is difficult.

    Also, were we to conclude that the action is really independent of verbal meaning, that suggests the potential for tension between verbal and ritualistic meanings.

    To draw an analogy between testimonial “true” and the temple recommend dialogue seems, to my limited faculties, to create a tension between the relatively greater objective meaning of words as used in verbal communication and the relatively lesser objective meaning of rituals. My hypothesized question was intended to highlight the tension I perceived Grasshopper’s model to create and to explore the potential limits of that tension.

    Is there a way of understanding Grasshopper’s point without such a tension being created, whether or not one believes that such an extreme as I have hypothesized would ever occur?

  39. Clark Goble on April 20, 2004 at 12:58 am

    This is the way I typically look at it. (Although I should add the caveat that I think most people do take the straightforward meanings of “true” to various degrees)

    When we say the church is true we are saying it is in harmony or is in accordance. One way to think of it as in truing a bike wheel. To true it is to make it round – to remove the bends and twists or variants. In other words we are in accord. When we say this we are bringing ourselves into harmony.

    The same thing is true of bishopric interviews. What is important isn’t just the stating of our beliefs in terms of simple statements. Rather it is that confrontation we have with our own beliefs in the presence of a priesthood leader. That in turn does a kind of comparison between us and what we are to be in harmony with. Do we accord or don’t we? By analogy, when I true a bike wheel, I can feel parts that are not true to the circle. When I bear (or hear) a testimony (or the questions to a bishop) I can tell in my soul if I am in harmony. If I am true to what I am to be true to.

    Hope that helps.

  40. Jim F. on April 20, 2004 at 1:35 am

    Greenfrog: You’ve articulated yourself quite well, and what you articulated is an excellent question rather than confusion. But I should back away from defending Grasshopper and let him do it himself. He is perfectly capable of doing so, so I’ll let him.

    My own position is that the temple recommend questions are important because they allow me to place myself within the community. However, they could not do that were the questions themselves devoid of meaning. When the bishop asks whether I keep the Word of Wisdom, unless that question has meaningful content, then the act of saying “Yes” cannot place me within the community as a member. (For lots of reasons too irrelevant to discuss here I’m not keen on thinking of verbal communication as more objective than ritual, so I’ve tried to put this in a way I am more comfortable with, but I hope you can see that I am, more or less, agreeing with your point.)

    Nevertheless, when the bishop asks me even about “mere” beliefs, as some of the questions do, I don’t take him to be asking me about a different category of things than when he asks me about my acts. Each of the acts he asks me about–whether belief in the Father and the Son or treating my family members appropriately–has the meaning that it has only as part of a larger web of acts. So, just as the phrase “the Church is true” is best understood as part of a larger web (a web which, in this case, doesn’t hang very much content on the word “true”–though Clark’s point about what “true” means is, I think, well taken), the temple recommend questions are best undestood as part of a larger web, though in this case more hangs on the content words of those questions.

    That’s where I see the analogy, in both being acts that mean what they do as part of a larger set of acts rather than in one being ritualistic and relatively devoid of objective content while the other has considerable content.

    Have I obfuscated enough to make everything perfectly muddy?