Intellectual Conversion

February 3, 2009 | 49 comments

Seven Storey Mountain is Thomas Merton’s autobiographical account of his increasing restlessness with a worldly life. He converts to Catholicism and eventually enters one of the most strict (the strictest?) Catholic orders: a Trappist monastery. What has fascinated me—and I’m not done with the book yet—is that his conversion is highly intellectual. He loves Catholic doctrine and the philosophy long before he changes the heavy drinking and carousing that marks his life as an undergraduate and graduate student at Cambridge and later Columbia.


After reading William Blake, for example, he comments that he became aware of the “dead, selfish rationalism which had been freezing [his] mind and will for the last seven years.” That author and others convinced Merton that “the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God” (208).  And yet he is quick to note that he doesn’t “want to say it in a way that conveys more than the truth” because his “intellectual realization” was far from “str[iking] down into the roots of [his] will” (209). It takes him quite awhile to decide he has to change his behavior.


While all of us probably understand that the “spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak,” Merton did not—at least at the time of his baptism—recognize the need for the flesh to act differently; his conversion was a thing of the mind.


In my limited experience, Merton’s is an unusual process and one not readily adapted to Mormonism. What is your take? I am trying to think of anyone I know who was converted intellectually to the doctrines of the Restoration before an emotional or spiritual or even social conversion. Even a conversion that relies mainly on doctrine seems to typically rely on an emotional response to a particular doctrine (ie, eternal family relationships).  Not that there is anything wrong with that, in my opinion. I believe God will bring people to the gospel with whatever means appeal to them.


So those are my thoughts and questions: are people easily converted to the intellectual depths of LDS theology? (or is the conversion more emotional/spiritual/etc.?) Do we not have enough of a philosophy to attract minds like Merton’s? Oops. Let me rephrase that: what is the philosophical attraction of Mormonism for those of you who are brilliant like Merton?


[side note: Merton does have a brief—one sentence—run in with Mormonism; he reads “two pamphlets on the Mormons . . . but the story of the holy books discovered through revelation on a hill in upper New York State did not convince me and I was not converted” (128).]

49 Responses to Intellectual Conversion

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2009 at 10:28 am

    You have set the bar too high for most of us to comment.

  2. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 11:08 am

    My apologies. Move it lower, by all means.

  3. Jettboy on February 3, 2009 at 11:41 am

    When I was much younger and first got into reading Mormon topics, the first things I read were Joseph Fielding Smith’s “Teachings of Joseph Smith” and a small anti-Mormon pamphlet. I remember thinking how logical Joseph Smith was in how he presented his teachings. They seemed almost common sense. As for the anti-Mormon writing, I could tell even by the quotes that the author was manipulative and didn’t (or refused) to understand what the quotes were actually saying.

    I think the reason this example doesn’t work with Mormonism is that Mormonism doesn’t postulate theories and philosophy. As that one quoted by Merton states, you either believe it or you don’t. Anything beyond that might be speculative in nature, but it isn’t philosophical mind games seeking to be thoughtful and intellectually stimulating. More or less, it seeks to be understood by the highly educated and uneducated both.

  4. TMD on February 3, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Without setting myself as comparable to Thomas Merton, I would say that my own conversion process (particularly in college) was a heavily intellectual one. However, I can’t say that it was purely intellectualized. Although my mom was a member, I didn’t start intentionally exposing myself to the church until middle school (sacrament meeting (etc) was optional; mass was not, and i was a good little altar boy at the time). As I worked through home-study seminary (dad still doesn’t know, 15 years later…) there were several times when the unfamiliarity of the style and nature of the D&C seemed quite peculiar, but there the ‘social’ and familial context helped kept me learning. There were also a number of spiritual experiences in this period as well that kept me going. Once I was in college (in rural TN), I began to appreciate more the tremendous vision of eternal progression and intelligence, the degree to which the doctrine of the church seems to ‘hang together’ with an impressive coherence, and the more powerful vision of the atonement expressed by the LDS scriptures and church. Again, this was also punctuated by more purely spiritual experiences, but think that in my college phase (I only joined the church in the middle of my junior year) it was really an intellectual testimony first, then sealed by spiritual experiences.

    In the couple years thereafter, I still had things that I would come to doubt, and need to ‘work out’ for myself. This reflects, I think, the intellectual nature of my conversion, and its solution was in good part intellectual–it was opening myself to questioning the nature of my questions, and often finding answers in inverting them. For instance, while early in grad school I recall seriously wondering about why we need to do temple work for the dead–about why HF would make a system that seems to make so many peoples’ opportunity to enter fully into his presence an uncertain thing. But then I think I found some insight into it by inverting the question–by asking what it does for us to have to do proxy work. This, in turn, has led me to greater appreciate many of the ways in which the gospel changes relationships by linking us together through bands of duty, lineage and linkage to the patriarchs and all of the blessings that are associated with them.

    In the 9 years since my baptism, my testimony has rather filled out. Now I have a much stronger testimony of the priesthood and its reality; I have a testimony of the temple and the doctrines of the temple which really further fills out that in the D&C (which is actually my favorite book of scripture); of the full powers of the atonement; and of the restoration itself. But these things are things which came through practice–the practice of giving and receiving blessings (including my patriarchal blessing), participation in decision-making councils (I was an exec sec in a ward for 3 and a half years); and service as a temple worker.

    So I think every testimony is a matter of layering, rather than purely intellectual. At the same time, I think there are several things that contributed to my more intellectual conversion. First, I came out of a fairly rigorous faith background–not only was I catholic, but I had an interest in and a good grounding in Catholic theology. Second, I was in a context that kept me exposed to and (through spiritual experiences) just interested enough to acclimatize to what at first struck me as unusual doctrines, strangely expressed–long enough to approach them as ideas, long enough to understand their more fundamental linkages. Third, an openness to spiritual experience, and a wider perspective on it. Reading Augustine’s conversions (tolle lege!) as a college freshman, therefore, was a tremendously powerful experience, one that I could connect with, and connect with my experiences with the LDS church and doctrine. My college friends (I was at a modestly elite episcopal liberal arts college)–among whom are now half a dozen protestant and catholic clergy–furthered this kind of a context, since we were all very much intellectual and yet still open to spiritual experience and belief in god.

  5. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2009 at 11:51 am

    The emotional/spiritual/eternal-family stuff is *intellectually* appealing. Mormonism does a good job of integrating a lot of our basic human experience into its theology and this satisfies the mind.

    Mormonism also has a lot of resources for thinking about theodicy.

    I have also found the doctrine of deification intellectually satisfying. It was not emotionally or spiritually satisfying to me when it was younger. I wrestled with it a lot. Eventually I thought through it enough to see that it seemed more consistent with Christian ideas about God (his omnipotence, his benevolence) than the things most Christians were saying. This was intellectually satisfying. As a result, I eventually got emotional and spiritual satisfaction out of it also.

    Deification and the temple and our new scripture and some of the other peculiar Mormon doctrines (like our accounts of the fall, e.g.) also add a layer of symbolic content to a lot of the common Christian theology and scriptural stories that I also find intellectually satisfying.

    Where Mormonism seems lacking, in my opinion, is answering the question ‘why is there anything at all’? Creedal Christianity uses God as a way of waving off the question, but we don’t even have that.

    Mindwork can be abstract stuff and Mormonism depends a lot on particulars. We don’t start with an account of the nature of Being, we start with Joseph Smith digging up gold plates in upstate New York. I say that particulars can be just as intellectual as abstractions, but lots of people don’t seem to think so.

  6. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2009 at 11:55 am

    That’s pretty interesting, TMD. Thanks.

  7. Ben on February 3, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    FYI, Steve Harper wrote a great article on how this question played out in the early Church, arguing that many early converts claimed an intellectual conversion (“‘Infallible Proofs, Both Human and Divine’: The Persuasiveness of Mormonism for Early Converts”). Personally, I see most conversions as more intuitive, yet they felt the need to express it in a more rational means.

    Since you are probably looking for a more contemporary discussion, I think that most conversions come through the more Romantic means (though of course there are many who have a more intellectual pull to the Church). However, I think many (including myself) within the fold gain a deeply intellectual connection with Mormonism and are mentally stimulated with what it presents. I remember Sterling McMurring who, though he did not believe the foundational tenets of the Church, still felt that our doctrine had a more powerful appeal than we usually understand. I am too much of a wanna-be intellectual to remain in a church that didn’t possess a theology that didn’t thoroughly blow my mind.

  8. Ben on February 3, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Also, Neal Kramer did a great post on this over at BCC a while ago:

  9. TMD on February 3, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Part of why this might be rare is that there are a couple of tendencies that lead us away from serious engagement with the broader theological and philosophical approaches to these issues. I mean, while in college, reading, understanding, and taking what was good from Nietzsche actually helped me better understand and appreciate doctrines of progression. By reading modern Catholic theology–Ratzinger, Balthasar, and so forth–I have similarly developed my appreciation of the gospel. But the dead weight of the legal profession, and its modes of thought (‘thinking like a lawyer’), among the LDS intellectual elite means that fewer seems to have an appreciation for this kind of intellectualism. So too does the enduring interest in evangelical-type theology–which is really a poor fit for further developing and understanding our own theology and the power of our theological ideas, since it almost by definition excludes mysticism as a source of public, as opposed to private, insight into gospel truth–unlike the catholic tradition.

  10. kevinf on February 3, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Our religion seems to be one that appeals first and primarily on the spiritual/emotional level, but as Adam points out, there is a lot of intellectual underpinnings that make more sense than traditional Christianity.

    I have a hard time imagining someone making the intellectual conversion first, and then coming to a testimony later. A related story might be helpful.

    A few years back, we had a young couple move into our ward just after they married. She was a lifelong member, he an avowed atheist. Not agnostic, but a true atheist. He started coming to church with his wife, and made it a regular practice for over a year. He made no pretenses, he was there to be with his wife, and he found us all nice and interesting, but nothing in the gospel could crack his non-belief in God or any other higher power.

    After some coaxing, she got him to read the Book of Mormon. At first he found it interesting, but not of much substance, but he kept with it. Somewhere after finishing it, and perhaps after reading it again, he had the sudden revelation (his words, not mine), that the Book of Mormon was true, which set off quite a conflict with his non-belief in God. It was several days before he finally came to the conclusion that if the BoM was true, then God must exist, etc, etc, and he decided to be baptized. He has since been sealed to his wife in the temple, and then served in a bishopric, finally getting called as bishop in his new ward, a total time span of about 6 years.

    The emotional/spiritual/revelatory experience came first. He then dealt with all the intellectual and logical issues after that, and found them all working out okay.

  11. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    TMD–thanks. Your experience is unusual and interesting. What do your Catholic and Protestant clergy friends think of your Mormon faith? Do you get into philosophical discussions with them?

  12. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Adam, I agree that the very concreteness of our theology can be intellectually stimulating and certainly refreshing.

  13. aloysiusmiller on February 3, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    There is more room for a deeply intellected (not intellectual!) analysis of Mormonism. We shy away from it for no good reason. In so doing we (emotionally) allow ideas that are antithetical to our revealed religion, free will, good and evil etc. to creep in. A well reasoned religion will protect us from heresy and still leave us open to a revelation of the mysteries of godliness.

    We could get a lot of mileage by piggy-backing on Catholic traditions and hop off when they take a wrong turn.

    Anyway modern Mormon intellectualism is a sorry dog’s mess of scientism and stupidity.

  14. TMD on February 3, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Kylie–It’s been a while since we’ve all been together, but at college, of course we did. Isn’t that what lunch and dinner in the dining hall are for?
    And we had fun with it. We were both serious but also made lots of jokes about each other’s churches. We understood our differences and how why they were the way they are. But everyone’s status was just accepted (though several said, in an apparently positive way, that they thought it was kind of strange that someone like me would be mormon–I just didn’t match their idea of a mormon, for some reason). When I did finally announce to the lunch table that I was getting baptized, everyone congratulated me, was happy for me.
    The experience provided two important steps along the way–
    One night I tasked the now-Roman-trained Catholic priest to do his best to convince me I was doing the wrong thing. When his arguments didn’t move me, I was a bit closer to joining. Another was my time reading all of the anti-LDS material up there from a whole range of different decades.

    Aloysius–I agree with two and three. As to the first, I mostly agree–but it depends on what you mean by ‘not intellectual.’ For me, the core of an intellectual approach is a serious respect for and engagement with ideas, a willingness to interrogate those ideas carefully, and a mindset that not only interrogates those ideas but interrogates the questions asked of those ideas. So, not only a valuing of the ideas for the understanding they bring, but a deep awareness of the approach taken (the method of inquiry) and its alternatives as well. To me this helps us; what do you mean by intellectual?

  15. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Anyway modern Mormon intellectualism is a sorry dog’s mess of scientism and stupidity.

    I’m not scientistic . . .

  16. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I guess I was thinking of “intellectual” as Merton seems to use it. He fits your “serious respect for and engagement with ideas,” and couples it with a vigorous searching–running through hedonism, communism, and a number of other philosophies before coming to Catholicism. He studied for years before deciding Catholicism was right for him. And once he decided, he can wax philosphical for pages (and pages) on end about the beauty of the doctrine and the intricacies of certain prinicples.

    Interestingly enough, his group of serious-thinking friends were like yours–happy for him when he decided to convert. Some even attended his baptism.

    By the way, I personally thought his intellectualism was coupled with a willingness to honestly interrogate himself, his flaws, and his intellectual inconsistencies–though a friend who read it disagreed and found Merton’s conversion to be an unconscious reaction against his childhood and upbringing.

  17. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Great, Adam. #15. I’m not scientific, either. And I don’t have a dog. Where does that leave us?

  18. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I think that means we’re not bright enough to figure out where that leaves us.

  19. TMD on February 3, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Actually, Adam, I would argue that you are because you have been steeped and trained in a mode of thought and analysis that is deeply scientistic in character (please note that scientistic does not mean ‘scientific’). That’s what they do in law school. And your blogging, much like Nate’s and Kaimi’s and a wide variety of other LDS lawyers approach to questions of faith, philosophy, and theology, suggests to me that your thinking doesn’t often transcend it. I don’t mean this as an attack, but merely to suggest that there are alternatives we don’t often see in mormon thought.

  20. Geoff B on February 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    My conversion would definitely NOT have happened without the Spirit, which changed me in the space of five minutes from thinking one way about the Church to thinking another way. BUT I would say that the more I study the history and doctrine of the Church the more I am fascinated with it on an intellectual basis.

  21. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    FWIW, I just took a break to study my gospel doctrine lesson (D&C lesson #5) for Sunday. JSH 1:8-10 should be part of this discussion. While I’m not sure how I would classify the first vision, Joseph’s process leading up to the first vision was very intellectual, especially for such a young boy. He attended meetings of several different faiths, studied doctrine, and pondered (“serious reflection”). The lesson manual uses Joseph as an example of what we should all do to “prepare” ourselves for revelation from the Holy Ghost. Perhaps I shouldn’t arbitrarily separate out an intellectual approach. Should it more appropriately be a step in a conversion process?

  22. aloysiusmiller on February 3, 2009 at 5:19 pm


    Intellectualism is mode of thinking that denies God and puts the intellect and experience at the forefront of everything. The mind is very very important but it is not supreme. When I think intellectual, I think Rousseau, Marx, and their ilk.

    I probably don’t have the horsepower to convince anyone of the differences but a deeply thought out (intellected) view of religion is something quite different from an intellectualized (read emasculated) view.

  23. Angie on February 3, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I would love to hear from anyone who has had an intellectual conversion, because I sometimes feel like I have a split personality that began when I chose to become active in the Church. My intellectual mind still doesn’t buy what my spiritual/emotional side has built my life around.

  24. TMD on February 3, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Angie, see my 4 (above)?

    Aloysius, I guess I just don’t necessarily share that definition of intellectualism. I have known, and certainly know of, people who I consider to be deeply intellectual but who are also quite clearly people of faith.

  25. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    With all due respect, I know that scientistic is different than scientific, which was why I used one term and not the other. Dial down the condescension phasors to stun.

    I wouldn’t say that legal reasoning is scientistic. I’d hazard that you either don’t know much about the law or else you’re stretching the meaning of scientism beyond what I’m used to.

    The law warps you—but it warps you in its own, distinctive way.

  26. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 3, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Remembering that even people who grow up in LDS families have to have their own conversion, I thought back to the biographies of Mormons who were distinguished by their intellectual accomplishments.

    Hugh Nibley was haviing some doubts about the Church when he got acute appendicitis and had a near death experience that resolved many of his doubts. He had other spiritual experiences during World War II combat that affirmed the reality of the spiritual as part of the real world (such as prophetic dreams about combat experiences that happened the next day).

    Neal Maxwell gained much of his testimony in a foxhole on Okinawa, as his prayer for protection was answered.

    I don’t recall Truman Madsen relating an experience of transition from doubt to testimony.

    I think that, to gain an intellectual testimony of the Restoration, you would have to spend a lot of time studying it, not just scanning a couple of pamphlets. Just understanding the importance of the arguments made in various FARMS publications requires knowledge of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. If you don’t have some independent motivation (like a spouse) to plug away at acquiring a sufficient database of Mormon information to even understand the intellectually persuasive features of LDS doctrine, I don’t think you can get there. That is why anti-Mormon publications serve the purpose of getting at least a few people to spend enough time with the Book of Mormon that they have a chance to perceive the intellectual value of the Restoration.

    Of course, we should be honest with ourselves that a lot of intellectual argument is post hoc rationalization for what we often intuitively leap toward. Science history is full of such intuitive and imaginative leaps, that are then ploddingly tested and prove true.

    The truth is that it is difficult to be intellectually converted to the General Theory of Relativity if you don’t have the mathematical and scientific knowledge sufficient to understand it. That does not make it any less true as a reflection of reality. For a person to become intellectually converted to Mormonism requires a major investment in understanding what Mormonism is, and then in working through the implications for a broad range of religious questions. Most people who make that investment are already committed to Mormonism for other reasons. Conversion is more a process of having enough humility to put our intellectual doubts on hold while we learn more about the gospel, and eventually learn enough to be able to ask, and maybe even answer, coherent questions about the Restoration.

    My testimony, which largely established itself with my reading of the Book of Mormon in 9th grade seminary, has developed lots of spiritual roots as I learned more in seminary and institute, as a missionary, and then in my personal study and church service. Drawing on the multi-disciplinary expertise at FARMS has increased the intellectual scope and rigor of my testimony, so I can say that my mind and strength is committed to the Church as much as my might and heart. Indeed, whether or not we start our conversion through intellectual study, we need to make the effort to develop our intellectual testimonies alongside our emotional ones, and accept the fact that revelation can be an experience that enlightens the mind and understanding.

  27. Kylie on February 3, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Nicely said, #26. Just because we have an emotional or spiritual conversion (heart) is no reason to ignore our intellect (mind).

  28. TMD on February 3, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Adam, didn’t mean to condescend, but explain how it is epistemologically different. As I see it, the law trains people to use logic and evidence to establish a view of reality and then logic to define the best classification of that reality. Although the forms are different (in law, juridically defined categories, and the correct authority to define which categorization holds, rather than theory; post-hoc reconstructions of evidence rather than experimentation and rigorous testing), I would argue that they are fundamentally similar modes of thought at the epistemological level.

  29. Ray on February 3, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    I have had many spiritual experiences in my life that convince me of the reality of God and the power of faith (and of the efficacy of Priesthood ordinances), but Mormonism resonates just as deeply with my mind as it does with my heart.

    At a very early age, I realized that people can read and hear the same things and reach very different “intellectual” conclusions. That meant that I had to construct my own understanding of God and religion based on what made sense to me, personally. I set out intentionally to study stuff and figure out what that “sensical” understanding would be.

    My journey certainly was influenced greatly by being born into the Church, but I am drawn deeper and deeper into Mormonism as I exercise my mind, since it enthralls me at a level that simply is missing from anything else I’ve studied deeply. Literally every time I’ve found or stumbled across something that inspired me and made my head snap back in awe and wonder, I’ve been able to see intellectually a way to reconcile it to the Restored Gospel as I understand it – to see how it fits or might fit into the the greater vision of Mormon theology, even if it can’t fit quite yet into the general culture.

    So, I would say my own “conversion” is every bit as much intellectual as spiritual – even though my “testimony” is solidly spiritual and experiential.

  30. Rand on February 3, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Ray, wonderfully stated, as usual.

    I have yet to learn anything of substance in life that has not become deeper and more profound when put into the Gospel paradigm.

    I have to wonder, and I am sure that many of you will be able to discuss more deeply, why nothing in life that I find enduring, or eternal in nature is ever established on intellectual grounds. The soul stirring experiences I have had in high mountain settings, why I love my children so much, the stirrings inside when pondering on the love for a spouse, why an infants eyes look so deep and knowing, and probably numerous other things in life that I simply can’t intellectualize, but know and feel into the taproots of my being.

    I think the heart is the most knowing place in the soul, and the mind often trips up the heart in its desire to grasp every tender truth in it brutal vice. It seems that the spirit speaks to our minds and our hearts, and a testimony can only be formed, and matured in that way.

  31. aloysiusmiller on February 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    TMD, I think we are far closer together than we are apart. I like smart people. We need more of them.

    But I am opposed to Intellectualism — the belief by some that their intelligence entitles them to dictate the actions of others.

    Paul Johnson wrote about this in his book Intellectuals

    The link will let you read the first few pages.

    Many Mormon intellectuals sniff at the church hierarchy. This kind of intellectualism is worthless to me. But there are many really smart Mormons who have deep insights that are worth y of our contemplation. We need even more such.

  32. Tom D on February 4, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    My uncle was intellectually converted to the church for about 20 years before he got baptized. He even went to church with my aunt and their kids and paid tithing. He found the gospel and the church quite logical, but he had a hang up with Joseph Smith, otherwise he would have been baptized years before. (My mother says that he later attributed his delay in getting a testimony of Joseph Smith to being a descendant in the fourth generation of the persecutors of the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio.)

    I find the gospel very logical myself, but it is difficult (if not impossible) to really separate the gospel from the Spirit. There are some things that *must* be learned individually by revelation and other things that must be taken (for now) on faith alone. All in all though, the restored gospel tastes good to me :-).

  33. Jim F on February 5, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Surely hair-splitting about artificially constructed differences in terms like “intellectualism” and “intellected” and “intellectual” is legalistic. There are good ways to use our minds and bad ways. Surely we are all in favor of using our minds well when we think about the gospel, and I hope we are willing to be shown where we’ve made mistakes in doing so. None of that requires getting all the labels right for the various in-groups and out-groups.

  34. aloysiusmiller on February 5, 2009 at 4:02 am

    Nothing hair splitting about it. It is an essential issue. We have Dialogue and Sunstone which are dominated by “we know betters”. We don’t have anything like a Mormon Aquinas or Augustine.

  35. Steve Evans on February 5, 2009 at 10:39 am

    aloysiusmiller, all your comment shows is a reverse kind of intellectualism, a sort of “we know better” who in fact has no basis for his assertions. Not only is it clear that you do not read Dialogue (and therefore are completely unable to assess the sort of people who “dominate it,” it is also clear that you have little respect for the kind of real work and thinking that would tend to generate a Mormon Aquinas or Augustine. What, you want these masterworks to spring magically from an atmosphere of absolute dogmatic control? Read your history books — it doesn’t happen. If you want people to stretch themselves in their minds and in their hearts, which appears to be your stated aim, then you need to be prepared for results that you cannot control.

  36. Adam Greenwood on February 5, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I think the term you’re looking for, Mr. Miller, is not “intellectualist” but “dudgeonist.”

  37. Nate Oman on February 5, 2009 at 11:30 am

    “As I see it, the law trains people to use logic and evidence to establish a view of reality and then logic to define the best classification of that reality.”

    TMD, I am not quite sure who it is that you are arguing against here. I am trying hard to figure out what, for example, the statement above is claiming about the nature of legal thinking. It is true that when thinking about the law we encourage people to think through the reasons for holding this or that belief. On the other hand, one of the things that I spend a lot of time trying to beat out of the heads of first year law students is the notion that law is a closed system of logic or a phiosophically consistent set of policy choices. Rather, I try to teach that the job of lawyer as advocate is to understand how legal rhetoric works, and that understanding “what the law is” is question of craft and “situation sense” (to use Llewellyn’s phrase) as much as logic or evidence.

    Frankly, I think that your being both condescending and you’re arguing against a strawman. Adam’s first comment was closer to the mark: the law warps you in its own special way.

    As for aloysiusmiller, her category of “intellectual” is sliding all over the place. I have had some very critical things to say about Dialogue, Sunstone, and Mormon intellectual life. On the other hand, I don’t think that it make sense to think of their problems in terms of intellectual versus intellecting, whatever that means. FWIW, I published a rather lengthy defense of the authority of church doctrine in Dialogue which was meant to provide reasons for following church doctrine in the teeth of our independent conclusions to the contrary. Is this intellectual or intellecting. I don’t know. I also don’t care. It seems that we want more careful thought rather than less. Intellectual v. Intellecting doesn’t strike me as an example of careful thought.

  38. Steve Evans on February 5, 2009 at 11:42 am

    AG, agreed, we all are quite incensed against dudgeons.

  39. Thomas Aquinas on February 5, 2009 at 11:54 am

    This conversation is insufficiently intellected for my tastes.

  40. Steve Evans on February 5, 2009 at 11:54 am

    “one of the things that I spend a lot of time trying to beat out of the heads of first year law students is the notion that law is a closed system of logic or a phiosophically consistent set of policy choices.”

    Nate, I agree that the law is not consistent or homogenous enough to be an entire world unto itself, nor is it a formally closed system of logic, but I have to say that TMD is right in a normative sense. The day to day practice of law (perhaps not the teaching thereof :)) does seem like I am writing in an altogether different font from the rest of the world. Some of this is stylistic, terms of art, etc., but part of it is also a mode of analysis that is different and specialized. I wouldn’t classify TMD’s statements as condescending, really — an outsider looking in at the practice of law might see it as an arcane secret craft with its own language. That’s not an entirely unfair perspective and it’s worth taking seriously.

    That said, you should continue to beat your students, even if your purposes are misguided.

  41. TMD on February 5, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Hi Nate, my argument is simple–that although it has its own particular forms, the approach to thinking that I associate with the law is epistemologically a form of naive scientism. Just like most people’s everyday common sense understanding and way of thinking about the world is a naive scientism. Antiquarian history is the same way, for instance.

    To give you a sense of where I’m coming from, I teach and research international relations, and am well trained in historical, psychological, game theoretic, sociological theory and methods of inquiry. But I am also interested in wider theological issues, and have a particular interest in catholic theological approaches. My exposure to the law comes from a few con law classes as an undergraduate and reading supreme court opinions that strike me as potentially interesting. (This amounts to about 15 US decisions, 3 or 4 Canadian SC decisions, and 1 or 2 Law Lords decisions in the average year. Every once and a while, a state supreme court decision or a law review article.)

  42. Nate Oman on February 5, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    TMD: In what ways do you think legal understanding as resting on a kind of niave scientism? For example, if I make some truth claim such as “The first amendment prohibits view-point-based restrictions on political speech,” in what way does the legal evalution of such a claim rest on a scientistic epistemology? I am frankly skeptical. Indeed, I think that Steve Smith makes a good case in his book _Law’s Quandary_ that much of the problem in contemporary law comes from the fact that while most lawyers inherit a kind of niave scientism as the common sense epistemology our legal discourse actually rests on a dramatically different set of assumptions.

  43. aloysiusmiller on February 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Sorry Nate. 1. I am a he. I think that most well read people would recognize Aloysius as a male name. 2. I have been absolutely consistent. I cited a searchable reference for my definition of intellectual. I understand that it may not be shared but I have stuck with it. I doubt that anyone would characterize an Aquinas or a Augustine as an intellectual in the Paul Johnson sense of the word. 3. The claim of inconsistency is common in modern “intellectual” dismissive arguments. 4. I have read Dialogue enough to know that it is obsessed with the LDS hierarchy and its directions.

  44. Jim F on February 6, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Brother Aloysius, your consistent use of terms tells us that you are capable of semantic consistency, but it doesn’t tell us much about what the terms really mean–nor does reference to a source. Terms mean in their use. You’ve shown us no particular reasons to believe that we ought to adopt your distinctions because you’ve not shown us that they do any intellectual / rational / intellected / intellecting (or whatever term you think most appropriate) work. You’ve not shown us why we should adopt your terms because you’ve not used them in a way that is fruitful for us.

    As for whether we Mormons have an Augustine or Aquinas: I doubt that either Augustine or Aquinas worried much about whether the Catholic Church had a Plato or an Aristotle. Augustine was too busy to do so, for one thing, what with all that worrying about Hippo and arguing with the Manicheans. Worry about the Vandals seems to have killed him! Rather than worry about whether there were any Catholic mind-giants, both he and Aquinas just did the work that needed to be done.

    It may turn out at some future date that Nate has been a Mormon Augustine, right under our noses all the time, but it will also turn out that we didn’t know it, nor did he.

  45. aloysiusmiller on February 6, 2009 at 8:40 am

    I seem to have struck a nerve. My comments (except one asserting that I am a male) while critical have not been personal at all. Because all discussion of this nature is necessarily general I have made some generalizations but I have never said “all” just “most”, much” or “many”. But I have been rather relentlessly attacked and dismissed.

    I notice a similar response to TMD. It sounds like his qualifications far exceed mine yet the resentment towards him is palpable. You shouldn’t be dismissing someone like TMD so abruptly.

    If it provides any clarification I believe that the the mind is the greatest receptor for revelation. But I believe many Mormon thinkers can’t get past the senses and cut themselves off from the deeply intuitive parts of the mind that can experience revelation. I am sorry if this doesn’t display the rigor you may expect. Perhaps it is my lack of training … or maybe even thinking.

  46. Catania on February 6, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Thanks Kylie, this is a really interesting post.

    Here are my two (maybe more or less) cents – The problem with an “intellectual conversion” is : “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9). That being said, I’m not against people having an intellectual approach to the gospel. I just think that we have to remember our scopes are limited.

    Additionally, I think that the spirit and the intellect are connected, “And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit.” (D&C 84:46).

    or “Verily verily I say unto you, I will impart unto you my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy;” (D&C 11:13).

    And finally, “For by my Spirit will I enlighten them, and by my power will I make known unot them the secrets of my will – yea, even those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man.” (D&C 76:10).

    Often the Lord says that the “wisdom of the wise will perish.”

    I guess what i’m saying is maybe we get hung up on our own intellectualism and forget what the Lord knows in comparison to us.

    The other day, I had a quick discussion with my children about DNA. (We were explaining that Heavenly Father is Jesus’ literal Father, for some reason, I thought DNA would be a good way to explain this.) Anyways. It was an interesting conversation (given that my children are 7 and 6). They kept asking me questions, and my knowledge of DNA stems from the extensive studying I did in High School Bio 2. The girls needed to go to bed, and I couldn’t answer my questions, so I said, “You know, there is a lot that we don’t understand about DNA, in fact, there are people in college who study it every day that don’t understand it. We’re still learning.” My six year old replied, “Well, I understand DNA, and I’m only in kindergarten.”

    My husband and I left the room and chuckled. She wasn’t being proud – just geniuine, and I’m beginning to wonder, if sometimes Heavenly Father isn’t chuckling at all of the stuff we understand.

    All of this being said, I love to ponder the principles of the gospel – even in an intellectual way. I just finished reading Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard, and it has been making me think more deeply about the gospel, but it hasn’t really taken the place of the Spirit – since it is only the Holy Ghost who can testify and teach us the truths of salvation.

  47. Kylie on February 6, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks Catania. Your DNA story made my day. I agree with you about the Holy Ghost–and, as your scriptures above point out, the Holy Ghost speaks to both our hearts and our minds. I tend to focus on the spiritual being feelings of the heart (ie, I *felt* like I should do something or another; or I *feel* that that Spirit tells me the church is true), but the book and parts of this discussion make me think that I should consider the possibility that sometimes when things *just make sense* that that might be spiritual as well.

  48. Jim F on February 7, 2009 at 12:10 am

    My last comment, I promise, at least the last one beating up on AloysiusMiller:

    Aloysius, in your first entry into this thread you said There is more room for a deeply intellected (not intellectual!) analysis of Mormonism. We shy away from it for no good reason. In so doing we (emotionally) allow ideas that are antithetical to our revealed religion, free will, good and evil etc. to creep in. A well reasoned religion will protect us from heresy and still leave us open to a revelation of the mysteries of godliness.

    Since Kylie’s title is “Intellectual Conversion,” that appears to be an attack on Kylie. You gave us terms to use, denying the one Kylie used, and you gave us a vague reason for that distinction with no examples to clarify your reason. You make a general charge against those who do think about ideas, meaning a good many who frequent this blog, that we are not careful enough in our thinking. If that is true, then you ought to be able to give us a good example of it.

    Later, in #22, you told us that intellectualism meant denying God. Its technical meaning is something like “the belief that knowledge is wholly a product of the intellect,” in other words, rationalism. That need not be a denial of God. Descartes was perhaps the first genuine rationalist and he certainly not only believed in God, but argued for his existence.

    The term also has a more popular meaning, perhaps “too much attention on the intellect.” But given that meaning, it isn’t clear how your earlier comment was relevant to Kylie’s post.

    Later you gave another definition of intellectualism: the belief by some that their intelligence entitles them to dictate the actions of others. That’s one I’ve never heard of, though, so I don’t know what to make of it. Nor do I understand how your second definition fits with your first. (In other words, it appears that they are not consistent.)

    In the same post you said, Many Mormon intellectuals sniff at the church hierarchy. This kind of intellectualism is worthless to me. I don’t deny that there are intellectuals who sniff at the Church’s leadership. Nor do I deny that there are non-intellectuals who do. But I don’t see that being an intellectual–one who seeks to use his or her intellect in responding to ideas and questions–makes one a “sniffer.” Pride could, though. I’ve known a lot of rich, non-intellectual people who sniffed at the leadership. Pride is the problem more than intellectualism is.

    In other words, I don’t understand the point of the distinctions you make or the attacks of which they are part. Whom do you have in your sights when you shoot? And why are you shooting?

  49. aloysiusmiller on February 7, 2009 at 9:16 am

    I yield Jim F. I am too stupid to talk to a very bright intellectual like you. The sun rises and sets on your brightness every morning. You are the master of context and consistency. I am guilty of all you have charged. I am especially guilty of not adopting the flow of the moment and very guilty of disturbing the narrative.


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