Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Secular Mormons

February 25, 2011 | 25 comments
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BibleThe irony of religious fundamentalism is that it is a profoundly modern and profoundly secular phenomenon. This is perhaps especially true of the scriptural literalism that often accompanies it. The result is that many of the most conservative Mormons are, in point of fact, also the most secular.

Few Mormons are more secular than Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.

Why is fundamentalism so profoundly secular? Because it cedes the field of truth wholly and without contestation to secular models of truth – and then tries to combat, contest, and outdo the secularists at their own game.

Is there a better example of this acquiescence to the secular paradigm than Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny?

Jim Faulconer levels a similar (but subtler) charge against the Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey in the fourth chapter of Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010):

Ironically, when people argue for creation science or for what is usually called a literal reading of the Bible, they are agreeing with the secular understanding of things. They use conceptual structures taken from secularism, such as the necessity that explanations have a scientific form, to try to understand the Bible. Some give up or metaphorize the Bible when faced with the project of making the Bible and science answer the same questions, but some keep the Bible and insist that its account can be brought within the secular myth, though of course they would not say that is what they are doing. But both those who metaphorize and those who would make the Bible scientific do essentially the same thing: they begin from a secular understanding of the Bible. Thus, Gilkey shares the view of those we often refer to as “biblical literalists.” Both assume that secularism gives us the basic structure of understanding and that all accounts must be hung on that structure. They disagree about what conclusions that leads one to, but they agree that the secular myth is the one that must be used for understanding. (73, emphasis mine)

Both “liberal” and “conservative” Mormons fall into the same trap. They assume the truth of the secular myth, that secularism give us the basic structure for all legitimate understanding. To ardently claim biblical literalism or to casually dismiss scripture as “metaphorical” amounts, in the end, to the same thing: impoverishment.

Faulconer continues:

When the Bible tells us how the world was created, however, it does so with interests, goals, and basic assumptions so different from those of science that we ought to be suspicious of claims that both are answers to the same question, “How did the world come to be?” (73)

Or again:

The interest of the biblical origin stories is much more on things like how the human condition came to be what it is, how evil came into the world, and why the covenant applies to each person than it is in the physical processes involved in creation. (74)

The secular has its place, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is not secular – that is, it is neither conservative or liberal.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is Mormon.

[Photo by Eliot Elisofon]

25 Responses to Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Secular Mormons

  1. Clark on February 25, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I’m not sure I buy the secular argument. I think that a lot of what you call secularism actually was a hermeneutic that developed out of the reformation. There was a lot of interplay of the hermeneutics of reformation exegesis, law and then science. I think this line of argument only works if we keep an absolute divide rather than a kind of interplay and circling.

  2. VeritasLiberat on February 26, 2011 at 8:04 am

    This post reminds me of “The Lost World of Genesis One,” which was recently reviewed on another LDS blog. Have you read it?

  3. Adam Miller on February 26, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Re #1: You’re claiming, Clark, that things are more complicated than I indicated above? I deny it! :)

    Re #2: I haven’t heard of it, but it sounds interesting. Have you got a link?

  4. Dave on February 26, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I suppose I ought to go read the essay before commenting … meh. Fundamentalism, including religious fundamentalism, is certainly modern, but I don’t see how that necessarily makes it secular. Science has changed too over the last couple of centuries — it has adopted narrower modes of truth and methodology. It has become more secular, perhaps, but when we say “modern science” we aren’t really saying “secular science.” We are just referring to the way science is now done, an updated (and improved) version of what science was before.

    I don’t see how the secular label is any more helpful for modern religion. There is a liberal/conservative split in modern religion that goes back to Schleiermacher. No similar split characterizes modern science. One can certainly make the argument that liberal Christianity adopted secular modes of thinking, but I just don’t see how that is true of conservative Christians or conservative Mormons. Conservative Christians and Mormons seem to do their best to reject that way of thinking. Whether that’s the right approach is a different question, of course.

  5. Adam Miller on February 26, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Re #4: Dave says, “One can certainly make the argument that liberal Christianity adopted secular modes of thinking, but I just don’t see how that is true of conservative Christians or conservative Mormons. Conservative Christians and Mormons seem to do their best to reject that way of thinking. Whether that’s the right approach is a different question, of course.”

    Yes, but Jim’s point (as is clearly indicated above) is that it is of course true that Conservative Christian and Mormons reject secular conclusions . . . but they reject them on secularism’s own terms. They’ve already adopted the basic ground rules of secular thinking even though they reject its conclusions. The deeper problem has to do with the former rather than the latter.

    For instance, insisting that Genesis 1 literally gives us a competing, “scientific” account of the world’s creation amounts to having already ceded the field to science. Why give this ground in the first place?

  6. Ben S on February 26, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Adam- Check out http://ldsscience.blogspot.com/2011/01/lost-world-of-genesis-one.html and http://ldsscience.blogspot.com/2011/01/john-walton-ancient-cosmology-lecture.html

    Walton makes the exact argument you do, but from a different perspective. The initial “popular” book is well worth the read, and I’m looking forward to his academic version from Eisenbrauns.

  7. Nathan on February 26, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Adam, you write, “They assume the truth of the secular myth, that secularism give us the basic structure for all legitimate understanding.” What is this myth? Who propounds it? What is “secularism?” Without pretty clear answers to these questions, you seem to me to be tilting at windmills.

    Later, Dave writes, “Science has changed too over the last couple of centuries — it has adopted narrower modes of truth and methodology.” This is a patently false caricature: the methods of the sciences have become more numerous and varied as technology has increased and as scientific exploration has progressed along myriad frontiers. Among philosophers of science today there are many theories about what constitutes “truth” for the sciences.

  8. Adam Miller on February 26, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Nathan, I’m always tilting at windmills – though perhaps never more so than in a three-hundred word blog post.

  9. Chris H. on February 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    I am half Dutch. I love windmills.

  10. Chris H. on February 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Nathan,

    I think most philosophers of science focus on method and not truth.

  11. Oatmeal on February 26, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    “The secular has its place, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is not secular – that is, it is neither conservative or liberal.

    “The gospel of Jesus Christ is Mormon.”

    Adam, would you explain what you meant by that? Especially if both conservative and liberal Mormons (including Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie) have somehow fallen into a secular trap? Who is left to define what Mormonism is… so that it can be the reflection of the Gospel as you claim?

    You should answer Nathan’s question regarding mythological and secular views, or admit that you’re in over your head…

  12. Chris H. on February 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I am not sure if somebody who identifies themselves as bland cereal should be making demands of anyone. Nathan does not get answers because he was rude. Adam acknowledged his existence. That was sufficient.

    Like Adam said…it is a blog post. My guess would be that Adam understands these issues far beyond either of you. This is partially since he is well respected in the theology community and also because he is a professor in the subject. Does this make him right? No. I do not think I agree with the post, though I appreciate his sentiment. However, he is likely not the one on the thread who is over his head.

  13. Mark D. on February 26, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Adam M, I think you have an excellent point with regard to young earth creationism, and several related claims. However, it almost seems to me you are hinting that such fundamental properties of truth such as facticity and non-contradiction are inextricably secular in nature. Is that correct?

    Take this scripture for example: “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24).

    Is that a secular definition of truth? If so then Mormonism is established on secular precepts. Like realism, for example. One might similarly say that the dominant trend in Judeo-Christian theology for about 2400 years now is secular as well. Perhaps too secular.

  14. WalkerW on February 27, 2011 at 5:20 am

    I strongly suggest Charles Taylor, ‘A Secular Age’ (Harvard University Press, 2007). I’m currently reading through it (it is quite long) and his explanation of the concept of “secularism” is enlightening.

    For a presentation by Taylor on this subject, see http://fora.tv/2009/03/05/Charles_Taylor_The_Future_of_the_Secular.

  15. Oatmeal on February 27, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Chris H.:

    When and where was Nathan “rude?” Or are direct questions “rude?”

  16. Oatmeal on February 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

    WalkerW:

    I couldn’t follow your link.

  17. Chris H. on February 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    “…Without pretty clear answers to these questions, you seem to me to be tilting at windmills.”

    I do not mind people being rude. I excel at it myself. But being a passive aggressive a@@hole will likely not result in answers to your questions. The advantage of being passive aggresive is that you then get to play dumb and say “Who was being rude? Surely, not me.”

    Walker,
    Charles Taylor does some great stuff in this area. I also find the dialogue between Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict to be very interesting.

  18. Nathan on February 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Adam and Chris H., I apologize if my post came off as rude. I certainly didn’t mean to be rude or passive aggressive. If blog posts are to be given some latitude I would think that responses to them should also be given some latitude.

    For the record, I’m a philosophy professor myself–philosophy of science is an “area of competence” for me. With all due respect, Chris H., many philosophers of science are plenty interested in the sense(s) in which scientific theories and models can be considered true/false. Your claim that “most philosophers of science focus on method and not truth” is not (to me, anyway) obviously correct.

    I was a student of Jim Faulconer many years ago and I find his views on religion quite interesting and insightful. However, I stand by the criticisms of Adam’s post implicit in my original questions: it’s not clear to me that there is some single notion of truth even implicitly accepted both by “secularists” and “fundamentalists.” Nor do I find the examples Adam discusses especially elucidating. For whatever it’s worth, Clark, Oatmeal, and Mark D. seem to have worries similar to mine.

    I apologize if the “tilting at windmills” comment was offensive. The allusion to Don Quixote was intended only to suggest the worry of engaging “enemies” that aren’t actually out there. So here’s my basic challenge to Adam (and I guess also Chris H.):

    What exactly is “secularism” as it’s supposed to be identified in the original blog post here? Can you at least identify a proponent of this view? Such a reference might help me understand what thesis/perspective you intend to challenge. Given your citations of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie as fundamentalists who implicitly accept the secular idea of truth and given scriptures like the one Mark D. cites above and given the heterogeneity of the sciences and their methods, articulating such a secular notion of truth seems quite problematic to me.

  19. Chris H. on February 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Nathan,

    I apologize. My issue was less with your comment and more Oatmeals demand that Adam answer your questions. I should not have dragged you into it.

    When it comes to philosophy of science, I prefer Feyerabend. So, I reject method and prefer the pursuit of knowledge. I think I was confusing you comment with truth claims in the religious or platonic sense.

    I would be interested in how Adam defines those terms and concept. I am am a secularist myself and very much interested in the treatment of the secular from a religious point of view.

    I should also apologize to Adam. Nobody would ever want to be lumped together with my blogging persona.

  20. Oatmeal on February 27, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    I think I need to clarify my concern. Regardless of Adam Miller’s credentials, his post described two priesthood leaders as (secular) fundamentalists, even claiming that “Few Mormons are more secular than Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.” The post concludes with:

    “The secular has its place, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is not secular – that is, it is neither conservative or liberal.

    “The gospel of Jesus Christ is Mormon.”

    So if secularism is a trap, and JFS and BRM are the most secular of Mormons, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not secular, but is Mormon, then… uhhh…. where does that leave JFS and BRM?

    So Adam, are you condemning the thinking of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie? If so, which views? You painted this picture with such broad strokes, it truly begs MANY questions. That is what I meant by suggesting that this was “over your head.”

  21. Clark on February 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    You’re claiming, Clark, that things are more complicated than I indicated above? I deny it! :)

    LOL. I was more thinking that the very opposition of secular vs. non-secular is problematic. I think it’s a bigger problem than just complexity. I tend to see the divide not as conceding the ground to secularity but rather fundamentalism adopts a hermeneutic of common speech as privileged over all other views. That is there’s an assumption in all traditions that the text is understandable by regular readers in their context. Thus contextual arguments (say an argument about how poetic a text is) must be made in terms of a kind of reader response criticism. What would the typical reader read a text as saying.

    Now I actually agree with a lot else you write, especially this being a trap that besets both left and right. I tend to think that politically though what’s happening is a kind of myopia where we notice texts that support us and ignore texts that don’t. But in all cases the same sort of hermeneutic is going on. Thus a liberal often will privilege texts talking about equality with equality being understood in that lay reading response. The only addition to the basic fundamentalist hermeneutic will be what texts are overlooked (say issues of free will). Ditto for the conservative. It gets funny when these repressed texts are forced in the face of a liberal or conservative. For instance I love listening to conservatives here in Provo attempt to explain away Mosiah 3 – 5 in terms of economic critique of inequality or charity. However what you rarely see is an attempt to rework the basic hermeneutic stance of how to read the text. For that kind of repression of texts you need to become an intellectual. (grin)

    I think this applies not just to religious fundamentalism but also to the somewhat related judicial fundamentalism. (i.e. movements that criticize elites for not adopting the straight forward reading of laws, especially the constitution)

  22. Clark on February 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Take this scripture for example: “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24).

    Is that a secular definition of truth?

    I don’t know if it’s a secular definition of truth. But then I think the secular opposition is just unworkable. However it definitely is a very odd definition of truth unlike what you find in most secular accounts of truth. There it’s knowledge defined in terms of truth and not vice versa. The best one could say is that it sounds like Heidegger’s account where truth as judgment is dependent upon a primordial knowing in terms of unveiling or (if one instead moves towards say Russell) acquaintance.

    In any case while Mormons often quote D&C 93:24 it’s really hard to figure out exactly what it means. The least committal interpretation simply says that Truth (with a capital T) is the collection of all knowledge. Which implies some things might be unknowable and thus aren’t part of Truth as a set. I’m not sure how a Kantian would interpret this although it might seem to undermine the attempt by folks like Kierkegaard or even Kant to have religious knowing as the noumenal and opposed to secular or the phenomenal knowing. However even this reading is open to tons of issues and arguments over implications.

  23. Adam Miller on February 28, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Re #21: Thanks, Clark. Would you be willing to grant that part of an oft accepted (but mistaken) “hermeneutic of common speech” is an assumption like: if the scriptures are true and science is true, then they must be talking about the same thing and in the same way? This “common” mistake is something like what Jim’s got in mind: why think there’s only one kind of truth?

    Re #18: No offense taken, Nathan, et. al. (I’m sure Nathan’s – and possibly other’s – credentials are much better than mine!)

    Nathan, I’m happy to grant that “secularism” is, in point of fact, an eclectic mix of methods, assumptions, practices, and theories that, in the end, don’t fit neatly under a single umbrella and, in some respects, maybe even contradict one another. In this sense, the myth of secularism is a “myth” precisely because it involves the claim that there is such a (single, coherent) thing as secularism.

    Would you be willing to grant that, with books such as Man, His Origin and Destiny, one major problem is the uncritical acceptance of this myth? That is, JFS so fiercely combats the creep of secularism precisely because he (mistakenly) “believes” its own myth. Otherwise, what’s the big deal?

    My point (and it may be similar to your own) is that we need not acquiesce (by way of capitulation or aggressive counterattack) to this myth of secularism because it is a myth. JFS is the one who is tilting at this particular windmill :)

    Re #20: Oatmeal, as priesthood leaders, JFS and BRM are just fine in my book. Who has a more powerful testimony than BRM? I love BRM. But they can still be wrong about stuff. And our support of them doesn’t mean that we need to uncritically accept their caricatures of “science” and “secularism” (or “socialism”) or their correspondingly narrow counter-readings of scripture. Their welcome to their own opinions, but so are we. Books like Man, His Origin and Destiny and Mormon Doctrine have, pointedly, not been adopted as official church positions. I’m glad to see it and I think their are good reasons. (Though, for the record, there is a lot of great stuff in MD . . . unlike MHOD ;)

  24. James Olsen on February 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Really enjoying the conversation (sorry to jump in so late). Two other relevant articles:

    1. Jim’s recent Mormon Review article: “Recovering Truth: A review of Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method” (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2010/09/mr-recovering-truth-a-review-of-hans-georg-gadamer-truth-and-method/). Here he states that

    Natural science is the model for modern epistemology: that which the sciences know is that which is truly known. The natural sciences necessarily rely on method: they reduce the objects of their investigation to what is constant and measurable in those objects, they use theories and empirical rules to order their objects into sets of observations, and they test their observations with methods that guarantee them (relatively) invariable outcomes.

    2. Mark Wrathall’s article “The Revealed Word and World Disclosure: Heidegger and Pascal on the Phenomenology of Religious Faith,” The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 37, nr. 1 (January 2006): 75-88. Here Wrathall makes a similar claim from a philosophy of language angle: those who demythologize (i.e., metaphorize) scripture and those who take a hard-line literalist stance are both assuming a phenomenologically inadequate theory of language – one that fails to recognize the (Heideggerian) disclosive nature of scriptural language.

    I’m sympathetic to this view and to the shorthand/blogger version Adam gives us. But it only gets us so far. It’s clear, assuming God’s behind scripture, that he’s not all that concerned about his audience simply getting it wrong. While I’m all for the “existential” (i.e., Gadamer style) truths that scripture reveals, and all for the anthropological-theological view that ancient writers and readers of scripture were doing something different than contemporary historians and scientists do (e.g., when they wrote/read the creation story), and that we should too, that doesn’t change the fact that in addition we have every reason to suppose that such writers/readers likewise took the composed/revealed propositions at face value. We even seem to have God confessing to this in D&C 19: “I never said the punishment was without end, I called it Endless after me – even though, obviously, I knew that all those silly BofM prophets/people would completely misunderstand.” (Alright, so the first part of that quote is in the D&C, the second part is my elaboration to make the point…)

  25. WalkerW on April 4, 2011 at 2:14 am

    I really enjoyed this post. I had similar things to say in an article I wrote for my university’s paper: http://www.ntdaily.com/?p=53409