In Kant’s well known “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, he offers a formula for dissent within a benevolent social order, by distinguishing between the public and private expressions of judgment. As an officer of the law or of the church, one has a duty to obey; as a private thinker, one has the duty to offer reasoned critique in circumstances where it will not (immediately) undermine the good order of the community.
Now in many affairs conducted in the interests of a community, a certain mechanism is required by means of which some of its members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity the government may guide them toward public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying such ends. Here one certainly must not argue, instead one must obey. However, insofar as this part of the machine also regards himself as a member of the community as a whole, or even of the world community, and as a consequence addresses the public in the role of a scholar, in the proper sense of that term, he can most certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs for which as a passive member he is partly responsible. Thus … a pastor is bound to instruct his catecumens and congregation in accordance with the symbol of the church he serves, for he was appointed on that condition. But as a scholar he has complete freedom, indeed even the calling, to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better arrangement of religious and church matters. Nothing in this can weigh on his conscience.
Or, in the pithy paraphrase of Jeremy Bentham, “Under a government of Laws, what is the motto of a good citizen? To obey punctually, to censure freely.”
A simplified version of this notion was operative in my family, captured in the oft-repeated dictum, “obedience gives you the right to question.” The reasons for this, particularly in relation to gospel principles, were slightly different from Kant’s. If one were not precisely obedient to the injunctions one questioned, went my parents’ explanation, rational inquiry could not proceed without the taint of self-justification, and one could never arrive at an unbiased assessment of the principle or practice in question.
It seems to me that something like this notion,underlies much of our discourse about proper conduct for Mormon intellectuals. Orthodoxy, we will say, is not required, but orthopraxy is. It was all well and good for Pelletiah Brown to believe as he wanted to about the beasts in Revelation, but had he dissented over a less arcane doctrinal question or over some principle with immediate practical import (like, oh, say, the propriety of taking more than one wife), it is not difficult to imagine that his disagreement with his leaders might have ended less happily. The wise intellectual will avoid public criticism of leaders, though s/he may express some criticism privately, through proper channels. It is important to build good will by supporting the program of the church publicly. Armand Mauss has offered one of the best articulations of this strategy. (And have I mentioned lately that you should subscribe to and read Sunstone and Dialogue and JMH and BYUStudies so that you don’t miss these gems? You should!!) And, of course, we often hear the nastier (and most often false) inverse of the proposition in gossip about those whose critique of church doctrine, history, or practice leads them away from participation: he or she must have some secret sin for which these questions are a cover. Heteropraxis preceeds heterodoxy, on this model.
An opposing position to the Kantian/Benthamian/Haglundian model is also frequently heard among Mormon intellectual types. It goes like this: once I had concluded x, intellectual integrity required that I give up Church activity and/or affiliation. “Authenticity,” “conscience” and “loyalty to the truth” also seem potent to impose this requirement of disaffection. Ironically, this discourse employed so often by those intending to disaffiliate with Mormonism is entirely embedded in Mormon cultural, historical, and even scriptural narratives, from Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision (‘For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.”) to stories of conversion to the Book of Mormon or other truths so powerful that they cannot be denied, and that some particular course of action is required by assent to them. Deconversion narratives that deploy this rhetoric are, structurally, at least, barely a departure from the kinds of stories that elicit head-nodding approbation in testimony meetings.
I don’t want to argue that there is no such thing as intellectual integrity, or that there are not some violations of conscience so painful and so extreme as to require dissenting action. I do, however, want to note that “intellectual integrity” is a fairly recent historical construct, and suggest that it may be rather less important than we good, post-Enlightenment liberals may suppose. It seems to me that few truths are so compelling as to require the abandonment of communities of belief or affection or of religious practice. Against the Mormon deployment of the narrative of conversion to undeniable truths, and the subsequent requirement that one leave family, church, and accustomed modes of life behind in order to be “true” to newfound knowledge, I want to argue that the situation is almost always more complicated than such absolutist narratives allow.
Moreover, all religious practice and belief are in some sense opposed to the Enlightenment ideal of an unfettered intellect discerning rational truths. Perhaps the best-known exposition of this problem is in Alma, Chapter 32. Despite the modernist, almost scientific procedural description, Alma takes as a given in the experiment that the seeker will “desire to believe.” Such desire inevitably contaminates the project of rational discovery. The act of “praying for a testimony” always already contains assent to a great many of the truths of which one might seek “confirmation.”
This sort of “experiment” belongs to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of religious belief, one achieved not by the inculcation of doctrine or dogma, but by the cultivation of a particular sort of character. This cultivation was achieved by action, not by consideration or attainment of correct belief.
An examination of earlier modes of discourse about religious belief and practice may be helpful here. I am here borrowing (er, stealing shamelessly) from Talal Asad’s discussion of the Rule of St. Benedict. Asad points out that this rule, like most prescriptions for monastic life, and, indeed for the formation of Christian character more generally, comprised precise directions for liturgical, social, emotional, and spiritual life, with the undifferentiated aim of fostering right belief, inspiring right action, and forming a virtuous character. On this model, the distinction between orthopraxis and orthodoxy is impossible. Moreover, such rules can only be followed in community, so that there can be no separation of public action and private belief–acting correctly in public is understood as a mechanism for developing the private interior life, not as distinct from a project of private reasoning or judgment. Consider this paragraph from Hugh of St. Victor’s explication of the Rule:
The novitiate is the road to beatitude: virtue leads to the latter, but it is discipline imposed on the body which forms virtue. Body and spirit are but one: disordered movements of the former betray outwardly the disarranged interior of the soul. But inversely, “discipline” can act on the soul through the body–in ways of dressing (in habitu), in posture and movement (in gestu), in speech (in locutione), and in table manners (in mensa).
Gesture is the movement and configuration of the body appropriate to all action and attitude. Gestus designates not so much a unique gesture as the animation of the body in all its parts. It describes outwardly a figure presented to the gaze of others…even as the soul inside is under the gaze of God.
And Asad’s gloss of this passage:
Disciplined gesture is thus not merely a technique of the body varying from one culture or historical period to another, it is also the proper organization of the soul–of understanding and feeling, desire and will. This concept of discipline, which is the measure as well as the sign of virtue, enables Hugh to make an equivalence between the human body and the community–an equivalence proposed not simply for the collective life of the cloister, but…for political order too.
The Christian notion of …discipline as the force necessary for coordinating an organic whole belongs to the vocabulary of duty. It presupposes a program of learning to lead a virtuous life under the authority of law, in which everyone has his or her proper place…[Talal Asad, Geneaologies of Religion, JHU Press 1993, p. 138)
On this model, Kant’s distinction between public act and private belief is impossible, because the whole aim of religiously-ordered behavior (“discipline”) is the collapse of that distinction, the alignment of the disorderly private will with the public order of the Christian rule.
It seems to me that for all our talk of personal truth and private conversion, the real genius of Mormonism may be in preserving the possibility of action within religious community and thus the hope of forming faithful character by doing things–becoming charitable by visiting teaching, becoming humble by following arbitrary dietary restrictions, cultivating the Christian virtues of obedience and submission by gritting one’s teeth and participating in the member missionary gimmick-du-jour, learning hope in the face of insurmountable odds by directing the ward choir. The vaunted “Mormon lifestyle” is then not merely the outward manifestation of belief, but in fact a way of creating that belief, mapping the order of the Kingdom of God onto individual character.
Of course I’m as terrified as any uppity feminist so-called would-be intellectual with modern notions of self and agency and conscience must be by the prospect of such radical submission and obedience (to say nothing of the more visceral terror of the proud sinner contemplating the need for reconciliation with holiness). But I am beginning to wonder if this sort of integrity–an irrationally aspirational wholeness of belief and character–might be richer than a sterile, Enlightened intellectual integrity uncontaminated by hope, desire, or the commitments of belonging. In any case, I can wholeheartedly love a religion that holds the paradoxical possibility of such obedience in productive tension with teachings of free agency and personal revelation.