Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

On mingling….

Posted by joespencer on February 12, 2007

Stephen Robinson writes in his almost classic study of the great and abominable church in Nephi’s vision:

The church of the devil is any church that teaches the philosophies of men mingled with scripture….

Many of us, I imagine, recognize the second half of that quotation as a familiar, “canonical” phrase of signal importance. As an LDS student of philosophy, I think I’ve heard that phrase used, both in derision and in concern, more often than I’ve heard, in either of these same two spirits, “What are you going to do for a living with a degree in philosophy?”

Now, let me ask two questions of my own. First, how do you understand this phrase? That is, what is being condemned here? And second, what then is the place of philosophy or of philosophical thinking in teaching in the Church?

30 Responses to “On mingling….”

  1. douglashunter said

    Its a good question, I often think the statement is used to condem anything other than a common sense (sic.), or face value readings of scripture. It may be that the word “philosophies” is an unfortunate choice, since it carries with it the kind of difficulity that you suggest: anything named philosophy becomes suspect in a church culture that tends to have anti-intellectual leanings.

    How do I understand the phrase? I don’t have a good way of understanding it without keeping it overly simple. that is to say, that “philosophies” here describes teachings that are human, rather than devine in origin. Naturally, this statement falls apart as soon as one takes any number of possible “next steps” or beings to analyze it.

    Frankly. I’ve never been able to come up with a defendable understanding of the statement you quote. I think the statement is always already doomed to fail because, scripture, from my point of view, clearly contains philosophies of men. But as you can guess I am thinking in post-structural terms here and labeling as “philosophies” the structural elements of western metaphysics that are clearly functioning in scripture. This can lead to some pretty odd questions such as: is God phalogocentric? :-) A feminist analysis is going to be able to point to many aspects of scripture that fit nicely within catagories that we can define as philosophies of men, in the most literal sense!

    Another dimension of the question is the degree to which scripture is written from within a historical context and reflects aspects of life or beliefs that were common at the time but that probably should not be understood as reflecting an authortative divine point of view on a topic. Slavery being an example of this. It’s inclusion in scripture represents a fact of life of the world in which scripture was produced but that does not mean its was approved of by God or that 19th century southerners were right to use the Bible as justification for the brutal practice of American slavery.

  2. Robert C. said

    I like what Douglas says about philosophical meta-narratives.

    It’s almost killing me to do this, but I’m going to try to stay out of this conversation for at least a litte while, both b/c I have a lot to do and b/c I want to hear others’ thoughts, unadulterated by the many thoughts I have on this topic (which I think several people have already heard on the wiki or on other blogs…).

  3. robf said

    In the original context of this “canonical saying”, the philosophies of men mingled with scripture stand are contrasted with direct teaching by heavenly beings. Perhaps we look beyond the mark when we use the scriptures to logically prove a point or a doctrine, when their real purpose is to lead to Christ. Not just or even primarily to a knowledge of Christ, but to a literal experience with Christ. Perhaps when we think the scriptures “contain” truth, we are looking beyond what we need to see, as the scriptures pointing towards truth.

    Something that strikes me is how after Nephi returns to the camp of his father with the Brass plates, they do read through the scriptures (though they only comment on the geneological passages there), but the next few chapters are not explications of these wonderful scriptures that they now have, but explorations of divine truths directly revealed to Lehi and Nephi by heavenly beings in dreams and visions. Even later, when Nephi quotes scripture at length (“the Isaiah chapters”), he does so mostly to testify of Christ. Even when he says he is likening the scriptures unto himself, he seems mostly to be using the scriptures to testify of the coming Christ, not to teach principles of behavior.

    For me, I tend to think that most of what we teach might also be considered the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture. I take it as a cautionary measure, as a warning that I should always be looking for light and knowledge from Heaven, and not become too enfatuated with my own interpretations or brilliant logical scriptural conclusions.

  4. I think Douglas has beautifully articulated the stakes of this question, I think Rob has vitally outlined the direction any good discussion of it must go, and I think Robert’s decision to postpone adding his own further light and knowledge is perhaps just as important.

    Can the thrust of the saying be summed up thus: we are to regard all philosophies of men, as well as all scripture(?), with a kind of tentativeness? Better: we philosophize, and we read scripture(?), only in the hopes that our thinking on these things is dashed by the appearance of true messengers?

    If this is a good reading, it suggests to me that we consider very carefully the importance of community, of angel-human relations, of heaven/earth atonement, etc. It also suggests to me that we recognize Douglas’ concerns about philosophy and scripture as very valid, as concerns we ought to have constantly in mind as we study.

    But let me ask a further interpretive question about the “canonical saying” itself. Is it important that the one is mingled with the other? Does the saying assume that one takes up philosophy first and then mingles it with scripture? Does it condemn at all mingling scripture with the philosophy of men?

    And again, what is the place of philosophy in our teaching, given all of the above?

  5. robf said

    Great follow-up questions. My initial take on the saying was that the problem was teaching philosophical positions and dressing them up with a scriptural overlay. That may or may not be the best interpretation, though if pressed, I’m sure many would consider that to be the main problem. I think I’ve taken it farther (to far?) in presuming that there is a difference between the philosophies/teachings/scriptural understandings of people, and the pure teaching relationship between people and heavenly messengers (including the Spirit).

    My current thoughts on this wonder about the role of teacher as messenger (“angel”). Does the role of a teacher change if the teacher is considered one who brings a heavenly message? Is it appropriate for us to look at teachers this way? How does that change our messages? How much philosophy would we present if we took our roles as teachers this way? How would it change how we use the scriptures?

  6. m&m said

    Does the role of a teacher change if the teacher is considered one who brings a heavenly message?

    I think it is dangerous to put ourselves in this role. Only the Spirit could allow us to do that, so I think it’s better to think of the Spirit as the one who brings messages from heaven.

    we are to regard all philosophies of men, as well as all scripture(?), with a kind of tentativeness?

    I really think there is a difference between the power of scripture and the power of lay people’s interpretations of scripture. The latter is to be taken with a grain of salt (I’m separating lay people from prophets/apostles because I think they are given special charge to teach and interpret scripture). I think too often we put too much stake in “experts” or “scholars” (even good, righteous, LDS folks) and don’t let the Spirit teach us directly through the scriptures (which includes words of prophets).

    p.s. Next time I would love to see a little more subtlety (i.e., indirect reference) in treating subjects like this. One person’s opinion. :)

  7. robf said

    m&m, 2 Nephi 32:2-3 seems to indicate that we, as well as heavenly messangers, can speak with the same authority and power. The Holy Ghost makes it possible for us, as well as heavenly messengers, to “speak with the tongue of angels”. Of course, Joe would suggest that this may not happen if all we are doing is presenting object lessons. And perhaps when we mingle our scriptural messages with our own thoughts and ideas?

  8. m&m, I lifted the phrase from Stephen Robinson’s article, and precisely for the reason I assume you have for hoping “to see a little more subtlety.” I’m sorry if this was too explicit. I will avoid it in the future.

    Rob, I seem to recall you being acquainted with Margaret Barker’s work. Are you familiar with her priesthood of angels material? I wonder about the implications of that study. It is certainly suggestive. I must confess that I am quite sympathetic to the idea of thinking of ourselves in a quasi-angelic role in teaching. And I think that if the saints were to think that way generally, we would spend our classroom time far better.

  9. Robert C. said

    OK, I’ve kept silent as long as I can stand.

    First, let me say that I think m&m raises a really good issue with her parentheitcal statement, “I’m separating lay people from prophets/apostles because I think they are given special charge to teach and interpret scripture.” How true is this, and how far should it be taken? (There’s been extensive discussion related to this over at the Faith Promoting Rumor blog, mainly considering the role and possibilities of Mormon scripture scholarship and what the potential conflicts are with Church leadership.)

    Also, notice this thread at T&S which raises many of the same questions and has some very interesting comments (you’ll notice the link vainly takes you to my own comment…).

    Finally (and surely anti-climactically), my view: I think that Isa 29:13, which is quoted in Matt 15:9 and discussed at length in 2 Ne 28, is the key scripture for understanding what is meant here (and I think 2 Ne 9:28-29, 42 is also importantly related; see a link to all scriptures below), and it very much underscores what robf has said above. The precepts/commandments of men seem to always be set in contrast to true worship which, as m&m pointed out, must include the Holy Ghost (2 Ne 28:26, 31) and a heart directed toward God (the phrase “fear toward me” in Isa 29:13 is generally taken to mean one’s attitude in worship) that entails hearkening to God (in contrast to false churches per 2 Ne 28).

    So I think the philosophies of men has very little do with philosophical teachings per se (though I think Marion’s critique of Western metaphysics in his idol-icon distinction can be related to this in significant ways…), but has everything to do with one’s relationship with God.

    Regarding the way and sequential order in which these philophies/precepts/commandments might be mingled with scripture, I think the danger is primarily what 2 Ne 28 is getting at: just because we go through the rituals of religion (going to Church, the temple, paying tithing, and follow the commandments outwardly) does not mean that we are truly hearkening to God–if our hearts are not pure and wholly directed toward God, then we are not fully “hearken[ing] unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne 9:29; and note, I think the implicit subtext in 2 Ne 9:28 is that there is in fact a certain danger in learning secular philosophy, just like there is a danger in being blessed with riches, b/c it can lead to pride etc.).

    __

    * Here’s a list of the scriptures I’ve referenced above.

  10. douglashunter said

    m&m writes “Next time I would love to see a little more subtlety (i.e., indirect reference) in treating subjects like this. ”

    For at least two reasons I don’t see the need for the call for subtlety. Would someone mind giving some more detail so I can know which of my two reasons is right? File this under “if you have to ask . . . .”

  11. robf said

    Joe, I haven’t dug into Barker’s priesthood of angels stuff too much, just picked up bits here and there. What I’ve seen so far makes sense to me, and I think when we are “called of God, by prophecy and the laying on of hands” to teach, that we should consider ourselves “true messengers,” “speak with the tongue of angels,” etc. I don’t think we view it this way in our day to day Church work, but maybe we should. Of course, we aren’t authorized to reveal new doctrines, but priesthood ordination authorizes one to teach the gospel as found in the scriptures, and to lead people to Christ through the ordinances of the Church–just like the Patriarchs of old or the High Priest in the First Temple.

  12. robf said

    Back to one of Joe’s original questions: “what then is the place of philosophy or of philosophical thinking in teaching in the Church?”

    If we are to be true and authorized messengers, and speak with the tongue of angels, is there a place for us to engage in philosophy or philosophical teaching at Church?

    One time I gave a talk in Church about how we inherit everything that the Lord has, including this. While that got folk’s attention, I’ve wondered sometimes if that kind of talk is appropriate, or if I was just reaching to be a little more entertaining. Was I merely teaching the astrophysics of men, mingled with scripture?

    Maybe this gets to a larger question of how we try to circumscribe all truth into one great whole, and when and how we should consider the findings of science to be “truths” rather than mere philosophical constructs.

  13. robf said

    Sorry, messed up the html on that last one! [Fixed.]

  14. m&m said

    The Holy Ghost makes it possible for us, as well as heavenly messengers, to “speak with the tongue of angels”.

    I think I agreed with you. I said, “Only the Spirit could allow us to do that, so I think it’s better to think of the Spirit as the one who brings messages from heaven.” It is only when we are truly speaking by the Spirit and with the Spirit that we can consider our words to be with the tongue of angels.

    But here’s my point. If we are speaking by the Spirit, then we are no longer merely sharing mortal perspectives, philosophies, etc., right? That’s the key. But if I go into a teaching situation with, “OK, it’s my job to tell these people what they need to know” rather than focusing on scripture and other pure doctrinal material and humbly recognizing the Spirit as the true teacher, then I am risking bringing in more of the mortal philosophies rather than true messages from heaven.

    If we have not the Spirit and teach not by the Spirit, we shouldn’t be teaching in the first place, or at least we can rest assured that we won’t be speaking as angels (a la D&C 50 and 2 Ne. 32). Again, the Spirit is the true teacher. Anything that gets us to focus or think otherwise, IMO, gets us mingling a bit, or at least risking that behavior.

    Incidentally, I have been thinking about this a lot since hearing a comment that often teaching is better outside of Utah because in Utah, we have so much access to commentaries and the like that we don’t focus enough on the scriptures and humbly preparing and teaching with the Spirit. We have too much stuff in our notes and our brains and want to share all the cool “new stuff” rather than trusting the scriptures and the doctrines that the Spirit can more readily ratify. This is not to say that some commentaries don’t have some great spiritual insights, likely inspired insights. But I know for me, I love so much to study other people’s insights that I realize that I don’t spend enough time just in the scriptures, unadulterated by anyone else’s point of view, letting the Spirit teach me purely and directly. I fear we often bring too much of that kind of thing into our teaching as well.

    Again, I am not saying that any of us can’t speak with the tongue of angels if we have the Spirit. I know that can happen. I’ve felt it on occasion when teaching. But I also know how easy it is to think that my calling gives me special something-or-another, and I should never think of myself as “better than the learner.” It’s a fine line and one that is all too easy for the natural man to cross.

  15. m&m said

    “I’m separating lay people from prophets/apostles because I think they are given special charge to teach and interpret scripture.” How true is this, and how far should it be taken?

    Robert, FWIW, I was thinking in light of what we learn in the temple about these things. This is not to say that, under true inspiration from the Spirit, we as “lay people” can’t teach from scripture with the Spirit. Like I said above, though, I think it’s more our job to create situations where the Spirit can do the teaching, rather than thinking of ourselves as the ones teaching. Teaching the scriptures (ancient and modern) (with the Spirit, of course) increases the chance this will happen.

  16. brianj said

    Wow, Robert! The list of scriptures you provided (#9) pretty much answered the question for me. Thanks!

    I’ll just note that what I got out of reading that list is this: the problem is not in discussing my own ideas/thoughts, but in portraying them as doctrines from God; or conversely, choosing to believe man’s ideas over God’s.

  17. m&m said

    p.s. I meant to thank you, Robert, as well, for the list of scriptures. They were excellent. One key message I get from is that relying on my own wisdom can put me in spiritual peril.

  18. douglashunter said

    m&m writes “I have been thinking about this a lot since hearing a comment that often teaching is better outside of Utah because in Utah, we have so much access to commentaries and the like that we don’t focus enough on the scriptures and humbly preparing and teaching with the Spirit.”

    Having spent a few years in wards both in and outside of Utah in my experience I’d say there were more good teaches in my Utah stake than here in California. I don’t really think that geography affects access to additional materials. This internet thing tends to be an equalizer on that level. There have also been a few memorible teachers here in Cali. as well.

  19. m&m said

    Douglas,
    I have had similar experiences (SS in my CA was a tough hour). That said, I still think the content of that comment, reminding us that commentaries and the like (which probably are more accessible in Utah (and CA) than other places (probably not just US, either) should be secondary at best to our study of and focus on the scriptures.

  20. douglashunter said

    m&m writes “commentaries and the like . . . should be secondary at best to our study of and focus on the scriptures.”

    Personally, I go back and forth on this idea. I have learned a great deal about the scriptures from historical introductions, and from reading different interpertations of scripture. So I’ve benefitted greatly from them. I also spend some time trying to figure out what “studying the scriptures” means. Certainly reading (in its various modes) and praying, and asking the spirit for guidance are central. But I think there is a lot more to it than that, but this “a lot more” can be defined on the individual level and also on the level of comunity.

    Joe asked about the place of philosophy in our teaching. One answer is that it informs our readings and understanding. My exposure to post-structural thought informs, in very specific ways how I read scripture. My exposure to radical feminism informs what I see as the ideal of my role as a teacher. I think exposure to philosophy, specifically philosophy of language and ethics can be powerful touch stones for teaching.

  21. Ben said

    I’ve always taken philosophies of men simply to mean something akin to “human wisdom.” However, I don’t think the phrase has much force, simply because scripture is not self-interpreting. Any understanding of a passage necessarily involves human cognition.

    The real question, then, is “what constitutes ‘wresting’ the scriptures?” Does that limit us to the original context or intent of the author? What if the author’s intent is unrecoverable, or the original intent has been obscured or even changed by a later editor? What about inspired re-application?

  22. Ben, I think these are very important questions, and they probably deserve a separate post. I imagine Robert would be interested in doing one, and if not, I would.

  23. brianj said

    I don’t think “wresting” is determined by the author’s original intent, I think it is determined by the reader’s. Whenever I have some belief, and then search for a scripture that will support it, I am wresting the scriptures—I am telling the scriptures what they should mean. There are two alternatives: 1) Have a belief, and then identify the scripture that was the source of that belief; 2) Ask the scriptures what to believe.

    Of course, after that I’m not going to cite any scriptures….

  24. douglashunter said

    Ben your first paragraph is a great way to put the issue in as few words as possible, The only addition I would make is that the writing of the scriptures also took human cognition.

    On your second point I guess I’m in the camp that assumes that seeking authorial intent is a poor way to read, specifically in relation to the downfall of new criticism.

    I think Brian’s post points to the difficulty of talking about this topic, because I don’t think the “I am telling the scriptures what they should mean” is limited to efforts to make a specific point, its inherent in the fact that we bring so much context to the act of reading. There is no pure, essential or true scripture that we are hoping to discover in the act of reading. What there is, is the fact that we all can’t help but to read differently (which I think is a good thing) and there is the fact or hope that we are striving to be in contact with the divine through, or as part of, the act of reading.

  25. brianj said

    Douglas: I agree with what you wrote (#24), with one minor change (maybe): when I read, I like to ask, “Why did the author use that word/tell that story/omit that detail?” But I don’t think that’s the kind of “intent reading” you object to, is it?

  26. douglashunter said

    I guess my first response is that with such old texts for which we do not have originals, and we don’t even know how far removed our copies are, its going to be difficult to ascribe such details to a specific individual.

    On the other hand even when reading contemporary texts my reading method is to ask what the potential meanings are of a word, story or detail. I place the emphasis on meaning over causal relationships in all reading. I think you are talking about meaning as well but including causality as part of the examination of meaning.

    I distinguish between the two because defining the author as the cause of a text, and believing that the text gives access to the author’s intention got the new critics in trouble every time they went to interpert texts of living authors. There was a very funny NYT article in 1988 (i think) that mentioned authors standing up during MLA pannels about their work and saying “that’s not what I meant!” Similarly Thomas Crow, in a great article published in OCTOBER a few years back quoted a female artist who lamented that when she used flags in her work the audiences took it as a refrence to Jasper Johns, she herself was hoping that people would think of Betsy Ross. I like that example because it shows how important context is, and how much the viewer / reader brings to the engagement. There are a million other examples of course. Anyway, personally, its my goal to try to examine potential meanings without assigning them a cause.

  27. brianj said

    Douglas: actually, I think we are even more in agreement than I did before. I too am wary of asking many questions of, say, the author of Luke or Judges—I really have no idea who authored those. So when I ask, “Why did the author use that word/tell that story/omit that detail?”, I guess what I am really asking is, “What effect does using that word/telling that story/omitting that detail have on the reading?” And then I may compare it to another reading that uses different words or details (as so frequently occurs in the Gospels).

    Which is not to say that I completely disregard causality—I read Judges differently than the Book of Luke because I can assume some general things about their “authors”, and therefore read a little bit of “cause” into it. I wonder, do you also object to this “causality-lite” kind of reading? In other words, if you read the words, “Discipline thyself,” would it make any difference to you whether they were written by a Jew, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist?

  28. douglashunter said

    Brian “I guess what I am really asking is, “What effect does using that word/telling that story/omitting that detail have on the reading?” And then I may compare it to another reading that uses different words or details (as so frequently occurs in the Gospels).”

    I really like the comparetive / horizontal approach. You remind me that I need to find more ways to use it.

    Brian “I wonder, do you also object to this “causality-lite” kind of reading? In other words, if you read the words, “Discipline thyself,” would it make any difference to you whether they were written by a Jew, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist?”

    No, I am not opposed to that at all, I just call it context rather than cause.

  29. brianj said

    Douglas—I’m sure you’ve discovered that I don’t have the vocabulary for these kinds of discussions, so a lot of my confusion is just coming to know the terms. Thanks for explaining.

  30. […] If we take up the correlated lesson manual in the wrong way, for example, there is a danger that we will never reckon with the scriptures themselves, a danger that we will simply continue believing a reduced (and propositional/creedal) version of the Gospel that is tantamount to the precepts of men that Isaiah is criticizing. We must be constantly vigilant to be sure that our hearts are drawing near to God, seeking to know his ways and mysteries, without mistaking what appears as wisdom for God’s marvelous power. (For more on this question regarding the philosophies of men, see this discussion). […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

 
%d bloggers like this: