Thursday, March 11, 2004

Times and Seasons

Well I was going through the Times & Seasons site last night to see if there were any more interesting sites linked there when I came on my name! Yike! I figured it must be a typo, but I got to this page. I guess that means there is some explaining to do.

I had initially thought this would be a nice way to force myself to get a little bit more concrete about the topics I have ruminating around in my mind. It is. However, I don’t like being presumptuous and so figured I would see how often I updated things. Obviously not too much. After a few weeks, I also wasn’t sure about the merits of putting all of one’s thoughts on paper. I also figured it was just too trendy of a thing to do. Hence, no updates, until tonight as I found my page linked. I guess a expose on expositories may be appropriate,

The last couple of months I have been browsing through a number of mormon pages and discussion groups. More than anything else, it got me thinking about the motivations for this type of communication. While everyone likes to share their motivation for blogging, why do we share spiritual information? Is it appropriate or even useful? My answer well , lets just say it has an “o” and an “n” in no particular order.

There are usually two ways to write about a religious topic. One is to take a general idea, formulate it into something logical, pulling in personal experience, readings, and old reflections. After it is down on paper, you then go through and flesh out enough scriptural references to make it seem authoritative. This also helps round off any corners that may conflict with what you thought was in the scriptures and what is actually there. Basically this involves interpreting the scriptures to conform to your world view. The scriptures act as a set of fuzzy facts from which to test a theory. Continual reformulations should lead to a better understanding of the truth.

The other way to write about a religious topic is to try and write down a list of relevant scriptures, and see how to best connect the dots. Topical guide talks usually follow this format. The more often you do this with scriptural ideas, the more refined your connections will be.

The problem I have with these two methods is their circularity. A discussion over at Zlimb really brought this home to me. (and incidentally was significant reason for me not to develop my blog -besides the fact that my relevant ideas usually should be preceded with a tiger growling “ir”) Numerous pages of …ardent.. communication apparently resulted in a few new ideas being observed, but mostly an apparent entrenchment of divergent positions. I am sure some middle of the road people were swayed one way or another. Some people like me appreciated the extra facts and ideas gleaned, but is this the way to gain spiritual knowledge? Well no. While going through all I could think of was how much clearer things become with the relevant spiritual experience.

The discussion ending up moving on to the type of translation Joseph employed on the Book of Mormon, literal or figurative, error propagating, or error correcting, etc. I got the impression that those that had experience with multiple languages understood some of the difficulties in the topic. I think anyone that has never translated could recite, but never grasp the arguments. In much the same way I am sure that someone who has never given a “strong” blessing will have the same problems. In the same way I can’t imagine what translating the book of mormon would be like. I can only use my approximate experiences to conjecture that it is similar, but with a visual rather than auditory bias. However, conjecture really is rather time consuming and inefficient. Of course, in discussions bringing out a spiritual experience or prompting is a trump card that solidifies the trenches. Why?

It removes common ground. In any discussion there will be a level of commonality. The further you move past this, the less real communication can occur. Both sides move into “straw man” interpreting. Realistically discussions have to move away from the probable into the plausible. For debaters, this is maddening, because almost all ideas are correct according to the world view from which they were created.

Spiritual experiences are considered too personal to be applicable. This happens in one of two ways. Either their application to others is considered subversive of the established chain of authority, or they are too case specific to realistically apply to someone else. I would agree to both these cases if we are talking about spiritual directives. I don’t think both failings apply to spiritual experiences. Things like the cleansing feeling of true repentance, the knowledge of God’s love, the experience of giving a directed blessing,…, Nephi’s/Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, are all things that can be common to a wide group of people. The interpretation, less so, and the application, even less, but, the experience and its subsequent observations are still things that can be common.

Discussing other people’s unique spiritual experiences is usually too difficult to do. While it is possible, it requires being able to jump into to another person’s world view. It requires seeing past the language that is often used to the meanings that are being expressed. Because of this, there needs to be a fairly good relationship that is not possible in informal blogs or chatrooms.

So where does this leave things. Well it means that most discussions can really only be about ideas that arise from common experience. The discussions can only raise ideas that one was already capable of generating. The ideas that are generated can either be considered “good enough” or so important that they need a spiritual experience from which to get more reference points. I sometimes worry that getting too many reference points from ideas which seem “good enough” eventually leads to a loss of all the colour that spiritual experiences themselves bring along. Eventually this colour is essential to maintaining communication. It can’t come from abstract reflection, because this is only effective for refining what we know, not getting more of what we don’t.

To me, this is what Christ has always done for us. He has always got the experience, has tried his best to describe it to us, but we have to have a similar experience, with all its colour, before we really flesh out what is being said. Religion is dangerous in that it is often assumed that a description of something spiritual is on the same level as the spiritual thing itself. Thus rules, doctrine, and ideas should be a good enough means to facilitate communication. I think this is true, if the communication builds on the rules, doctrines and ideas themselves, not the spiritual things they are meant to describe. The desire to communicate about religion often causes it to become built like a house on a foundation of sand. No wonder so many of my non-mormon friends have a hard time with religion. To them, getting in requires buying the whole thing. As the neo-platonist would say, description of God only start to work if there are infinitely many, and you are constantly seeing a different one every moment. To me this is like the religious descriptors that have to go on and on to try and explain something like Joseph’s translation. Don’t take an infinite amount of time trying to describe something. Get the lingo through experience, not description.

As an aside, I usually try and express this idea by getting the weirdest shaped toy imaginable . I get a number of volunteers to come up and feel it in a bag. They describe what it felt like. It is next to impossible for people who haven’t felt it to get an idea of what the object is. When I pull it out, it is clear what the object is. The descriptions are accurate, but never will be able to give a real sense of what is really there.