Osama Bid Laden and Continuing Revelation

May 3, 2011 | no comments
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In the intervals of my enthusiastic and whole-hearted embrace of the unseemly national frenzy of dancing on Bin Laden’s grave, I’ve had a few tentative thoughts about continuing revelation.

Mormons make two main apologies for our doctrine of continuing revelation. Continuing revelation is practical, we say. Circumstances change, we say, and its just possible that the Almighty might have a few pointers that are specific to us. St. Paul didn’t counsel the Corinthians to make a habit of family dinners to counter-act the the centrifugal forces exerted on the middle-class nuclear family by cell phones and the internet. We would also say that continuing revelation has a meaning apart from the contents of the revelation. Continuing revelation is the sign of God’s continuing care.

Naturally I prefer the second rationale. I’m too high-minded to for grubby practicality. But today, against my nature, I’ve half-baked another practical justification for our doctrine of continuing revelation.

We killed Bin Laden on purpose. We committed a targeted killing. No one worth listening to is going to complain. The upshot is that we’ve set a precedent for an action that heretofore was somewhat suspect. Like most Americans, I’m all for Bin Laden’s 5.56 millimeter’s of justice. Like most Americans, I’m uneasy with the principle that nation-states can legitimately execute foreign nationals without trial and without being at war with the foreign nationals’ nation. But the one leads to the other. Why? Because if it our action is justifiable in this particular case, there must be a justifying principle that is accessible to human decision-making. If that principle is general, then it applies to everyone else and to our own future acts too. Or, if we argue that ethics and customs are highly situational, we at the same time destroy the argument that there is a meaningful principle that nation-states should generally *not* target folks for killing.

The same dynamic is at work in the war on terror in general. Unusual, crisis situations have led to arguably justified actions that have, however, set very unpleasant precedents. One might say the same of the history of US government involvement with the US economy in the the last century or so. Emergency responses to crisis situations have not stayed limited to the crisis. Probably they can’t be. General rules are only useful to the degree they can’t be ignored by ad hoc exceptions, but crisis situations demand ad hoc exceptions to general rules.

So what does continuing revelation have to do with it? Well, the exceptions that men make to man-made rules are dangerous because their justifications are in theory accessible to other men and therefore applicable to other situations. Divine exceptions are not. If God directs an exception to a general principle, we can credibly believe that there may be reasons for it beyond our ken. We can’t justify further exceptions because we don’t know and maybe even can’t know what the justification for the exception was.

Continuing revelation allows us to have necessary moral rules and necessary exceptions to those rules without the one destroying the other, or the other the one. Those of us who are perplexed at, say, the Mormon Church’s curious patchwork of rules on abortion may take comfort in knowing that, perhaps, our perplexity is the point.* Legal scholars have sometimes noted how important “fruitful ambiguity” is to human systems. Continuing revelation extends that ambiguity far more fruitfully than humans ever can.**

*You thought I couldn’t tie in Bin Laden to abortion? How wrong you were, my poppets.
** This is true whether there is actual continuing revelation or not. Even a “doctrine” of continual revelation, such that exceptions might be divine is enough, even if the exceptions also might not.
***One implication is that human systems–governments and such–should make more use of random elements. Just as exception-making is neutered if the exceptions are too meaningful for human understanding, exception-making is also neutered if the exceptions are meaningless. Who knew that my growing attraction to ochlocracy was the fault of Joseph Smith?

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