Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Excommunication Paradox

In response to Nate Oman's reinterpretation of faithful history, I have raised the issue of excommunicating historians that LDS authorities consider as subvervise. Those of you who know me well, will be familiar with the argument. I hope that old and new visitors will engage it once more:

If one takes Mormon theology at its face value then researchers who are threatened with excommunication find themselves in a situation where salvation is unobtainable regardless of what they do.

If the scholars get excommunicated for their research then they lose access to the necessary sacraments. If they submit to authorities and deny their research then they are denouncing their best efforts of determining the facts. That amounts to a lie. Lying is a sin, which results in damnation.

Creating a situation where neither repentance nor salvation are possible is a much greater sacrilege than anything that any historian could possibly say.

27 Comments:

Blogger Hiram Page said...

As Daniel Goldman illustrated in his Wall Street Journal article, Religious Studies Chairs are increasingly being funded by the faithful with the almost inevitable result that one finds believers in the position of teaching a particular faith in a non-religious institution of higher learning. Unfortunately this kind of bias has too often been the case in the past. The results are unfortunate to say the least. I have seen it in Sufi Studies. A Sufi scholar of Sufism who engages in endless blather about how wonderful Sufism is.

In other words, you are correct to point out the evil that is perpetrated when scholars are asked to repress scholarly arguments and knowledge in order to stay Mormon, but there is also a mounting danger that an apologetic or panegyrical view of the faith will be disseminated in the guise of scholarship.

True scholarly dialogue occurs when multiple views of a subject are aired and discussed. If the majority of Mormon Studies Chairs are to be occupied by faithful Mormons, this demographic will tend to limit the value of scholarly discussion of the faith. Worse, it further deteriorates the credibility of the Academy, which already has enough problems overcoming an image of overwhelming liberal bias.

15:01  
Blogger David J said...

It's a tough line to walk, most definitely. I wonder how many profs at the BYU or wherever actually harbor non-correlated feelings about such and such a doctrine. For example, I am known to voice my discontent with the notion of created spirits, and it's a doctrine that's ubiquitous and never going away in the church. But I don't teach it to others over whom I'm given stewardship.

So can a guy or gal be LDS and have a guff or two with parts of the religion and still be card-carrying?

For me, the answer is "definitely."

01:01  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

I offered a reinterpretation not a justification. Some of it is not justifiable, some of it is.

I think that your paradox is wrong both because as a matter of fact, I don't believe that excommunication results in damnation and also because I don't believe that as a matter of LDS theology it results damnation. This is not to say that I think that excommunicating scholars is a good idea. Rather, I simply don't think that the paradox that seems to be fulcrum of your spiritual crisis actually exists. Obviously, we differ in our interpretations of LDS theology.

10:12  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Nate Oman: "I offered a reinterpretation not a justification. Some of it is not justifiable, some of it is."

I apologize for the lack of precision on my part and will edit the post accordingly, Nate.

10:27  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Nate Oman: "I don't believe that excommunication results in damnation and also because I don't believe that as a matter of LDS theology it results damnation."

I am a little bit puzzled, Nate. Clearly, we teach that baptism is essential to salvation. I have encountered several active Mormons who do not believe that. But they admitted that they beyond the bounds of official theology.

What exactly do you consider false about my understanding of sacraments and salvation?

10:33  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

It has to do with your interpretation of the effect of excommunication on the efficacy of those sacraments and the conditions under which any effect that excommunication might have on their efficacy can be reduced.

Put in a nut shell, the possibility of rebaptism and restoration is always open, and the conditions under which it can occur strike me as being much more open ended than you assume.

11:34  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

a different but related issue: I am less certain than you are about the reasons why Quinn and others were excommunicated. This doesn't mean that I think that excommunicating them was a good idea, etc.

On the other hand, I simply don't think that there is a anything like a concerted policy of excommunicating scholars who get out of line. The whole process strikes me as being much more haphazard and situational than that.

11:36  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

BTW, I am glad that you participate so regularlly at T&S, but I am a little sad that thread on faithful history got sidetracked into a discussion of excommunication rather than trying to grapple with the normative role of history in LDS doctrine. Oh well! Such is the nature of blogging.

11:40  
Blogger Hellmut said...

You are very generous, Nate. I am sorry for jacking your thread.

I probably should have specified the connection to your argument more carefully. Here it is:

Since faith promoting history discounts reasons, the position of scholarly historians becomes perilous when religions deploy faith promoting history assumes the role of theology. In particular, scholars may be confused for heretics.

In light of basic Christian tenets, scholarship can never be heretical. That would be different if a religion did not value an honest approach to reality.

11:51  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

I disagree that faith promoting history (as I defined it -- namely as the search for the normative in the past) discounts reasons. We in effect are offering reasons for why this or that element is normative. There is a problem because we are not particularlly clear about what we are doing, and we frequently multi-task in a way that confuses everything. On the other hand, there is no real way of escaping the theological significance of history within Mormonism, nor do I think that we should wish to do so.

From a purely practical point of view of increasing the quality of intellectual discourse within the Church, I think that bifurcating the discussion between real history based on reasons and faithful history that denies reasons is both inaccurate and counterproductive. It has the dual disability of being unilluminating and politically ineffective.

12:18  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Nate Oman: "a different but related issue: I am less certain than you are about the reasons why Quinn and others were excommunicated. This doesn't mean that I think that excommunicating them was a good idea, etc."

So is your position that excommunicating scholars for their scholarship is wrong but did not happen?

You might enjoy the case reports of the , which documents some of these cases.

Nate Oman: "On the other hand, I simply don't think that there is a anything like a concerted policy of excommunicating scholars who get out of line. The whole process strikes me as being much more haphazard and situational than that."

The paradox emerges if there is one case.

Lavina Anderson published a list of scholars who were pressured by ecclesiastical leaders to change their research reports. She documents over one hundred cases by 1992 (that's the paper that triggered her excommunication as one of the September Six).

Dallin Oaks has reported that Boyd Packer instructed local Church leaders to go after the September Six.

The practice of disciplining scholars continued in the cases of Tom Murphy and Grant Palmer. Tom Murphy was able to avert excommunication only after mobilizing public opinion. To his credit, his stake president recognized the Galilean nature of his project and cancelled the court.

13:43  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

"So is your position that excommunicating scholars for their scholarship is wrong but did not happen?"

No.

13:47  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Oops.

(con't) Generally speaking, I think that excommunicating scholars for what they publish is a bad idea. However, I don't think that it is a bad idea because it somehow involves a heretical denial of the atonement. My objections are much more pragmatic, both because I have a less exalted view of scholarship and a less exalted view of excommunication. I do think that one can come to conclusions on the basis of scholarship that are antithetical to the teachings and mission of the Church, and I don't think it unreasonable to suppose that there are situations in which the publication of such scholarship would merit disciplinary action by the Church.

I don't know enough about the details of particular cases to offer you my opinions on them. I have no doubt that there are instances of people who were disciplined who I do not think should have been disciplined. I assume niether complete perfection nor utter perfidy in the operation of Church courts, one of the reasons that your theological critique strikes me as bizarre.

13:59  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Crap! I tried to post a continuation of this which was lost. Here is the short version:

Generally speaking, I think it is a bad idea to discipline scholars for their published scholarship. However, I don't think that this is a bad idea because it somehow involves a heretical denial of the Atonement either as a matter of fact or as a matter of LDS doctrine. My reasons are much more pragmatic both because I have a less exalted view of scholarship than you do and because I have a less exalted view of excommunication than you do. (Which is not to imply that excommunication is not a serious sanction; just not one that cuts one off from salvation.) I do think that it is possible for someone to arrive at conclusions on the basis of their scholarship that are antithetical to the teachings and mission of the Church such that their promotion and publication would be valid grounds for Church discipline. I would no doubt disagree with some about where to draw that particular line. I do think that it is a line that must be drawn, and I assume that those who draw it -- even when I disagree with them -- do so in good faith.

I have no doubt that people have been disciplined by the Church who have not been disciplined. I assume neither complete perfection nor utter perfidy on the part of Church authorities, and hence I expect mistakes. Even mistakes that have high human costs. I do not think that there is an internal jihad within the Church against the academic study of Mormonism.

14:05  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Oh well, it looks like both versions went through after all. Enjoy!

14:06  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Nate Oman: "Put in a nut shell, the possibility of rebaptism and restoration is always open, and the conditions under which it can occur strike me as being much more open ended than you assume."

That's where the rubber hits the road. How do you repent your scholarship?

14:35  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

"That's where the rubber hits the road. How do you repent your scholarship?"

Wouldn't that depend on what it is about your scholarship that is objectionable? Furthermore, to the extent that scholarship is about the formation of certain beliefs, it seems to me that it is not really all that different than any other kind of belief that would subject one to Church discipline. Suppose I form the belief that Wooley was given the charge to continue polygamy, that the leaders of the Church are apostate, that I ought to join the FLDS Church and take additional wives. Such a belief, it seems to me, could reasonbaly subject me to church discipline. Suppose, however, that I am completely sincere in my belief. What should the Church do? Well, it should give me reasons for changing my belief, encourage me to seek the guidance of the Spirit, pray for me, plead with me, etc. However, at the end of the day if I continue to hold to my polygamous beliefs my sincerity doesn't really seem to make a great deal of difference. I realize that you have some sort of distinction in your mind between existential and other beliefs that somehow makes renders this case different, but I confess that I don't understand it.

14:42  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

BTW, I have no idea what conditions were imposed on D. Michael Quinn, for example, for rebaptism. Do you? (And I am not talking here about the Mormon studies rumor mill. I mean real, concrete information.(

14:44  
Blogger Hellmut said...

I do know that Grant Palmer does not know how to repent from writing An Insider's View. Palmer is quite accessible. His phone number is listed in Sandy. He would probably be happy to discuss his case with you.

Scholarship is different from other beliefs because the rules of that game require that one submit to logic and evidence. To some degree, scholarly conclusions depend on factors beyond ourselves.

That's not the same as objectivity or truth. But I do see scholars that change their positions under the burden of evidence often. The best defend themselves vigorously before they are persuaded.

As scholarship transcends us, however little, we cannot recant without good reasons in terms of logic and evidence. If we did then we would lie. In our faith lying is a sin.

The bit about quantified logic or existential statements was a tangent in response to Frank. The point is that the epistemological obstacles in history are less severe than in other disciplines. Are you familiar with quantified logic?

15:03  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Hellmut: The problem is that it seems to me that all of our beliefs transcend us in some sense. I don't see this as something that is somehow limited to the scholarlly enterprise, and therefore I see no reason to treat beliefs resulting from scholarship as different than other beliefs. Part of this may be that the I reject the notion that faith consists of belief in the absence of reasons for belief. I think that we have reasons for faith.

15:50  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Hellmut: Have Palmer's leaders -- to your knowledge -- explained to him what he could do to regain full fellowship?

15:51  
Blogger Hellmut said...

That's a good point that I forgot to address.

I am not sure if our religious beliefs transcend us. That would be a matter of belief.

The reasons that constrain scholars are observable. Hence one can play the same game.

If Mormons and Jews for Jesus encounter each other, they will claim that God told them the opposite about the Book of Mormon. Game over.

The scholarship game lasts a lot longer because we can determine logic and observables together. With a little luck, the audience can eventually decide if our positions are indeed constrained by evidence or if our views are ridiculous.

17:12  
Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Hellmut: No dice. I am not persuaded. The length of the conversation doesn't seem to matter decisively here. Furthermore, I don't think that religious conversations need to be quite as quick as you suggest. Finally, scholarlly conversations also involve the class of incommenserable assumptions from time to time, indeed rather frequently.

17:36  
Anonymous NBO said...

clash not class.

17:37  
Blogger Hellmut said...

I am not sure what you mean, NBO, but I am actually pleased with the tone of this difficult debate.

I agree with you, Nate, that scholarship is often informed by different assumptions. In practice these problems are less important than one would expect. There is some interesting research regarding the confluence of expert opinion over time.

That is especially true with respect to Church history. It's usually a matter of narrowly specified existential statements. Did the three witnesses actually see the plates? Did Joseph Smith marry Fanny Alger? Is the Book of Abraham a translation of the Facsimile? Even if we lack the evidence to answer these questions, many scholars will be able to agree about what evidence would satisfy them to answer the questions. The scholars would consider themselves convinced if that evidence emerged and would be compelled to revise their judgment.

And if they won't they will become the laughter of their colleagues. That's in fact the fate of apologists and anti-Mormons who do not submit to a reasonable interpretations of the available evidence.

Hence competing truth claims can engage each other when evidence becomes available. That's true especially of the expert audience.

I also agree with you that people of different religious persuasions can have fruitful exchanges about important matters. Our relationship is a case in point.

When it comes to ultimate truth claims, such as the existence of God or the prophetic office of Joseph Smith, there is not much that we could tell Jews for Jesus that they would consider authoritative or compelling.

Marxist and postmodernist historians, on the other hand, can often resolve competing truth claims. Hence they publish in the same journals, edit books together, inform each other's work, and persuade each other with evidence.

We could ask them to pray. They might say that they already did and knew us to be servants of the devil.

There might be many other avenues that Jews for Jesus and we could explore fruitfully together, when it comes to our religious truth claim, it is ultimately a matter of feelings that occur within each individual.

20:13  
Blogger Hiram Page said...

In my opinion there are very compelling reasons why people should be taught to draw distinctions between secular scholarship and devotional history. Think of the nature of secular scholarship on history. Ideally it should be aimed at providing the best possible analysis of historical evidences according using a particular set of intellectual tools. It is not the aim of the historian's craft, at least as most people define it today, to promote or to challenge faith.

Devotional history is a religious exercise as well as a scholarly one. The devotional historian seeks to enhance or deepen believers' spiritual experience of their tradition. BTW, I really think Nate is on to something when he writes about faithful history being an ongoing practice in determining what is normative. What can we bring from our past into the present? How can we define our relationship with the past, while remaining true to our current spiritual convictions? The presentation of the past in this mode does not exclude new insights that would be equally welcome in a secular environment. Bushman's work is as close to perfect in walking the line between the two kinds of history I think we will ever see.

Each kind of history is as much about the present as it is about the past. Secular scholars are sometimes cynical about spiritual experiences and motivations when it comes to writing the history of a faith. Devotional historians craft a view of a faith's past that does as little violence as possible to contemporary belief. People can be educated to understand how to appreciate the difference and use that knowledge to guide them in their response to what they read.

In short, one can write with different aims and methods, and arrive at very different results. Not all history writing is suitable in every context. I do not read from Quinn's Magic World View when I teach Sunday School. I will not use President Hinckley's brief history much when I write my own article on the Restoration (hypothetical).

If we can accept that there are different kinds of history, can we allow that scholars might write different kinds of history and not hold them to devotional history standards whenever they write? Is there ever a time when a scholar is allowed, in a scholarly forum, to forward a hypothesis that contradicts his faith position, but which he or she feels must be explored in forming a secular scholarly view? I think the possibility must exist. Any responsible scholar understands that secular scholarship is tentative. The person who leaps to dismissing faith from the discovery of a tidbit from history is operating in a defective paradigm of truth categories.

Look at the difference between Grant Palmer and Mike Quinn. Someone like a Grant Palmer states clearly that he or she has an agenda that contradicts the faith. In that instance the person is not simply behaving as a scholar, but taking a faith position. A Quinn, who avows loyalty to the LDS Church, writes a historical article in which he explores ideas that make the leadership of that Church uncomfortable (either the Manifesto piece, or the Relief Society piece). He does not seem to have a faith-motivated agenda to change the LDS Church. I simply cannot detect one. Should he punished for sharing his scholarly views? Treating the situation as a hypothetical, I say no.

Secular scholarship always has been and always should be considered a tentative enterprise. Unlike spiritual convictions, which relate to timeless truths acquired through divine illumination, scholarship is understood to be perpetually moving. New methods, new philosophies, new evidences. All these things change the picture on a daily basis. It is only our sad misunderstanding of the differing categories of truth that leads us to fear scholarly analysis as an enemy of faith or eschew spiritual revelation based on scholarly discoveries.

22:29  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Here is what Grant Palmer send me in response to your question, Nate. Sorry it took so long.

Grant Palmer:
"Last May, SP Adams called me in and seemed interested in only one question: "Have you changed your views"? I told him no, but then took the opportunity to ask two questions of my own. I told him that he had not been accountable to me. I asked him what he expected from me--what he wanted from me in order to lift the disfellowshipment. He said that he would get back to me, but has not done so."

13:50  

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