Saturday, 18 April 2015

We cannot escape from incredible beliefs, twist and turn as we may

As I have written (see references below): Christianity is incredible, and Mormonism is incredible-squared. In that sense it is perfectly reasonable to reject either or both - because there is no requirement for us to assent to the incredible.

However, rejecting Christianity and Mormonism simply because they are incredible makes no sense either - because that rejection itself leads to incredible conclusions.


To focus on Mormonism - it really is incredible that Joseph Smith (of all people!) should be a prophet of God and that the provenance of the Book of Mormon was as described (gold plates, angels, translating devices etc), and that Joseph's BoM translation really derives from a lost ancient manuscript.

So it might, superficially, seem straightforward to disbelieve these things. Let's call this the skeptical alternative. But what then?

Of course, most people who reject Mormonism as incredible have a rooted negative prejudice against it, do not know the whole story, and/ or they have wildly false or distorted ideas about Mormonism.

But if you approach the subject of Mormonism with a benign and sympathetic attitude, are honest and informed; then we can see that the skeptical alternative is also clearly incredible; because it requires on the one hand that Joseph Smith was both a genius and also a calculated fraud, who led a water-tight conspiracy; and furthermore that the CJCLDS grew from a foundation of fraud and conspiracy to become the (overall) highly positive and wholesome influence it is today.


But yet again, the skeptical alternative - while incredible and unprecedented - is not impossible.

It is possible to imagine or suppose that a fraudulent genius and a watertight conspiracy did indeed, by chance and against the original intent, lead to great good - why, not?

This belief goes against common sense and reasonable expectation, but it could be true. 


But then, if we are honest and rigorous enough to apply this kind of negative, skeptical alternative reasoning to other domains of life - such as other religions, the history of politics, science etc.; then we will find that they also crumble away into what could be fiendish conspiracies.

In particular, we will be compelled to notice that Mormonism grew under the microscope of the mass media, and is vastly documented compared with other world religions and major Christian denominations.

We may reflect that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence when it comes to these other religions, and that much of the 'evidence' about early Mormonism is both ignorant and dishonest - as well as rootedly hostile...

In the end, no matter where we turn, or how we twist and twist about - we cannot escape incredibilities: we really can't. Not if we are honest and rigorous. 


The above is not by any means a proof of the validity of Mormonism - it is not intended as such, and I do not believe that there can be any such proof even in principle.

And what applies to Mormonism in small, applies to Christianity in large - the Christian story is packed with incredibilities and inconsistencies; yet to reject Christianity as incredible entails believing in some combination of delusion and conspiracy of a kind that is itself incredible, because grossly contradictory to actual behaviour and historical consequences.

It is that same skeptic's dilemma - Christianity could be based on delusion and fraud- that is not-impossible - it is just highly incredible. That path offers no escape from incredibility.


My point is that the impulse to avoid believing incredible things is mistaken, a basic error; because it is impossible. The notion of an incredibility-free belief system is an illusion and a snare.

Indeed, the urge to avoid incredibilities leads to the deep-rooted dishonesty and wilful self-blindness typical of the person who prides and advertises himself on being A Skeptic that relies only on Evidence.

(I mean the kind of man [we all know them - you may be one of them!] who applies skepticism only where and when it suits him, and blandly denies the incredibility of his own favoured incredibilities.)

But neither the skeptic not the credulous ever can or will avoid believing not just one but many incredibilities.

Incredible beliefs are simply a fact of life. 


This can be taken in two ways - either as meaning that we cannot believe anything because we could believe anything; OR that this is the way things are meant to be - and that it is a necessary and desirable part of the human condition that foundational belief require an act of choice from each of us as individuals.

To believe that fundamental beliefs cannot and should not be wholly-dictated by objective public 'evidence' and 'reason' but necessarily require an act of personal choice is, of course standard mainstream Christianity - it is what is meant by Faith.

Skeptics assume that the only alternatives are either being convinced by conclusive and credible evidence to reach credible conclusions on rational grounds; or else just believing whatever incredibility you want and calling it 'faith'...

But Christians deny that these alternatives exhaust all possibilities, and also deny that the skeptical possibility is coherent (for the reasons given above).


So what should we do, each, as individuals? Does everyone have to believe in Mormonism because it is incredible, or because everything else is at least equally incredible? Obviously not!

The Mormon answer is that each interested person as an individual has the possibility of investigating the evidence - and each must (and inevitably will) then make a choice. But people should not believe in Mormonism unless that choice is validated-by, or indeed comes-from, divine revelation.

Evidence is relevant, but never conclusive. Each person who professes Mormonism needs to, and must have, faith.

And exactly the same ought to apply to any Christian denomination. To be any kind of Christian (rather than just doing things that Christians do) requires faith; and that faith is based on individual choice; and that choice - to be valid - is not arbitrary but divinely inspired.


Is this a process without any possibility of error? No.

Can we be sure and confident that divine validation has happened? Yes.

But might we then change our mind about things we used to be certain about, or doubt our own certainty? Yes.

Does this then mean that truth is relative and arbitrary and we can believe anything or nothing? No.


Truth is real, humans are fallible, certainty is possible, faith is necessary.

These just are the facts, and we must work with them - we have no alternative: we must choose, and we will choose and indeed we have already chosen (although not irrevocably).

* *



David said...

And yet the skeptics still 'believe' or at least have a profound need for magical thinking and incredible beliefs; they are just relegated to the stage of Marvel Superhero movies or Novels and literature. As a former skeptic and very good at keeping things of a magical, supernatural or spiritual nature 'walled off' from the rest of life, I often wonder at my close - minded insistence on seeing the world as flat, despite the evidence to the contrary, from so many sources. Why people en-mass simultaneously believe in the supernatural, magical and incredible but then deny it in public discourse is quite remarkable. I wonder if the mass media thought police machine collapsed there would be a natural resurgence in open and honest perspectives about the incredible, spontaneous animism, etc?! Perhaps in time we will see...In my experience, cutting myself off from media was like waking from a wicked magical spell and being able to think about things with a fresh sense of potential and reclaim/reconnect with a sense of the magical/incredible possibilities of life, and I feel all the better for it.

Anonymous said...

I'm now working my way through the Confessions of St. Augustine. It's great and I highly recommend it. He says he read in Circero that you should always seek the truth, and that was the best advice he ever got. He went through a process of investigating and rejecting Manicheanism and astrology. He found Neoplatonism partially true, but incomplete. Neoplatonism had a big effect on early Christians, and you have mentioned the problematic aspects of that here.

I just got to the part where he describes his "enlightenment". I don't really understand it. I have never had any He goes from being partially convinced to being absolutely sure. It was a long and painful process for him, covering many years. People these days are used to being instructed in things simply in short periods of time. Most things can be explained simply and quickly, as they are in classrooms every day.

These are things that can't be explained simply and quickly, and require some kind of commitment.

I think a lot of this is personal. Your sense of how things are will make sense to you, and will be true for you. It won't make sense to others, or be true for others. I don't buy Joseph Smith's version, but I think he had some kind of relevation that made sense to him, and was helpful to a lot of other people. I think that replacing divine things with concrete explanations is always hazardous though. Traditional Christian theology is too abstract, and Mormonism is too concrete. I don't understand the explanations of the Trinity, and I'm very smart.

I could tell you what I experience, but it would probably seem strange to you. But it's personal, so that doesn't really matter.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ted - If you are doing well where you are, then you should not change denomination. That would apply to nearly everyone.

@dl - I'm glad to respond empathically to Augustine - who was clearly a man to be reckoned with - but I just don't seem to be able to do so, despite serious efforts in that direction.

@David - yes, there is a lot of the 'wicked enchantment' about the mainstream modern mass media/ bureaucratic existence.

Joel said...

One of the things that has historically sustained Christianity has been an interest in its ancient languages. (No surprise that I am the one to say this.) At least from the Greek, I can generally can see why the King James Bible -- which despite known faults is perhaps still the best English language translation ever made -- translates a phrase the way it does. The first thing I notice about the Book of Mormon is that every verse starts with "And it came to pass" or "Yea," or "Behold." Go to Project Gutenberg and use ctrl-F to see this. "And it came to pass" is used about 7 times more frequently (adjusted for length) than it is in the KJV. "Yea, I" is used about 5 times more frequently, "Behold" about 3 times more frequently. And those were the first 3 phrases that I thought to look at. This strikes me as a verbal composition by someone trying to sound King Jame-sy. You can hear old-style preachers doing the same sort of thing.

This is not evil. I'm not trying to tear down the BoM as a spiritual work. But I don't see how Mormons can sustain any interest in Hebrew or Greek if it immediately makes them see a lack of depth in the BoM. And if Mormons don't have an interest in Hebrew, Greek (or Latin), they aren't going to have access to the well from which other Christian movements are able to pull out periodic renewal.

It is probably a benefit, in this unspiritual age, for Mormons to be at arms-length from other Christian movements. They are protected from many poisonous trees. But Mormonism still awaits a real come-to-Jesus moment as regards its acceptance of the ancient religion and the Apostolic Fathers. I can say much the same about the Jehovah's Witness movement.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joel - As I said, incredibilities on both sides. But there seems to be quite a mass of BoM scholarship nowadays which studies the BoM from a linguistic perspective and has quite different (and, I find, plausible) explanations for some of these features.

I think maybe you don't have much detailed knowledge about what is claimed concerning the translation of the BoM. The process of translation of the BoM was done by an uneducated young farm boy (not scholars of genius as well as divine inspiration working at the height of the development of the English language - as with the King James Bible), and it is a translation - not a matter of taking dictation - so naturally the person doing the translating has a significant influence on it (as always with translation).

There is not enough evidence to overwhelm or convince anyone of the validity of the BoM; but if you go into detail there are some *very* striking and surprising aspects of both style and content, which certainly make it 'incredible' that the book was produced under the circumstances it actually was produced.

Joel said...

As long as Mormons are learning Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, opening themselves up to the documents of the Church across its history, and are also deriving real spiritual insight from the Book of Mormon, I have no complaints. The world needs more inspiring narratives of holy men, not fewer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joel- I think you are getting carried away with your personal enthusiasms perhaps! While desirable in a cultural and scholarly way, that surely cannot be regarded as any serious kind of requirement from a Christian - now or ever.

Joel said...

No doubt!

Is it a mistake, though, to say that requirements for individual Christians and requirements for leaders and thinkers are vastly different? The majority of individual Christians are mostly unable to read scripture for themselves, even in translation, with any sort of real comprehension. Certainly not the KJV. They need the stories re-told to them. That is a good thing, because re-telling the Gospel is the great commission, after all, and all Christians should be communicating it to one another and to the world.

For Christian leaders and thinkers, the requirements are substantially greater. Paul was a fool for Christ, but one educated at the feet of Gamaliel. If most individual Mormons read neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon in what I would consider a serious way, that's no different from any Christian movement in history. But does the movement, through its leadership, draw from the well of historical Christian truth?

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - Once we have made a choice of Christian denomination, then naturally we can judge all the others to be (more or less) deceptive from that perspective. But the initial choice of which denomination is true (or the true-est), which are Good and which are deceptive, must be made primarily (although not wholly) by the discernment of a warm and open heart - by trying to discover what feels Good after investigation, reflection, prayer and seeking divine revelation (and also, conversely, what feels relatively less Good - more partial, more distorted, less motivated by Love). It was on such a basis that I personally came to recognise the CJCLDS as essentially Good, and Mormonism as the most Loving, and Truest, of Christian denominations. Naturally, any human is capable of error; but there is no deeper nor more valid way of making a primary decision than the one which I have been-through and which has led to this conclusion.