Experience or Doctrine?

One of the recent debates in LDS intellectual circles has been whether or not Mormonism is about orthodoxy or orthopraxy. As far as I can remember, this debated heated up after Jim Faulconer’s 2002 Yale conference presentation on this topic. This debate has more or less died down, largely because people realized that it was a false dichotomy between the two options, and everyone recognized that it was a little bit of both. Today’s LDS Newsroom, however, seems to intervene in this debate with the following announcement:

SALT LAKE CITY | 6 Jun 2008 | The religious experience of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based on a spiritual witness from God that inspires both heart and mind, creating an interpersonal relationship directly with the divine. It does not require one to pass a rigorous theological test. Nor does it demand the extreme self-denial and seclusion of asceticism. Rather, this unique individual experience unfolds in the natural course of everyday living. Thus, the beliefs of Latter-day Saints are not rooted in concepts and principles, detached from the realities of life. They are grounded in a much deeper level of experience that motivates individuals to action.

I find this to be a strange newroom feed (but then again I am frequently puzzled by the output there). This official announcement does two things. 1) It says that Mormonism is neither theologically based nor based on “asceticism” and 2) It roots Mormonism in an “experience” that “unfolds in the natural course of everyday living.” The term “experience” is used three times here.

The first claim is rather interesting, and one wonders why exactly they have qualified these concepts of a “rigorous” theological test and “extreme” self-denial. Do these adjectives function to radicalize the concepts of theological tests and self-denial, or do we only oppose these things when they are “rigorous” or “extreme”? How exactly does one know when a theological test has become “rigorous” or self-denial has become “extreme”? In the minds of many, LDS self-denial in terms of the Word of Wisdom or Law of Chastity would constitute “extreme” behavior, so I am not really sure how these adjectives are meant. At the end of the day, however, my guess is that these subjective descriptors are added on in order to make those who do practice “theological tests” and “self-denial” look unappealing.

The second claim, the turn to experience, also interests me. Is this a third category that is neither about orthodoxy (theological tests) nor orthopraxy (self-denial)? Now, of course those who are writing these blurbs are not philosophers (perhaps we could benefit from more rigorous theological tests???), and they do not define what exactly they mean by experience, nor do they explain where “experience” comes from. What is clear is that they see it as independent of “theological tests” and “self-denial.” One of the most interesting things that is said about this experience is that it “unfolds in the natural course of everyday living.” Is this a denial of transcendent religious experience? How exactly does one recognize such a religious experience?

The appeal to experience is a particularly modern view of religion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as religion began to recover from and incorporate the language of the Enlightenment, experience became one of the most crucial categories for validating a religious perspective. Catherine Brekus at the U. Chicago Divinity School is working on an interesting project about 19th c. religious leaders’ appeals to “experience.” In this sense, Mormonism’s appeal to “unique” experience marks it as a product of modernity, wrestling within the categories of post-Enlightenment thought.

What has gone largely unexamined, however, is the very category of experience itself, especially in Mormon thought. The major philosophical movements of the 20th century, including phenomenology, structuralism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and post-structuralism have all grappled with the nature of human experience and the processes of interpretation, yet we are only beginning to avail ourselves of this thought in articulating our own views. What seems to be taken for granted in Mormonism is that religious experience is somehow self-evident, self-interpretive. There is little to no sense that our experiences need to pass through an interpretive framework in order for them to have meaning. There is no access to unmediated “experience.” So where does that leave us?

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34 Comments

Filed under Doctrine, Mormon Studies, Theology

34 responses to “Experience or Doctrine?

  1. I wonder if that last paragraph is true. We know the influential Roberts was very taken by James. And of course the pragmatists were very much dealing with grounding philosophy in human experience. Then there was the anti-pragmatist move by Nibley who sometimes seemed to get in an anti-Dewey dig whenever he could.

  2. TT

    Clark,
    You are absolutely right that there was a huge influence of pragmatism on Mormon though, especially in the first few decades of the 20th c. I know a few people are working on this topic, including some of the guys at JI. What I don’t know, however, is whether such views were primarily interested in cosmological aspects of pragmatism, and if “experience” was considered at all.
    At the same time, even if pragmatism was influential on Mormon concepts of “experience,” I am not sure where that gets us. I am willing to plead some ignorance on this topic, but my impressions are that pragmatism is relatively shallow in theorizing about experience as well, seeming to take it as unmediated and self-evident. There isn’t much of a hermeneutical strain to pragmatism’s views of experience.

  3. I likely will not express this well, but I think there is some truth and value to the announcement, even though the lack of detail might be frustrating.

    I do think that much of the thrust of what Mormonism tries to provide to the world through missionary efforts is to help people have religious experiences. Many might say that Moroni’s promise it a major point of the Book of Mormon.

    So in part, I think the message is that having religious experiences is far more important than tying down theological details and strict obedience in minor issues.

  4. Chris H.

    I think that it might be a mistake to associate anything practical with the Pragmatism philosopher. Of course, I would be happy if we moved a bit closer to a Dewey-style way of thinking.

    I find it interesting the extent to which we resist both our own experience and distrust our ability to think. I believe this makes us easier to control. It also makes us more rigidly ideological.

    Nietzsche would be interest to add to this discussion. I will resist for now.

  5. Mogget

    Do not resist…I want to hear how Nietzsche is relevant to this discussion!!!

    Mogs

  6. Chris H.

    Nietzsche talks about philosophy (he traces it back to the image of Socrates) defining human experience in a negative light. Socrates symbolizes this when he says that he looks forward to death because he will be better able to seeks after truth without the limitations of this earthly body. We see element of this throughout moral philosophy (particularly in Aristotle, Kant, and Mill) where the pursuit of reason is value while the physical passions are viewed as lowly or immoral. Instead, we seek after reason. Nietzsche viewed this as a form of self-loathing. We reject the things which our bodies tell us is favor of abstract and meaningless (in his view) ideas. I am not much of Nietzsche guy, but his idea seems to apply, even if indirectly, as we consider rejecting experience.

    I think that Nietzsche more applies to questions about modesty when we demonize the body (particularly the female body) as evil. Of course, for us talks about modesty are often opportunities to verbally beat on the young women (I just sit there and think about what Nietzsche would say).

    When it comes to the more general idea of experience, we only really accept certain forms of experience (those which fit within approved limits). If I read the above press statement in another context, I would never had guessed that it was LDS. It is a good thing that we do not have to pass a “rigorous theological test” because few Mormons could pass one (except maybe Mogget).

  7. Mogget

    Hey thanks, Chris. That was quite enlightening!

    we only really accept certain forms of experience (those which fit within approved limits).

    I agree; I think this is the only interpretive framework we have, and it’s not really what TT is talking about. The way those limits correspond to various hierarchical power structures creates the potential for abuse, too.

  8. but my impressions are that pragmatism is relatively shallow in theorizing about experience as well, seeming to take it as unmediated and self-evident. There isn’t much of a hermeneutical strain to pragmatism’s views of experience.

    That’s not correct. Pragmatism was highly concerned with hermeneutics. Recall that semiotics tends to arise out of pragmatism in a more expansive form than even we find with Saussure.

    Pragmatism also has quite a lot to think about what constitutes experience and how to take it. They don’t always agree with each other – say Peirce and Dewey. But there is a constant theme of how they approach the issue.

  9. I think that it might be a mistake to associate anything practical with the Pragmatism philosopher. Of course, I would be happy if we moved a bit closer to a Dewey-style way of thinking.

    What do you mean? The whole pragmatic movement was that the meaning of anything is constituted by its practical effects.

  10. Chris H.

    Oh, I just worry that we sometimes over simplify the school of Pragmatism by associating it with any discussion of practical application or experience. By and large, Pragmatism is a rejection of metaphysics.

    I tend to think that pragmatism is mostly interesting as a matter of American intellectual history or the history of social movements. Philosophically it is not overly compelling, though it is very interesting within its historical context.

  11. matt b

    I’d argue that this strain within Mormonism has more to do with the nineteenth century theology referenced in the second to last paragraph than with the philosophical school of pragmatism.

    Nineteenth century Protestant liberals embraced the idea of ‘experience’ (in the spiritual sense) precisely because they believed it to be an unmediated way of knowing. They had learned from Biblical criticism and from Horace Bushnell to be suspicious of the limitations of language (and hence all ‘second-hand’ ways of knowing God, like doctrine), and from Schleiermacher and the transcendentalists’ romantic re-interpretation of Kant to believe that knowledge of the divine could come unmediated to the soul, beyond any sensory experience. That paragraph from the press release could be written by Newman Smyth, or Theodore Munger, or William Newton Clarke.

  12. By and large, Pragmatism is a rejection of metaphysics.

    I don’t think that is correct. Peirce in particular constantly talked metaphysics. For some figures – especially so called neo-pragmatists – there was an attempt to reject metaphysics. But that’s better characterized as what the positivist program was about. While there are some similarities between positivism and pragmatism there are important differences.

    It’s true that Instrumentalism (basically Dewey’s philosophy) was quite opposed to a lot of metaphysical questions. But his was but one strain of pragmatism. So one should be pretty careful to not take Dewey as the end all of pragmatism. (I’d argue that Peirce is the most interesting figure and James is arguably much closer to Peirce than Dewey)

    Philosophically it is not overly compelling, though it is very interesting within its historical context.

    Well, to each their own. I find Peirce the most compelling philosopher out there.

    Matt, while that accounts for some of the discussion, I fully agree. I’m not sure it accounts for the notions in the early 20th. Roberts, as noted, was influenced by James. William Chamberlin was influenced by the figures coming from the Peirce school of thought and the rising process thought school. So this was a compelling issue in the non-JFS group.

    Going back to the 19th century one should also note the influences on Protestant liberals. And, in early to mid 19th century figures I suspect there was influence (indirectly I suspect) from the Transcendentalists. Anyway into that discussion you have to ask what the 19th century philosophical consideration of experience was and how that relates to the pragmatists.

    Certainly there is the Schleiermarcher influence. But one also has to consider Hegel and so forth.

  13. Chris H.

    Clark,

    As a political and moral philosopher, Dewey is of more interest to me and I know little about Peirce. Of course my interest is primarily is his relation to liberalism and democracy (both of which are connected to his pragmatism). Plus any friend of Jane Addams is a friend of mine. Anyways, we Kantian types have the bad habit of looking down on pragmatists (in other words: I am an analytical snob). :)

    Nice chattting with you (BTW, my most compelling philosopher is John Rawls which might highlight the gulf between our approaches). I do like Cornell West, though he might not count as a real pragmatist. Either way, he is freaking cool.

  14. I have respect for and interest in philosophy on the layman’s level. It has it place, but it is one of many ways to evaluate and interpret doctrine and experience. I have never encountered a testimony that was based on philosophy.

    I read the LDS Newsroom announcement regarding experience to mean experiences with the Spirit. Heavenly Father uses a variety of “experiences” to provide a life changing event in ones life. The continuum of these experiences is from subtle to dramatic (an impression to a visitation).

    In my own experience, Heavenly Father used the dramatic side of the continuum to help a nineteen year old Alma the Young type to change his mind-set in an instance.

    I have given a brief history on my blog. If you’re interested, See Jared’s Testimony by clicking my name.

  15. TT

    I have never encountered a testimony that was based on philosophy.

    Hello Jared. Thank you for your comment. I understand the sentiment that you are expressing here, but I think that we might be using the term “philosophy” differently. In my view, there is nothing that is “outside” of philosophy. Philosophy is life, not just some thing that experts do. Every statement that we make, every thought that we express, is based on a particular way of seeing the world, interpreting our surroundings, etc. Philosophical discourse seeks to articulate and interpret that way of seeing the world and critically investigate its assumptions, presuppositinos, and inner logic. Philosophy is what those things are based on, while philosophical discourse is the explanation that we give to those things.

  16. Chris H.

    TT (#15),

    That was beautiful.

    Chris H.

  17. #15 TT

    I can buy into that. Well said. Thanks for your comment.

  18. Ray

    #6 – “I think that Nietzsche more applies to questions about modesty when we demonize the body (particularly the female body) as evil. Of course, for us talks about modesty are often opportunities to verbally beat on the young women.”

    Not to derail the discussion, but do we belong to the same church? Neither of these sentences describes my decades in the Church.

  19. Chris H.

    #18-I do not know. Since I have no idea who you are, which church do you belong to? I was more offering how Nietzche might evaluate such things. I really do not agree him. However, he, like Aristotle, often provides for interesting analysis eventhough I disagree considerably with both.

    BTW, since you and I might have a different “experience” in the Church,this might actually be relevant to our larger discussion. Or does my experience have to match yours? Most likely our experiences are not that different. However, our perspective might be very different. Thanks for the comment.

  20. Ray

    Sorry, Chris; it was a rhetorical question. I know individual experiences vary radically in the Church, but I just have not heard demonizing of the female body or verbally beating on the YW as the norm anywhere I have lived.

    Fwiw, one of the things that I love most about Mormonism is that individual experiences really can vary so widely – that I can have my own experience that is substantively different than the person sitting next to me. I’m used to hearing of and reading different experiences; those particular statements simply threw me.

    Sorry for the clumsy way the comment was worded.

  21. Jack

    I love that paragraph from the newsroom. It makes a lot of sense for base know-nothings like myself who beat themselves with stripes for lusting after a nice sunset with no regard for how the whole damn thing works.

  22. Rich Knapton

    From the last paragraph: “What seems to be taken for granted in Mormonism is that religious experience is somehow self-evident, self-interpretive. There is little to no sense that our experiences need to pass through an interpretive framework in order for them to have meaning.”

    I told my wife that the stake she cooked was delicious. What interpretive framework do I need to have in order to know that for me that statement was true? I just missed getting hit by a car. I told my wife I was scarred. What interpretive framework do I need to have for me to know that is a true statement. Affective experiences are justified as real or true by the existence of the affection.

    When you feel the Spirit of the Lord touch you what interpretive framework do you need in order to know that it came from God? You don’t need a framework for you felt that, and thereby know, it is true.

    Last line from the proclamation. “They are grounded in a much deeper level of experience that motivates individuals to action.” Even Aristotle knew that the only level that motivates man is affection, feelings and emotions.

    Rich

  23. TT

    Rich,
    This is an excellent question. It probably deserves a more substantial answer than I can give here, but I would say that first language itself is an interpretive framework, so anything expressed in language is already an interpretation. To be banal for a moment, that you say that a steak is “delicious” instead of “sumptuous” or “hearty” or “flavorful” is an interpretive choice. When it comes to spiritual things, I have always been taught that we are supposed to learn how to listen to the spirit. When I was a missionary, we would have to identify the spirit for investigators. “Spiritual” experiences have to be interpreted as such, just as any raw sensory experience. This has been the basis for modern philosophy since Hume and Kant.

  24. Rich Knapton

    Thanks for the response. I think when we taught investigators what we did seemed more like was to name the experience. So I agree we identified the spirit for them.

    Interpreting is one of the areas in which I disagree with Kant. Depending on how you interpret “raw sensory experience’ this type type of experience is immediate and unmediated (That is if you are not counting the neurological pathways to pain.) If I hit my thumb with a hammer there is immediate unmediated pain; of which I have ample experience. So, I do not believe that raw sensory experience needs mediation in the kantian sense.

    Now one could say that the experience and the discussion of the experience are two separate events. The necessity then would be to interpret what was immediate for us into a verbal symbolization of that experience. The experience itself is not interpreted but in order to share it with others requires interpretation.

    Rich

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  26. smallaxe

    When you feel the Spirit of the Lord touch you what interpretive framework do you need in order to know that it came from God? You don’t need a framework for you felt that, and thereby know, it is true.

    I tend to think it’s actually much more complex than this, and in fact an interpretive framework is needed, at least in this case.

    People can have an impression and not know that it came from God, or at least not recognize it as the spirit (I imagine there are numerous examples that can be drawn from the scriptures here or from teaching investigators as a missionary). It seems that the interpretive framework of recognizing the spirit as the spirit is not inherent in the psychology of many (or all?) human beings. It often takes the interpretive framework taught by the missionary/scriptures in order to make such a recognition. This raises the issue of shared experience (How do I know that we are both experiencing the spirit?), which you seem to accept in your last comment; but more importantly this demonstrates that even though the experience itself may be immediate we still have to interpret the experience personally in order for it to have meaning in our lives (What kind of feeling is this? Is this a distinct form of feeling different from other feelings I’ve had? How do I know it comes from God as opposed to myself? Why does this feeling ‘testify’ of the ‘truthfulness’ of certain claims?). I would say that the experience of the spirit requires a rather robust interpretive framework.

  27. Great post, TT, and great comments! I regret being so late to the discussion.

    I’m confused by the Newsroom statement, as well. First of all, strategically: what is this supposed to speak to? One major negative perception of Mormonism is that we are not Christian because we don’t adhere to the Christian creeds. The Newsroom statement exacerbates this, saying in effect that not only do we not believe the creeds, we actually don’t necessarily believe anything in particular. One could adopt, for example, a highly pantheistic worldview and still subjectively create “an interpersonal relationship directly with the divine” that is “grounded in a much deeper level of experience…” I don’t think this can be taken at face value; almost certainly it doesn’t actually mean to say that we don’t have specific constitutive beliefs. Yet it does say this. As a communications strategy, I’m baffled.

    Second, do you think the author of this knows what “asceticism” is? I’m not convinced.

    Third, it’s a commonly discussed fact that, while Mormons claim that the Holy Ghost is the basis of all epistemology, our leaders tell us that we can recognize the Holy Ghost by testing the correspondence of a prompted idea with the teachings of our leaders. I’m guessing that the appeal to experience really relies on a parallel unspoken epistemology. Experience is a gateway to true religion if and only if that experience is in harmony with authority in the LDS church. For example, the experience of a gay Mormon who feels the Spirit while kissing his partner is not to be taken seriously. So, at root, experience and the Spirit are contingent sources of knowledge, while the hierarchy is the foundation of our religious lives. But saying this outright is unappealing, so we emphasize the secondary sources rather than the fundamentals.

  28. I eat boogers

    I wouldn’t get too worked up about this article either way, though I find it hilarious that more doctrine gets discussed in PR releases, on Larry King, and Mike Wallace than in General Conference these days.

  29. TT

    I should note that when I click on the link now for the announcement, there is a rather robust discussion that addresses many of my questions. I don’t know if I missed it the first time, or if there is an expanded version of the article now… Did they read my post? :)

  30. Rich Knapton

    Smallaxe, that was a good response. Nevertheless, I had created a response to your response which was a response to my response to TT which was a response to my response to TT’s initial topic. That response of mine was a work of art and intelligence. I dove into each of you response items deconstructed each in turn revealing the deep inner truth of each response item. And then in a proficiency seldom seen on the net I took up these threads of gold and wove an edifice which was a marvelous work and a wonder. I mean you would have stood there all amazed at the significance of what I had created. You would have been able to use this as your own urum and thumum in this area.

    I stepped into the shower and in a flash it was gone. Out of the haze there appeared but a single word………..ROSEBUD! Rosebud? What the hell did the word Rosebud have to with this. Then I realized that I hadn’t taken my pills yet.

    An hour later the response and Rosebud were gone. As I sat there rereading your response I sensed there was a single world that would clear things up: context. I think what we are both talking about is providing our investigators a contextual framework. We provide the background information by which they may understand what they may be going through.

    This differs from an interpretive framework which deal with meaning. To me an interpretive framework is to say “If this happens that means this. If something else happens it means something else.” We are telling them the meaning of their particular experience. We can’t do this because it is not we who are having the experience.

    Rich

    By the way, if you don’t recognize the referenced to Rosebud, your cultural education is sadly lacking. :)

  31. Rich Knapton

    J. Nelson-Seawright, while I’m new to this blog. I may be able to help you out.

    “So, at root, experience and the Spirit are contingent sources of knowledge, while the hierarchy is the foundation of our religious lives.”

    The question implied is what is the foundation of our lives? I’ll take a stab at that. We all build within us a model of our universe. A baby begins this model building by putting everything it can grab into his mouth. His sense nerves in his mouth are the most developed sense nerves he has at that time. This action translates informaton about the outside world to his mind/brain. Touch, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting all transfer data about the world which resides in our memory. However, there are other aspects of the world that needs to be know. Is it safe, is it not safe, is it fun, does it make me feel good? These and more are important aspects of the world that needs to be included in this model of this universe. It is what becomes real for him. It is through sense and emotions by which we come to know that which is real. Thus affection justifies (makes real) the events we encounter.

    So lets go through the announcement with the above as background.

    “The religious experience of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based on a spiritual witness from God that inspires both heart and mind,”

    It seems that a witness from God will have two components: information (mind) and affection (heart). In other words, information is being justified by affection.

    “It does not require one to pass a rigorous theological test. Nor does it demand the extreme self-denial and seclusion of asceticism.”

    The implication here is that having a certain amount of information is a necessary prerquisite. Along with that, a little fasting and prayer would be in order.

    “Rather, this unique individual experience unfolds in the natural course of everyday living.”

    We now discover that a religious experience (that’s the subject of the notice) is a personal and therefore subjective experience. And it does not differ from the normal experiences we have every day.

    “Thus, the beliefs of Latter-day Saints are not rooted in concepts and principles, detached from the realities of life.”

    Here the writer seems to be saying that our beliefs are rooted in concepts and principles which are aspects of everyday life. The next sentence is the critical sentence.

    “They are grounded in a much deeper level of experience that motivates individuals to action.”

    Ah ha. This religious experience is grounded in experience which motivates to action. There is only one subjective aspect of human beings that can motive them to action: affection. Even Aristotle understood that if you want to get anything done through reason you had to merge it with emotions.

    So let us rewrite the announcement.

    The religious experience of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has two components: information and affection. We need some contextual informaiton and fasting and prayer as tools for preparation for this type of experience. The subjective unfolding of this religious experience will differ little from other personal experiences we encounter in every day life. And because of this our concepts and princples reflect the needs of everyday life. Finally, religous personal experience is grounded, as all other experiences which has personal significance, in information justified through affection leading to action.

    See, that wasn’t hard. :)

    Rich

  32. smallaxe

    I think what we are both talking about is providing our investigators a contextual framework. We provide the background information by which they may understand what they may be going through.

    This differs from an interpretive framework which deal with meaning. To me an interpretive framework is to say “If this happens that means this. If something else happens it means something else.” We are telling them the meaning of their particular experience. We can’t do this because it is not we who are having the experience.

    I’m not so sure there is a large enough difference between what you’ve called a ‘contextual framework’ and an ‘interpretive framework’ to merit the distinction you want to make. A contextual framework is about ‘understanding’. To me, understanding is interpretation. For an investigator to say, “I don’t understand this feeling I have.” And for the missionary to respond, “That feeling is the Spirit,” seems to be saying that one should interpret those feelings as the Spirit (as opposed to self generated emotions, a result of eating something, etc.). The contextual framework, if we want to continue to use the term, is an interpretive choice.

  33. Kristine

    ” I just have not heard demonizing of the female body or verbally beating on the YW as the norm anywhere I have lived.”

    You must not have been paying attention, Ray. “Don’t become pornography” is enough of a verbal beating for a lifetime, and that was just one conference talk…

    /end threadjack, with apologies/