True Philosophies of Men

June 27, 2006 | 42 comments

“We are commanded to reject the philosophies of men (sometimes expressed as the commandments of men)
in favor of messages from messengers from God. I had always thought this just meant rejecting false philosophies. But now I wonder.

I was thinking about rejecting false philosophies a few days ago and the thought came into my mind that I had no real reason for thinking that the philosophies of men were just false philosophies. I couldn’t tell whether the thought was mine or the Holy Ghost’s.

I’ve been chewing on it for awhile, trying to figure out how a belief or statement could be true and still a “philosophy of men.” The best I’ve come up with is to think that maybe beliefs need to be baptized. That is, even if reason, observation, or secular authority makes me think with a high confidence that a belief is true, it may be wrong of me to treat that truth on par with the scriptures and the prophets without getting confirmation from God.

I’d like to hear your ideas.


42 Responses to True Philosophies of Men

  1. yAdam Greenwood on June 27, 2006 at 8:09 am

    Another idea–call it the ‘divine translation problem’:*

    The Gospel teaches a lot of things that are in tension: rejecting the philosophies of men vs. learning from the best books, prudence and fiscal foresight vs. taking no thought of the things of tomorrow, hierarchy v. equality, and so on. Usually these tensions can be reconciled, but the scriptures almost never try to, or even to acknowledge any tension. When the scriptures talk about learning from the best books, its full-throttle, gung-ho learning from the best books, and when they talk about rejecting the philosophies of men, its pure, undiluted rejection.

    The explanation, I think, is that (1) truth is not simply intellectual propositions, but the experience of an idea and (2) we don’t have the capacity to fully experience celestial truth. Thus, though two ideas may be held in balance in the mind of God, expressing them as a balance here on earth does not do justice to either one of them. Only be expressing each one separately as an all-encompassing truth can the human mind get some grasp of the truth and magnitude of the idea. In other words, its impossible to both understand how some gospel ideas relate to their complements, while understanding the strength and magnitude of those ideas. One or the other must be sacrificed, and sometimes its the relation to the complement that is.

    *I welcome suggestions for a better term.

  2. Scott on June 27, 2006 at 9:57 am

    I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it (Brigham Young, DBY, 2).

    “Mormonism,� so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.� The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism� includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. It is life, eternal life; it is bliss; it is the fulness of all things in the gods and in the eternities of the gods (Brigham Young, DBY, 3).

    My hunch is that when the “philosophies of men” are referred to, it is understood that the philosophies in question are erroneous.

  3. Seth R. on June 27, 2006 at 10:37 am

    Not just “false” philosophies Adam.

    We must also beware of the philosophies that are true, but that provide distraction from our true purpose as sons and daughters of God.

    Even an admirable political creed or praiseworthy activity can become an idol unto us if we allow it to detract from our obligation to clothe the naked and comfort the sick and afflicted, for example.

  4. MikeInWeHo on June 27, 2006 at 11:02 am

    Scott’s BY quote meshes nicely with Adam’s notion that truth which comes from secular sources can be spiritually confirmed and thus become part of a larger (celestial) whole. Mormonism’s innate syncretism is one of its core strengths, imo.

    re: 3 So clothe the gay homeless while you oppose their marriages, and you’re good to go? : )

  5. Julie M. Smith on June 27, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Adam, I am wondering if the real problem is how we treat the messenger:

    1. If a human delivers a message that is true, we might then trust that person with the next message they deliver, which may not be true, (i.e., some psychology guru writes a book that helps me parent better and agrees with gospel principles; I then eagerly read her next book and incorporate it without realizing that some of it contradicts gospel principles)

    2, A person delivers a message that is true, but for hte wrong reasons (ie., my testimony of the WoW is strengthened by a scientific study and so I begin justifying my observance of the WoW based on that stidy, What happens when the next study that comes out shows that red wine is good for you?)

    it may be that we see both of these things happen in satan’s role in the fall.

  6. Nathan Oman on June 27, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Adam: I don’t know what to say in response to your main post, other than that I like the idea of baptizing philosophies, although I am not sure that the witness of the Spirit is the only way that this can be done.

    On your second point, i wonder to what extent it is best to think fo the scriptures less as something to be reconciled into a single grand narrative, but rather as a set of discrete stories that we are suppose let just wash over and through us. The accumulation of stories doesn’t eventually subside into a unitary system, but the continued exposure to this particular bundle of particulars creates a certain kind of character, albeit one that is conflicted. It may be that creating the conflict is what the whole thing is about. Joseph Smith said that by proving contraries the truth is made manifested, and I tend to think that many difficult questions are resolved not by reasoning but by judgment, which is as much about a wisdom born of particulars as it s about the proper application of abstractions to concrete situations.

  7. Frank McIntyre on June 27, 2006 at 11:28 am


    This is an interesting approach. I think one grave problem is that we have few effective lens by which to determine truth other than the gospel. Thus, if a “philosophy of man” accords with the gospel, well I suppose we might accept that inasmuch as we already accept the gospel. But typically, we don’t really know if the philosophy accords with the gospel. All we know is that it is a philosophy of man. So since we can’t tell the false fromthe true, God gives us a general guideline that we should not trust the things?

  8. Ryan Bell on June 27, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    Funny, Adam, I’ve been thinking a lot myself about how to deal with the Philosophies of Men. I wonder if the loftiness of that phrase makes us look too high when trying figure out what the philosophies of men are. For example, we might take this as just admonition that we not adopt grand philosophies that contradict the gospel, whether we see that as Marxism or secularism or whatever else. But I’ve noticed a much more insidious tendency of smaller ideologies to creep into my thinking– something I’ve come to think of as Today Show Philosophy. This is the kind of popular trend reporting that can become so pervasive, and that comes to us with such urgency that we feel we must pattern our lives in accordance with its wisdom or perish. You simply must get into the real estate market or all is lost, or now you simply must get out of it or all is lost. Or mothers must get out of the workforce, or they must get into the workforce, or they must find ways to work from home and also garden; and if you don’t do this your kids will turn out awful.

    The frequent, though mostly random, coincidence between these principles and the principles of the gospel is a perfect example of how such philoophies may become mingled with scripture. And yet when we follow them or adopt them, we do so out of a strange, trance-like pressure to be a part of the mass that is in the know, rather than out of devotion to the tenets of the gospel and the good of the kingdom.

    And that’s why (getting around to your point, finally), I love the idea of baptizing these ideals. Because my problem isn’t in finding out which philosophies of men are true and which are false. I won’t be surprised at all if Matt Lauer tells me I need to get my kid healthier after school snacks and he ends up being right. My problem is finding out which are there to help me on the path to Godliness, which are motivated by the proper drives, and which are *important.* Baptizing these ideas, which I take to mean drowning them in the gospel to see if they survive, is an excellent way to take the worldly urgency out of them, and see not whether they’re true, but whether they matter and will matter ten years from now.

  9. greenfrog on June 27, 2006 at 12:30 pm


    In reading your post, I’m not sure I understand. Do you consider the “philosophies of men” to be different from or the same as intellectual processes such as the scientific method or the application of logic?

  10. Robert C. on June 27, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    I think the truth or falsity of human philosophies is not the point. Instead, the scriptural use of the phrase “philosophies/commandments/precepts of men” seems to be rooted in where one’s heart is.

    It seems most of the uses of this phrase are referencing Isa 29:13 (the New Testament references at least seem to quote almost directly from the Septuagint version of Isah 29:13). Different translations of this passage include a “learning by rote” manner of worship, in contrast to whole-hearted, sincere worship.

    I think D&C 46:7 gives a good description of the right way to approach God (notice the emphasis on action, not just learning—cf. 2 Ne 9:29; emphasis mine): “But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God . . . and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do in all holiness of heart, walking uprightly before me, considering the end of your salvation, doing all things with prayer and thanksgiving, that ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men; for some are of men, and others of devils.” The emphasis is on worshiping and acting with one’s heart fully turned toward God, in contrast to hypocritical, rote, or insincere worshiping or acting.

  11. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    “It seems most of the uses of this phrase are referencing Isa 29:13″

    Could you expand on this a little?

  12. Robert C. on June 27, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    Since I have this in on my computer, let me quote the WBC on Matt 15:7-9:

    Matthew adjoins the OT citation (Isa 29:13) at this point, following the preceding argument, in order to seal the case against the Pharisees. At bottom, the issue is one of hypocrisy, i.e. the pretense of obeying the will of God while in fact transgressing it. Hypocrisy, the art of seeming to be what one is not, is a particularly important subject in Matthew. . . . Isaiah had already talked about such hypocrisy in words that fit the pattern of the present situation so well that they amount to a prophecy, i.e., in the sense of typological correspondence between Isaiah’s day and the time of Jesus. (This perspective accords well with Matthew’s understanding of the fulfillment of the OT in the events concerning and surrounding Jesus.) The citation of Isa 29:13 is almost verbatim from the LXX, with only very minor changes in the first and last lines (i.e., vv 8a and 9b). The contrast between the lips or mouth and the heart in v. 8 is found also in Ps 78:36–37. It is the last line in particular, however, that is so amazingly appropriate to the Pharisees: “teaching doctrines, the commandments of human beings.� Jesus’ accusation is precisely that the Pharisees have supplanted the commandment of God with human commandments (cf. the allusion to “human commandments� drawn from Isa 29:13 in a similar connection in Col 2:22; Titus 1:14). Matthew elsewhere provides other examples of their practice (cf. chap. 23).

    Hagner, D. A. 2002. Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary . Word, Incorporated: Dallas.

  13. Robert C. on June 27, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    My cursory look at similar BOM and D&C phrases seems consistent with the idea that they are referencing Isaiah’s teaching (since Nephi and Christ quoted Isaiah so prolifically). Each of the occurrences of the phrase that I saw seemed to be in the context of teaching about full-hearted worship as opposed to rote-type, insincere worship….

  14. Mark Butler on June 27, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    To understand this issue properly we have to examine the metaphysics of truth – in the scriptural sense truth is the knowledge of the way things really are, were, and will be.

    Science is quite effective for discovering the way things *are*, including both present conditions and natural law. However, it is impotent, generally speaking, to discover the way things will be, because both free will and divine power have no place in science.

    So as we depart physical science to the social sciences and the humanities, we enter more and more into the philosophies of men, namely man made synthetic systems of value, that typical deny that their is any grand scheme, divine design, order in heaven, and so on. In short they thing that good and evil are devices of men, simply a matter of mortal preference, not principles to be judged with respect to near universal spiritual realities in the heavens above.

    No amount of intellectual analysis can determine the order of heaven, or the fulness of divine morality, because the latter is not inevitable in all respects, it is a creation, a system, a plan that has a foundation in natural law and natural reason but is not fully determined by it.

    So if heaven did not exist morality might well be as undetermined as contemporary philosophers say it is, but as that is not the case, and rather the kingdom of heaven is the ultimate righteous order of all things, revelation is the only adequate means of knowing of the fulness of morality, namely that which God has ordained for our salvation.

    Revelation, or the spirit of prophecy is also the only means to know that the forces in defense of that vision of morality, or the goodness of God, will ultimately triumph over all adversaries by righteous means – and that fact is the most revelant thing we can know with regard to the future.

    Science, being founded in natural law, is impotent on such questions. Much of philosophy, being founded in mortal preference, with no respect to the will of God, is equally impotent, indeed worse, and this fact is abundantly apparent when reading through the vast majority of the intellectual product of the enlightened. Ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth is an apt description indedd.

  15. Mark Butler on June 27, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    “there is” and “indeed” of course.

  16. Mark Butler on June 27, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.

    Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. ”

    (1 Corinthians 2:11-14)

  17. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    Given the context of ‘philosophies of men,’ perhaps the real issue is not whether ideas are true or false but whom we accept as authorities, in other words, from whom we are willing to take what is said as true. The answer should be that we accept what the Holy Ghost and other messengers from God tell us, but we should not accept other persons as authorities on truth, even if much of what they say seems to coincide with scripture, and even if what we accept on their authority turns out to be true. I think this is part of what Julie M. Smith was getting at.

  18. Jeff Day on June 27, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Brigham indeed taught that he would even receive teachings from the Devil himself, if they were true, and asked that he could have wisdom to accept them and reject what is false. All truth belongs to Mormonism. However, the danger is in the discernment between truth and error. That’s why the Devil’s method of mingling philosophies with scripture, or truth and error together, is so effective. Given a few spoonfuls of truth, sometimes people are ready to swallow a whole plate of error alongside it because the truth tasted so good. I believe that the Great and Abominable Church may exist more strongly within the True Church than outside of it, for where better would the Devil try to cause damage than within the Kingdom of God itself? The rest of the world really doesn’t matter to him as much.

    We need to use prayer and the promptings of the Spirit to determine what is true and false, even in Sunday School lessons, Home Teaching Lessons, talks given over the Pulpit. Even things that pass through the church Correlation program still need the Spirit of God in order to be understood properly, or else they too could be taken along with other things mingled in by Satan.

    We are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost for a reason. We must use it, because if we don’t learn how to, then we may find ourselves in deep trouble at the last day.

    ~Jeff, a “Mormon Gnostic”

  19. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2006 at 4:30 pm

    Robert Crouch,

    I think your exegesis works for ‘the commandments of men,’ but ‘the philosophies of men’ has a different context.

  20. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    Robert Crouch replies, via email:

    Yeah, your post got me thinking about “the philosophies of men” too. I think it might be similar/related, but I’ll have to chew on this for a while (thanks for the thought-provoking post!).

    One thought on similarity is that with “the philosophies of men” the emphasis is not so much on secular philosophies of men per se (or “by themselves”), but on human corruption/perversion of divine spiritual teachings (particularly God’s requirement of a pure heart). Isaiah and Christ are both addressing apostate religious preachers who have taken the spiritual meaning out of physical ordiances. The context with “the philosophies of men” is also in regard to spiritual teaching that is perverted by impure motivations.

    A somewhat modern example of what these teachings are warning against might be the Catholic practice of indulgences–I don’t know the theological justification for that practice, but I think important parallels can be drawn to this practice and with the Pharisees. A scriptural example would be the Zoramites. It’s not that philosophy or learning are bad, but the temptation to pervert or corrupt spiritual teachings with such. Personally, I think the primary danger is that I will use fancy intellectual arguments to rationalize sinful behavior that my heart knows is wrong. This is what the Pharisees did, and this is what I do if I think of myself as superior to others or if neglect my “true religion” responsibilities to care for the poor and the widows, or in Jacob’s words, to “hearken not to the counsels of God” (2 Ne 9:29)….

  21. Robert C. on June 27, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    Jeff (#18): Perhaps you are just reflecting BY’s notion of truth and error, but I think you are using the terms in ways that are subtly but significantly different than the scriptural use of the term truth. That is, truth is not so much an intellectual abstraction that exists independently, but a concept necessarily linked to a context of action or relationship. In the same sense, philosophies of men are not so much true or false in and of themselves, but become true if I use them for good (e.g. to improve my relational unity between God, others and myself), and false if I use them to rationalize sin.

    (I’m heavily borrowing here from Terry Warner’s article on “truth” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)

  22. Kimball L. Hunt on June 27, 2006 at 11:39 pm

    Use implies psychological intention? One of altruism or righteous self-interest versus “bad” selfishness?

  23. Michael L. Umphrey on June 28, 2006 at 2:52 am

    I find hierarchy is often the key to reconciling apparent contradictions. Reality is hierarchical–as in the three kingdoms, but also in all of life: cells, tissues, organs, systems, organisms, populations, communties, etc etc.

    Often things that sound contradictory aren’t contradictions, but paradoxes–both are true but true of different levels. As when Christ said you gain your life by losing your life. It’s not a contradiction and it isn’t resolved by balance. He’s speaking of two different levels of life. He’s mixing descriptive systems, so that “life” doesn’t mean the same thing in both halves of the statement. Contradictions only exist in unified descriptive systems.

    Another simple example. In a forest is fire good or bad? Considered at the level of an individual tree, it may be catastrophic, resulting in the total destruction of the individual. Viewed at the level of the forest as an ecosystem, it may be good, releasing nutrients back into the cycle. Fire is good and fire is bad–no contradiction.

    The philosophies of men concern themselves many levels of reality and create many differing descriptive systems. All of them are limited–they decribe levels of reality but not the whole of it. If they are true, we can believe them without reservation, I think, but figuring out how they relate to scriptural truths that they apparently (but not really) contradict can lead to substantial intellectual growth. Usually the answer is in finding the limits–the point at which they cease being true because you’ve left the realm in which they are true.

    Sometimes it’s necessary to be prudent with money. But sometimes you enter realms where it’s necessary to pay no attention at all to such things.

  24. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 4:08 am

    I must say I consider the EOM article on Truth to be an incomprehensible mishmash, the practical equivalent of asserting we have no intelligible doctrine of truth at all. Perhaps it is not the author’s fault, but rather the inchoate state of LDS theology, but the EOM generally speaking is extremely incoherent compared to say the Catholic Encyclopedia or the Westminster Confession.

    To be worth having an Encyclopedia should exceed the coherence and quality of a single author work. The gold standard for non-canonical theology in the LDS world is Doctrines of Salvation. I don’t think the EOM comes close, I would rather read a comprehensive well thought out and explained position that is wrong than the kind of random collection of ideas that characterize many EOM articles.

    Now the article on truth is particularly problematic, because it doesn’t elaborate any theory of truth at all, and indeed spends much of the time taking implicit swipes at the only one we have, which is D&C 93:24, saying we read its exceeding explicit definition out of context with no sort of argument whatsover. Encyclopedias really aren’t the place to make half baked theological arguments that the vast majority of the audience will disagree with, arguably promoting some strange philosophy of men, over the truth about the Truth of God.

  25. comet on June 28, 2006 at 4:24 am

    I think your second point (#1) gets closer to the truth of the matter, the first paragraph, that is. The fact is the binary breaks down too often upon scrutiny, whether in scriptural instance or in experience. But it is highly effective as rhetoric, especially when it comes to shoring up institutional authority vis-a-vis other kinds of competing authorities inside and outside the church. But you don’t haul it out when Pres. Hinckley is encouraging our youth to get their education under one of the “b”s.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could neatly package all truth under a brand name, say Celestial Lite — efficient, predictable, convenient, with all the color-coded tags? I don’t know, perhaps I’m the only one but having to wait for the divine breath of election on every idea, experience, truth, act, etc. strikes me as wrong-headed and probably ultimately frustrating.

  26. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 4:42 am

    No there of course are some important metaphysical subtleties here, but an outright denial of something akin to the correspondence theory of truth is what D&C 93 calls “of the spirit of the wicked one who was a liar from the beginning” . One would think that is a reasonable caution to take before spouting off on non-reality of absolute truth with no scriptural foundation whatsoever.

    Truth is more than absolute truth, but if there are no absolutes then all is arbitrary, and we have *no* way to distinguish the kingdom of God from the kingdom of the devil. Serious business that.

    Here is D&C 93:24 in context:

    “And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.
    Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth; And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;
    And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning. The Spirit of truth is of God. I am the Spirit of truth, and John bore record of me, saying: He received a fulness of truth, yea, even of all truth;
    And no man receiveth a fulness unless he keepeth his commandments. He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.”
    (D&C 93:21-28)

    I don’t see how that context justifies any radically subjective concept of truth at all, or any version of truth that reduces to nothing more than a “way of life”.

    The scripture says that truth is knowledge. Knowledge of what? Of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come. i.e. knowledge of the reality of the past and present, and the reality of the future (to the degree the future is reified of course).

    And this knowledge can be received through diligence and obedience – a process well known as revelation.

    So what kind of knowledge is there to be had?

    1. A knowledge of the will of God
    2. A knowledge of God’s plan of salvation
    3. A knowledge of God’s design for all future contingents
    4. A knowledge of the order of heaven, God’s character, and capacity, and ability to withstand all challenges
    5. A knowledge of the language, culture, semantics of celestial society
    6. A knowledge of all history, including the spiritual reality thereof
    7. A knowledge of the present state of affairs
    8. A knowledge of God’s beliefs and perspectives on all of the above, including his knowledge of others beliefs and perspectives, and so on.

    Now that is all meta-correspondence. Can anyone tell me how that does not encompass any truth worth having?

    The key quasi-metaphysical transformation from the truth of divine ordinance to the truth of inevitable reality is the power of God to fulfil all his words. In short he is sufficiently powerful to make things real. Not any kind of thing, nor arguably does he reify absolutes, but for all intents and purposes the nature of his power and the way he leverages absolutes, make the truth of his ordinances essentially inevitable. e.g. as in no other way or means whereby man can be saved only in and through the name of Christ.

    That is not an *absolute* truth, lest the will of God be of none effect, but it is an effectively inevitable one, because of the nature of the system God has established, adequate to unify the forces of right in sustenance of that divinely established principle, and many others of the plan of salvation. In short it *is* the way things really are, and always will be.

  27. Kimball L. Hunt on June 28, 2006 at 9:47 am

    To me, what the “hierarchical” nature of moral Truth is, is actually something “worldly” in the sense that moral truths must be carried from generation to generation within and by the means of HUMAN society. Within which, as we know, people will forever be “networking” one with the other to find ad hoc reasons to “out” mere loners. Humans compete individual against individual and group against group; they put up barriers to folks who don’t exhibit some preliminary level of competency to be considered “in” whatever some group might be.

    . . . And to look at abstracted moral truths outside of these mechanisms is to do pie-in-the-sky, ad-hoc reasonings not grounded in the utilitarian reasoning and rationales behind the actual, intended USE of these “moral truths”!

  28. Robert C. on June 28, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    Mark (#24 & #26): I think the key to understanding Warner’s point about truth is that knowledge in D&C 93:24 is not being used in the same way we often use knowledge to denote the intellectual capacity to know that 2 + 2 = 4 . Instead, knowledge here is being used in the sense of what it requires to know God, which is more than a mere intellectual knowledge.

    An example might be the way I say “I know my wife better than I know the President of the United States” b/c I interact with my wife on a daily basis and in intimate ways and I only have a superficial knowledge about the President—I don’t really know the President. If I don’t know God by following his commandments (John 7:17), then I can’t really understand the way that things are, have been, will be, etc.

  29. Jim F. on June 28, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    I think I agree with Ryan Bell (#8) and Robert C (#10). For a long time I’ve thought that the phrase “philosophies of men” refers to what we otherwise might call “common sense,” what (supposedly) everyone knows to be true, i.e., takes for granted as true.

  30. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 5:04 pm

    The sad thing is that so many of the reigning philosophies of men defy common sense in favor of devotion to principles unworthy of such exceeding obesiance – the cult of equality for example, or ignorance, or relativism.

    Robert C, I can agree of course with much of the article. My main problem is that encyclopedia articles should document the LDS scholarly and prophetic consensus, and not promote personal ideas or philosophies that cannot clearly be derived from LDS sources. I have absolutely no idea how to derive the idea that there isn’t such a thing as absolute truth, or that statements do not in general have something akin to truth values, from LDS doctrine.

    It seems to me we teach quite the opposite – notably, more than anyone else, that there are laws that God himself cannot break – that he probably wasn’t even the origin of. The necessity of a *suffering* atonement doesn’t seem to be the type of thing one would legislate. Alma speaks of the possibility that God (as a person) could cease to be God, by violating certain principles. D&C 121 implies the same thing, so did Joseph Smith on several occasions – it is practically our theory of righteous government.

    So promoting a position that as far as I know has never had currency among the leaders of the Church, or even in LDS scholastic theology, seems strikingly out of place for an encyclopedia, unless equal time is given to describing the traditionalist point of view and species thereof.

  31. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    I was also surprised to see no mention of the LDS doctrine of the catholicity of truth – surely that encompasses analytical truths, natural truths, historical truths, and so one. We have scriptures that instruct us to pursue such study.

    One of the problems is that the article promoted the very metaphysical fallacy that appeared to be denying – that truth had a simple LDS definition that does not cohere in any way with truth as the rest of the world, particularly the classical and modern world perceives it. That is an abuse of the language contrary to our doctrine of the unity of truth. All those other things have to relate in some way to a proper conception of truth or they are not truth-like at all, and that assertion is ridiculously untenable.

  32. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    “and so on”, “that it appeared to be” – my apologies.

  33. Mark Pickering on June 28, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    I am of the persuasion that the best philosophy gets it right–as far as it goes. Think of the skepticism of Socrates, Hume, or Kant: human reason can prove its own limits. Within those limits, philosophy is 100% right. Consider Plato has Socrates say in his Apology:

    Whenever I suceed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself. But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of tellig us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.

    23a-b, trans. Hugh Tredennick

    And it is not just the scriptures that teach us this, but reason alone can approach it. This seems contradictory: human reason can establish that it is worthless…but has it not thereby established its worth?

  34. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    I think natural reason is wonderful, when approached properly – however not all human reason is natural, and that positivistic aspect that denies that there is any mode of knowledge beyond natural reason is the most problematic, so far as spiritual things are concerned.

  35. Robert C. on June 28, 2006 at 7:55 pm

    Mark (#30 & #31): I agree that there should’ve been more about the LDS catholicity of truth notion in the article. And I think a better effort could’ve been made to represent other views. In defense of Warner, I think he viewed the “laws that God himself cannot break” beyond the scope of his topic….

  36. Mark Butler on June 28, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    I can’t say I have ever met an LDS scholar who would seriously argue that God can violate analytical necessities, like squaring a circle, or making 2+2=5. And how many are there who advocate ex nihilo creation, or the possibility of forcing a man to a heaven worthy of the name?

    Philosophically, the reason why I think some degree of metaphysics is inescapable is because synthetic expression cannot have any communicable meaning unless it is expressed in terms of something absolute, through however many subtle layers of abstraction are required. We cannot say why absolutes exist, but they are necessary for anything else to be worthwhile – how can one compose a symphony without any notes? Without time and space and perception?

    So I agree that the necessities of the atonement are perhaps off topic, but yet they have fundamental bearing on some of the most distinctive aspects of our generally common theology, which comes in basically two flavors – one is an Ockhamist theology that truly does give absolute power to God in eternity, but requires him to bind himself to atemporal “natural” laws in some way, and then express himself further through divine ordinance in temporality.

    The other is similar, except we separate God from first class absolutes like time, and, space, matter, and free will have have him express his power through the creative, and cooperative leveraging of those laws (eternal principles) for the good of all. The former is neo-orthodox of course, and the latter seems to be more in line with classical Mormonism from Joseph Smith to John Widstoe.

    Now these alternatives were studied intensively in the Middle Ages, and the general conclusion was that no one could make an absolute God worthy of worship unless a large part of his creation was constrained to be atemporally everlasting, literally beyond time.

    Calvinism and Lutheranism were reactions to those who were arguing that God did not even have internal constraints on his own character. Luther by dumping scholasticism and Calvin by sovereignizing it with a healthy dose of mystery – anything to keep God distinguishable from an arbitrary and erratic despot. Luther said that reason was impotent on theological questions, Calvin practically came to worship arbitrariness of a sovereign God as beyond our capacity to judge.

    So when (or if) LDS neo-orthodox theologians (the type that deny the existence of natural law, and are reluctant to believe in the impossibility of ex nihilo creation) ever get down to business of working out their metaphysics I strongly suspect they will run into these exact same problems – problems that are made even worse by divine plurality and embodiment.

    Creationist absolutism is on shaky ground in a conventional theology – how much more so with us? – how can God author a true absolute without being beyond time and space? How do the multiplicity of divine persons agree on what the absolutes should be? How does this process happen without a spatiotemporal matrix for communication? Or alternatively without making God the Father into a singularity infinitely unlike any other *exalted* being. And if a singularity, what are the constraints on his character? Is he split between time and eternity, as understood by Ockham? Or are his temporal aspects, including a body, just a manifestation for our understanding?

    Metaphysically speaking, neo-absolutist Mormonism seems to be a dead end whose only option is to retreat into mystery, the last resort of the philosophers. Some sense of natural law, metaphysical truths independent of God seem required to make Mormon philosophical theology comprehensible in the least. If anyone has any other plausible metaphysical scheme I would very much like to hear about it.

    We cannot discard atemporal absolutism completely, nor does it appear we can merge it into God’s being, independence of some number of true absolutes seems the only option for life in a pluralist world to have any meaning.

  37. Jeff Day on June 29, 2006 at 2:03 am

    Mark, your comment #36 is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing those thoughts!

  38. Mark Butler on June 29, 2006 at 2:47 am

    My pleasure, Jeff. Thanks for the compliment. It is always nice to be appreciated.

  39. anonymous on July 5, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    Mark, some of us are less impressed with the beauty of number 36 than Jeff Day is. In spite of your opposition to unclear thought, you aren’t very clear. What do you mean by absolutes if space, perception, and musical notes are all on the same ontological level and if when “classical” Mormon thinkers talked about absolutes they don’t seem to have included the same things you do? I could go on.

    But I’m most interested in your description of “LDS neo-orthodox theologians (the type that deny the existence of natural law, and are reluctant to believe in the impossibility of ex nihilo creation).” Who have you got in mind? Care to name a few names so that we can figure out what yoiu’re talking about?

    (Yep, this is a thread jack.)

  40. annegb on July 5, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this, but it’s the sort of meaty thing I like to print and study and think about. Of course, as usual, I WILL HAVE TO LOOK UP SOME WORDS, but I think it’s worth my time.

  41. Mark Butler on July 5, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    Mr./Ms. Anonymous, As a rule I find it hard to conduct a serious discussion with someone who will not adopt a persistent and unambigous handle to identify themselves.

    However, I fully admit that I am partly speaking in metaphors that require some considerable explication to resolve, however that should be reasonably clear to those who have pursued philosophical theology and Mormon metaphysics with some diligence.

    In classical philosophical theology, God is the author of virtually *everything*, including all absolutes, so the question comes down on the division between God’s power in eternity to create absolutes, and God’s power in temporality to ordain and dispense as he sees fit. This was a great debate of the age of scholasticism, and William of Ockham took a position that has characterized most Protestant faiths ever since – namely that absolutes were not *things*, or essences, but rather expressions of divine power.

    That natural law was upheld by the word of God, and did not exist independently of him. Now the position of the Thomists was not too different, except that they placed God’s creation almost completely in timeless eternity. The greatest glory of God was not to be one who ordained and dispensed according to his sovereign will and pleasure, or the superiority of his character, but rather to be an immovable pillar around which all else revolved.

    The Thomists saw Ockhamism, and in particular the Ockhamist focus on revelation, as a doctrine that would level the medieval scholastic project. And they were right of course – radical Ockhamism, denying that God needed to maintain any temporal consistency (“natural” law) did just that in the late fourteenth century, provoking the disparate reaction of both Calvin and Luther, the first to re-absolutize the sovereign God of Ockham by making him pre-plan every act in eternity and to emphasize the perfections of his character and how utterly far we are from being able to understand him, and the latter by making a more direct rejection of philosophical theology altogether. On of the consequences of course, was a relative decline in scholasticism in the Protestant world, because no one knew how to proceed from that point.

    Now theologically speaking, much of Mormonism is heir to the Protestant neo-Ockhamist tradition on these points. In fact in many ways we are the most Ockhamist religion of them all – focusing more on contemporary and personal revelation than any Protestant-ism. D&C 88:7-13 is a classic example – it doesn’t mention any natural law that is not a real time consequence of the Light of Christ at all. The implication being that if the Light of Christ disappeared the whole world, down to the last electron would immediately revert to chaos.

    However, other LDS scriptures, notably Alma 42, D&C 93, 121, and 131 teach balancing principles – that there are laws, not solely of God’s own creation, which he cannot break either *at all*, or without ceasing to be God (as a person).

    LDS scientists and philosophers who understand the weaknesses of the divine command theory of ethics, and of the idea that all natural law can proceed from inside an embodied person, tend to appreciate this better than many of the neo-orthodox theologians who practically speaking have Luther’s attitude, that if philosophy is not the devil’s whore, then at least it is bunk, or analogously that science and rationality can tell us nothing about the operations of God and his laws.

    Now I cannot pin down a detailed position on these things on many such, precisely because they do not believe a detailed position can be had. I am speaking of a general sentiment is Protestant-ish theology, one that has prevailed for half a millennium.

    In LDS circles however, most non-scientist theologians interpret D&C 88:7-13 literally to the near exclusion of those counterbalancing accounts, which makes the *necessity* of a suffering atonement, or the *impossibility* of ex nihilo creation impossible to comprehend. D&C 88:7-13 does not mandate the position of LDS neo-absolutism, but it is very suggestive.

    Now if I have to name names, I will include Bruce R. McConkie, Stephen E. Robinson, and Joseph Fielding McConkie among those theological absolutists who show no evidence of beleiving that there are any constraints on the way God exercises his power, at least as far as material things are concerned.

    Robinson, in particular, in How wide the divide?, responding to a criticism of our belief in ex materia creation took the position that matter as we know it was all created by God out of formless proto-matter. Now that is a respectable position, but it implies the radically Ockhamist position that electrons only go around protons according to the will of God – that there are no natural laws independent of God that produce natural form in anything. Proto-matter is so formless, that one wonders how it can have any existence at all. What does it do when God is not looking at it?

    Now we have a precise parallel in BRM’s and JFM’s denial of pre-existing personal intelligence as taught by Joseph Smith in the KFD, and arguably quite clearly in D&C 93. Roughly speaking the idea that prior to spirit birth, there were no intelligences (note plural), but rather proto-intelligence of no particular inclination or conciousness. Hardly removed from ex nihilo creation of souls maintained by conventional Christianity.

    Now of course, with this absolutists conception of divine power, the question is why did God create the world in the first place? And indeed why didn’t he just create us in a saved and exalted state in heaven? And furthermore, where is there any basis for distinguishing between the kingdom of God and the reign of the devil, except raw power?

  42. Mark Butler on July 5, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Please excuse my typing mistakes.


Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.